Short story: The fortune-teller

Leave him, he’s not the one.

What upset me more at the time was that he didn’t show any sign of the typical charlatan. No arrogance, no intimidation, no stupid smirks or toothy smiles. Actually, he barely looked at me at all. His voice was disturbingly calm and careless. His gaze was deep into reading the cards in front of him. Absorbed in his job – actually more like a hobby – like his life depended on my future. Or better, on mining my future before it had the chance to become such. And he was doing it for free.

I was eighteen.

I had so many options; drop my not-the-one in the middle of the vacation, wait till our plane landed back home, use the fortune-teller’s own words and tell him straight he wasn’t the one. But with the rebellion of my young age, I stayed. You don’t dictate to a teen girl who she’s supposed to date or not to. Especially to a teen girl who’s on her first vacation with her boyfriend. It’s nothing more than reverse psychology. Every parent knows it. But maybe the fortune-teller didn’t have kids.

So I took his words, packed them on the dusty bottom of some unreachable drawer and buried them under fifteen years of marriage, a son and a slobbery dog.

I have to admit, sometimes I dared peeping. When things were rough, when I was mad, disappointed or frustrated for whatever reason. Just a quick glance back at those words, wondering if “the one” was next to me, if we crossed paths already but I couldn’t recognize him, if I had to meet him yet and all these years had served the purpose of preparing me for something bigger and better.

There had been Emile, my first real crush – a crush returned with the most horrible timing. I still remember making such a fuss with my friends because he was the coolest and cutest guy in town. I also remember the hate on the face of every girl who happened to meet us on our way back home from license school. Now he’s married to my sister’s best friend and has two girls.

There had been Alex. I still don’t know so many years later what the hell I saw in him. He couldn’t possibly be the one. Now he’s married with two girls.

Then Manuel, never much into him, to be honest. Or Raphael, so boring I could never picture a whole day with him, go figure an entire life. Or Daniel, possibly even worse than Raphael.

And then there was Luke. Same firm. Different offices. For a long while we’ve been friends. Flirting friends is maybe a better way to define us. Lunches together, pleasantries, attentions, a sympathy that made people wonder if we were something. Except we weren’t and we’ve never been. It was just that, a sympathy. Guess his fate? Married a couple of years later, now father of two girls. And I start to see a pattern here. It’s like some higher god is looking down and making fun of me for the two daughters I always wanted and never had. Haha, look what you missed with your teen rebellion?

Maybe they all could have been the one. Maybe no one. Maybe the one never existed and never will. Maybe it was simply the fortune-teller’s way to tell me I was destined to something different and the one wasn’t some guy but maybe a mission?

Eventually, Luke fell into the same oblivion of all the other potential “the ones.” He became my boss, we settled easily into our working proximity, getting along quite well. Until one day I found out that back on the old days he used to have a huge crush on me. Hello blindness, my old friend. I took the revelation, stored it still burning in a different drawer so it wouldn’t meet the infamous fortune-teller, moved on again with the wisdom of knowing it didn’t matter anymore. It seemed to be the dancing story of my life. One step forward, two leaps back. Two steps forward, one leap back. Right to the start. Forgotten. Remembered. Restored never to get retrieved again.

***

The cafeteria is particularly noisy today, more than it generally is on Fridays. Cutlery clinking, forks scraping, dishes clattering. The tv is on, playing the highlights of a reality show nobody cares about. Chatter is loud to surmount the tv. Mindy keeps blabbering about something. I’m not listening, lost in my own thoughts. It’s lunch time. Six coworkers taking a break from one chaos just to jump into a different one.

“Have you already moved?” Mindy asks, with a surprise that shakes the bills off my mind. Nothing ever surprises Mindy. But this thing just did.

“Of course, what should I wait for?” It’s Luke who, in-between bites, confirms the move.

Great. Luke and his perfect family apparently moved to a new house. I can already see it. Huge, clean, compulsively tidy because his wife doesn’t need to work all day.

“You sure didn’t waste time!”

Of course they didn’t. Meanwhile, last time I moved, it only took me five months to pack things. They’re still packed two years later.

“Yesterday I did my first grocery all alone. And I had so much fun.”

Something in those words is off. Something that makes me prick up my ears.

“Oh, the first grocery is always fun,” Bob chimes in, “I separated five years ago and still have stock on toilet paper for another five.”

Everyone bursts into laughter. Everyone but me. I’m still trying to process the whole situation. Separated? Is that what he meant with moving? Moving out? Alone?

I’m suddenly beset by an odd feeling. Good or bad, I can’t say. It’s a conflict bound to drive me insane. I want to be sorry, I want to think it’s bad. For him, for his wife, for his girls. But I can’t. The selfish, wicked witch in me is already doing a happy dance in front of a boiling cauldron. I do my best to ignore her, but she chants louder to make sure I hear her. Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Shut up!

I don’t ask him anything. Not that day, not the next. Not for a couple of weeks. I hate to intrude, it’s not me. But as the days go by, I can’t help noticing his attitude. There’s no anger, no resentment. It’s like he’s completely at peace with the choice. He’s the usual himself. And truth be told, I don’t know what I was expecting. But I keep being silent, regardless of how selfish and uncaring I may appear. I guess I simply don’t know how to tackle the issue, at work, with discretion.

That night I sit on my couch, watching a movie, enjoying the calm of my son without homework for once. A terribly performed fortune-teller issues his catastrophic verdict, the Hanged Man is rarely a good sign.

The fortune-teller. It’s been a long while since I last thought of his words. Maybe the events of these past weeks are meant to mean something? Of course not, I’d only be fooling myself.

Leave him, he’s not the one.

The words are acrid and come with a strong aftertaste of camphor. When I realize that the old drawer has been opened wide, it’s too late. Its content has sneaked out, almost unnoticed, and has started hissing into my ears. I had forgotten how upsetting those few words could be. What gives a man the right to decide your fate based on a worn piece of cardboard paper? Maybe the Hanged Man is only a joker and all this damn movie is based on some misinterpretation.

Maybe the Hanged Man is really an asshole.

It’s a sunny, but terribly freezing Wednesday, when the coffee machine is not crowded and I finally dare to say something. “I’m sorry if I haven’t asked you anything about… you know what. It’s only that I don’t like to intrude.” I couldn’t be lamer than that, but Luke is polite enough to chuckle and pat me on the shoulder.

“You never intrude.”

That’s actually true. “Good. So now, what?” I attempt, unsure about the answer I’ll get, about the answer I’d want to hear.

“I don’t know. I’m still adjusting.”

How long has it been? Maybe two or three weeks. I’ve seen people still trying to adjust after two or three years. All I can do is nod and stare down at the coffee cooling in my hands.

“You know what’s funny?” He reawakens my interest with an odd question. What’s there so funny in a divorce? “Many years ago, before I got even married, I was on a vacation with her, and a fortune-teller told me, leave her, she’s not the one. Took me quite a few years to believe him.”

Short story: The daycare

Inspiration can strike in any form. This came a couple of nights ago in the form of a nightmare. Hello Freud, knock if you’re lurking around.

***

The elegant building was one of the oldest in town. Dating back to the sixteenth century, it had miraculously survived the bombing that in the early seventies had destroyed nearly completely that neighborhood. It had been offering daycare and babysitting for longer than memory could reach. Years. Decades. Maybe more. It was a manna for working parents. Or for single mothers like me.

I rarely needed anyone to look after my little girl at night, – my social life was nonexistent anyway, – but that day was an exception I couldn’t do without. My firm was hosting an important dinner, I had just gotten a promotion, I couldn’t duck out. Not that night.

“There is that old daycare on Oak Street, I know they keep children to sleep, why don’t you try?” suggested a coworker. And I did.

Sophia was four years old. Generally well behaving, except for those random tantrums so typical of her age, which made it sometimes impossible to reason with her. To be completely honest, her tantrums outnumbered by far the times she behaved. Which made me loathe even more the idea of leaving her for the night. What if she wouldn’t sleep? What if the babysitter couldn’t calm her down? What if she got hurt and the babysitter wouldn’t tell me? You hear so many things nowadays.

But the moment the door opened and an old lady welcomed me, every fear disappeared. Miss Whitley looked like Nanny McPhee with the ways of Mary Poppins. Sweet but resolute, competent without a pinch of self-conceit. I immediately felt in safe hands. And it was better anyway than a teenager whose only experience was attending at their little siblings.

So that night I entrusted Sophia to her care, with a gazillion recommendations and even more guilty kisses. It was just one night after all. Nothing bad could happen once she was asleep.

When I woke up a few hours later, dawn barely turning night into day, she was my first thought. All the worst images came to my mind. Sophia not wanting to sleep. Sophia having a tantrum because she wasn’t allowed chocolate cookies late at night. Maybe the babysitter granted her cookies and it would be even worse because then Sophia would expect the same from me. All I knew was that I had a horrible feeling.

My urging knock was followed by the immediate unlock of the door.

“Miss Moore, good morning, would you like a coffee?” Miss Whitley welcomed me with the same calm smile of the day before.

“Thank you, but no, I only came to pick Sophia. I hope she was good.” Of course she was good.

“Oh, she was, Sophia is a very good girl,” the woman reassured me.

Sophia wasn’t always a good girl. Especially with strangers. “Where is she?”

“Upstairs, still getting ready. She didn’t have breakfast yet, we weren’t expecting you this early.”

I realized, it was barely 7am. On a Saturday. But who could blame a mother for wanting her daughter back? Sophia could still nap later at home. In her own bed. “I should have called maybe.” Of course I should have called. Who on earth shows up at people’s doors at dawn?

“Would you follow me upstairs please?”

As we climbed the wooden stairs, I took in the surroundings. Outside the building was still old, but inside it had definitely been refurnished over the years to suit the needs of a daycare.

Miss Whitley led me into a room, probably the room Sophia had slept in? There was a bed, soft and fluffy, the bed of a princess, I thought. Pink duvet, glowing stars on the ceiling. And dolls. Many dolls. Some looked very old, some were brand new. It gave the idea of a miniaturized wax museum. They were there, a plastic parade staring at me. Almost disturbingly.

