What They Won’t Say

What They Won’t Say

“Write if you please. Sincerely, Jonathan.”

She stared at the crumpled piece of paper that had arrived in the water-logged envelope. His messy writing stared back at her. The stationary and envelope must have both soaked and dried before he wrote it because the ink hadn’t bled.

“What does he have to say today?”

Anna nearly jumped, looked up, startled. Her mother wasn’t watching her, eyes transfixed on the cross-stitching work in her lap. Anna tried to hide the disappointment in her voice.

“Oh, nothing of consequence,” she shrugged. “You know how he is.”

Now her mother looked up, searched her face, and frowned. “Anna, he must be very busy.”

Anna just shook her head, recalling his words, “Life here is awfully boring. There is not much to occupy one’s time besides drill.”

“Anna,” her mother said, a bit more sternly. She waited until Anna tore her eyes from the letter. “He will write when he has time. Don’t worry, honey.”

“I know,” Anna smiled—or at least tried to. Inside, she wanted to cry. “I think I’ll go out for a walk.”

“Wear your cloak,” her mother said, already immersed in her stitching. Anna nodded, trying not to think as she wrapped the warm, blue wool around her. The day was chilly but still warm for November. Most of the leaves had fallen to the strong winds that had plagued the area in the last week. The hills looked barren without the bright foliage, and the sky reflected the landscape, dismal and gray.

She had left the letter on the table. She didn’t realize it until she had reached the small apple orchard, a pet project of her father’s. Wishing she had brought the letter yet not inclined to fetch it, Anna walked on, past the apple trees, the barn, the chicken coup.

Hired hands bustled around yet took no notice of the quiet girl weaving her way across the farm. She wanted to say she didn’t know where she was going, but she did.

*

He just looked at her. She stared at the ground.

“Another letter?”

She smiled. How well he knew her. “I’m horrible, I know.”

He shook his head, stepped outside and gestured to the porch bench. Her skirts rustled as she situated herself, leaving room for him beside her. Instead, he pulled over a stool and sat across from her. Again, she smiled. He was well aware of the boundaries: how carefully he avoided them.

They sat in silence for a moment; he kept his gaze down, his green eyes averted. Anna studied his familiar face, his clothes. His dark brown hair was long, bordering on unruly, untamed today without the hat. His shirt was made from a floral pattern, bright red—an almost comical color—with tiny blue, black and beige flowers, and he wore a wool vest, a butternut color that matched his trousers. His skin was dark, especially his face and hands—her mother wouldn’t have approved, but Anna liked his tan, proof of long hours in the field. He was so unlike all the other boys, especially those from the city.

“Sun burnt?” Anna broke the silence.

He looked up, frowned, and then smiled. With a shrug, he said, “I forgot my hat.”

Anna shook her head, “No, you didn’t.”

He stared at her, barely grinned and brought his finger to his lips. Anna laughed, for a moment forgetting the letter. The following silence brought it back.

“What did he say this time?” Joshua finally asked, watching his hands, and glanced up when she didn’t answer.

She shrugged. “I—it’s just—” she searched for a way to explain just what she meant. “It’s not what he says that’s the problem…”

Joshua interrupted, “It’s what he doesn’t say?”

“It’s just… so hard,” and the tears came. She could hold them back no longer, yet she colored red with embarrassment.

“I know—” he began, but she cut him off.

“No. You don’t.” She heard the anger in her voice, and that released a new flood of tears.

Moments passed.  “I just… don’t know if it’s worth it,” she said quietly as the tears subsided and the hollow numbness came over her.

He said nothing.

“Half the time I’m missing him,” she admitted, her voice so low he had to lean in to hear her, “and I spend the other half of my time fearing he’s forgotten me.” The tears again threatened to fall. She whispered, “I just wish it would be over.”

Joshua kept his eyes on the floor. Anna grew angry at his silence, angry at Jonathan’s silence, angry at her own silence.

“How long has this war lasted?” Anna asked, her voice rising with each word, growing more bitter, more caustic. “A year? A year and a half? And we’re no closer to its end now than we were when it all began.”

She stopped and took a steadying breath. More quietly she admitted, “He’s been gone not even three months, and I’m going mad. How am I supposed to make it another two, three, God forbid, four years?”

Joshua refused to look at her. He feared his eyes would give something away, something he had tried for so long to hide.

She could see it.  It was obvious.  She even felt her own stomach leap just a bit in response.  But she couldn’t say it.  She couldn’t even consider it.  She maintained the silence, the status quo, and held on to her misery.

He saw the pain in her face and hated to see her hurt; but what could he tell her?  The very words she would not say he hoped beyond hope to hear.

And the silence remained.

“Maybe if he just told me how he felt,” she offered lamely, another excuse, another reason to hold on. She finally looked up, laughed, embarrassed. Her cheeks were stained pink and shiny with drying tears. Her eyes were a bit puffy and her nose seemed slightly swollen.

“My goodness, look at me. I’m a mess,” she laughed and rubbed her eyes. “I’m sorry I’ve burdened you—”

“You haven’t.”

“—with all this trivial—”

“It’s important to you.”

“—nonsense.”

Their eyes met, and Anna tried to ignore the dizzy rush that swept over her. They looked away, and Joshua stood, signaling the end to this meeting.

“Well,” Anna stood on the first step, reluctant to leave. “I really appreciate…” she trailed off. He was looking at her, intensely.  She could feel his mind working and searched his eyes for clues.  And once her own met his, she couldn’t tear them away. She stood frozen, afraid to break the moment.

He finally looked away but only to grab her hand. He studied her soft, pale fingers, so different from those of his tanned and callused hands. Anna still watched him, waiting, wishing, hoping.

“Sometimes,” he wouldn’t look at her, stared only at her hand, “sometimes, we have trouble saying how we feel, but it doesn’t mean we don’t feel it.”

Anna knew they were not talking about Jonathan.

“Well,” she answered just as quietly as he had confessed, “sometimes, we are waiting to hear it.”

He looked up at her, looked quickly away. He dropped her hand and forced a smile. The moment passed.

“Well. I’ll be sure to pass that advice along.” Joshua hopped down the steps, signaling her cue to leave. But still she did not want to and followed slowly behind him.

