Claudia Spiridon is a new up-and-coming writer. She likes to push format and style in her human experience-inspired works. She once studied Marketing and is currently trying to not let the corporate world engulf her creativity. She has been previously published in New Readers Magazine, Literary Yard and Typehouse Literary Magazine.
Portrait of silhouettes in the dark
My feet drag behind them my tired, aching body, the pounding headache bashing against my skull, knocking away all the sanity I have left. The whiskey glass sits comfortably between my fingers and the ice writhes around in it. I let myself crash onto the couch, drops of my drink adorning now my loose pajamas. I lean to open my laptop - it takes a long moment before it comes to life. And I see my reflection for the first time in days. The image takes me aback, although the contours of my face are diffuse…
Or maybe I am becoming nothing more than a conglomeration of skin, hair, limbs twitching and twirling under their own weight.
The small letters run away from my eyes as I try to decipher them. I take one more sip of the whiskey to settle my vision. It doesn’t help. Then I can finally read the headline. And something inside me snaps…
A smile blossoms on my lips and I can feel the warm tears licking their way down my cheeks, meeting on my chin, then streaming down towards the ground. He could help me.
“She was… Everything,” I stutter, tongue heavy, laying at the bottom of my dry mouth. The pressure in my shoulders is reaching my temples, making a headache drum against the back of my head. I take in half a breath, swallow hard the air, force it down my throat and into my lungs. The black coffee stares back at me from the plastic cup - or styrofoam? For a moment, the question sits on my lips, then I realise the eyes pinning me to my place in the metalic chair would give me disapproving looks. Is it styrofoam or plastic? Paper? A chuckle is yanked out of my chest - they are probably thinking I’m losing my marbles.
“She was… Light. Soft light, like a sunrise or sunset. Never harsh, just mellow and gentle and warm and…” I exhale through my nose, my nostrils flare up as I inhale. Smell the flowers, blow out the candle. Is that what they say?
“Thank you, David. That was very brave of you.” I nod - I don’t agree with her. She smiles at me, white teeth sprouting from behind her dark lips, the grin wide and bright against her brown complexion. “Anyone else who wants to share?”
The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks cradles my thoughts back and forth, almost as if carried away on the arms of the springbreeze. In the distance, greedy seagulls are surveying the area, beady eyes searching for an unknowing prey. They descend upon a man walking along the pier, hotdog in hand and phone in the other. As he’s tapping the screen to capture the perfect selfie, the big, hungry bird launches its attack.
Two minutes later, the seagulls are back in the sky, relish from the hotdog sitting on the scorching asphalt - the scene of the crime.
The metal scratching the floor rings in my ears and echoes behind my tired eyes. The coffee is cold in my plastic - I decided - cup. Rhonda gives me another smile. The worry in her gaze is barely masked by her usual jovial attitude. I sit up, breaking away from the group of people now giving each other hugs and pats on the back. Broken people.
Her eyes are the first thing I notice. Dark, abysmal, curious. Then her breath - it’s deep, calculated.
“Hey,” she chews on the word like you would on an ice cone, hurried and afraid of pain.
“Hey,” I reply and pick up a glazed donut. If this place had anything going for it, aside from the mint coloured walls decorated with posters of Jesus and celestial light beaming down on mortals, it was the donuts. Two flavours only, glazed and with sprinkles. Chocolate was seen as a coping mechanism and the only coping mechanism allowed under this roof was crying it out in the arms of a stranger.
“What you said about uh…” She pauses, clearly not having paid attention to the first half of my story.
“Julia,” I offer and she takes it with a smile - not a smile, a smirk, the right corner of her lip tugged at in an upwards motion.
“Sorry, yeah, Julia. What you said was beautiful.” She pushes with trembling fingers a few scattered, loose strands of russet hair behind her small ear that ends with a pearl earring.
“Thanks.” Silence - it covers us, like a blanket, wrapped around our tense shoulders, an embrace from awkwardness itself. “I’m a writer, I write sometimes.” As soon as the words evaporate off my lips, I feel laughter bubble in my chest. “Uh, apologies. Julia, my… She always said that I give out that information way too easily.” My palm comes to scratch the poorly maintained beard I have, before plunging straight ahead between me and the woman. “I’m David.”
Her eyebrows arch above her dark eyes and, with a nod, she grabs my hand, cold fingers sitting against my warm skin for a few seconds before swimming away.
“Dina.” Her name tumbles around my head, travels from one chamber to another, before installing itself in my long term memory.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, nice to meet you.”
I drive for two hours, with the grey cupola of the sky above me, with clouds chasing each other on the firmament. By the time I get home, the neighbourhood is lost in the evening silence. A few windows glint at me in the darkness, lights orange and diffuse.
“How was it?” Julia’s voice is inviting and sweet, syllables jumping around, dancing in the air, her tone rich and raspy.
“I don’t know?” My words are curt and cut short as I kiss the rim of the glass. I breathe only when the empty glass hits the counter, then I pour some more. The wine swirls and sways back and forth until it settles, red drops clinging to the walls of its container.
“You can tell me.” She’s nowhere. I turn towards the fridge. Me and her and Bucky, our dog, on the beach. Her holding her baby niece. Me covered in whipped cream, a destroyed cake in front of me, her arms around me. Her smile is so big in that picture it almost takes over her face. She was always insecure about her big mouth. I always told her I loved it.
“And my freckles, you loved those too.” I close my eyes and lean against the kitchen island. The cold marble beneath my palms grounds me.
When I wake up, I can smell the rain - then I hear it, knocking at my window. Bucky is barking somewhere in the hallway and I sit up, inspecting the time.
“I’m coming!” I yell as I peel myself off the bed, my bare feet against the wooden floor making me wince. “Come here, boy,” I speak as I find Bucky in the living room, tail wagging and tongue out. As I lean over to put his leash on, I feel a wet nose rubbing against my naked calf. The cat purrs as my fingers dig under its chin. I can almost hear her saying that...
“Cats are not domesticated, you know? Kind of sweet how they decided to put up with our insanity.”
“We feed them, offer them shelter and unconditional love, why wouldn’t they?” She takes in a breath, sips her cold beer, the crickets echoing around us, almost swallowing her next words.
“Some need more than that to put up with our insanity. They choose not to, though.”
I tell her she’s not insane, I tell her I love her and that I’m not a cat person anyway and I’ve always appreciated the loyalty of dogs more. She laughs and chokes on her tears, her head under my chin, her arms around my waist.
The rain comes crashing down in waves, the wind pushing and tugging at the water drops. Bucky is running a few steps ahead of me, daring me to catch up with him. I stop and prop my hands on my knees, letting the cold air swirl around my head, fill my insides, travel along my trachea. My breath cascades into the cold morning air in mist clouds, propelled by my wheezing exhales.
“You’re out of shape,” she says and pokes at my shoulder, then gives me a playful grin.
“Have I ever been in shape?” She laughs, her chest filling with giggles before expelling them into the autumn air. She shakes her head as she wraps the blanket tighter against her cold, bare shoulders.
“Hey… Ever thought you’d marry me?”
The question takes me by surprise - my forehead is decorated with trenches and my eyebrows furrow deep above my blue eyes.
“I don’t know, why do you ask?” I should have noticed then and there what was wrong. I should have hugged her tighter, I should have kissed her more, I should have done a million things I haven’t done.
The sound of the TV in the background comes to me in waves. Something about the forecast, a rainy season, down south hail should be expected. I watch the steam rise from my coffee cup while Rover and Bucky are having their breakfast. They chew loudly, Rover barely stopping for air and meowing in that specific way cats meow when it comes to food.