Then I noticed the dolls house on the floor. I had one too when I was a kid. Very similar to this one. It resembled in the appearance this same building. Old outside, the stairs in the middle, the bedroom with the princess bed. It gave me the shivers.

I turned the attention back to the dolls. And this time I noticed it. It couldn’t be my imagination. Most of them resembled the witches of the fables. Dressed as Snow White was the Evil Queen. Cinderella clothes were filled by the evil stepmother. Maleficent. The White Witch. This room was scaring me.

“Where’s Sophia?” I muttered, trying not show my upheaval.

“I’m here mommy!” My little girl squealed from the door, startling my already shaken heart.

In the relief of seeing her in one piece, I hugged her so tight that I almost broke her but she didn’t complain. “Are you okay?”

“I had so much fun!”

“That’s great baby!” I felt the need to run away while at the same time not pissing Miss Whitley who was standing right outside with an attentive eye on us. “Shall we go now?”

“Yes mom.”

No complains? No tantrums that she wanted to keep a doll? Though, why would she even want to keep one of those dolls? They looked creepy.

I thanked the old woman, more politely and enthusiastic than I should, and climbed down the big stairs as fast as I could, my back hurting unnaturally in the effort of looking natural. I was expecting the door to lock me in, or something terrible. I didn’t know what. But something didn’t feel right.

Once finally outside, back in the daylight, I took Sophia for breakfast in her favorite cafeteria on the corner of Duke and Dearborn. She loved that place, she loved their croissants. If she had a tantrum about wanting two, like she always did, I was ready to yield and gave her what she wanted, such was the relief of having her back with me.

But she didn’t.

“You alright? Is your little belly full? You don’t want another croissant?”

“No mommy, I’m fine like this. Another croissant will give me a bellyache,” she explained with the funny wisdom of children. But for some reason, I wasn’t finding it funny that morning. Maybe she was only happy that I came back for her and didn’t abandon her like I threatened once? Damn. That time I hadn’t acted smartly. Kids tend to remember everything and always on the wrong moments.

I accepted her explanation and didn’t persist. Every kid has good days and bad days. Just like every adult.

But when bedtime came without a fight, I found myself wondering if maybe she was sitting on a flu.

“Do you want one of your dolls, baby?” I offered her, bracing myself for the hour long ritual of picking each one and changing her mind continuously.

“No mommy. I don’t want them.”

The parade of creepy faces popped before my eyes, food for nightmares. Maybe that’s why Sophia didn’t want hers anymore? But I didn’t feel like persisting so I hugged her, placed a kiss on her forehead and watched as she fell in a peaceful sleep.

The next day was a repeat. And so was the following. And the following again. Sophia was behaving like a perfect little girl. So perfect it started to unsettle me. I couldn’t pinpoint what disturbed me in her behavior, but I knew that it wasn’t her normal behavior.

So one morning I did what every mother would have done. I knocked on the daycare door.

A young woman, probably in her late twenties, opened the door. In the background I could hear the joyous screams of an infant. “May I help you?”

“I… I’m looking for Miss Whitley.”

The woman gave me an astonished look. “Sorry, I think you got the wrong address.”

What? The address was right. I was here only a few days before.

“Miss Whitley. The old babysitter. This is the daycare, right?” I didn’t realize my voice was shaking. I felt my cheeks burning and a knot tying right at my stomach. I took a step back, just to make sure I had knocked on the right door.

“This is the daycare, but there isn’t any Miss Whitley working here.”

My knees failed and I almost fell on the sidewalk.

“Are you okay, Madame?”

Who was that woman? Who was Miss Whitley? And what had she done to my Sophia?

Short story: Of sports memorabilia and self-promises

I wrote a lot over the years. Short novels, fanfictions, sometimes I drew from my own life. There is a bit of everything. This short story blows out its first candle next week and it seems forever.

***

She lets the light of her laptop’s monitor go off as it turns to power save mode. She’s sitting at her desk, glasses resting on her nose and backlog papers deluging, no differently than any other working day. Except, her mind froze at 10.40 am that morning, on the first-row bench in federal courtroom. The rest of the day has been a daze of surrealism. She would question if it happened at all, weren’t it for her palm and fingers still prickling from the sharp impact. The slap reverberated in the long corridor and in the ears of the bystanders who happened to witness her outbreak. Steeled with sleepless nights and buried tears. Incensed with betrayal and grief.

There’s no point in trying to deny that over the last couple of years countless thoughts were wasted on the same enigma. Had I the chance to see him again, to rewind time – just enough to change events – or perhaps wake up from the longest nightmare of my life, what would I do? Most of the times she envisioned herself yielding to a liberating cry or melting into a relieved embrace. It seemed like the most human reaction, under the circumstances, and what came as the closest to her restless reveries. It couldn’t have been any further from reality.

She had resisted the urge to dash outside the moment he materialized in front of her. She had mustered an enormous amount of self-constraint to keep sitting there, veiling her astray turmoil while her life was being turned upside down before her eyes. Or more simply, she was petrified and just couldn’t move at all. She took it all in, silent and composed like a dormant volcano, until eventually the realization seeped in. Walt was there, right in front of her, sitting at the stand, swearing events and words she was too shaken to grasp. It all came as muffled, almost underwater. Maybe it was just the dull thumping of her heart running amok that covered everything else.

As her mind returns to the dark quiet of her office, she takes off her glasses then closes the laptop, forceful enough so maybe its bang will distract her from the thought of him, but she is instead startled by a silhouette standing in her doorway.

Immobile, Walt is staring at her. Two years of missed gazes are crying in the dim lights as neither Walt nor Ann have the power of averting their eyes. Maybe it’s all an odd dream. Maybe I still have to wake up.

“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Walt’s attempt at breaking a consolidated layer of ice goes unheeded, received only by a pensive gaze and two parted lips. He straightens up, takes an invisible step back. “Sorry, terrible joke,” he quickly apologizes, clicking his tongue then looking at his feet, uncomfortable.

The silence warms up when a cautious laughter escapes Ann’s mouth, and she quickly castigates herself to a half smile. He didn’t change.

“Can… can I come in?” he hesitates, peeking around in search of permission. It’s not his place anymore, after all. Or has it ever been, to begin with?

Ann waits, her mind lingering briefly on old times, till his eyes are back into hers. With a light wave, she invites him to take a seat. “Of course.” Head down, she watches furtively as he traverses her office, stares briefly at the couch then makes himself, if not comfortable, at least something close to it.

Her fingers entwine on the desk, twitching uncomfortably, then offload the uneasiness on the temples of her glasses. When she’s in control enough to look back at Walt, he’s looking down, round-shouldered, hands entwined in front of him. His mouth is half-open, searching for something to say. Maybe he already knows what to say, he just doesn’t know where or how to start. It’s blind-walking on a minefield. And it doesn’t help at all that Ann has put back on her wounded face. And all things considered she has every right to.

“So… I know you’re mad,” he starts off with the harmless obvious.

In the dark, Ann swears she can feel the heat of her slap still radiate from his cheek. She wishes she could take it back but doesn’t at once. “Mad? Why would I…” she wonders with piercing irony. She takes a deep breath, holding it for as long as she can, long enough to put together a nonbelligerent sentence. Deep down inside, she knows it’s not about what he did today, no matter how much it wrecked all her plans. She thinks deeply, as the good old habit of holding things back almost has the upper hand. Almost. She has to recall all the self-promises to never leave anything untold – unlived – anymore. “How… How do you think it feels to know you spent the past two years of your life grieving someone who’s not dead?”

Her question floats between them, filling the weighty silence. Her gaze toys with her glasses, she doesn’t look up, just in case he catches even a small glimpse of the impact his sudden absence had on her.

“I had no choice,” Walt defends himself, with a pain in his eyes leaving no doubt that, back then, it really seemed like the only option.

Only then does Ann look up at him again, then shakes her head imperceptibly, offering a disappointed, short-lived smile. “Yes you had it.” She has a different perspective, built not by some illuminated awareness, but by a long, heartbreaking retrospection. She moved past their incomprehension and old frictions long ago, during too many imaginary heart-to-hearts. How easier it is, she sees it now, to patch things when you create the questions and shape the answers to your liking.

Walt is silently pondering her words, it’s his turn now to breathe back any excess. His eyes peer her, as she rests her arms on her desk, more resigned than combative. “Really? And what? Tearing you and all your family down? Would that have been better? Would you have forgiven me more easily?” They both know she wouldn’t have. His voice never grows, instead it lowers to a murmur. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Back to the start. Back to the days when she was something that needed protection. Back to a weakness that never belonged her. “Well, you did.” In an even worse way, her eyes reveal, as they close themselves off.

He has no way of knowing the depth of the devastation he left behind, and even his best guess is probably far from being truthful. He looks at his feet, deep into thought, maybe just to avoid staring at her, then looks around, quietly reacquainting to what used to be the ordinariness of his life. All the late nights and earned toasts, always on the double – especially in those last months – and with the adrenaline as his best friend.

Ann follows his gaze, trying to peek into his thoughts with discreet curiosity. It’s been more than two years, a relatively brief time in life when everything happened and everything changed, first of all herself. In retrospect, his sudden leave was the wakeup call she needed. The abrupt disequilibrium forced her to shift and reconsider more than one choice she had made, sometimes offering a new, more radical viewpoint. Has it been the same for him? Where did his choice catapult him? She realizes that, while he can easily imagine the aftermath of his disappearance, she knows nothing of his own. She hesitates for an instant. “So what have you been up to for the last two years?” Her urge to know is something that can’t be shushed, despite an intangible feeling of anxiety as she realizes that she might be unprepared to hear he moved on with his life.

Walt looks intently at her, then down, gathering his thoughts. “Waited, at first. Tried to move on. Tried to settle into a life that wasn’t mine, into a new personality. At some point I just thought I was never going to come back.” His gaze is still on the floor, probably reliving those moments, maybe searching for something, a memory, a story she’d love to hear. When he looks at her again, he’s smiling. “I own a store, a sports’ memorabilia store, right outside Seattle.”