“Joshua,” she stood before him, tried to will the words from his mouth.

He looked away, stood with his hands folded across his chest.

“Joshua, what—”

“Go home, Anna,” he said brusquely. “Write to Jonathan. He’ll be happy to hear from you.”

Her forehead crinkled with her frown.

He stared at her again, in that hard, searching way, and finally shook his head.

“I’ll say it when you say it.”

 She didn’t have to ask what.

He stormed away, through the darkened doorway that opened onto the porch. He left her alone in his wake.

“Just give me a reason,” she whispered, though there was no one around to hear.

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Afflictions of a Romantic Heart II

Afflictions of a Romantic Heart II

She snuck into the other room, taking her thoughts and questions with her.  He slept on the couch, unaware of her absence.

She didn’t understand it.  She couldn’t fathom why she stayed when she wasn’t truly happy, why she couldn’t let go though her heart was left unsatisfied.  She didn’t understand it.

It wasn’t love that held her here.  Before, to the other, yes—love and friendship and familiarity held her fast.  But here?  She wasn’t in love.  And when she thought of it, she wondered if she could even really call him a friend.  There were glimmers of friendship, and more—moments when it seemed there might be something there.  But they were just moments, and moments pass.  There was nothing lasting.

She was stupid to think he would change.  Those early moments—they were clearly not the norm.  This was the norm.  Sitting in a room with half a dozen people, sitting by his side not saying more than a few words.  Sitting with sports on the TV, with work on the laptop, with a book in his hands.  Sitting and waiting.  Waiting for it to be her turn, waiting for his attention.

This was not for her.  This was not what she wanted.  Was this really what anyone wanted?  Besides him, that is.

Maybe this worked for some.  Maybe coexistence was acceptable, even preferred, for some.  It didn’t work for her.  She was a romantic at heart, after all, and she was not given to sharing.  She wanted all or nothing.  And here, it seemed, it would be nothing.

*

The words echoed in his head.  He heard them as if she had spoken them a dozen times, as if she had hollered them into a canyon.  Over and over.

I don’t want this.

He had been caught off guard.  It had come, completely unexpected.

“Why?” was all he could ask.

She gave her excuses, her explanations.  He only heard bits and pieces, still processing those first four words.  Among her list, though, a few complaints burned through the shock.

“You don’t kiss me like you mean it, you don’t talk to me, you say you’re listening but you don’t act like you’re interested. I don’t get why you hang out with me at all.”

Because you’re smart, and beautiful, and sweet, and you make me laugh; and I don’t know, I’m just happy around you.

But he didn’t say that.  He assumed it was too late.

*

Her heart dropped when he just shrugged.

I don’t get why you hang out with me at all, she had said.

And then he shrugged.

All of the energy, her anger, her fire, fled, as if a cold wind had blown it from her very center.  It left her hollow and aching and cold.

She had been right.  And at the same time, she had been stupid. So stupid.  She had thought she had held the wall, maintained the guard, when all along, her own heart had betrayed her.  No, she wasn’t in love.  But she had wanted to be in love.  And to get here, to find it was all a waste, she was overwhelmed by the disappointment.

She hadn’t expected to cry over him.

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Afflictions of a Romantic Heart

Afflictions of a Romantic Heart

Maybe it was silly, but she was a romantic.  At heart, all she wanted was to be someone’s one and only, to have someone’s sun rise and set with her.  She wanted love and passion and fire.  She wanted someone crazy about her, someone who couldn’t bear a second away, someone who wanted her above all.  Because that’s the way she was, that’s how she loved.  Maybe it was silly, but deep down, she was a romantic.

Yet her brain often enough kept her heart in check, and most of the time, her brain told her heart to cool it.  That kind of love was only in storybooks and B- movies.  It didn’t exist in the real world, and she lived in the real world.

She hid her romantic heart.

But it still stirred up trouble.

 

“Just spit it out,” he said, having tried the last ten minutes to bring a smile to her sullen face.  She clearly wouldn’t let it go, so he would have to claw it out of her.  Communication wasn’t her forte.

After several false starts, she managed to say, “I’m concerned.”

He did his best to hide his irritation.  Really, he did.  “About?”

“This.”

“This what?”

“Us.”

“What about us?”

It came out in a rush.  “I know you do everything right—you call me, text me, see me when you can, pay for dinner, give me compliments—seriously, you do everything right.  I just,” she stumbled on the words.  “I just don’t feel anything.”

He didn’t react.

“And I don’t know why,” she said softly.  Then, her voice picked up and the flood of words began anew.  “Even the things I don’t like don’t seem so important sometimes—how busy you are with work, with hanging out with Mush and Jake, with your stupid obsession with that stupid band (what was the name?) and all its streamed concerts.”  She tried not to sound too spiteful as she went down the list, because really, “Those things don’t seem so horrible when I think of them.  They seem so minor, sometimes.”

“I told you about the music from the beginning. I didn’t hide it from you,” he said, defenses up already.

“I know,” she assured him.  “And sometimes it seems stupid that these things bother me at all.  I feel like they shouldn’t—like I’m wrong to be unhappy about them.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” he argued again. Clearly, her reassurances fell on deaf ears.

“I know, I know you’re not.  But I can’t help how I feel—I don’t want to feel this way, I just do.”

“What’s so wrong with me hanging out with Mush and Jake?  Or working my ass off to make extra money?  Or listening to my music?  I don’t see what the problem is.”

“It’s not—it’s not each thing individually.  It’s,” she fumbled for the words. “It’s like they are signs of a bigger problem, of the thing that is really making me unhappy.”

“Which is?”

She wished he could have been a little more sensitive.  This wasn’t easy for her either.  But that wasn’t his style—he was quick to defend, even when there wasn’t an offense.

“I—” This was the hardest part to say, the part that left her most vulnerable.  She almost couldn’t get the words past her lips.  “I don’t feel love or passion or excitement.  I don’t feel like I’m falling for you, like I’m crazy about you, and I think that’s because I don’t feel like you’re falling for me, like you’re crazy about me.  And it makes me wonder if you ever will be.  I sometimes wonder whether or not you have it in you at all.  Maybe you just like casual things, and maybe this will just be casual forever.  I don’t know.”