“Greedy bastard,” I call him and Julia laughs from somewhere in the living room. I try to drown the sound of her voice in the black, bitter coffee burning its way down my throat now. I try to calm down my mind, I try to erase the smell of her perfume from my nostrils, I try to forget for the tenth time that day how her lips tasted after she had a cigarette.
“Do you have a cigarette?” The air is warm, suffocating. The party is roaring inside the two story house and the porch creaks as she moves closer to me to grab the cigarette I have offered her. She takes it, places it between her lips, holds her breath and gives me a charming grin.
I know in that moment, as the light flickers alive, as the end of her cigarette burns and as she inhales, hungrily, that I will love her.
She was everything. The sound of my fingers caressing the keyboard brings to me a certain… Security. The cup of coffee is sitting next to my laptop on the desk - cold, forgotten. I have been staring at the white page for twenty minutes. That may not seem long, but if you ever craved finding the right words, seeing those letters align in front of your eyes… Yes, it’s an eternity.
She was everything I had,
She was joy and fright and sad,
She was light and she was dark,
She was afkhsfgzsek5rrtd
My palms lay flat against the keys. The black letters suspended on the white page gaze at me indolently. The tears rolling down my cheeks are warm, wet, salty. Past tense; it’s the past tense that did it…
Before I know it, I’m two glasses deep into a bottle of Pinot Grigio, slurping the last few drops of my second portion. The bottle crashes against the glass as I hurry to pour more and the rosé splashes on the grey marble counter.
“Grey marble! We have to have it! Oh, it will look amazing with the black furniture!”
“Fuck off!” The scream is pushed out of my chest through chattering teeth and I curse again under my breath as the glass hits my teeth; it makes pain crawl across my face and plant itself in my forehead. I’m shaking and I can feel Rover’s fur against my leg.
A wave of embarrassment washes over me and I’m not sure if it’s the alcohol or the tears, but I lose my breath. I close my eyes, hear the air fighting against my closing neck. The tingling sensation in my arms and legs returns and I stumble to the floor, back against the oven, its buttons digging deep into the back of my head.
Smell the flowers, blow out the candle. Smell the… Blow…
One, two, three, four, hold, hold, seven, eight, nine, ten, release.
The light is seeping through my opening eyelids. For a moment, everything is just blotches of colour around me. I blink. Then start looking again. My chest is rising slowly now, descending ever slower.
“Oh, darling… I’m so sorry.”
“Who would like to share something today?” There’s tense silence in the room, clinging to the mint hued walls, draping the sunlight drenched windows. “Maybe one of our newcomers?” Rhonda’s large eyes turn towards me, her smile punctuated by deep dimples.
“I’ll go.” A voice next to me echoes, barely above a whisper. When I turn, her dark eyes welcome me, her tousled hair and bare face making her look older than she is.
“Please,” Rhonda encourages, her maternal tone making Dina try to put on a smile.
“My Roger, he… Worked in the army. We met at one of those things for single people. And I just… I don’t know, I fell in love with his kindness and bravery and the way he could make me laugh and the way his arms felt around me. He… He came from what he called the ghetto.” A stiff cough marks a pause in her speech, before she continues. “And the only way he saw out was the army.” She sucks in her lip, almost as if holding back tears, her palms in her lap, fingers holding onto each other. “What he didn’t know was that the army was going to take him away from me.” She clears her throat, lifts her head up and blinks a few times. “I am… So lost without him.”
Scattered applause fills the silence. I feel a shiver run along my spine and I move my gaze away, almost embarrassed, feeling like an intruder. Sighs around the room and a silent cough disturb the solemn quiet. Then Rhonda takes in a breath, her palms come together almost as if she’s praying and she directs her attention towards other people. The crying woman next to her wants to speak - as she does every time she has the opportunity. I interrupt.
“I would like to tell this story about Julia.” Rhonda’s big eyes widen even more, then her features soften under the mellow light of patience. She nods towards me. I take a sip of my watered down coffee and clear my throat. I can feel Dina’s burning gaze on the side of my head.
“The beach. We were at the beach and it was a lazy spring day. Easter holiday.”
The waves keep eating away at the shore before retreating towards the horizon, foaming and swaying. The air is salty and humid and the sand is warm. I can feel her warmth across my chest, as she is leaning against me, my arm draped around her shoulders. She is humming something and I’m trying to decipher what it is between swigs of beer.
“What are you singing?” I say, in the end, and I can feel her body jolt. A pause - her shoulders grow tense and when she turns towards me, the colour in her cheeks has evaporated. In just a few seconds, she is transformed. Her face looks sunken now, her eyes teary, her eyebrows joined together in a deep frow. Her lips are quivering and she whispers wetly, before breaking down in my arms.
“I don’t know, she said. That’s… That’s when we knew something was wrong. Then we had it confirmed.” A pause filled with dread as I try to keep my thoughts aligned. “Early onset dementia.” The last few words die on my lips, liberated in the air as a hoarse whisper. Just now I realise how tight I’m holding the plastic cup. I loosen my grip - the plastic stays the same, dented, misshapen.
The burning wood whispers and groans as the fire is eating away at it, the flames jumping, leaping and consuming the oxygen in the room. I stare at the incandescent display for a few moments, before turning my attention back to my laptop. I can hear her in the kitchen. The title of the webpage reads: Oak Care Home. I bite my lip, feeling blood pool in my mouth. I try to distract myself. Why do all care homes have trees in their name? It doesn’t work. Then the sound of shattered glass pushes me to my feet, steps hurried towards the kitchen, heart pounding and vision blurry.
I scream her name and she jerks away from the broken glass when she sees me. She is a crying, trembling mess and the word ‘sorry’ keeps jumping off her lips. Her breath is ragged and her fingers tremble, blood decorating her left palm. And I stand there, watching my wife apologise for a broken glass like a small child, on her knees, sobbing and rocking back and forth.
The phone vibrating next to my shoulder pulls me away from the embrace of the sleep. I groan as I turn and I palm the sheets beneath me in search of the vibrating device. The screen reads Paul and beneath the letters in an uninspiring font stands the picture of a greying man. On his nose rests a pair of large glasses and they almost take over his face, if not for the huge grin. I pause and clear my throat.
“Hey, David. Sorry if I’m waking you up, uh…” Silence, the sound of traffic in the background. The scream of a car horn inundates the quiet between us.
“Morning, Paul, it’s alright. What can I do for you?” Salesman voice, I can almost hear Julia say. She was right - what is a lawyer if not a fancy salesman?
“I just wanted to check in with you, I just got back from my trip and Jesus… I am so sorry I wasn’t there. I heard about it a week ago and I…” A low chuckle, one of those huffs he gives every time he feels awkward. “To be honest, I’ve been trying to figure out what to say to you. And I decided I don’t have to say anything and probably… Anything I could say has been already said.”
“Thanks, Paul,” I murmur, voice dry, mouth dry, cheeks wet. I press my lips together, place a hand over them and try to keep the sobbing at bay.
“I’m really sorry. I loved Julia - everyone did.” I nod, despite knowing he can’t see me. “Do you… Want to get a drink sometime? This Friday maybe?” His invitation makes my shoulders tense and my breath lodge itself in my closing throat. I haven’t really seen any of our friends after… Between drinking myself to sleep and the support group, time flew past me.