Ann opens her mouth, but her words get engulfed by an amused astonishment. Then, her laughter. Hearty, spontaneous, unique. “You what?”

“Well, actually it’s my protected alter ego who does. I’m not sure I own anything at all now,” Walt quickly corrects himself, but the mood is lightened and he can’t help but smile.

For Ann, it’s the go ahead to the question she’s been holding back ever since she saw him conversing with Denise only a half hour before. “I’m sure Denise already offered you back your old office.”

Walt leans back, outwardly more at ease, but he doesn’t answer. “Speaking of… I thought I’d find you there. How on earth did Charlie…” His question lingers unfinished in the air.

Ann hints a smile, full with the melancholy of the first time she walked into that office as Denise’s partner. The desolation, everywhere around and inside of her, the colossal effort to hold herself together. Her smile is gone, but she probably doesn’t notice. “I actually owned it for a while. Didn’t last. Long story,” she shakes away any chance of further questioning. She wants to tell him all that happened but doesn’t at the same time, because as she looks back, there’s very little she wants to remember. “So… did Denise ask you?” she brings him back to what interests her.

Walt nods, very quietly. “She did.”

But when he doesn’t add anything, not a word, not a smile she might return, Ann realizes that something is off. He should be happy, maybe relieved that he wasn’t forgotten. Instead, he takes a deep breath, then looks away briefly. “I said no. I’m… I’m not staying.”

Ann’s mouth drops half open, but nothing manages to leave it.

I’m not staying.

Staying in Chicago? Staying at what used to be Lockhart & Gardner? She wishes for the lesser evil while reading the answer to her unvoiced question in his eyes. “Okay,” she barely whispers.

Walt peeps around, outside the office, at the dark corridors, at that single light still on in Denise’s office. To an outsider, things would look quite still the same as they’ve always been. This place used to be his home. And there’s a good load of nostalgia in his light smile as he turns his focus back on Ann. “I spent half of my life chasing the wrong things. I lived, almost slept in this place to build something and ended up with nobody to share it with. I died alone.”

“You didn’t really die,” she corrects him, though knowing what he really means.

“I did, in some sense.”

She doesn’t want to remember. “Nice funeral by the way,” she forces herself to joke about it.

Walt frowns, just a moment, before going along. “Did people cry?”

“Rivers,” she nods with resolution.

Walt shakes his head, an expression of disbelief as he chuckles. “This conversation is…”

“Surreal?” Ann finishes the sentence for him.

“I was gonna say creepy, but yes, surreal too.” Their smiles gone, Walt pauses, probably musing on the conversation they just had. “I don’t think I’d like this life anymore.”

Ann nods, choosing to ignore the discomfort. She understands him, more than he knows. She’s been there too, she’s still there now. She wheels her swivel chair slightly back, then stands up. She hesitates a moment before deciding to walk the few steps to her couch. Her gaze remains focused outside her glass doors, so their gazes can’t meet as she sits down next to him. She can feel his warmth, his favorite cologne is still the same. It makes it all more real. “At some point I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.” In the established intimacy, she shares with him her rock bottom. “Then… I don’t know, I guess that the call of law took me here again. Now… I just don’t know.” She looks around, repeating Walt’s gesture, outside at the empty offices. Empty offices. Empty home. Her need for a life changing decision seems to grow every day. “When are you leaving?” she ventures to asks, finally looking back at him.

“I don’t know yet.” Their eyes meet again, even if just for a few seconds. “I was asked to stay around till it’s over, in case… in case they want me to testify again in the trial. I don’t think it will be necessary, but still…”

The mention of the trial takes her back to the real reasons behind his return. The trial. Perry. The conversation with Lucy. What do you want? Suddenly things looks ugly and all she knows is that she doesn’t want to deal with that kind of guilt. You have some idealized notion of a man you’re not even sure cared about you. Perry’s words had been a poisoned, twisting knife back then, but she sees now the bit of truth that laid in there. When Walt left, they weren’t on the best terms. Denise claimed he wasn’t mad at her, but her subconscious always disagreed. And his reappearance, with its long train of consequences, is in her chaotic mind the confirmation she was right.

Oh come on, Ann, you know that is not true.

“Are you still mad? At me?” The question comes a bit out of the blue to Walt, who stares at her, seemingly confused at first, then brooding.

“No. I don’t think I’ve ever really been. Were you?” he asks in return.

“No,” she agrees softly.

They both were, no matter what they claim today, but it’s somehow become irrelevant, when all those wounding memories have been overwritten by the more pleasant ones they created meanwhile.

Walt sighs, his lips shape into an amused smile. “Isn’t it funny? I did it to protect my career too, after all, and now that it’s finally over I don’t care about it anymore.”

Ann takes in his words with a mild laughter. “Sometimes a change leads to another change.”

“I guess so.”

She tries to picture him living his new life, it’s pleasing and sad at the same time. “So, how is it, selling sports’ memorabilia for living?” she teases him, but her inquiry holds a sincere interest.

“I feel like I’m selling a piece of my heart every time.” His voice is grave, his features are tense in faux sorrow.

“I can totally see you bickering with customers because you refuse to sell them stuff,” she concurs, entertained by the image in her mind.

“I actually did once,” Walt remembers, furrowing his brows as he brings the memory into focus, “but in my defense, it was Kris Bryant’s autographed game bat, I couldn’t let it go.” His statement is source of hilarity. He watches as Ann chuckles at his words, with that admiration in his eyes revealing she’s still the one. She probably always will be.

“I don’t think I ever fought that hard to defend a client,” Walt wonders to himself.

“Talk about priorities.”

Walt smiles, letting the conversation vanish to silence. For a while, they bask in the newly found comfort of their proximity, until eventually Walt breaks the quiet. “What about you?”

“About me what?” She stiffens, imperceptibly but she does, as her present life is singled out.

“Your priorities. Still saving the world?” he teases her, without malice.

Ann’s answer is a deep, dramatic exhale. “I don’t know anymore. I thought I did. But I’m already having a hard time trying to save myself I guess.”

“That’s a start,” he sympathizes, with an imperceptible nudge of his shoulder.

For a moment she considers sharing she’s divorcing Perry. In another life, he’d definitely be happy. Now? She doubts he’d care at all. Yet, the words are out before she can really make a decision about them. “I started the divorce procedures.” No matter what he is going to say or do, no matter how behind time these words are coming, it’s liberating to engrave them.

Walt stares at her, surprise etched on his face, but he doesn’t respond anything. He takes her words in with a quiet nod and a very faint smile, but his gaze is on her, confident and… she can’t really say what else, but there’s more in them that the darkness is concealing from her sight. He tries not to show it, but her confession clearly affects him more than he gives away. She wants him to say something, anything, but quickly realizes that she doesn’t need any words.

So when he leaves, just a few minutes later, unhurried, laid back, almost reluctant, she knows with instinctive certainty that this is not the last time they meet. They don’t set dates or celebratory drinks, nor a place or a call. But the way he stops on the doorstep, drinking her in with a sweet smile, a smile she hadn’t seen in years, it’s all she needs.

 

Short story: Augustine

Big news! I’m still alive! Apologies for the long absence, and if Lord grants me some peace I should now be able to post more frequently. Also, I have a huge (for me, eh eh) surprise in store. Till then, here I am with a new short story. Enjoy!

***

The atmosphere was eerie that morning. A purplish shade of doom tinged the ether as far as the eye could see, leaden clouds flared up, turning into a burnt orange as falling stars crossed the sky. Except those weren’t falling stars. Augustine knew very well that the shining bodies shooting on the horizon were balls of flame, leaving behind a fascinating tail of death. She was a spirit of fire, she could feel its destructive force coursing inside of her, lava flowing in her veins.

There was a war raging, right beyond the forest, where the Lym river forked for a couple of miles, making way for a small village. Only once had Augustine dared to venture into the forest, back in the days where she was a child who still couldn’t dominate her volatile nature. Sometimes it still came back in form of nightmares. The crackling of wood, leaves blazing into ashes, the smoke, the screams. The screams. Those were the worst. Their sound was distorted, cavernous, belonging to another world. After that day, where two spirits of the forest became one with earth, she never dared walking among those breathing trees and everything they sheltered.

But the village humming beyond held the irresistible magic of the unknown. One day she took courage and skirted around the woods. She ran along the Lym river for half a day, defying the dangers of water, just to satisfy her young curiosity. She didn’t know what a village looked like, she’d never seen one. Spirits didn’t gather, or socialize. Especially with humans. It was simply against their nature; after all, they existed to protect the earth exactly from the damages that the humans caused.

So when she reached the point where the river broke in two, hugging protectively a small tract of land, she stood a moment to take it all in, unseen from all those busy eyes. Or so she had believed back then.

Victor, that was his name, that was the name of her love. Victor the blacksmith, Victor the onyx eyes, Victor the human.

There weren’t rules forbidding relationships between spirits and human. It was all about common sense. But Augustine was young and still had a lot to learn. Her apprentice wasn’t complete yet. You will be a real spirit of fire the day your tears turn stone into fire. That’s what the ancient had said. Which made no sense to her. She didn’t have the gift of tears to cry, nor a heart that could be broken. And stone couldn’t become fire, of that she was sure. Or so she had been taught.

A ball of fire, bigger than the others, crossed the sky over her head, forcing her back to the destructive reality. She could feel the ground shake under her feet and tried to steady herself so she wouldn’t lose balance. But she fell on her knees, pulled down by something she couldn’t define. It came from inside of her. A sensation of dread, of pain, of oxygen being taken away from her, of fire withering. In that moment, from miles away, she knew.

Where once there had been green and life, now there was only ash, death, desolation. That same fire she manipulated to bring life into the world, was used by humans to take lives away.

She stared at her hands, watched the fire flow in her veins, felt its vital warmth. She had already revived a human before, it was something permitted by the ancients. Then why wasn’t Victor opening his eyes? Why wasn’t his chest rising and falling? Why couldn’t she feel the pulse of life in his body? It took her a moment to realize that if fire had killed him, then more fire couldn’t bring him back. You don’t smother flames with more flames.