“I tell you all the time how much I like you.”

“I know you like me.  Like I said, you do everything right. Logically, I know.  I just, I don’t feel it.  It feels disconnected and distant.”  She figured “it” sounded less accusatory than “you.”

“I don’t know what else you could possibly want me to do.  I text you every morning, I call you every night, I—”

“I know, I know! I don’t know, OK!”  She interrupted.  “I told you, I know you do everything right. I  just don’t feel it.”

“Feel what?”  His voice filled the small apartment.

“Emotions! I don’t feel like there’s any emotion behind it, behind you liking me.  You like me, I know.  But it feels shallow.”

“Shallow how?”

She was getting frustrated now.  “Like there’s no emotion tying you to me.  Like if given the right opportunity, you could pick up and leave without a second look.  Like you’re just as happy with me as without me.  Like I’m not the most important thing to you—or more importantly, like I never will be.”

So that was it.  As the words left her lips she found them true.  She hadn’t expected him to be in love, she was fine with giving him time; but as the days and weeks passed, the feeling that he never would be grew stronger.  That maybe he wasn’t capable of it.

He opened his mouth, his response at hand.

Her romantic heart braced itself.

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The First Snow

The First Snow

“I don’t think I ever bin this cold in my whole life,” the man mumbled through chattering teeth. He sat huddled in the dirt while around them snow fell. He pulled tighter his coat and tried to imagine a warm fire, a welcoming hearth.

“My brother left me in the ice cellar once,” a boy beside him replied, his lips cracked, purple. His nose and cheekbones jutted out from his sallow face, carved by stress and starvation. Nonetheless, he chuckled, “It was pretty cold down there.”

“Come here, kid,” the man said and lifted his ratty blanket. “You look like yer turnin blue.”

“Aww, I ain’t that bad,” but he slid across the frozen ground anyway. He’d lost his blanket somewhere on the march, and they hadn’t expected a snow so soon. It was barely November after all.

“I reckon I’m ’bout ready to head on home,” the boy said softly even as he slipped into unconsciousness. The man looked at the young one’s dirty blonde hair and brushed a bit from his forehead. The boy was too far gone to notice; soon enough he was snoring quietly, curled up on the slope of their cold, living grave.

“Joe,” a corporal made his way down the line, hunched over to keep his head below the trench’s crest. He tossed a wrinkled paper in Joe’s lap. He was gone as quickly as he came.

Joe stared at the envelope. He hadn’t received a letter in months, wondered wryly if he even remembered how to read. But he recognized his name, the familiar slant of letters, the sharp turns of the J and extra curl at the end of the line.

Margaret.

He had waited so long, he was almost afraid to open it. He had tried not to imagine what the letter would say all these past weeks; he didn’t want to set himself up for some disappointment he didn’t need and wasn’t sure he could handle. But he had imagined—on those late nights when he couldn’t sleep, when he just stared at the stars and tried to remember her round face and pink lips. He tried to remember the sound of her voice and found he couldn’t. He closed his eyes, searched for the soft drawl, the smile in every syllable.

“If you want…” and he heard her, the funny way she said it. Want. Wont.

He opened his eyes and saw the envelope. His hands trembled as he tore open its seal—whether from fear or simply the cold, he could not tell. He almost smiled—he had faced a thousand muskets, felt the vibrations of hundreds of shells, and he was afraid of a simple letter. Fear was a strange thing, he decided and pulled the letter from its crumpled wrapping.

His eyes fell first upon the date. October 11, 1863. Well, it wasn’t so long ago.

Dear Joseph, it read, and he stopped. He tried to hear her voice again, wished she was there to read it to him—hell, forget about reading. If she was here with him, he wouldn’t waste any of that time reading…. He chuckled, and the boy beside him stirred. He patted the boy on the shoulder, searched for his name. Mitchell… Michael… Micah. Micah, that was it.

I’m stalling, he realized even as his eyes searched for some distraction, anything to avoid the paper before him. Coward, he accused and forced his attention to the letter.

Dear Joseph, he began again. I was pleasantly surprised to receive your letter so soon after it was written (as you remembered to date it this time), although I must admit I was disappointed you took so long to respond.

He tried not to feel guilty. She had written him in late June. He had mailed his response on August 14. He could have written her earlier, he should have. Now, he couldn’t remember what had stopped him. He was faintly aware it had something to do with the fighting. The fighting had been… bad. It left scars he did not want her to see.

She’ll find out eventually, he thought and cursed the voice of logic. He cursed his doubts, What will she think of me then?

He read on. Still, I know nothing of the hardships of war and trust you have reason for the long silence. Of course she would understand. Of course she would forgive him. It was in her nature, some innate goodness that he didn’t deserve—sometimes didn’t want. But no, he would not find fault with her now. Not today, at least.

Much has happened since I last wrote you, but I have no idea where to begin.

Now, you understand how I feel, he thought and then reconsidered. Will she ever understand how I feel?

It is like there is an entire world you are no longer a part of—well, I suppose that is exactly what it’s like. You are not here…not here for any of it.

And then she voiced his greatest fear.

Will we even know each other by the time this dreaded war is over?

She said it; he heard her voice in his head. It did not make him feel any better.

These thoughts plague me—

As they do me, he thought sadly.

do you ever doubt?

All the time, he answered and hated himself for admitting it. He had gone so long avoiding it. He felt like he was betraying himself by the confession. Was he betraying her?

A part of me wishes you do, she had written, for that would mean it’s not only me… But another piece of me prays you don’t, for then I could find assurance in your confidence.

He realized then that he had nothing to offer her. Nothing. At least, that’s how he felt.

Despite what I’ve written, never doubt my feelings for you.

I try not to, he thought and was embarrassed to feel tears in his eyes. He blinked them away even as the letters on the page swam in his vision.

You know how difficult it is for me to express all of the affection I feel, but I pray you also know how deeply I care for you.

And then his nose started to run, and he clenched his jaw tight.

Always waiting, she had signed, Margaret.

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Words

There were words.  They were just beginning to surface.  Sometimes she had to bite them back, force them away.  Keep them from spilling off her lips and into the vacant space between them.  As yet, they were only her words.  And so she kept them close.