“Sure, Paul, I appreciate it. Will meet you at Cube downtown?” I almost feel the protest from him coming. And then it doesn’t. He picks up on it - he knows any bar near the office would put me off. He knows any familiar faces would bring a wave of questions and gazes and pats on the back I was not ready for.
“Sounds good, buddy. Will see you Friday and uh... “ His words stop abruptly and I can almost hear him mull over the next ones. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Thank you, Paul. Will do. Thanks.” The last sound is him rushing a goodbye.
I lean against the headboard and take in a breath. I know how hard it is to find the balance between being supportive and taking pity. One is appreciated - the other…
“I never liked these groups, you know. Too much pity going around.” The sound of her voice makes my shoulders stand up. I nod, even before I can see her round face. She’s got her hair stiffly pulled into a ponytail, only her fringe swept to one side let loose to frame her face. As I roll the next words around my mouth, I see her pulling on her long sleeves and folding her arms around herself.
“I know how you feel,” I murmur and I finish my glazed donut. Her eyes inspect me, measure me. Say yes, I hear Julia’s voice in my head before Dina opens her mouth to let hers be heard. I say yes.
The car is purring softly and a breeze is flying in through the partly open window of the car. She is leaning into the door, her temple pressed against the window. Her breath is stable, deep. I can almost feel the tiredness evaporate from her body, the clouds drifting away from her thoughts, the worry and pain mellowed out by the peace of her nap. I tighten my grip against the steering wheel and bite down on a scream that wants to escape my chest. I want to stop the car and lie next to her, take her in my arms, kiss her face, tell her everything will be alright. I don’t.
Ten minutes later we pull into the driveway and the car gives a last hum before the engine settles. I listen to her breathe, watch her blond hair move above her chest, falling down in big curls down her back. Her lips sit slightly ajar and her eyelashes flutter softly. As I look at her, deep lost in her dream, I feel the desperation infiltrate my brain. I can still hear the doctor’s voice - his words haven’t left my thoughts. My neurons are firing chaotically and it’s hard to breathe. I open the door of the car, heaving, my mouth sucking in the afternoon air, my lungs holding onto every molecule of oxygen they can get.
I throw up until my stomach hurts and I can taste the bitter bile coating my mouth.
He waves a hand at me, propped in one of the stools at the bar, holding with the other hand a glass of whiskey. I wonder for a moment if he needed that drink to get himself ready to face me - I wouldn’t blame him. His eyes roam over me with worry anchored deep within them from behind the big glasses.
“Nice to see you,” I greet him and let him wrap an arm around me - two pats on the back. His fingers linger for a brief moment on my arm and I’m not sure if that’s a comforting gesture or something to ground him. I notice the quiver at the end of his smile - he’s nervous.
“So good to see you.” The chair groans as I sit and a sigh instinctively flies off my lips as I let my elbows rest on the wooden countertop.
“Whiskey, double, on the rocks.” The bartender offers me a smile to accompany my drink, promptly poured into a thick tumbler. I let the spirit coat my lips, snake past them to the back of my throat where it sets it alight gently. Then I push it down with a wince, letting it tumble further into my body until it settles into a pool of warmth in my belly.
“So… I guess it would be stupid to ask how you’re feeling?” His voice is soft, gentle and he avoids my gaze when I try to find his eyes. I chuckle under my breath, then take another sip of my drink.
“You can ask me that, but don’t expect much,” I joke and I can see his shoulders relaxing, captured by the power of gravity once again. He nods and pats me on the back, as if to say he appreciates me not being a depressing mess - even if I am one.
He tells me about Thailand and the case he’s been working on. A class action against some big company that let hazardous waste run through the rivers of the village nearby. I let him fill the silence with the details of his trip, the stories about the justice system over there. I let him talk about himself, afraid he will ask about me, he will ask… About her.
Glass after glass, his words become more unintelligible, my chuckles louder, his eyes softer, our nervousness quieter and quieter.
Then he stops. As he turns around, I can see the shadows that capture his light eyes, I can see the worry lines around his face deepen and I can read on the topography of his face his next question.
“Will you marry me?” The night sky breathes in the same rhythm as me, deep, nervous. The sea foams, waves advance and retreat. We can hear the crickets in the distance and the cars. They all seem distant, however, and I get lost in her blue eyes. The moon shines in her tears as she jumps in my arms. We stumble into the warm sand, while she whispers ‘yes’ over and over again in my ear and as she places wet kisses all over my face.
And all I want is to freeze us in this moment - under the starry sky, under the night’s embrace, holding each other, crushing whispered words between our lips.
Did you do it?
The words swim between my confused thoughts, echoing in my sleeping mind. I can feel the pain throbbing in my temples, I can still feel his gaze on me, burning, questioning, worried - all those things at once. My stomach churns, my blood is pumping.
I wake up with sweat seeping through my clothes, leaving wet spots on the grey sheets of my bed. I hurl myself away from it, feet stumbling towards the bathroom. It all comes down, the whiskey and peanuts we munched on, everything.
When I finish, I let the toilet flush away the memory of the previous night. I let the water take with it the question and Paul’s gaze, his sombre voice, the alcohol… I sit next to the toilet, breathing in, face contorted under the pressure of pain. Pain that starts with loud thumps around my temples and spreads everywhere else in my body. It grabs my tense shoulders, it settles into my unsettled stomach, it reaches for my sprained ankle.
When I open my eyes, Bucky is in the door, curious eyes on me.
“I’m alright, bud,” I choke out, before pushing myself up to my feet.
The clock on the wall whispers its ticks and tocks at me with perseverance. I lean against the kitchen island and push the two pills between my lips, then follow them with a big gulp of water.
“You shouldn’t miss it.” Her voice echoes around the room, drives along the corners of the counters, surfs against the marble and wood.
“I’m in no state to be there, I’d probably lose my shit, Julia.” No reply. But if I close my eyes I can see her shrugging her shoulders, giving me a side look to express her disagreement.
The phone buzzes against my thigh and I let it vibrate three times before I fish for it in my pocket. The number displayed is… Just a number. No name, no picture attached to the contact.
this is Dina sorry to bother you but i noticed ur not here.. let me know ur ok?
I lock the screen and watch my reflection. My hair is tousled, the white peppered through the black tresses making me look older than I am. My face looks almost grey, especially in the crepuscular light of the kitchen. My eyes are lost in their sockets and I am...
“You’re not a mess, darling. You are dealing with loss.”
“In a messy way.” My hoarse voice bounces against the white walls of the kitchen - it catches me by surprise.
“You’re grieving. It’s normal.” I let my lips be pulled upwards in an empty smile. She’s right. And also very wrong.
I’ve been mourning her loss since that day on the beach when her mind could not reach for the name of that damned song. I’ve been losing my wife for a year now and her being… I take in a breath, exhale shakily. The sound of the glass hitting the counter makes Rover lift his head and give me a look from his place in his bed, next to the back door.
“She’s…” I feel my jaw clenching, my teeth pushing into each other, as if my mouth doesn’t want the word to escape into the ether. “She’s…” I try again, this time a sob accompanying the syllable. I break down before I can say it - Rover is watching me from his bed, then he stretches with a purr. I still can’t say it…
“David Alby, resident here is Julia Alby.” The receptionist gives me a smile, one of those grins that have been trained over the years to emanate as much hospitality as possible while maintaining a specific level of professionalism. She nods and reminds me of the room number. I repeat it in my head, reciting the digits as they form on her lips.