Augustine traipsed for hours, uncertain what to do, or where to go, until she stopped by the river, collapsing under the weight of her sorrow. Defeated. Abandoned.

Alone.

She was a spirit of fire, yet couldn’t ignite life in the cold body of her lover. Then what was she useful for?

From the safety of a rock she stared at the water, still in that point; sparkling with the rays of a mocking sun, stained by the somber reflection of the stones. She feared yet was lured by its fleeing nature, by its ability of washing everything away. Or of concealing it in its depths. She wished she could do the same, but fire never came and left unnoticed. Smoke and ashes were faithful remnants.

Her skin started burning in a way she never experienced before. Fearing her nemesis, she retreated her feet before realizing that she was too far from its danger. If it wasn’t the water, then what? She lifted her fiery eyes to the sky, searching for signs of raindrops. And that’s when she felt it. Something blurring her sight, burning her cheek.

One tear fell.

It landed on a small rock. Steam rose, the incandescence made it glow. Augustine took it and turned it over in her hands. The stone had lost its gloomy gray. It was translucent, shining with the flaming reflections of her soul. You will be a real spirit of fire the day your tears turn stone into fire.

Short story: In the midnight hour

Drawing from my old fanfictions because I had an insane week and couldn’t write anything new. This still holds a special place in my heart (along with the person this was written for.)

***

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 30)

/ / /

I prick up my ears and listen carefully at the unusual silence. Only when I look up from my laptop and glance around, do I realize the sun has already disappeared beyond the horizon and the floor is almost entirely in the darkness. My wristwatch says it’s well past ten.

My first thought goes to Kurt, and before I realize it, my hands are already texting my excuses for being so late. By now, he got used to my inhuman working hours, certainly faster than I got used to my sense of guilt for the same. I take off my glasses, lay them on the desk, then rub my fatigued eyes before glancing back up and in front of me. The lights in Alicia’s office are still on, but she’s not at her desk; or nowhere in sight. I conclude, she probably forgot to turn them off.

My gaze can’t help mentally annotating every little detail and piece of furniture she changed. From the gigantic painting on the wall, replaced with a smaller silver-framed one, to the wall light, now gone and traded for two pictures, to the solid light wood of the desk and the chairs. I’m still not used to the new visual, I might as well never be, though I admit it’s appealing and I fully understand the motives behind Alicia’s renovation choices. With a smile, I remember never liking the old painting, and still I sometimes miss it. I miss him. It’s almost one year since it happened and I’d lie if I said he’s not still in my inner thoughts. In these last days especially, it’s like the upcoming death date is only bringing back the old pain. Nobody dares to mention it, but it’s still there.

I should go home.

My coat hangs down my arm, my purse is in my hand, I turn everything off, then halt in front of Alicia’s office as a shadow catches my attention. For a moment my mind tricks me into believing it’s Will. It’s a déjà vu that lasts a twinkling. In front of the window, looking outside, there is Alicia. Lost in her musings, she doesn’t seem to acknowledge my presence, and I don’t want to interrupt whatever is crowding her mind right now. Even if I have a suspicion. But as I start to walk away, she must perceive she’s not alone anymore. Snapped back to a semi-reality, she turns around and stares at me, still absent in appearance.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude, thought you forgot the lights on,” I apologize, under my breath.

Her eyes widen, her chest swells in a deep heave as she finally seems to wake up from her tranche. “No, you didn’t, I was about to leave as well,” she smiles at me. But then, her actions contradict her words as she turns back towards the window.

I hesitate and stand undecidedly on the threshold, conflicted whether to leave her to her nightfall thoughts or join her. Even with one foot already out, my decision is swift and rather predictable. I’d only be fooling myself if I left. So I turn around, take a few steps in her direction, then dwell with her on the sight of the illuminated skyscrapers. Chicago has always been a stunning view at night.

A few minutes get by in quietness, as we just enjoy each other’s quiet company, with no need for words, for we both know where our thoughts lie right now. Eventually, it’s Alicia who breaks the silence.

“I still miss him,” she admits in a whisper.

I stare at her reflection, taking in her words. It’s probably the first time I hear her saying it, the first time I witness her doing something even remotely close to opening up. And still, despite those few words being spoken, she doesn’t completely lower her guard, she doesn’t shift her gaze to meet mine, even just for a blink. Beneath her impassive exterior, behind those elusive eyes, she must have hurt more than she’ll ever admit. “Me too,” I confess, remembering how much I lost that day. A partner, a friend, a confident. For too many years he’d been a constant in my life. Never, not even in my worst nightmares, could I have imagined that I might lose him one day. There was no writing on the wall to get me ready for it, no time to accept, to adjust, to understand why. No time to even say something so simple as goodbye. My eyes close briefly to wipe out the unsolicited memories. “Some days I don’t think about it, or I’m just too busy to think about everything. And it feels good. To not think.” I stare at her, searching with my eyes for some acknowledgement that my words make some sense to her too.

It takes a long while for her to stare back at me, then nod, almost imperceptibly. “This was his favorite moment of the day,” she says with a half-smile. But her voice, as she speaks these words then looks away, is brittle.

The memory brings a smile to my lips. “I know. Mine too.”

My gaze alights on Alicia. It never stops astounding me to notice how different we are and have always been in everything. I spent most of my life alone, committed to my job and my career, the thought of building a family of my own has never been more than a far notion, until I found someone who could complete me; until I met Kurt. For her? It’s definitely been the reverse; years dedicated to rejoicing her hearth and home, just to see everything break apart before her eyes. And yet, here we are. The affection, love and loss of the same man has brought us close together. It’s the one thing we have in common. It was. “I can’t believe it’s already one year tomorrow,” I realize with a sigh.

“Yep,” she barely whispers, then stares at me pensively.

I’d gladly give a penny for her thoughts.

“Are we supposed to do something?” she asks, eventually.

I ponder her words, thinking of what we would be doing if he were here with us. Then, an idea pops into my head, and it’s certainly the most befitting the occasion. “Hold on,” I beckon her to wait, as I walk back into my office and take a bottle from the bottom of my liquor cabinet. My stare lingers on its label. It says Jim Beam Black Bourbon. Will’s favorite. He never knew I had it, kept aside for some very special occasion that never came.

With no hesitation, I show the bottle to Alicia through the glass wall. Her lips, curled up in approval, are the answer I need.

No word is pronounced as we pour into the rock glasses, then make ourselves comfortable.

“To Will,” I toast.

“To Will,” Alicia repeats as our glasses clink in the silence.

I sample the liquor. Eyes closed, I let the small sip burn its way down my throat. It’s intense. I can taste ripe cherries and liquorice. Will would have loved it. Sunk in his sofa, he would have admired its color, sipped it slowly, handled it like liquefied gold; all with a satisfied, sly smirk. I cast a sidelong glance at Alicia. She doesn’t look like a bourbon kind, and for some inexplicable reason I find the thought amusing.

“Where do you think he is now?” she asks me, out of the blue.

And it’s the one question I don’t have an answer to. For a moment, I ponder all the possible set phrases that one is supposed to say on these occasions, but none seems to fit and none would probably make us feel better. So, I lean back on my chair and shrug. “Probably harassing some old glory of baseball.”

In the quietness, Alicia’s laughter resounds, deep, hearty, warming. I find myself laughing with her and by instinct I look up. Wherever Will is now, I hope he’s watching down and laughing with us.

Short story: I win

From the tenth floor the streets were a world of living Barbies and Kens. Staring down from the mansard, Marie wondered why would her dad prefer to travel around the seas when he could sit there with her and her raven, naming every passer-by, giving them identities, assigning lives.

“That one is Rose,” she pointed at a woman standing across the one-way street. It might have been a teenager, maybe a woman in her twenties, impossible to say from that height. But she was dark-haired and wearing a yellow hoodie. “She’s texting her best friend Violet.”

“Rose and Violet? Why not Mauve and Periwinkle?” enquired the raven, poking mild fun at her seven-year-old friend.

She stuck up her nose, oozing an infantile superiority as she chose to ignore him. “They have a party tonight, she can’t go dressed like that,” she noticed.

Stepping back into her bedroom, she opened the inlaid chest. Painted white, embellished with pink inlay work from old times that formed a garden of lilies, it was bursting with Lilliputian clothes for every occasion. “Red or green?” she asked for her friend’s advice.

The raven’s look shifted between the clothes and Marie, but before it could say anything, the distant thud of the front door captured their attention.

“Marie, you got mail!” The nanny screamed from the living room.

Marie and the raven exchanged an excited glance, then Marie jumped up and dashed to the nanny, for she knew what that meant; there was a new postcard from her father. It didn’t matter how many digital photos he would send her, postcards were her favorite thing. She cherished those tiny pieces of paper and loved collecting those mementos from places she’d never seen, like a real treasure.

Her father worked on luxury liners. She didn’t know what his job was exactly, all she knew was that it kept him away from home for weeks, sometimes even months. This last postcard captured the russet twilight of a place called Walvis Bay. As was her habit by now, she asked her nanny to help her locate the place on the world map. The globe, together with most of the furniture, was ancient inheritance, dated a good two generations into her father’s bloodline. A corner of Old England right in the center of Brooklyn. Marie was very careful not to ruin it as she marked the latest place with a blue post-it, under the watchful eye of the raven. One hand on the west coast of Africa, one on the pink post-it that marked her home, she tried to figure out how long would take her dad to come back to her. On that globe, barely one of her steps.

The enjoyment though never lasted long. Once the initial enthusiasm was over, once her dad was again just a slip of colored paper on a map, Marie cooped herself up back into her isolation. She barely left home, her nanny had given up long ago, for Marie didn’t want to be somewhere else in the event that her father was to surprise her with an unexpected return. She didn’t want to miss even a single second of his presence, rare as it was.

Staring at life passing by her windows, she had mastered an unreasonable patience for a child. Tantrum hid in quiet silences, friendships condensed in black feathers.

One day though, a phone call came instead of a postcard.