He too had his words.  She could see them behind his eyes sometimes, see them in his acts.  But he did not say them, and she wondered if it was just her imagination.  She was half convinced it was.

Sometimes he wanted to give her his words, sometimes they were on the tip of his tongue.  He wanted to, but he didn’t.  How could he?  She kept herself so far away—he couldn’t get close enough.  He couldn’t give her the words.  And anyway, he feared they wouldn’t be returned.

He didn’t realize, but she was full of insecurities.  She worried about the things she said and the way she said them, about her clothes and her body, her hair and her makeup, the way she looked in the morning and whether her pancakes were cooked right.  She felt like she was in middle school again.  But it was worse, because at least in middle school, all her clothes stayed on.

She was pretty, and he liked her.

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Andover

July 1693

Stepping into the summer’s bright light was like waking from a nightmare.  The heavy weariness, the lingering foreboding, but the feeling, the knowing, that it was over.  I blinked, lifted a hand to my brow, and shielded my eyes from the blinding glow.  As they adjusted to the harsh light of day, I sought his form in the barren street; and yet I was not surprised when it was not there.  How could I have expected it to be, after all? After all… after all he had done, after all we had done.  After everything, I still loved him.  The thoughts, the memories, swam at the edges of my vision—his soft brown curls, the deep dark eyes, heavy lashes, light touch—the pain, raw as ever, seized my chest and for a moment, just a moment, stole my breath.  I closed my eyes, clenched my jaw, and sought out the hard cold of the cell, the merciless misery of the nightmare that had made the betrayal bearable.  The walls that kept me in somehow also kept the pain out.  But the cell and its stench were behind me, and though not forgotten, its protective shield had cracked.  As I stood in the empty yard, in the bright, yellow, dusty sunlight, I felt my legs wobble, my head sway, and as I crashed to the hard, packed dirt, I caught sight of his tall silhouette, a shadow, a spirit, a specter.

 

They blamed bodily weakness, the overwhelming rush of freedom and fresh air, wrapped a ratty blanket around my shoulders, and settled me into a rickety wagon.  I should not have expected to return to the Baileys’—how could they take me back, after all, after everything?—and yet of course, naively, I did. I thought he had come for me as he once promised he would.  As the darkness faded and I came back to the unyielding light, his name was the first on my lips—Nathan.

I received no reply.  Instead, a gnarled hand brought water to my lips and brushed the hair from my cheek.

“There, there, dear,” the crone muttered, “it’s all over.”

My stomach lurched.  It was all over.  Over.  A life gone and not forgotten, painfully unforgotten.  I felt the world wobble, but this time I was already on the ground.  I closed my eyes against the movement and found that the sightless whirling was worse.  I opened them.

“Come along, child,” the gnarled hand was helping me to my feet, “we have a ways to travel yet.”

“But where shall I go?” I couldn’t help the pathetic tone.  I felt like a child again, utterly lost and alone. “I have no one.”

The old woman smiled at me, her face strangely warm despite its wrinkles and wear—a kindness so foreign as to make me uncomfortable.

“I’ve a place for you,” she said, “It’s not much, but it’ll do.”

“I don’t need—” I began but was interrupted.

“I need the help, and from what I understand, you need a home,” she said, a bit more brusquely.  “Either way, I paid your bail.  You’re indebted to me for the time being.”

So that’s why I had been freed.  While the rest rotted in their cells, I had been returned to the world, to the blindingly bright, bitterly painful world.  I was not sure whom to envy.  I was not sure I wanted this rebirth.

“Thank you,” I said after a few moments, just as the thought came to me.  I felt socially incompetent, a pariah.  But that wasn’t new.

She just nodded and indicated I take to the bench of the wagon.  She followed, moving slowly but making the climb.  One large horse waited patiently for the snap of the reins.

I resisted the urge to look back at the dismal prison that had so long been my home.

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Once Was Love

She sat in the uptown apartment, head in her hands.  The dark leather of the couch was cold against her bare legs, and goosebumps rose on her arms in the air-conditioned room.  It was too cold; it was always too cold in there.  Even the light was cold—gray light diffused through icy glass, lightening the room but not warming it.  Black and white and gray, steel and brushed nickel, hard and geometric, modern.  It was him. But, she was beginning to admit, it wasn’t her.

She heard the door rattle, the key jostling the lock.  She took a deep breath and braced herself for the confrontation.  She lifted her head as he stepped through the door.

The look on his face, he was a stranger.  He was cold.  She wondered when that had happened, when the warmth had left him.  Had it left her too?  Was it all a part of growing up?

She missed their days in the sun.

*

“That one,” she pointed to the sky, sprawled on a blanket in the grass, “a rabbit.”

“I don’t see it,” he wrinkled his brow, trying to follow the trajectory of her pointed finger 8,000 feet up.  Not as easy as you’d think.

“You suck at this,” she laughed, propped herself up on an elbow and turned in to him.  He stuck out his tongue at her. Very mature.

There was a moment of silence.  She squirmed under his gaze.

And abruptly kissed his cheek and plopped back onto the blanket. (So graceful).  Silence plus eye contact was more than she could handle.

She closed her eyes, enjoying the warm sun and the way her skin burned beneath it.  He moved his arm the tiniest bit, but now it touched hers.  She liked it.

“Psst,” he whispered in her ear.

She turned her head toward him, close enough to feel his breath on her lips.

“I kind of like you,” he said, smirking a little.  His eyes were light and warm.

“Kind of?”

He shrugged. “Okay, okay. I kind of like-like you.”

She smiled again, kissed him lightly on the lips.  She lingered a second, until he pulled away.

“But keep it on the DL, ‘kay?” He was smirking again, laughing with his eyes.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, of course. Wouldn’t want your other girlfriend finding out.”

She realized the second after she said it that she had said it. She had used the word. Girlfriend. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.

Either he didn’t notice or didn’t care.  He just kissed her.

*

He was furious.  He couldn’t understand why she would do this now, wait until now.  He couldn’t understand how she could do this at all, after all this time, all their plans and hard work.  He couldn’t understand it, and he couldn’t stop thinking of it.