My breath quickens as my steps shuffle across the carpeted floor. Small golden flowers lost within a sea of burgundy are crushed under my shoes as I make my way down the corridor. The neutral painted walls - she would call them beige or taupe - are lined with water colour paintings. Vases and beaches and branches of flowers decorate the halls, all a tad faded, old. Then my steps stop - my breath does as well. I watch from the door, my fists clenching at my side, the hair on my neck standing up.
“Oh, look who’s here, Julia.” The woman fretting above my wife gives me a wry smile and a pitiful look. I swallow the curse that wants to fly off my lips. And smile. Julia smiles back. I can see the confusion settling into the lines of her face.
“Hey, beautiful.” The nurse shakes her head. I wet my lips and approach the chair she’s installed in. “You’re reading The Catcher in the rye?” Her eyes travel across the expanse of my face and a light blossoms within her gaze.
“Darling,” she exhales, jumping out of her chair and into my arms. I let myself get lost in her embrace. I take in the scent of her skin and her hair, sigh as her fingers travel up my neck and surround my shoulders, melt into her as I drag her closer. When I open my eyes the nurse is gone and the room is silent.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I say and, when I speak, my tone is wet and my vision blurry.
“Oh, darling, please don’t,” she pleads, her small hands cupping my jaw, her big mouth on mine, her breath settling into the same rhythm as my own. We stand there and breathe. I’ve seen her every day the past week and this is the first time she knows who I am. I want to break down into her arms, let her run her fingers through my hair as she does when she feels maternal. I don’t.
Instead, we sit at the edge of the bed, her hands in mine and her blue eyes silently asking me. Then the silence is shattered by her low, raspy voice.
“Will you do it?” I suck in a breath, hold the air in my lungs for as long as possible before releasing it. I let my trembling lips pepper kisses along her cheek and temple and I can feel her fingers tightening their hold against mine. I nod before I answer and her gaze softens with relief.
“Yes, Julia. I’ll do it.”
My knuckles crash against the wood, the knock echoing in the evening air. Behind the door, there’s a bark, then I hear light shuffles and a low voice. The phone vibrates in my pocket. I ignore it. The door swings open and Dina welcomes me with a smile; the first smile I’ve seen painted on her face that was more than a strenuous smirk. Silence permeates the air between us for a moment, as she holds onto the collar of the dog who is whimpering in her grasp.
“Hey,” I struggle and she chuckles under breath, closing the door behind her.
“Hey. Did you find this place alright?” I nod, holding my breath for a moment, unable to grasp at any words that would make me feel less awkward. “Do you… Want to go?” The light playing in her gaze confers her an amused air. The sun envelops her pale face and paints atop her mellow features a golden hue. I move out of the way and follow her with unsure steps down into the road, her long sleeve dress swaying with every movement. She lives in a cul-de-sac, I notice. A kid is toying with his bike in his garden under the watchful gaze of a man who I presume is his dad.
“Nice neighbourhood.” The words escaping my tight throat come across as cold - an observation, rather than a compliment. She receives it as a compliment, however, turning her face towards me and letting the thin line of her mouth bend under the curve of a gentle grin.
“It really is.”
Our steps find a common rhythm as they shuffle across the asphalt. All of the sudden, I can see myself and her, walking side by side, weighing words and ideas in our mind, searching for a way to make conversation. Two lonely people - two silhouettes brought together and lost in the shadows left by death itself.
She clears her throat and turns her gaze towards me, eager to let her voice fill the tense silence between us.
“I’ve heard good things about this place and we’re lucky it’s not that far. Did you drive here? Not sure if I’ve seen your car or…” The syllables rush out one after another, a cascade of sounds and half taken breaths between them, all collapsing into the evening air. I nod and try to find something to do with my hands. Pockets? No, too casual. Behind my back? Too formal. I choose to use them as a visual tool and I throw my thumb over my shoulder, pointing behind me.
“Yeah, the car is parked right there, but you said you wanted to walk so… We’re walking.” I sigh under my breath, realising she’s now smiling again. It could have been the soft light of the bright sunset or just the way her dark eyes glistened next, but she suddenly looked beautiful. Beautiful in an uncommon way, with her shoulder length hair swayed by the spring breeze and her high forehead illuminated by the sunset and straight nose casting a shadow along her face.
“Anything wrong?” Her question makes me blink slowly - time rushes past me for a few moments before my brain is giving orders again, telling my head to move.
“Not at all,” I chuckle and let my gaze wander away from her face.
“Hey uh…” A pause, my eyes are captured by a curious glisten. “I know this is a bit awkward but uh… I’ve been through the thick of it already.” As she speaks, her steps slow down, then they shuffle to a stop. She’s facing me now, the door of the bar behind her, the sun embracing her silhouette and making her squint softly. “And I know how hard it is to go through those first six months without drinking yourself dead or becoming a recluse. So… No expectations?”
There’s something in the way she’s looking at me that makes me nod my head. Her words dance around my head and I try to grab them, make sense of them, but then it’s too late. She’s already in the bar, holding the door open for me. I follow quietly, taking in the wood tables and the modern detailing. Industrial feel, Julia would call it, with its copper everywhere and harsh angles and dark greys.
“Dark grey,” she orders.
“You sure?” She turns towards me with a patient smile, a look on her face that betrays the sentiment behind her next words:
“You don’t trust my opinion now? Shall I remind you that this is what I do for a living?” I chuckle and shake my head and, all of a sudden, we’re all over each other, me whispering sweet nothings, she torturing me with silence.
“I’ll go with the dark grey, of course,” I give up, in the end, and her arms snake around my neck. I lean in, almost instinctively, before she twists away from me.
“No,” she dictates as she points a finger at me, “I’m still hurt you think your wife doesn’t know what suits you best.” Laughter bubbles in my throat but I push it down with a deep breath, before clasping her accusatory hand between my warm palms. Her fingers were always a tad cold and it became almost a habit for me to try to warm them up.
“I’m sorry. You are the best interior decorator and an amazing partner and you… Know best,” I plead, eyebrows brought together and pout on full display.
“Oh, don’t give me the hurt puppy look,” she chuckles as she drags me towards her. Her lips trace my jawline as she deposits a whisper in my ear. “Thank you for admitting I know better, though, I know that’s hard for a lawyer.”
“A lawyer, hm? Fancy.” I shake my head, laughter drowned in the cocktail I’m drinking - it’s sweet, too sweet for my taste but Dina insisted we try the cocktails first. We are sitting in the far left corner of the bar, table for two, next to the window. The shadows of the night are creeping up her face, while the sunset bathes her in orange light.
“Not really. Don’t believe those legal dramas on TV. What I used to do, mostly, was read interminable papers and fight with people in corridors.” She giggles, breathlessly, before pushing a few strands of hair behind her ear.
“Sounds just like a legal drama!” I join her in her laughter and shrug my shoulders as if to say maybe she’s right.
“At least there are less risky romances in a real courtroom,” I note as I take another sip from my drink. A sigh is pushed out of her chest and she theatrically dons a disappointed look.
“So nobody’s fucking the hot interns?” A large, playful smile adorns her lips and her cursing takes me aback, eyes wide and a surprised grin contouring on my face.
“None of that, I’m afraid,” I reply with a shake of the head as the initial shock subsides. I watch her for a second, as the red straw sits in her mouth, as her cheeks are sucked in, as she wets her lips after she has finished her sip. And I can see a question forming at the corners of her mouth - I can also see her being unsure about whether to let it be heard or not.
“You said you used to? Are you not… Working as a lawyer anymore?” She decides to voice it and I try to not let my quickening heartbeat give away my fear.