The static paper landscapes were replaced by moving images in form of news. The foundering of a cruising ship. The new Titanic, they said, and she had no idea what that meant, what it had to do with her dad. Unblinking, Marie listened to her nanny’s explanation, her mind reworking the images in the process; lifeboats, flames, a dark stain swallowing everything.

Why was her nanny so upset? There were lifeboats rescuing everyone. Her dad was on one of them. She only had to wait. He’s not coming back, kept repeating the nanny.

In all of this, the raven was a mute witness.

He’s not coming back.

What was a child expected to do? Cry herself to illness? Shut her eyes? Take what she’s told for granted? Wait for him to come back? Marie pondered all her options, none fit her. She wasn’t easy to tears, she didn’t take anything for granted, and most important, she had waited enough.

This left only one decision.

She emptied her backpack from every futility and filled it again with the little she might need. She had perfected the art of packing from years of studying her father. A change of clothes, underwear, soap and all the money she could get out of her piggy bank.

“Where are we going?” the raven inquired, gliding and landing on Marie’s backpack.

“To find dad.”

The raven didn’t move from the backpack, just cocked its little head in what seemed perplexity. “You can’t find him.”

“Of course I can.” Her arms folded on her chest, in a mix of resolution and defiance.

“You can’t and you won’t.”

Marie moved closer, reclaiming possess of her backpack. Her swift gesture made the raven take flight, just to land again on her shoulder.

“I will find him.” Those were the final words of someone who wouldn’t take you can’t as an answer.

“You can’t because he doesn’t belong to your world anymore!” The raven took off, fluttering between Marie and the door in a useless attempt to stop her. It worked, for a mere few seconds in which the little girl seemed to weigh the meaning of its words.

“Is there another world?” she enquired, one brow knit in astonishment.

“Not one you can visit,” the raven said gravely.

“How do you know he’s there?”

“It’s my world. I just know it.”

If this was the case, then what was the problem? “Good, then what are you doing still here? Go and find him.”

“I can’t take him back.”

Hit in her belief, Marie held her breathe. “You’re lying, I’ll go alone and win.”

As it always goes with children, Marie wasn’t the one to yield. The globe and all the postcards collected over the few years of her life were all she needed to put together and single out recurring paths and cyclic breaks.

It would take a while, but she knew they could do it.

And so started their journey, on the coasts of that fateful spot where Marie’s father had been seen last. For almost one year, she and the raven went searching every city her father had crossed, reconstructing events, discovering facts, little anecdotes about him. The more they travelled, the more she found out things about him. She realized, she didn’t know her father at all.

At some point, the raven stopped her. Their trip had brought them on the glacial Norwegian soil. “What are we doing?”

Marie stared at him, confused about what it meant. “Searching for my dad.”

The raven didn’t say anything, not for a long while. “I think we should part ways.”

The girl’s features took on a shade of letdown. Of all the people failing her, her only friend.

“We are searching for two different things, Marie,” the raven revealed what she couldn’t see, “that’s why we can’t continue this journey together. I’m searching where he is, you are searching who he was.”

“Who he is.”

Under a cloud of bitterness and sorrow, the two friends took different ways, not knowing if they would ever meet again.

Postcards always in her hands, Marie pursued her research with the fiery resolution that only desperation and loneliness can provide. Little by little, city by city, she came to piece together the personality, habits, tastes, of her father. So many facets besides the loving one she remembered. Remember. Memory. That was her father was becoming for her as she grew and start to lose memory of how he was. Did she ever know how she was to begin with? Everything was blurry. The more she travelled, retracing his steps, the more she was getting to know a complete stranger.

But the little memories she still preserved, flashes of a childhood ended too soon, those weren’t fading, guiding her through miles and years.

She watched the pile of postcards getting thinner and thinner with each stop. She would never admit it, but hope was starting to wane.

By the time she stopped in India, she was seventeen. The little hospital in the south of the country barely looked like that. At a first glance, one would think it was a house. It was a woman Marie had met at the local market to tell her how funny it was that there was a man there with her same features.

The woman hadn’t told her though, that the man had been in a state of coma ever since he was found, almost ten years before.

Marie’s legs were weak, her heart drumming, as she carefully approached the bed. So many thoughts and questions crowding her mind as she stopped, eyes closed, a few steps away. What if it wasn’t her father? Would she even recognize him? Would he recognize her? Would he be happy to see her? Or mad for the journey she had taken?

But when she found the strength to open her eyes, she saw the sleeping figure in front of her and something inside her broke. He was her father, there wasn’t a single doubt about it. But this wasn’t how she had pictured meeting him again. She took in the whole view. Tubes seem to tie every part of his body, his hair were roughly disheveled by the breeze coming in through the open window. Outside were trees of every shade of green. Only then she noticed a small bird on the bed pommel. Instinctively, maybe more protectively, she shooed it away with one hand.

The bird landed on the windowsill but didn’t go away. Instead, it kept its gaze on Marie.

“Is that how you greet old friends?” it dared, when nobody else was around them.

Marie jumped back, startled by the animal speaking. Birds don’t speak, she told herself. But before her words were out, she started to remember.

Her raven. Her childhood. It had kept searching all this time, just like her. It didn’t fail her as she thought when she was little. It had kept its promise and found her father.

“Is there another world?”

“Not one you can visit.”

“How do you know he’s there?”

“It’s my world. I just know it.”

Now she could finally see what he had meant, back then.

“You’re lying, I’ll go alone and win.” This wasn’t a bet, it never was.

She smiled at her old friend and offered her hand for it to rest. She then took a seat by her father, on a corner of his bed so she wouldn’t disturb his long sleep. But as soon as the mattress bent under her weight, her father stirred, almost imperceptibly at first, then opened his eyes. After meeting for the first time in ten years, Marie’s words to the raven were short and sweet. “I win.”

Short story: Perfect Strangers

I wrote quite a decent number of fanfictions in my life, for different TV shows. Most of them are, to my own admission, depressing tear-jerking sh*t. This is one of the few not falling into that category. Because at times even my miserable muse needs lightness and fun.

***

New York City, 2010

Will has a hard time remembering a conference that looked more soporific than this one. Excepting the fifteen minutes of brilliance of some Texan lawyer with a very original interpretation of copyright law, the rest was mostly an unproductive waste of time. The only bright spot he can think of is that it’s over, and that for once he’s enough miles away from his office to not fall into the unhealthy temptation of burning the midnight oil. There is him, the hotel bar and, if he’s lucky, his favorite whisky.

And then, there is that enchanting and solitary brunette sitting at the bar.

Staring from a convenient distance, he tilts his head and takes a moment to admire her beauty. The red sheath dress with wide straps hugs her slim figure, leaving little room for imagination. Her legs are crossed a bit to one side, while her dangling foot moves restlessly up and down in her stiletto.

Quietly, he approaches her from behind, with discretion and faux indifference, then sits on the stool next to her and gestures at the bartender. “A Jim Beam. Thanks,” he orders, politely. With only a faint motion of his head, he casts a sidelong glance at the woman who’s sitting to his right. In front of her there’s a glass of Martini, almost finished, which she’s gazing at with exaggerate interest. He looks away and down at his hands as he waits for his drink, then makes his move. “What is a beautiful woman like you doing all alone in a hotel bar on a Friday night?” He’s quite positive that this sentence is on any top ten list of pick up lines to avoid when approaching a woman for the first time.

“Waiting for someone,” she answers, quietly, not gazing away from her drink.

Will peeks around. The place is desert, except for a couple sitting on a small table and a businessman staring intently at his laptop. The wired wireless is diffusing some soft jazz music.

“Mind if I wait with you?” he offers, as the bartender places the rock glass in front of him. With a weak nod, Will thanks him, then looks down and rejoices with the sight of his favorite liquor.

“No, not at all,” the woman replies with confidence, “I guess it’s his fair payback for making me wait.”

Will nods and smiles to himself, then looks back at her, eyeing her all the way down and back up. Everything in that woman, from those generous lips to her sensuous legs, screams perfection. “So… are you from New York City?” he tries to keep the conversation moving forward.

For the first time since he sat there, she finally looks up from her glass. In the dim, warm lights, her eyes shine like emeralds. Their gazes meet, then linger on each other’s features for a long moment, maybe exploring each other’s intentions.

“Nope, just here on a business trip,” she says, almost telegraphically, making his seducing job a tough one.

Will nods, then takes an inhibition-loosening gulp of his whisky. “I can’t remember your name…”

The woman smirks, her wide eyes are judgmentally fixed on him. “Because I haven’t told you?” she calls his bluff. “I’m Alicia, by the way.”

“Nice name, Alicia. I’m Will,” he introduces himself and stretches his arm, offering his hand.

She looks down, seemingly reluctant for a moment, then repeats his gesture and shakes his hand.

He likes her tight; self-confident, relaxed.

“So, what is a handsome man like you doing all alone in a hotel bar on a Friday night?” She picks his same line and he laughs up his sleeve. “Aside from trying to pick me up,” she adds.

Busted. “Releasing the stress of a rough day, I guess?” he tells her.

Her eyes are still on him, her gaze alights with audacity on his lips. There’s the shadow of a smile on her face; barely hinted, but Will notices it.

“And what do you do for living, Mr. Rough Day?” she teases him.

The pantomime is served on a silver platter and Will wonders how much awareness is there in Alicia’s question. “I’m a professor.”

Alicia raise a brow, questioningly, then smiles. “Really? And what do you teach?”

“Linguistics,” he answers, his eyes staring intently at his glass to avoid bursting into loud laughter.

Alicia’s reaction is entertaining, as she nearly chokes on her drink, then struggles to suffocate a chuckle. “That sounds… an interesting subject…”

He nods, then looks up, but still can’t meet her gaze. Instead, he focuses on the rich display of liquors in front of him. “It can be,” he agrees. When he managed to summon enough self-control to remain serious, he turns around and peeps behind them. “Looks like your someone blew you off.”

“His loss,” she acknowledges with an exhale.

He notices that her glass is now empty. “Another drink?”

She contemplates his offer for a moment, then shrugs and nods slightly. “Why not?”