He stared at her coldly as he stepped through the door and passed her without a word, heading to his office.  He shut the door and leaned against it, suddenly weary and all too aware of the dark rings beneath her eyes and the pink puffiness of her lids.  This was her fault—she had no right to be sad.  Yet he was glad to see her suffer.

He heard her move down the hallway, past his office and into the bedroom.  He locked his door and collapsed into the chair before his desk.  He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes hard.  Visions of black, explosions of white and bleeding red swam before him with the mild discomfort of a headache.

He thought of her, and the rage crashed over him.  His fist clenched, and he slammed it onto the desk.  The pens rattled, and glass in his bottom drawer clinked.

He took a deep breath and pulled the decanter from the drawer.  He set a glass beside it, poured himself a drink, and lifted the tumbler.  He stared through the glass at the papers on his desk, fascinated by the way the scotch distorted the New York seal, the words that followed.

It made him sick; his stomach rolled in anger.  He threw back the first glass, followed it with a second, and then a third.  By the fourth, the numbness had set in.  A welcome disconnect.  He didn’t even fight the memories digging their way out; they were a world away.

*

Another day, another time.  Loud noises and cool air.  She swung her legs, back and forth, back and forth, on the bench of the bowling alley, kicking the heels of her feet together each time.

“A margarita,” she said and watched him make his way to the bar.

He returned a few moments later, shoving his change in his back pocket, the fruity drink comical in his rough hands.

“Here you go, princess,” he bowed mockingly.

“Why, thank you,” she replied, cheeky.

He slid onto the bench beside her, shaking his head. “You better like it,” he warned. “That cost me what could have been four beers.”

She laughed.

“Seriously. I thought you were going to be a cheap girlfriend.”  He was joking, mostly.

“Oh, is that what I am?” she teased.  He figured she was secretly pleased with the word. Girlfriend.

“Um, yes.  I feel that’s an appropriate term for a girl I frequently sleep with and spend a considerable amount of my time seeing.”  He acted annoyed.

“Oh,” she continued. “I guess I could agree to that.”

“I mean, if you’d prefer, I can call you my—”  he used a fairly inappropriate word, though a word he was confident was more likely to have come out of her own mouth than his.  He appreciated the shock factor.

“Now that is what I thought we were doing.”.

“Har har.”  He made a face.

She just laughed.

*

She knocked on the office door.  She had given him time, time to come home, to unwind, time uninterrupted.  He couldn’t stay in there all night, though.  He couldn’t put off this conversation forever.

“Jake?” she knocked lightly.  “Jake, open the door.”

She tried turning the knob but wasn’t surprised to find it locked.  So he was drinking.

“Jake, open the door.” She knocked a little harder.  She heard the volume on the television rise in response.

Frustration turned to anger and swallowed her up.

“Goddammit, Jake, open the goddamn door!” she shouted and pounded her fist against the hardwood.

She stumbled backward in surprise when he did.

“What? What do you want me to say?” he demanded, the glass in his hand.  “You made yourself clear.”

“Just—just talk to me,” she pleaded, all anger forgotten.

“Why?  Why should I?  You didn’t.”  The accusation in his tone ripped into her. “You put it in a goddamn letter.  You couldn’t even say it to my face.”

He curled his lip in disgust and slammed back his sixth—or was it seventh?  He had lost count.

She didn’t know what to say.

His eyes narrowed, sensing her retreat.  He took a step forward; she took a step back.  He stopped and laughed, and turned back into his office.

“You’re a bitch,” he said, setting his glass on the desk.

“And you’re an asshole,” she countered, fury taking hold again.  “You think you’re so perfect, nothing you ever do is wrong,” she sneered. “You did this! You and your drinking and your work.  This is your fault.  You checked out, you pushed me away—”

“And you RAN,” he interrupted, raising his voice above hers.  “You ran right into his arms, you cheating little bitch.”

“Don’t you dare—”

“Dare what?” he laughed.  He choked on it and hissed, “You deserve it, and you know it.  You left his bed—” he swallowed, “You went from his bed to our meetings, to your fittings, and the cake and the reception hall and the registry.  You—” he shuddered, took a breath.  His last words came out a whisper, “You fucking little whore.”

She had nothing to say.

*

“Ketchup?”

They sat on the bed of his pickup truck, legs dangling over the edge.  The wind carried smoke from the grill to their perch, and they had to turn away just to breathe.

He passed her the ketchup and watched her.  He liked to watch her.  She was easy on the eyes, and she made him laugh.

She hated it when he stared.  She was afraid he would look too closely and see all her imperfections, the things she tried to hide.  They were easy to gloss over from a distance.  She was good at that.  But he was steadily closing that gap, and she hated the feeling of vulnerability it left in her.

She caught him watching her, swallowed the bite in her mouth.

“Am I chewing too loud?” she asked, clearly self-conscious.

“Why do you always ask that?” he laughed and leaned his shoulder into hers as he took a bite of his own lunch.

She shrugged. “I’ve been told I chew too loudly.  And eat too fast.  I try to remember not to.”

“I’m pretty sure you eat okay,” he told her, smiling.  He thought she was adorable, even if she did eat like the fat kid from Willy Wonka.  And anyway, she was much, much prettier.

“I’m not ready to go,” she said and looked over to gauge his reaction.

He didn’t give much away, just shrugged. They sat in silence for a moment, until he said, “I’m kind of excited.”

“I don’t want anything to change,” she explained.  “I like this.”

She looked around at the beach, the bay, the trees and the grill.  She smacked a mosquito flying too close to her arm.

He leaned into her again, and at last said, “At least we’re going together.”

She nodded and let her head drop to his shoulder.

“Psst,” he whispered in her ear. “I love you.”

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The Magician

Author’s Note: Completely different.  Kind of fun.