“I’m... Taking a break, with all that’s happened.” A fake smile - and a fake answer. She takes it, nonetheless, her gaze avoiding me, roaming the street behind the softly tinted glass. She murmurs something resembling ‘of course’ and the blood pulsing behind my eyes makes a loud thumping noise. I excuse myself and, despite me knowing better, I let her ruminate my answer while I let my feet carry me in the direction of the bathroom.
The reflection in the mirror looks back at me with worry anchored deep in its gaze, with its lips set firmly into a thin line. I can taste the blood as I suck into my lip harder and all of a sudden I am reminded that she is safe and she is doing well so far and… The bathroom door is pushed open, steps approaching. I finish drying my hands up, despite them being clammy still, and I stumble back in the restaurant. Julia is laughing like a child, full of joy and no worry shadowing the lines on her face. She is enjoying herself. I don a smile and walk back towards our table, Paul greeting me with a grin while May is trying her best to breathe between the giggles she is sharing with my wife.
“And then, oh god... “ When she speaks, Julia is gasping for air, tears forming at the corner of her eyes. She looks in my direction with a pleased smile and points her fork at me. “This man right here was so clumsy as to spill his beer all over me. It was the worst first date of my life, I swear!”
I groan as I try to not let a smile creep up my face and I shake my head as I grab my glass of wine. I point the rim at her as I turn my gaze towards May and Paul who are trying their best not to laugh at the story of how I ruined me and Julia’s first date.
“She says that but she still went out with me for a second time.” I take a sip of my wine and put up my hands with a shrug.
“I believe in second chances!” Julia says in her defence, before letting her hand find mine. “And I’m glad I do…”
Rosé is sweating in her glass while mine has red wine swirling around in it as I place it on the table. The sunset has dissipated now behind the line of the horizon, engulfed by the dark mantles of the night. Her voice is now soft, mellow, her usually curt words spilling into each other - I guess the alcohol has that effect on her.
“Oh, by the way, congrats on being published in The New York Times!” Her words make my eyebrows furrow above my eyes, surprise and confusion capturing my gaze.
“How do you know that?” My words are harsh - harsher than I intended them to be, anyhow. She is visibly embarrassed now, a few brushes of red painted atop her cheeks and her mouth slightly open.
“I’m sorry, you said you’re a writer or that you sometimes write and… Oh, Jesus, this must seem really creepy, I’m sorry!” Her syllables tangle and rush into each other and she’s barely breathing as she expels them out of her chest. Her hands come to cover her face now as she’s biting her lip. My expression softens as I give her a shake of the head and a smile. I try to make it not look forced, despite the fact my lips refuse to curve further than an understanding grin.
“Don’t worry, it’s just… Surprising, is all.” A pause, curt one, before I drown my smile in a gulp of wine. “Also, thank you.” Her chest is moved by a shaky chuckle and she settles her palms on the table, as if to ground herself.
“It was really good, by the way. The story, I mean. Roger used to-” she stops herself, abruptly, her eyes large and her words dying on her lips. Her shoulders stand up now and she offers me an almost apologetic sigh. “I said I wouldn’t talk about him and…” The letters subside to a whisper as they escape her mouth and her gaze is pinned to the glass of Zinfandel in front of her. She’s holding onto the neck of the glass with trembling fingers, her knuckles white and her face taken over by a dark shadow.
“Don’t worry,” I mutter, letting my hand rest on hers. And I suddenly get the urge to warm up her cold fingers.
Julia’s hand rests in my palm as we listen to Paul talk about a case he’s been working on, May interrupting with small details and gleeful chuckles. Her cheeks are now pink and she’s clearly been having fun with the Pinot Noir in her glass. Paul doesn’t mind - instead, he offers his wife thankful smiles and adoring gazes.
I sense Julia tense next to me and when I search her face for an answer, the light is gone from her blue eyes. Instead, it’s replaced by the shadow of doubt and fear and insecurity…
“Beautiful?” I murmur and Paul interrupts himself to ask my wife if she’s alright. Tears well up in her eyes and her muscles are shivering, her gaze searching, confused and lost. She’s trying to grasp what’s happening and she exhales, her broken voice loud, while she’s choking on her own sobs.
“David, where are we?” A shiver patrols along my back and crawls higher and higher until it reaches the back of my neck. I plunge towards her, grab her in my arms as she’s asking me again and again where we are and who they are and what’s happening… I feel Paul and May’s worried looks on us and they know better than to intervene. They know I need to do this.
I cradle Julia’s head between my big palms and I search for her gaze, I thumb away the tears from her cheeks, I kiss her forehead and let her arms hold onto me, I let her melt into me for support. I let her ride this out in my arms - the confusion, the fear, the panic. They all come rushing down her cheeks and then get soaked by the dark grey jacket she chose for me a few hours ago.
“It’s alright, baby, you’ll come back around,” I susurate into her ear and she nods; she wants to believe me and she ignores the tremble in my voice and the way my fingers are shaking as I hold her close to me. May offers her water and Julia downs it with big gulps, holding onto the glass with both hands as a child would, sucking into the liquid and breathing deeply through her nose, eyes closed.
When she opens her eyes, she’s back… And she’s shattered.
The stars breathe above us, glinting in the distance, thrown haphazardly across the dark cupola of the sky. Aside from the bark of a dog and the sound of our steps trying to find a common rhythm, the silence embraces the cul-de-sac. I open my mouth to say something, anything, but it’s left agape as Dina turns around, her house rearing its head behind her.
“So… This is it,” she chuckles, an exhale accompanying her rushing words. I nod, the phantom of a smile barely on my lips, and she extends a hand between us, fingers steady.
“Oh,” I make as I grab her cold palm, her touch lingering in my hold for a few moments. I search for her gaze and, despite my efforts, she avoids mine tactfully.
“Thanks for tonight,” she says with a smile that trembles at the corner of her lips, almost as if she’s unsure of what to do next. I try to settle her nerves with a shake of the head and liberate her hand from my hold.
“No problem at all. I had fun.” I try to reach for a joke, but when I can’t find one I settle on a soft cough and an awkward grin. “I’ll get going, but uh… Yeah, thanks as well. Have a good night.” Despite having bid my farewell, my feet remain firmly planted in the same place and, when my body finally catches up with my brain, I am stopped by a pair of arms tugging at my shoulders. I barely have the time to return her embrace, that Dina peels herself away from me with a sweet smile. In the dim light of the streetlight, her dark eyes almost look teary and there’s a subdued tremble in her deep voice as she says:
“You’re a good man, David.”
Before I can question her statement, her feet carry her away in a rushed step towards the house, further lost into the shadows of the night. She throws over her shoulder a ‘goodnight’ towards me, before plunging into her purse in search of her keys.
I stand in the driveway, frozen, long after I hear her door is shut and her dog welcomes her into the house with a bark. I stand there, thoughts avalanching and silence settling on me like dust on old books. I only move when her windows blossom with yellow light and the curtains fall over them.
The car comes to a halt as the engine hums softly. The light on the porch invades our car and I turn towards her with a shadow crossing my features. She notices it but doesn’t say anything. And I can almost hear her words before they slip through her lips:
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs into her palms, covering her face, while her body is jerked by quiet sobs. I let my arm slither around her shoulders and I gently usher her into my embrace.
“It’s not your fault, beautiful.” My whisper gets lost in her golden tresses as I deposit kisses on the top of her head. She is shivering in my arms and I feel impotent… And no matter how tight I wrap my arms around her trembling, jerking body, the feeling of doom clouding my thoughts doesn’t go away, the weight on my shoulders pushes harder onto me, almost as if I wanted the ground to open and swallow me.