“Another drink for this lady,” he exhorts the bartender.

The guy on the other side of the counter smiles, then takes the bottles of gin and dry vermouth, and with skill he quickly prepares a perfect Martini.

“Thanks,” Alicia says as he pours the liquid in her glass. “And thank you,” she addresses to Will.

“So, Alicia, I know you are on a business trip, and that your date went to shit, anything else?” he spurs on her to play along.

“What would you want to know?” she takes up the invitation, then leans forward and folds her arms on the counter.

“What kind of business brought you here?” he asks, with pretended curiosity.

“A conference. I’m a lawyer,” she gives away, her eyes expectantly on him and ready to catch his reaction.

Will winces and leans back, distancing himself a bit. “Ouch. Then I should be careful.”

Her ringing laughter fills the hall. “Nah, I’m not on duty,” she assures him with a dismissive wave of her hand, then takes a sip of her drink.

“And there isn’t any hunky lawyer in your life? Hard to believe it,” he tests her.

She stares at him, thoughtful, before whispering, “I’ll tell you a secret.”

When he bends toward her, ready for the big revelation, a thrill runs down his spine as her lips touch his lobe.

“Lawyers can be so boring,” she reveals in his ear, emphasizing her words with a decided nod.

Will stiffens in fake offense, confident that he will very soon have the occasion to belie her, for the umpteenth time, if it’s even needed. “Who would have said?”

“I know, right?” she agrees, “always talking about law, obsessed with sports metaphors and baseball.”

Will chuckles. “Thank God I’m not a lawyer, then?”

“Thank God,” she smiles seductively at him, as her eyes initiate an easy-to-read dance with his lips.

Her eloquent message doesn’t fall through the cracks, and he quickly sizes the moment. “So, are we spending the night here mulling over the misery of being both alone on a Friday night or shall we do something about it?”

Alicia looks down, takes her glass, then sips it. In her eyes there is already a mischievous sparkle. “And what would you suggest?”

“I’m a gentleman, you choose,” he bounces back.

Alicia thinks, or rather pretends to. “Well, you could teach me something of that subject of yours,” she suggests with a teasing tone.

The tie is too tight around his neck. Maybe it’s the whisky, most likely it’s the company. He pulls at the knot and loosens it enough to breathe again. “I’d be more than pleased to share some of my knowledge with you. But what will I get in return?” Everything comes with a price.

“I won’t sue you for what you’ll show me,” she whispers, as she stands up from her seat and starts to walk away.

Will turns around. He watches as she walks a few steps, then halts, expectantly and with an undeniable impatience in her smirk. He looks back to his glass and tells to himself, “Sounds fair.”

As they head for the elevators, he remains a few steps behind her. From afar, he admires her seductive walk, the way her steps tango away, the way her hips sway with mindful allurement.

When they are inside, far from strangers, it’s almost a disappointment to end this game. Though, another one is soon to start. “So, lawyers are boring, uh?” he confronts her.

“I thought you were a teacher…” she teases him, her impudent gaze fixed on the increasing numbers on the panel.

“Just for tonight.”

“Good, because you still have to show me that thing…”

He doesn’t need to be asked twice. Before the elevator reaches their floor, his mouth has already started a meticulous, hedonistic exploration of every exposed inch of her body.

Short story: Suicide Blonde

There was nothing more upsetting than seeing the list of my options slim down by the second, torn to shreds by the frenemy of web searches, aka Google.

A lethal combo of meds and alcohol was ruled out for lack of raw material. No access to med cabinets and no doctor friend to supply them – with no questions asked – made it impossible to carry out. And the fact that I was a nondrinker didn’t help my cause either.

Cutting my veins like they showed in the movies. No. Now that I thought about it, the sight of blood nauseated me. And cuts hurt like hell. Have you ever accidentally cut yourself with paper? I did, more than once, because I’m like that, natural born clumsy.

The good old bullet was out of discussion, for in a world with more weapons than population I lived in a small province town where violence was an alien concept.

Carbon monoxide intoxication seemed the best idea. You fall asleep, you die. No pain. Except that they don’t tell you the entire truth. You suffer indeed, a lot. And there is no real guarantee of death.

More than once, while driving, I considered missing a turn, skidding into a ditch or crashing into a tree. Given my luck, a much worse fate than death would have captured me.

Most times, I simply wished God would decide on my behalf, taking me away in a surprising, theatrical way.

In a suicide-friendly universe, I was the coward, the black sheep of suicides, the dishonor of hara-kiri, the death-wisher upon an already fallen star.

All these thoughts and many more were jamming my mind as I drove down the country road, headed to work, bawling “Suicide Blonde” as it blasted from the radio. Even music pokes fun at me, I’m a damn brunette.

I couldn’t hear the WhatsApp ringtone with the loud music, but I saw the screen come alive and checked it, one eye on the road, one on the phone. It was a text from my best friend Kate. “Saturday. Party at some friend of Ewan. There’s a friggin’ pool on the attic terrace. We MUST go.”

There were things not even Kate knew, things that the tiny proud side of me refused to share. Like the fact that my husband was a cheating bastard. That he was on the verge of abandoning me and our four-year-old child for some random slut. And that’s how my list started its tormented existence.

It’s common knowledge that everyone reacts differently to events. For me? All I could see was the shame, the judgments, the gossiping, the failure, the catastrophic after of a life I wrongly believed perfect.

So the last thing I wanted was to party. My thumb had just started typing when my eye caught a car shooting into the traffic-circle. My feet slammed on the brakes, making my heart and a few other organs jump right up into my throat. “Idiot! You could have killed me!” I cursed at the man. Well, maybe idiot wasn’t the word I used.

But as I caught breath and resumed my drive, my gaze fell on the tall buildings running along the street.

There’s a friggin’ pool on the attic’s terrace.

Kate’s words sank in. A terrace. An attic. How high could that be? Four floors at least? Maybe more? Would that be a quick and painless death?

I backspaced the ‘Maybe another time’ and quickly replaced it with an enthusiastic ‘I’m in!’

Going off with a bang. The news would even write about it. ‘She was so happy.’ No assholes, I wasn’t happy or I would be still alive. But let’s go ask my lovely hubby why I did it. I was already picturing myself as a stalking ghost, making his life a living hell, one sleepless night for each tear that I cried.

It was the perfect plan. Or it was the stupidest plan ever.

That Saturday I put special effort in getting ready. No black or red to maximize the effect, so I picked a yellow dress and matching makeup. The epitome of happiness, I smiled at my frivolous self in the mirror.

“Are you okay?” Kate’s sapphire eyes probed me, calling my anxiety before we even entered the attic. “You are… weird. Lovely dress by the way!”

“Just tired.” It was my generic excuse for every intruder, except that this time I was a bundle of nerves and my words sounded unconvincing even to my ears.

But the terrible actress in me somehow managed to deliver a three-dimensional performance of a flippant wife looking for some innocent fun. I accepted a sip of champagne, chattered about nothing, even kissed – and immediately regretted it – some guy who made a pass at me.

Inside, well-hidden under a ruby lipstick, were aggressive flashes of a plan I was resolute to fulfill.

I kept gazing around. Kate seemed nowhere in sight. I should have worn black. The apartment was crammed and lively, even too chaotic for my taste, so I escaped on the terrace, just to realize it was even worse. A few heads turned in my direction. What was I thinking when I decided to wear yellow? Way to go by unnoticed…. And there soaked Kate, relaxing in the pool with a rainbow drink in her hand.

The terrace alone was bigger than my entire apartment. Arms on the parapet, I enjoyed the nightly panorama while a congruous gathering cooled their spirits in the pool. For a moment I almost forgot why I was here. Almost. It’s hard to say how long I had been staring out before realizing that most people had surrendered to the frisky air and were continuing the party inside.

I was finally alone. And I was freezing, goosebumps stippling my bare arms. I peeped inside, just to make sure nobody would see me. This was the perfect moment, right? Nevertheless, I hesitated. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea, maybe I should have waited for a better occasion?

Chicken. There’s no better occasion than this.

Then why was I shuddering as I walked to the corner of the terrace?

It’s just the cold air. You can do it. That’s what you want.

Helping myself against the outer wall, I stepped on the railing with one foot. The sound of my throbbing heart covered the uproar coming from the apartment. I carefully balanced myself before the second foot could follow.

Wow, this is high, very high.

The passing cars looked like small-scale models.

You just have to jump, it couldn’t be easier!

My toes of my left foot were sticking out, just a little bit, when I noticed a shadow behind me.

What the…

I slightly turned my head, enough to see a man standing a few feet from me. I flinched.

“Jesus Christ, you scared me to death! I could have fallen!” Both my hands were now clinging to the wall, nails dug into the red bricks.

The man didn’t move. His features were barely discernible in the darkness. He was fair haired for sure, and the sparkling of his eyes suggested they were probably azure or green, but aside from that I could never recognize him. “The whole town does not need to see you falling off my balcony, would you please leave using the door?”

His balcony? Dammit. I realized in that moment I didn’t even get to meet the host of the party. “I’m fine here, thanks.”

Just do it, idiot. Jump. Jump before he can stop you.

“You won’t do it,” he asserted, with a disarming conviction.

I tittered. “What makes you think it?” There is always someone arrogant enough to think they know you better than you know yourself. Of course I would jump.

“Because I’ve stood in that same corner, four times, and I never found the guts to jump.” His arms were folded defensively on his chest, but his head was held high, eyes fixed on mine.

“Then what stopped you from trying a fifth?” Why did I even bother? He was clearly taking time.

“I slipped.”

My blood ran cold, as I suddenly felt dragged in some horror movie. “Wait… are you a ghost?”

His arms dropped, his head tilted on one side as he looked at me in plain disbelief. “I’m what? How much TV do you watch? Do I look like a damn ghost?”

Well, aren’t angels notoriously good-looking, blonde and with blue eyes? “Hey! How am I supposed to know what a ghost looks like? It’s not like I’ve ever met one.”

“Well, I’m not a ghost, I own this place, I don’t haunt it. And for the records, the fourth time I ended up with one leg in and one leg out. I literally shitted in my pants,” he admitted. Unashamed, almost self-ironic.