The Magician

A cool evening breeze rolled in off the ocean, rustling the leaves of the few surviving trees and lifting the ash from the charred remains of what once was a beautiful castle.  To an observer at sea, broken though it was, the castle was still a formidable sight.  Erected on a bluff jutting precariously out to sea, with rooms built literally into the sides of the steep cliffs, the castle walls towered above the small fishing vessels that tossed about on the ocean’s choppy waves.  Yet the marble white walls and overflowing greenery that had once drawn sailor’s eyes no longer held such sway over passersby.  In fact, those who traveled beneath the castle’s shadow now determinedly turned their eyes away, as though its cursed state was somehow contagious, as though the calamity that had befallen the indomitable structure would somehow pass to them.  And a calamity it was, like nothing ever seen before.  The very heavens had opened up and poured lightning and fire into the highest tower, while the water had churned and sucked the long winding bridge into the ocean’s depths.  They had been trapped, their very world crumbling around them.  When they thought it could get no worse, he came—floating over the water, the power of fire, wind, water, and earth literally in his hands.  As he grew nearer, the ground began to shake and the wind whipped tiles from the roof, tore branches from the trees.  At his command, the walls collapsed, and he smiled as the wind carried the screams to his ears and the smoke to his senses.  Yet he continued on, just to be sure.  He would leave no survivors, none to carry on the name and the legacy.  He would be triumphant; there would be none to oppose him.  He had won.  He had finally won.

He entered the ruins of the castle, mortar, bricks and fallen beams grating against the marble floor as they slid apart to make a path.  A chorus of cries and pained moans rose from the crumbled stone, as he cocked his head, listening intently.

He turned, suddenly, and raised his hand in the direction from which he had entered.  Immediately, a piece of heavy stone floated into the air to reveal a large oak table across which a bookcase had fallen.  Partially protected beneath the table, yet pinned by the bookcase, a middle-aged man struggled to open his eyes as blood trickled from a cut struck deep into his forehead by the edge of his shining silver crown.

“Rowan,” the voice emanated from the magician, though he moved not his lips, as he addressed the trapped man.  With a sneer came the voice again, “King Rowan.”

The King fought the heavy weight of his lids as he dragged his brown eyes to the magician before him.  As his gaze fell upon the face of the speaker, a mutual outpouring of pure hatred seemed to shimmer in the air between them.  Suddenly, the sky rent in two with a blinding flash of light and flames from the heaven leapt from tree to ivy to cliffside flower until the entire castle was surrounded by a ring of fire.  An enormous burst of thunder shook the ground on which they stood, and more bits of the wall crumbled to the ground.

“I have won,” the magician’s words filled the air again.  “It is over.”

The King gave a disdainful laugh, though it was followed by a cough and the burst of a bubble of blood upon his lips.  It trickled down his chin as he challenged, “You overestimate yourself, Ignatius.”

Fury contorted the magician’s face into something less than human, and he raised a hand to the sky, as though drawing down its angry power.  An orange ball of flame began to form in his hand, growing larger and larger until he brought it before him.  It pulsated with a life of its own.

“It is done,” he spat, the words coming this time from his own mouth.  Suddenly, the orange ball of light burst in his hand, engulfing the entire castle and silencing all noise.  The sky, the wind and the sea calmed immediately, and not a single voice could be heard in the quiet.

Ignatius the Magician looked upon his fallen foe with cruel satisfaction.  With one last glance at its dead eyes and limp form, the Magician turned on his heel to follow the path through which he had entered.   The ring of fire parted to let him pass, and with an imperceptible flick of his wrist, the ring of fire surged up toward the sky and inward toward its center.  Its flames burned bright as it devoured the dead.

The only surviving witness to the catastrophe had watched from afar, holed up on the Isle of Roan.  The Hermit had seen the walls crumble and the fire rage, had watched the beautiful castle reduced to ash, and had continued to watch, with one eye on the ruins and the other on the sky.

The fall of Avonia had not come as a surprise to him—the stars had foretold its defeat long before the Magician had declared his threat.  A death star had risen years before Avonia’s fall, as the Magician gained strength and allies.   The star promised fear, hunger and war for many many years.  The Hermit watched, waiting to see the tiniest flicker of light, of hope, a hint of the death star’s demise.  Each night he searched the heavens, and by day, he studied the ruins, even as nature reclaimed the once wild space.

Then, just the night before, he had seen it.  The small burst of light, a small dot in the vast night sky.  His very heart had leapt, and he had quickly sent a message to the Forest to report the change and to seek its wisdom.  Then, as the sun rose in the morning, he had directed his gaze to the ruins.

A small red wolf scurried out of a small, dark cave on the Cliffside and wound its way up to disappear into the tangle of green that marked the edges of the natural balcony.  Though no longer tended, the thick green leaves and vines had produced the usual stunning flowers, flowers with petals of the palest pink that curled open as the stars in the sky.  As the Hermit watched, the wolf popped into view behind the flowers and hopped the broken castle wall.  Slinking beneath broken rafters and sections of crumbled brick, the fox wormed its way to the center of what was once an outdoor courtyard, arranged as an alter to the Moon.  In the center of a charred circle of ornate design, the fox stopped and put his nose to the ground.  A moment later, he began to dig frantically at the ground, pushing dirt aside to form a small hole no more than a foot wide and of equal depth.

©Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

Abruptly, he stopped and scampered back into the hidden crevices of the cliffs, lost in the summer foliage.  As the Hermit continued to watch, an owl soared through the air, just above the ground.  As he neared the small depression the fox had created, something shiny slipped from his talons and into the dirt.

The Hermit watched transfixed as the fox rushed out of hiding and to the hole now laden with treasure, and began to fill the depression.  Patting down the area to disguise the covert burial, the fox kicked his feet into the air and scampered from the ruins, traveling along the cliffsides to the mainland.

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This Was The End

This Was The End

1914

It was a strange feeling—to look upon a loved one and watch as he slowly and painfully slipped away. A hopeless, empty, tight feeling. A feeling she would hate to remember but could never forget.

It was a feeling she felt as she gazed upon his graying form, while she listened to the rattle of his dying lungs. She felt it and wished she could die with him.

 

She was there with her mother. Mama had promised Mrs. Mcvey an apple pie, and they were there to deliver it. She gripped tightly her mother’s skirt and followed the woman inside. The kitchen was warm, the oven glowing. It smelled like bread, and she felt her stomach grumble. The gray sky just beyond the window pane seemed so far from the cozy kitchen.

“I just can’t believe the cost of coffee these days,” Mrs. Mcvey said as she placed another log in the stove. “Sometimes I’ve a mind to go right up to—,” she stopped and looked at Sarah.