“Maybe…” A sniffle and a sigh, then her wet eyes find my gaze - she’s pleading. “Maybe a care home is a good idea.” I blink, rarely, then I shake my head furiously - no, no, no.
“No way, no, I am not putting you away, you’re my wife and…”
“Stop!” The shout makes my shoulders stand up straight, stiff. Fear hungrily takes over her expression and I suddenly feel small and once again helpless. It fills me to the brim and when I can’t hold it in anymore, I collapse into her arms, murmuring in a mad fashion ‘no’ again and again…
The empty chair stares back at me defiantly, while I can hear in the background the sputtered words of the woman next to Rhonda and her loud, whiney sobs. I tap my foot, impatience coursing through my body and, as soon as the closing words are left to hang in the air, I sit up and march across the room. Rhonda’s eyes grow big and a smile slithers onto her lips as she sees me.
“David, how’re you holding up?” She cups my elbow as if to support me and I ignore the gesture.
“I’m good, thanks. Uh… Do you know about Dina? She’s always here and…” I stop as I notice confusion wrapping around the woman’s expression. Her eyebrows collapse into a furrow and her next question makes a buzz invade my ears, it makes the air stop in its tracks down my throat.
“Dina? Sorry, sweety, I don’t… Who is she again?” Rhonda looks almost embarrassed - could she have forgotten her name? She tries to lodge out of me an answer or a description and I can see my stunned silence sends her reeling. Of course she knows everyone by name.
“Uh…” I take in a breath, fingers trembling and flying through the air as I gesticulate. You always flail when you’ve nervous, Julia used to say. “She’s about this height, shoulder length hair, brown, has uh… Dark brown eyes?” All of a sudden, I am unsure of my description. If I close my eyes, I can still see her, her back turned to her door, her eyes glistening under the streetlight. “I haven’t heard from her, tried to call her and…” Rhonda’s face lights up, the shadows of doubt and confusion lifted away.
“I know who you’re talking about.”
My knuckles are white, my fingers shakily holding onto the flower stems. I recite in my head the room number, in the same fashion as the receptionist said them. A buzz floats around my head; it makes the world fade to a hum around me and I nod, give her a smile. Then her lips move again.
“Sorry?” I exhale, only now realising I have been holding a breath hostage in my lungs. She repeats her question and her words register in my mind, barely. “Yeah, they are her favourite,” I respond as I look at the blooming flowers in my hand. The petals bounce and sway as I step down the hallway.
I try to focus on the flower vases and beach pictures and the branches adorning the light coloured walls. They all pass before my eyes as nothing more than colours - Rorschach-esque blotches of colour. I can hear her in her room before I see her.
The loud thumping of my heart rings in my ears, echoes behind my closed eyes. A long exhale is pushed out of my chest and, within a few steps, I’m standing next to her. She investigates me and recognition flourishes within her blue eyes. Then she hurls herself into my arms, abandoning herself within my embrace.
“Hey, beautiful,” I breathe in her ear and she giggles softly, pushing herself away from me to find my gaze. Her palms come to rest on my face and I meet her halfway, her mouth on mine, her sighs silenced by the kiss.
“I knew you’d come.” I nod, the tinge of a smile struggling to adorn my lips. My hand is still shaking, my grip onto the bouquet still stiff.
“I want to be here.” It’s a wish, a plea, falling off my lips and into the air coloured by fear and longing and… Desperation. It settles in the small space between us and gets engulfed by silence, finally. She peels herself away from me, slowly. Only now I notice the way her lips are quivering, how her fingers are shaking as she’s trying to not let the shiver possess her voice, how she’s trying to hide her teary gaze away from me.
“No, David. I can’t…” The flowers land on the bed, the lilies shivering within the wrapping paper, and I turn her towards me, forcing her gaze to settle into mine.
“I want to. I want to hold you and kiss you and I want to be here, beautiful.” A long pause stretches lazily between us. Then her face is adorned by a gentle smile and her hands crawl up my shoulders to my head. She’s caressing the tears that are tumbling down my cheeks as her own face is painted with wet streaks.
“I love you. More than anything and anyone I’ve ever loved or could love. And because of that, you can’t. I want you…” A wet sob is yanked out of her chest and I wrap my arms tighter around her. “I want you to remember me not like this, not here… I don’t want this to be your last memory of me, alright?”
The door swings open and I can see the fear enveloping her features. Surprise colours her dark eyes and, before I can say anything, the words dart out of her mouth:
“What are you doing here?” She crosses her arms above her chest, but it’s too late. Marks slither around her arms, scarlet lines that hang onto her pale skin, clinging and crawling higher and higher up to her elbows. She avoids my gaze and opens her mouth to ask me again, but I interrupt her.
“You didn’t answer your phone, you weren’t in the meeting this morning. I think it’s only natural I feel worried, right?” The tinge of annoyance colouring my words makes her eyebrows tumble together. She doesn’t give me an answer. “Can I come in?”
“It’s better you don’t.” Her words are hurried and, before I know it, the door is approaching my face. My palm crashes against the wood, the impact punctuated by a loud thud. Fear nestles in her gaze as I tower above her. My heart is pounding and I can feel the adrenaline racing through my veins, making my temples pulsate, throb with pain and euphoria.
“Why did you lie to me… Delilah?” My voice is seething, barely above a whisper and it makes her body jerk. She’s stiff now, her face no longer decorated by mellow smiles or dulcet smirks. She’s fully guarded and I can see it in her eyes - the need to escape, the desire to push the door again… She wants me gone. But before she does, she lets an empty chuckle float above her dry lips. Before she speaks, she bites the lower one, hard:
“I saw the articles about you. And I thought you’d help me. But then…” The world is caught in a vortex, the image of her face blurry. The prickling returns into my limbs and my breath is gone, stolen by the words that stick to the line of her mouth. “Then I met you and I told myself you couldn’t have done it. So there’s that.” She pauses and lets me stumble a few steps back, her eyes pinning me to the spot I’m frozen in. “Goodbye, David.”
The sound of the door, the clicks of the lock… They inundate the empty space beneath my skull and reverberate against the walls of my head. My fingers are digging into the soft skin of my palms and I can taste the blood in my mouth from where my teeth sank into my lip.
No, no, no…
My lungs scream and my breath is wheezing in and out, like a hurt animal. She can’t know.
The wine swirls around my brain and circles my thoughts, the alcohol coursing through my veins, reaching for my eyes and making them blurry.
We just have a few questions, Mr. Alby.
I’m heaving, searching for air and I can hear her voice saying ‘I love you’ - I drown the sounds in more red, I let the Merlot reach deep inside me, pool in my stomach and burn every feeling in my chest, I let it consume my thoughts and eat away at my fear, I let it settle my fragile nerves and dry away the tears that shakily fall down my cheeks.
This is a serious matter, David, and until all allegations are cleared I’m afraid… We’ll have to suspend you. I hope you understand.
The dark room aside from the single buzzing light above, the metal table and her smile - the rain crashing down on the windows, knocking on them as if to be let inside, as if to come to my rescue and wash away the memory of her in that cold, dark, empty, cold room…
You loved her more than anyone else and everybody here knows that. Today is about her and only her, alright?
I stumble into the kitchen, in search for it and I bring the bottle with both my hands up, suck into the wine, inhale it as if it was air, I make it into air as I engulf every drop, as every gulp of the liquid passes my throat and I usher my lungs to take it all in, to use it, please use it, I can’t breathe…
Did you do it?