I didn’t want to know how it feels to see death in your eyes and miss it. I didn’t want anyone to implant that kind of seed in me. It meant growing a whole forest between me and my plan. It wasn’t any of my business if he had failed in his intent. “Well, either you’re a coward or you didn’t really want it.”

When he moved a half step in my direction, I freaked out. By instinct, my left foot stuck a bit more out. In that moment, it’s hard to say who was more terrified between me and him. He must have caught my movement, albeit almost imperceptible, for he took a step back. I wanted to turn and stare at the one hundred or so feet of free fall awaiting me, but at the same time I didn’t want to give him the chance to grab me. No matter what he said, I wasn’t going to leave through the door.

“I know it’s none of my business but, why do you want to die?” He posed the one question I wasn’t expecting and that I didn’t want to hear. He wanted me to share something nobody, not even my closest friend knew. Naively, I realized he was a perfect stranger, there was no shame, simply because I would soon be dead and never to meet him again.

“My husband cheated on me.” For the first time I was admitting my ache in words instead of hidden tears. The sense of humiliation was almost unbearable.

“Are you serious? That’s why you want to jump from my terrace?”

To say his reaction was unpredicted would be an understatement. He should have felt my agony, not mock me. “Don’t judge me.”

“I thought you had some disease. Or you were broke!”

“I said don’t judge!”

“You are ridiculous.”

“Would you stop?”

“Only if you step back inside.”

Blood started boiling in my veins. Who the hell did he think he was to ridicule my feelings? I was hurt, I was hurting, all I wanted was for the heartbreak to finally stop, for my mind to stop thinking about it, while he was forcing me into the opposite direction. “You know what he did? While fucking me he suggested we should sell our apartment so with his part of money he could buy another one, for them!” I shouted, my breathing heavy with frustration. Careless of his presence, I turned to look down.

Damn, this is frighteningly high.

And that’s the moment I did my biggest mistake. “Why did you?” I confronted him about his own pain. Maybe that would have stopped him. Or so I believed, until his deep exhale gave away that this was just the beginning.

“Cheated on my ex-wife. She took our daughter, left, haven’t seen them in over three years.” He then fell silent, letting his words sink in, before adding, “Yeah, go figure, being on the other side it’s not fun either.”

I wasn’t expecting this. Yet, I couldn’t feel sorry for him. “You searched for your own pain, I didn’t.”

“Really? What makes you so sure?”

Well, if I had to be completely honest, there was a good load of responsibilities on my side too. I hadn’t been much present over the past months, maybe even over the past year. Or more. So absorbed by my new job, I was away or taking work home most of the nights. Other times, I was so exhausted that I barely kissed my kid goodnight, go figure my husband.

“Shame and guilt walk hand in hand… uhm, I don’t even know your name.” This time his voice was calm and understanding.

“Sonya, my name is Sonya.”

“Sonya, that’s a lovely name,” he smiled.

“I feel so… lost.” Nothing more appropriate left my mouth. Lost, numbed. Stupid.

“Now, Sonya, would you please… come back inside?” he almost begged. “I said it. You won’t jump.”

He was right. When he moved closer, a bit more confident this time, I let him.

Almost afraid to leave the safety of the wall, I moved one hand, the least possible for him to take it. His touch felt warm, comfortingly human as he took my hand and helped me back in.

“Thank you… uhm, I don’t even know your name.“

“Michael, my name is Michael.”

Short story: The willow farm

My heels click on the polished parquet, resounding in the silence of the wide, empty hall. It’s past ten at night and the last visitors of my exhibit have just left. In my hands there is the chèque I’ll cash tomorrow from the sale of one of my paintings. The exhibit has been more successful than I could have imagined. I sold four paintings and was offered a corner at the art gallery. A real gallery, not this gym in disguise, as much as I’m grateful to my Pilates coach for offering the space.

Shoulders against the front door, I give one last look at the visual impact of my creations hanging on the walls. I wish my family were here, I wish I had a family for once, someone to share this precious moment with. I never met my real parents, at least as far as my memory can travel. I’ve been told my mother died giving birth to me. As for my father, nobody ever bothered to mention him, so I grew up with the notion that he simply never existed. With a bittersweet smile and an exhausted exhale, I take in the effect of the last seven years of my life animating the sterile walls with decided, deep strokes. There is a bit of everything. Most of them are landscapes of places I’ve never even been, others are reminiscences of dreams, sometimes nightmares I exorcised and trapped on canvas. When I feel especially alone, I convince myself that all those dreams are memories from a past life. Only when the image is finally engraved in every detail, do I turn the lights off and carefully lock the door behind me.

The October air is brisk at night and I find myself rushing to the bus stop, hunched in my beige leather jacket, for the shelter will shield me from the wind. I peep at my left, hoping to see the number 23 approach, but as I do, a figure catches my attention. There is someone standing on the sidewalk, right in front of the gym. Though I can’t see in the dark, the petite figure, dressed in something that looks like a long wide skirt – or is it a coat? – is definitely a woman. Her head keeps turning left and right. Damn, what if it’s a thief? I shake away the bad thoughts and take a better look. Maybe she’s a homeless? Fighting the bone-chilling wind I walk back to the gym, approaching the woman with cautious steps.

“May I help you?” I offer.

My voice startles the woman, who turns to stare at me. Her wide eyes, deep and shiny in the night, are full of questions. “I think I got lost.”

“I live here, maybe I can help you? Where do you live?”

“On Maple Street, the Newtons’ farm.”

My brows knit in confusion. A farm on Maple Street? There’s nothing but stores there.

The woman keeps looking around, she seems in a confused state. Or maybe she’s just tricking me? No, her panic is real. I’m conflicted whether to call the police or an ambulance, until something makes me decide against both. There is some kind of charisma, a gravitational pull that I can’t pinpoint.

“You seem to be freezing, can I offer you something warm?” I ask, more softly this time.
She hesitates, reluctant at first. Then she peeps at the surroundings, looking scared, and nods faintly. I open the gym door again and show her in.

In full light, I finally have a better picture. Her dress is indeed a long skirt, the color of moss, her hair is tied in a loose honey chignon that’s now lightly ruffled by the wind. On her shoulders a frayed off-white knitted cardigan. She’s definitely not from the city. Yet, there is something oddly familiar in her. There’s a feeling of deja-vu, as if I’ve seen her before.

With discretion, I start asking her questions, while preparing some hot tea for both. Rose Newton, that’s supposedly her name. The Newtons’ farm. I write down the phone number she gives me, ask her again where she lives. Maple Street, she keeps repeating, but I know it can’t be. I should have listened to my tired, freezing bones and just go home, pretending I hadn’t seen her. Now I’m stuck here with Miss Farmer and a phone number I don’t even dial because it’s positively nonexistent.

While I try to figure out what’s wrong about this woman, my gaze lands on one of my paintings.

My hands nearly drop the cup of tea they’re holding, as I finally recognize the disturbing resemblance. A woman with a green skirt, wide golden fields, a willow tree and, in the background, a farm. The willow farm. One of my first paintings, and still today one of those I cherish the most. So much that I always refused to sell it. I remember the night I dreamt it, its warmth is still so vivid. I remember waking up with my heart full of something I couldn’t quite explain. Belonging, reassurance, quietness, as if that place was part of me.

But there is nothing quiet or reassuring in what I’m feeling now. Barely breathing, I’m almost frightened to turn my head toward my unexpected guest. When I do, I find her still standing a few feet from the door, sipping her tea while stealing fascinated glances at my paintings. Until the inevitable happens.

Her mouth drops half open, as her eyes study the canvas from a distance. Her features wear my own turmoil. For a moment we both can’t speak, powerless, unable to grasp what’s happening before our eyes. Until the woman manages to catch her breath again.

“That’s…” She points at the painting, her gaze still taking in any inexplicable detail of the painting. “That’s me… that’s… that’s my farm,” she stutters.

That’s her. That’s her farm. My words die in an unvoiced thought, as my mind refuses to make the idea real. “You… You don’t exist… You can’t exist… That painting is only a dream.” Maybe this way she will disappear. Maybe I’ll wake up from the weirdest nightmare and make it into a new painting in the morning. But she’s still here. She’s still real.

“I exist. That’s my home, that’s my farm, those are the fields around Maple Street,” she insists, backed by the vibrant strokes.

“There are no fields around Maple Street, only stores…” At least not today. Those stores have all been built in the past few years. I have no idea what was there before. Maybe she’s telling the truth? This still doesn’t make any sense. “Who are you?” I ask again, and I don’t know why I’m expecting a different answer this time.

“I’m Rose Newton,” she repeats her name.

“Did you…” Why am I using the past tense?” “Do you live there?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying from the start.” Her perplexed stare shifts between me and the painting, then rests again on the feast of straw-yellow.

All I see though is the delicate expression of her painted face. “You looked so happy here,” I whisper.

“I was pregnant,” she confides with tenderness.

For a brief moment, my eyes rest on her, catching a glimpse of that same bliss. “Where is the father? Maybe he can help us.”

The question that seemed like a good idea quickly becomes a regret, as her eyes turn sad. “I was alone. I’ve always been alone.”

“But you have a child?”

She freezes, loses herself in some blurry reminiscence. “I don’t know. I think I do.”

“You don’t remember?”

Her gaze is blank, her breath is slowing turning laboured in raising panic.

“What’s your last memory?” I venture to ask, while starting to dread this conversation, more and more with every passing second.

Her forehead clouds, her head lowers in focus. “I remember giving birth. I remember a wail.”

My heart sinks and bleeds. “Then… then what happened?”

“I died.”

Short story: May 1984

Oh. There is something I forgot to say about me; fluff is not my forte, so enjoy the pain!