“Why don’t you go play with the boys, Sarah,” Mama said and gestured to the door. “Let us have our grown-up time.”

Sarah’s eyes grew wide and frightened, but Mama insisted.

“Go on, now.”

Sarah could hear the women talking as the door swung shut. She stood on the porch, awkward and uncomfortable. She wasn’t suited to the social callings of her mother. She had taken after her father—thoughtful, quiet, and clumsy in crowds.

“They’re probably in the barn,” Mrs. Mcvey called through the screen.

Sarah nodded, knowing she had to move. She couldn’t very well sit on the porch all afternoon. She walked to the barn with her head down, staring at the damp grass. It had rained that morning, and the sky promised more later. She hauled open the barn door and waited at the threshold while her vision adjusted to the darkness.

“Who’re you?” She heard the voice before she could see the boy—older than she, she noticed, and by far taller than herself.

“Sarah Ann Edmonds,” she said softly, formally.

“Why’re you here?” Another boy appeared from the shadows; this one shorter, scrawny.

“You ain’t allowed in here.”

Sarah just stared at him.

“Yah, you’re a girl!” the little one chimed in.

“My ma told me to come here.”

“Well, you can tell her we’re tossing you out.”

Sarah’s brow crinkled, worry evident on her young face. “But where shall I go?”

The older one came forward, nearly pushed her out the door. He was about to shut it when he stopped suddenly and spun her around.

“Actually,” he said thoughtfully, “perhaps we could work something out.”

She didn’t like the way he said it.

“Here is my proposition,” he began. She didn’t even know what a propowhatsit was. “You can stay in here long as you like providin’ you give us that ribbon there in your hair.”

He lifted his fingers to the yellow ribbon, but she pulled away.

“I like my ribbon,” she said and was surprised to hear the force of her words. “My daddy it to me.”

The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Well, we need that ribbon. You’ve already been in here practically an hour so’s I think we at least deserve the ribbon as a payment.”

Sarah found it difficult to follow what he was saying, and she, having no sense of time yet, couldn’t remember how long an hour was.

“Yah, give us the ribbon,” the younger one added.

“No.”

“Too late!” the boy pulled the tail and the ribbon slipped out of her hair. He pushed her out of the way and ran into the yard.

“Give me back my ribbon!” Sarah yelled and took off after him; but her short legs could not keep up and as she chased him around the barn, she realized the futility of it all. She couldn’t help the tears that spilled down her cheeks.

“Come on, baby! Come get your ribbon,” the boy taunted.

Angry now, she screamed, “Give me back my ribbon!” and sprinted toward him.

Unfortunately, her foot slipped on the wet grass, and she landed hard on her bottom, mud covering her pretty blue dress. The tears really began to flow. She stood up and ran back to the porch, yanked open the door and yelled as loud as she could, “HE STOLE MY RIBBON!”

And that was how Sarah Ann Edmonds met Bobby Mcvey.

 

She stared out the window. Rain fell against the glass, water dripped off the porch roof. The landscape was overwhelmingly gray, hidden behind the steady downpour. Leaves covered the ground, blown from their trees. Every so often a carriage would roll slowly by, plowing through the thick Virginia mud.

She turned away from the window and found he was watching her.

“Good morning,” he rasped. She came to his side, sat on the edge of his bed. She took his hand in hers and brushed the hair off his sweaty forehead.

“It’s nearly dinner time,” she smiled. He nodded and closed his eyes. He laboriously opened them again, trying to focus on her troubled face. He knew she hated to see him suffer.

“What has Ruby made tonight?”

Sarah could tell each breath he took was a struggle. Barely thirty eight years old, a shame, they said. Every day he grew weaker as the liquid filled his lungs, killing him slowly, mercilessly. She fought away the tears that filled her eyes and smoothed out his bed covers.

“She’s made a soup for you, chicken and rice without the celery—the way you like,” she said. “If you feel up to it?”

He nodded, and she helped him to sit. He could barely hold his own head up, needed the pillows to lean against. He was so weak.

“I’ll return in just a minute,” she squeezed his hand. He stopped her just as she reached the door.

“I love you.”

Sarah didn’t turn around but rather, hurried down the stairs and out to the kitchen. She couldn’t bear to be but a minute from his side.

 

“See that bird right there,” he had said, looking into her pretty brown eyes. “That’s what they call a homo-birdious bollup, native just to this area.”

They were older now. He was taller and stronger; his cheeks just a bit rougher for the blonde stubble that he was so proud of. She was older, too, and it showed in her figure, her chest and her waist. She pulled her hair back now, in a tight bun or sometimes in braids. She wore grown-up dresses with hoops and cages. A broach adorned her snow white collar and silver crosses dangled from her ears.

Her age showed not only in her looks but in her confidence and character. Gone was the timid girl who clung tightly to her mother’s skirts. Sarah was a young woman.

She laughed, ‘That’s a blue jay, Bobby Mcvey, and you know it.’

He blushed and grinned, “Thought I’d at least give it a try.”

“I like you,” she declared with a smile and grabbed his arm just below the elbow to pull him ahead. As she pulled it away her fingertips brushed his hand. He pretended not to notice but inside his heart was racing.

“So tell me, just where are we going…?”

 

“Tell Ruby,” he said, “this soup is a treat.”

She lifted another spoonful to his mouth, feeling awkward and inept. Her hands shook and the chicken broth dripped from the spoon onto her hands. She dribbled a little down his chin.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t have let that nurse go?” she exclaimed, tired and exasperated. Soup spilled over the edge of the bowl as she roughly set it down.. He smiled as she wiped away the spilt broth.

“Come here,” he whispered, and for a moment, Sarah saw the mischievous blonde haired boy who had charmed his way into her life. She leaned close, and his breath was warm against her ear.

“I can feed myself,” he laughed. Sarah pulled away, shocked and angry, but mostly embarrassed.

“Why did you—” her voice took on a high note. She was working herself up. Sarah took a deep breath and paced to the window. He laughed again, and despite his shallow breathing, in her mind she could see him like he’d always been, healthy and strong.