I sob into the bottle as my teeth chatter against it, the sound of bone hitting glass filling the space beneath my skull, rushing, rushing away the images that have been haunting me for the past months - the lilies, her blue eyes, her big mouth curved in a sad smile, her voice saying her last goodbye…
You couldn’t have done it.
I yell and scream, my back against the fridge, my knees up to my chest, my arms holding onto them as if they are holding onto a lifesaver; I let the sounds pour out of my mouth as I kiss the bottle again and again, trying to push the cries back where they are climbing from, back into the dark, empty, cavernous rooms of my chest.
I love you, David. Thank you for doing this for me.
The suit lies stiffly against my body, my beard overgrown, my eyes lost within their sockets, bloodshot and still teary. I watch people move, walk by the casket and say their goodbyes to my beloved wife. And I stand there, watching them…
I wonder if they understand what pain has infiltrated my being and what desperation I hold in my chest, how many cries and yelps I want to liberate from my body. A hand lands on my shoulder - it’s warm, soothing. When I turn around, May has a gentle smile painted on her features. Her gaze ushers me to follow her outside the chapel. The winter sun is hidden behind a drape of thick, grey clouds, while the sky is sieving snowflakes. Big pieces of ice that float in the air, they dance and jumble, before settling into the plushy white blankets adorning the roads.
The cold is pinching my damp cheeks now, while a shiver runs along my back, grabbing my shoulders and pulling them upwards into a flinch. I hear May shuffling beside me as I take in a breath, the icy air travelling into my chest and filling it up before being released into the ether, an avalanche of mist gently cascading off my lips.
“How are you holding up?” A pause marked by pristine silence. “Is that a stupid question?” I turn to face her and she has the same smile donned - half worried, half encouraging.
“I don’t know what to tell you.” She nods, pretending to understand. Then her palm comes to rest on my back and she leans in, voice sombre, quiet, dulcet.
“I can’t tell you I know how it feels. Maybe if I lost Peter, maybe if I went through half the things you went through, I would be able to at least… Start to comprehend.” I can hear her taking in a breath, deeply, as if she’s holding back tears - I don’t hold back mine. “You loved her more than anyone else and everybody here knows that. Today is about her and only her, alright?”
I nod - she throws her arms around me and all I can do is fall apart in her embrace…
I wake up with the sun burning high into the sky, a white disk propped on the cerulean cupola, shoved between white clouds. Bucky is whimpering in the door, eyes demanding, worried. I try to get up, but the headache that is holding me down is dragging me further towards the pillow. I can’t remember how I got to my bed…
Anxiety is still plaguing the ends of my fried neurons and I try to make sense of the thoughts and words floating around the suffocating space in my head.
“I’m coming,” I stutter, words falling into each other, letters chasing each other as they stumble onto my damp pillow. I realise I’m sweating, my clothes sticking to my hot skin. I peel myself off the bed, feeling the world move with me or around me - at this point, I’m not entirely sure. My lips are parched and sickness bubbles in my throat. I push it back down and make my way towards the kitchen. The light grey walls of the hallway hold me as I palm them for support, anything to keep me upright.
Two empty bottles of wine salute me from their place on the kitchen island as I enter the room. I open the backdoor and gesture towards Bucky. He shuffles into the back garden, before his pace picks up, his direction being the cherry tree at the end of the yard. Rover lifts his head, eyes me from his seat in his bed. I ignore the look as I amble towards the sink. I let the water run as I pick up a tumbler, then I let it tumble into the glass, foaming and swirling around in it.
I down the water while holding my breath, my dry mouth welcoming the liquid with a satisfied groan. My palms come to rest on either side of the sink, the cold marble sending jolts up my arms that join into a shiver as they reach my shoulders. My phone buzzes, screams for attention from the kitchen island and I turn around. I can barely distinguish the letters as they align on the screen.
Hey, buddy, just checking in on you. Haven’t heard from you in a while. Let me know if you want to grab a meal sometime?
Peter’s picture stands next to the nicely worded message. I lock the screen and the man staring back at me takes me aback. The anger settled onto the lines of his face, the hair thrown in different directions, the eyes bulging, whites red and irises overtaken by wide pupils… My muscles are now trembling under my skin, my knuckles white around the phone as my hold tightens.
And I want to hear her voice saying it’s normal… I don’t.
I don’t hear it and my chest holds in the breath I just took. And I try to inhale further, but it doesn’t work and I can’t exhale… I’m holding onto the kitchen island as the buzzing returns to my ears, as it swarms around my head. No, I want to hear her…
“Please, please, please…” I croak, my voice a strangled whisper that dies on my dry lips. And I still can’t hear it…
I stumble back and I lose my balance, my body following the downwards motion, gravity pulling me close to the ground. My bones collide against the marble floor, a loud slapping noise. Pain shoots through my arms as my elbows meet the ground, I wince and growl…
“Julia! Julia?!” I try to scream, but my voice is once again the ghost of a sound, my throat tight, strangling the breaths I’m trying to take. My whole body is tickled by tingles and my mind floats somewhere between the alcohol fueled visions of last night and the reality of today…
I try to inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth. And repeat.
In the end, the only sounds I can perceive are the ones of my deep breath trying to calm down the panic ravaging my brain and Bucky’s worried barks in the distance. I open my mouth and, with tears flowing down onto my cheeks from beneath my closed lids, I whisper into the afternoon ether:
The sun is plunging beneath the line of the horizon, stretching its orange hued arms towards the azure and conferring some lonely clouds a purple nuance. Bucky is chasing the shadows that are engulfing the backyard, while Rover purrs silently in Julia’s lap. A cold beer sweats in my hand and I take a swig, feeling the bubbles rush down my throat. I can feel her warmth spread across my chest as the sun is spilling into the space around it, engulfing the horizon.
The mellow light settles into the soft features of her face while the hard angles of her jaw and nose are caressed by languorous shadows. I can feel her turning next to me and her gaze roams over my features for a moment, before settling on finding my eyes.
“What’s up, beautiful?” I ask, my voice slow and dulcet. A smile blossoms on her face and she leans in to place a kiss at the corner of my mouth, her lips grazing my skin.
“I know it will sound morbid but… What would you do if I were to die?” I have to take in a breath and swallow hard before my mind deciphers her question and makes sense of it. The thought makes a shiver gallop down my back, pinching at my spine.
“I don’t know.” Silence embraces us and her eyes remain trained on me, patient, waiting. “I really can’t tell you, Julia. I’d probably lose my mind, to be honest.” Quiet stretches between us and she hums under her breath. She shuffles away from me while she grabs a cigarette. She then places it between her lips and lets the flicker of the lighter eat away at the thin paper. Ashes scatter into her lap, all over Rover, carried away by the summer breeze.
“Me too. I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t here…” I usher her closer to me - I want to feel her warmth and her pulse whispering beneath her skin, I want to hear her breathe and feel… Feel all of her in this moment, with the sun dying afront us and our corner of the world still intact.
My breath is slow and heavy, the sound of the air traversing my trachea inundating my ears, mixing with the one of my own pulse. The door of the bar stands before me, patiently awaiting for me to push it. Before I do, I let my hand plunge into the pocket of my trousers where I find my phone. And I read for the fifth time the message, making sure the letters on the screen are not just a vision my mind made up.
They’re not. That settles the pace of my heart and pushes me to take the first step - then another. The door gives way to the now familiar image of the establishment. The copper adorning the lights, the hard surfaces, the dark greys. I let my blurry gaze navigate the room and then I find her - the far back of the bar, left side near the window, table for two. She has in front of her a glass of wine and her head is turned towards the window.