Sarah didn’t want to stay angry, yet she couldn’t quite forget her embarrassment either. Nonetheless, one look at him quelled all anger. She didn’t have time to be angry. So quickly had her anger turned to despair that she hardly noticed the tears escape her eyes. She wiped them away, smiled, pretended she wasn’t crying.

“You’re horrible, Bobby, just horrible.”

His bloodshot eyes smiled up at her as he spooned chicken and rice into his mouth.

“Just horrible,” she repeated quietly and turned away again.  She absently fiddled with the comb on the dressing table.

 

He knocked on the door, pushed it gently open. Sarah sat before her mirror while her chambermaid, Lucy, fixed her hair for the evening.

“Bobby!” Sarah exclaimed, turning her head. Her brown hair slipped from the girl’s grasp. A couple pins fell to the floor. “What are you doing here? Has mother seen you? Don’t you kn—”

“She knows,” he smiled. His heart was beating madly but more from excitement than nerves. “I come bearing gifts.”

“How fitting,” Sarah teased. “’Tis the season, after all.”

She watched his reflection in the mirror. He was a handsome man, dapperly dressed, proper yet at ease.  She was a lucky one.

“I know you enjoy taking your good old time, but I ain’t going to wait all day. Come give your fiancé a hug.”

  “Robert, you know I hate that wo—” she stopped. “What did you just say?”

“Close your eyes, and I’ll say it again.”

“Robert.” Sarah couldn’t look at him.

“Just close your eyes.”

“But—”

 “Please.”

Sarah obeyed while her heart hammered against her ribs.

“Now these were awfully hard to come by,” he whispered. A chill raised on her pale skin under his touch. A shiver raced through her body as he slid his arms over her shoulders.

“I stole them,” he said.

She opened her eyes. A worn yellow ribbon graced her neck and dangling from the ribbon was a ring.

“Stole?” she whispered, unable to speak louder. He had her speechless.

“Well, this thing right here,” he fingered the ribbon, “I took from some little munchkin.”

She smiled even as tears filled her eyes, realizing it was her ribbon. He had kept it so long…

“And the ring?”

He hadn’t said it yet.

And she was afraid to assume it, to believe it true while it was yet unsaid.

“Grandma,” he shrugged. “She won’t notice.”

“Bobby!” Sarah swatted at him, but he pulled her into a hug.

“She’s been waiting for this since we were twelve,” he whispered in her ear. “Will you marry me?”

 

It was dark. A candle burned on the bedside table, casting more shadows than light. Bobby’s breath rattled. Every minute drew him on toward death. Sarah sat beside his bed, held his hand, watched her life slip away. This was the end.

He dragged open his eyes.

“Who would have thought we’d end up here,” he whispered. Sarah tried not to cry. She tried to breathe through her mouth, to avoid the telltale sniffle.

“God certainly,” she struggled to speak, “certainly works things out strangely.”

Bobby nodded, “Beautifully.”

Her eyebrows creased. He wasn’t thinking straight. She just shook her head, held his hand tighter, wished she could hold on forever.

“Wasn’t it worth it?” Each word was a struggle, a laboriously drawn breath. He coughed, shallow and rasping.

“It has always been worth it.”

He nodded, content, and closed his eyes. Delirium seemed to be setting in. His brow burned with fever against her shaking hands. This was the end.

There were a hundred things Sarah wanted to say, a hundred things she wanted to hear. But it was too late. Their story was over. Her face contorted, tears now flowing. This was the end.

“Sarah,” he said softly, without opening his eyes. “I love you.”

And he said it all.

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Catch

Bzzz. Her phone vibrated on the table.

She put it on the couch.

Bzzz.

She turned on the television.

Bzzz.

She turned it up.

Bzzz.

She opened her iTunes.  Then, a memory: Why do you want to listen to the TV with the stereo on? ‘Cause I like to party. She laughed. Then, frowned. Stupid movie.

Her phone went on bzzing.

She went on ignoring it.

She knew it wouldn’t solve anything.  Pouting.  This passive-aggressive payback.  But it was certainly more satisfying than an honest confrontation.  That would require an exhibition of vulnerability, and she had her shell firmly in place.  No weakness there.  At least, none she would show.

Beep.

A text this time: Hey, are you OK?

She waited a few minutes.  Then, Oh hey.  Sorry, I didn’t hear it buzz. What’s up?

Bzzz.

She looked at the screen: Ryan Seward calling…

Damn.  It was harder to lie over the phone.

“Heyyy,” she drew it out, faking cheer and indifference.

“You are one hard lady to get a hold of, you know that?” he joked.

She laughed, “Yep.”  Awkward pause.  “I must not have heard it ring, I guess.”

“Sheesh.”  He had no idea.

“Sooo, what’s up?”

“Just calling to say hello.”  She could hear the shrug in his voice. “I wanted to hear your chipper voice.”

She laughed and kind of meant it.

“I sound like a five year old.”

“I like it.”

I like you. Or did. Or do.

But she said, “Why thank you.”

“So what are your plans this weekend?”

This time she shrugged, like he could see it.  Then realized he couldn’t. “Nothing too exciting.”

“But you get to see me,” he said, like that should be something exciting.

“Ah, that is true,” she conceded.

“That should be the most exciting thing in your whole week,” he continued.

It might have been, she admitted silently, but then I realized it wasn’t yours.

“Of course, whatever was I thinking,” she said sarcastically.

“I have no idea.  But you should try again.”

“Try what again?”

“Thinking.”

“Oh.  Thanks.”  And she rolled her eyes.

“N-B-D.”

No big deal. Certainly not, that much is clear.

But they weren’t thinking of the same thing.

“So seriously, do I get to see you this weekend?”

If you can fit me in.

“I hope so,” is what she really said.  But not so enthusiastically.

“Well, I am going to a basketball game Friday—do you want to come?”

Of course I want to tag along.  Like a puppy.  Like a cute little puppy. Precious.

“Probably.”

And if I said no?  Then what?  See you around?

“Sweet,” he said.

“Good deal.”

“Well, I am going to grab a bite to eat… I’ll talk to you later?”

“Sounds good. OK, see ya.”  She hung up.

My dear Ryan,

I would like to thank you for reminding me to catch myself when I start to fall.  Muchas gracias, mi amigo.

                                                                      As ever,

                                                                              E.M.

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