She only notices me when I’m a few feet away from her. She struggles to smile - I’m unsure whether she wants to or if it’s just a polite reflex. I settle into my seat and let the background noises fill the space between us.
“Hey,” she exhales, hands on the table, fingers holding onto each other.
“Hey.” My reply is strangled by my own breath as I try to inhale - I let the air rush into my lungs, fill them up. I hold it there for a moment, before letting it flow past my lips into the evening air. Once again, the warm light of the sunset envelopes her face - only this time she’s not wearing a charming grin. Her face is contorted under the power of what I can only guess is pain - or worry.
“I’m sorry. And thank you. I should start with thank you.” A chuckle is expelled out of her chest and she tries her best to meet my gaze. I avoid hers when she tries. “I actually don’t know where to start…”
“How about with why you lied to me?” My voice is hoarse, as if I’ve been screaming for the past few hours. It’s dark, moody and barely audible. I can see surprise adorning the lines on her face.
“I panicked, if you really want to know. Not my finest hour, I admit.” I let the sound of glasses clinking and the chatter around us engulf the tense silence draping over us. Then her hand shoots up and she extends it towards me. “My name is Delilah. Nice to meet you, David.”
I stare at her trembling fingers for a few long seconds. Then I take her cold fingers and let them warm up in my hold, my grip secure. Something inside me gives up as I do. I feel my breath travelling freely, my throat no longer strangling it. And I meet her dark eyes. There is so much fear and regret and sadness in them I get lost for a moment.
Then she retreats her palm and I am left holding the air.
“Why did you call me here?” My voice this time is softer, a gentle inflexion playing on the syllables that fly past my lips.
“I don’t want to get into it now, really…” My eyebrows collapse above my eyes, my stare intense and I can notice her flinch, the ghost of a smile dragging itself on her lips. “I called you here to tell you I’m leaving town. I need a change.”
The words pour into my mind one after another and I try to align them, decipher their meaning.
“Leave for good?” There’s genuine surprise in my tone as I question her.
“I can’t do this anymore, David…” Her dark eyes pin my gaze and tears envelop her irises. Her fingers are trembling on the table and sobs cascade out of her mouth as she tries to grasp for air. I reach for her hand and she jerks away, shaking her head vigorously. “No… I don’t deserve your kindness, really…”
“Please!” Her voice rises above its usually flat tone and she clears her throat as she looks around the bar, embarrassment making her a blush blossom in her cheeks. “I don’t deserve it after lying to you and… Hoping to use you.”
I nod and listen intently, while her gaze is focused on her fingers. She’s picking at a nail now, sucking in her bottom lip and trying to hold her tears back.
“I saw the articles they wrote about you. Prolific lawyer allegedly helps his wife commit suicide.” I take in a breath - so does she. Hearing her saying that… The words permeate every thought I have and, as I blink, Julia’s smile surfaces from the dark corners of my mind. Delilah pushes her wine glass forward and I wet my lips before letting the wine coat them.
“Thank you,” I murmur and lift my gaze to meet her wet one. A defeated smile stretches across her quivering lips.
“The first few months after Roger died I was… Stuck. More than stuck, I was regressing. I know it’s not an excuse but…” A puff of air is pushed through her lips and she lifts one of her long sleeves up. “I think you’ve noticed these already. I was bad… Really bad.” The thought chokes her, almost, and makes a big tear cross her cheek. Despite my best instincts, I lean in, let my fingers wrap around hers. This time, she doesn’t pull away.
We are two strangers, brought together and lost in the shadow death itself left in its passing.
“And then I saw those headlines and for some reason… I don’t know, my alcohol soaked brain thought you could help me. Like you did her…” I nod, breathless.
Thank you for doing this for me, David.
I close my eyes to erase the voice that haunts the chambers of my exhausted mind. When I open them, Delilah stares at me with gratitude flourishing hers.
“You saved me, David.”
The air is forced out of my lungs and I am surrounded by crickets, swarming around my head, buzzing… I feel tears coating my irises and I inhale through my nose, trying to calm the tremble that possessed my fingers.
“You saved me countless times. So thank you for that.” I try to open my mouth to say something, but the words aligned in my head can’t follow each other off my lips. I nod, slowly. I watch her as she tucks away a strand of hair.
“And when you came to my door that day and I said those words out loud… I mean, telling you I wished you helped me commit... “ She pushes a deep sigh out of her chest and holds onto my hand tighter. Tears cascade onto my cheeks as she struggles to pin the corners of her lips up in a smile. “I sounded crazy. So… I need to go. I need to find something to fill this void in my life. That’s why I’m moving out of town and… I don’t know, maybe that’s why I approached you that day at the meeting. I needed to fill this void with something, anything… I think you understand.”
I do. I’ve been trying to fill the empty space left by Julia in my life with anything I could. While she was still alive, I tried to fill it with work and caring for her and making her happy. But now that she’s gone… The cavernous space beneath my ribs had only been filled by panic and alcohol.
“I just hope… You’ll find peace.” Her words startle me awake, pull me away from the sensation of cold and emptiness spreading throughout my body. “Thank you, again.”
With that, her cold fingers leave my hold and she’s dragging herself out of her seat. I don’t know if she wants me to say anything. She waits, just for a moment. Her eyes meet mine. Her dark eyes - one of the first few things I noticed about her. They are now filled with tears - they glisten gently in the evening light filtered through the softly tinted glass of the window. And then her feet carry her a few steps away from me.
My body is jerked awake, purpose dictating my movements. I hear myself speak, but words seem distant, as if spoken by foreign lips:
“You were wrong. I did help her.” A sigh fills the silence. She turns towards me, her face embellished with pain and loss. And, before I can say anything else, her lips move again.
“You saved both of us, David.”
The car hums softly as I pull into the driveway. The house rears its head in front of the bleeding summer sunset and I can already hear the crickets. As I exit the car and start towards the door, my steps freeze on the pebble lined path.
I turn around towards the letter box and retrieve a few envelopes as I loosen the tie around my neck. I missed feeling tired because of work. The thought puts a smile on my face and, as I turn the key into the lock, I notice a familiar name sitting atop one of the letters.
The house welcomes me with a cool temperature and Bucky rushes down the hallway to greet me. I stumble to the floor to my knees, letting my fingers swim through the long fur of the Golden Retriever.
“Hey, boy, I missed you as well,” I laugh as the dog attempts to lick my face. When I pull myself back to my feet I can hear Rover meowing for my attention as he walks lazilly towards me.
“Are you hungry?” I ask my pet companions as they follow me into the kitchen. I get their food, then I help myself to a cold sparkling water from the fridge.
I escape into the backyard, letter still in hand - the stars are glinting, distant, in the evening sky. I let a sigh fly past my lips as I sit on the bench in the backyard and place the water bottle next to me. A few rips and the contents of the envelope are revealed to me - a postcard. I let my gaze trace the lines of the pictured canyon, taking in the red rock climbing against the azure sky.
On the back, in an orderly handwriting, stand a few letters. I let a smile settle on my lips as the words drip into my mind, being reminded of the woman who saved me.
I just wanted to let you know things are good. I heard about your reinstatement and I am so glad you’re back at work. Somebody’s gotta fuck those hot interns!
Me? I’m alright. I’ve been filling that void with more than alcohol and it’s going good. I hope you enjoy the sights of the Grand Canyon!
Your friend, eternally grateful,