***

When she hears the distant knock on the door, she doesn’t even consider getting up to answer as an option. She lifts the crumpled sheets over her head and cocoons herself deep underneath the warm and soft shelter of the duvet. The voices from the TV seep in, low and muffled, announcing that the Red Sox traded pitcher Dennis Eckersley to the Cubs for Bill Buckner. Everything else oozes away unheeded. She’s faraway, lost, floating in a space where she knows her heart keeps aching but the haze slightly alleviates it. She tries to remember while forcing herself to forget at once. She can’t define with certainty in which moment everything stopped making sense, she just knows it did. Ever since she got that call from Scott’s sister – and her once best friend – Karen, her whole existence became a surreal pursuit; of truth, of peace of mind, of forgiveness, of anchorage. Of herself. Until eventually she yielded to the reality that none of those was within reach. She got glimpses of truth in the anesthetized words of Michael – her last connection with him, – a hint of anchorage in Jennifer’s hug, their common friend. But as for anything else, all she can do is to build them herself and right now she’s too consumed and doesn’t have the strength for it.

She closes her eyes and hopes emptily that bright images will appear and fight off the painful ones. But it’s pointless, it’s not going to work and she knows it. Blurred memories of beaming smiles and candid sheets always end up taking on the same shade of carmine red. And the pills that are supposed to make her sleep and forget only sink her in a universe filled with nightmares; nightmares entangled so deeply, so vividly with the reality. They are the reality. It feels like living in the twilight zone, still hoping in spite of her grief that she’s going to wake up and realize it never really happened.

She tries to focus on his face. Maybe if she makes a real effort he will appear, out of nowhere. But the more she strives to visualize him the more his features fade out and bleach. She tries to put together the details, to fuse in the same image his eyes, the curve of his mouth, the once chiseled line of his jaw and curses herself for not doing it when she had the chance, for all she gets now are aggressive flashes of everything that went wrong. Only his voice is still alive, vivid and fresh in her mind, imprinted in a hurried, baffling voicemail for her to never forget.

In the stillness of her apathy, Scott’s voice is interrupted by a sudden shot that makes her start, her heart throbs piercingly in her head.

No.

It’s not a shot. It’s another knock. Firm. The knock of someone with apparently no intention to leave. She hesitates. She doesn’t want to deal with the outside world, not yet. Her glassy eyes open lazily to the sound of the intruder knocking a third time. She yields and like an automaton turns the TV off, leaves her quiet haven and heads to the front door, wrapping herself tightly in her sweater as a sting of cold makes her shiver.

But when she sees who’s standing on the threshold, she’s floored. For an imperceptible fraction of second her eyes leak something; surprise, empathy, a glimmer of lightness for a presence who used to be welcome and in this moment is the closest thing to familiar. Sort of.

She can’t remember the last time Karen has been there. Long ago, long enough to have completely lost memory of it. It was undoubtedly in another life. And the shadow of a smile that greets her is nowhere close to those they once used to share. It’s filled with her same kind of pain, yet Karen is evidently doing a much better job at keeping it all inside. She always did after all.

Nina doesn’t say anything, she honestly wouldn’t know what to say and right now she’s too numb to conceive anything. So she just stands aside to let her in and closes the door back behind them.

Judging by Karen’s pitiful look, Nina must be a mess. The frayed oversize sweater doesn’t hide the lost weight and the absence of make-up on her eyes unveils every single tear she tried not to cry. She is a mess and it’s pointless to try and hide it to someone like her, someone she’s sure that, despite everything, won’t criticize her or condemn her misery.

“Hey,” Karen says, very simply. And there’s an unvoiced I’m sorry in her tone and in her bitten upper lip that Nina has no idea how to handle, except for returning the same apologies.

Ever since it happened, she’s been getting apologetic looks, words of concern – sincere or false, that’s another story – and more set phrases than she can take. Most of the times, she brushes everyone off, pretending she’s fine, because the thought of losing him is already insufferable enough without the thickness of words to make it more real. But some other times she stops and for a moment she’s tempted to ask them what exactly they are apologizing for. Too many reasons. What do they see? The friend? The lover? The exploiter? Do they apologize for her loss of someone who was more important than she’s ever admitted? Or for some sense of guilt? For screwing up everything? All she knows is that their fake expressions of sorrow won’t bring him back and certainly won’t ease her pain. If anything, they deepen it.

She can count on a few fingertips the people who really mean it and this realization makes her feel even more lost and alone. But if there is one thing she knows is that Karen is one of those few. Still, she has no idea what she’s doing here. Aside from a few words exchanged on the phone the day Scott died and at his funeral, they haven’t had any real conversation in ages. She stares at her old friend, silent, confused by the reason behind her unexpected and unannounced visit.

“Hey,” she snaps herself out of her thoughts and finally answers, not adding much to the conversation but she’s not being very talkative lately. There’s always that excruciating combination of pain, anger, shock and emptiness that can’t be expressed with speech. Or with anything else. Crushed by her struggle to keep all those feelings at bay, she has no energy left for words.

And for a moment, neither of them says anything. They just stare at each other, maybe weighing the impact of the abrupt absence in their lives.

There’s not much to weigh though, Nina considers. Her agony is written all over every cell of her body.

“I… I had to go through some of his personal stuff,” Karen starts and her voice reveals an uncommon hesitancy.

She’s very careful not to mention his name and it strikes Nina how most of those close to him seem to avoid mentioning his name. There’s some underlying comfort in this disjuncture. She has a hard time saying his name aloud, too and whenever someone mentions his name she instinctively turns her head to the speaker, eyes down to defend her feelings. She’s doing it again now, but this time her gaze falls on something in Karen’s hand instead of some cold floor marble. It’s an envelope, a bubble wrap one and whatever the content is, that’s likely the reason why Karen is here now.

When she looks up, Karen’s eyes are lingering on the same piece of golden paper, confirming her suspicions.

“There was… this,” Karen says, as she stretches her arm to hand her the envelope. ” I thought you should have it.”

It takes a moment for Nina to pull together enough courage to meet her halfway. For an infinite moment she just stares at the envelope, unable – or more afraid – to check its contents. When she finally makes up her mind, her hand can feel something solid and thick through the bubbles. A book? That’s her first guess. But upon opening its end, she realizes she was wrong.

It’s definitely not a book. It’s a tape. She looks up at Karen, confused, bewildered, searching in the woman’s eyes some answer to a question she’s not sure she wants to ask. But the white label catches her attention before she can actually voice anything.

May 1984.

Blood runs cold in her veins as the year kicks in. 1984. May 1984. This date is familiar in a devastating way. She remembers, and she remembers something she’s not sure she wants to remember in a moment when she’s already fending off floods of regrets. She watches her own hand tremble as it takes the tape completely out of the envelope and it takes her a good amount of self-control to not let it fall to the floor. Its contact burns on her skin like the memories of that day, like the uncountable amount of red wine that had come along with that dinner.

Scott. One of their long weekends. And a very memorable one.

She remembers the dinner at her place, she remembers his offer to cook and how she was surprised about it because she didn’t even know he cooked in the first place. And in fact it turned out he didn’t. Everything was either half-baked or overdone, either insipid or so spiced that a whole bottle of red was gone with the first course, though she couldn’t deny some sick pleasure in watching him tangle with the pasty mushroom risotto.

She remembers laughter that still reaches her like a distant echo, because the thought counted more than the catastrophic result.

She remembers her unselfish, unconditioned thanks for his failed gesture. Then she remembers the morning after.

May 1984.

The label plays a painful reminder. It still burns, three years later, and now more than ever it pierces her heart mercilessly.

She looks up at the woman who used to be – and that maybe, after all, in some ways still is – her friend. “Thanks,” she whispers with a broken voice.

Then a doubt assails her. How does Karen know… At the only thought she might have watched it, Nina diverts her gaze down, unable to stand her inquisitive look any longer. God only knows what she might think of her after this.

“I… I didn’t,” Karen answers her unexpressed fears. “I stopped it after the first seconds.”

Only when she exhales her relief she realizes she was holding her breath. She takes in Karen’s words with a faint nod and watches her as she turns on her heels, starts to leave, then stops on the doorstep for a weak, sorrow-charged smile that Nina returns. “How are you holding up?” she ventures to ask though, knowing Karen, she probably won’t get any open answer.

Karen stares at her, then shrugs. “Like everyone else.”

Like everyone else.

But in this moment Nina doesn’t feel like everyone else. Everyone else seems to react, to pull themselves together and keep on with their lives. Why can’t she? She should be fighting. She should be reacting. What’s different for her? What’s drawing her down? In her heart, she has all the answers already but it’s easier to believe she doesn’t than to face the reality that there are a million things she never told him and she’ll never have the chance to tell him, that she devoted the last months of her life to ruining their relationship and yet she still had some confidence – or vain hope – it could be rebuilt.

Everyone else doesn’t have to deal with such weighty baggage.

Like everyone else, she repeats to herself and nods in acknowledgement to Karen, who turns to leave. And this time she doesn’t stop her.

When the door shuts between them, she finds herself staring blankly for a moment at the white wood; seconds or minutes? She can’t say, time seems to be running in slow motion lately. Eventually, she drags herself back into the living room and looks around. Standing in the middle, she feels the hard plastic of the tape oddly heavy in her hand and she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do with it.

With Karen gone, the apartment has sunk back into an unsettling silence animated only by her loud thoughts. She gazes down at the tape again. It won’t stop burning. She rushes to the bedroom, hides it on the bottom of a drawer, then holes up again in the only place where she’s allowed to unloose the physical pain of her loss.

Quick flashes of that weekend keep hammering in her mind. Their cheerful voices and the clear laughter haunt her beneath her refuge. It all seems so real at the point that she just gives up, tosses the sheets and listens to the silence around her. Her gaze falls on the drawer. She heaves a resigned sigh, sits up and reaches out for the knob. And with no further thinking she takes the tape from where she hid it only minutes ago.

Her index finger runs down the felt tipped words on the label, tracing their curves and lines. Scott’s handwriting. May 1984. Her mind can’t seem to move past that date and the aftertaste of happiness it brings along. How did they end up doing this? It’s something she can’t remember. Was it the result of alcohol releasing their most hidden desires? The side effect of the romantic dinner? Or just a moment of frenzy? She tries to remember but that memory is for some reason missing. She frowns, saddened by the idea of losing memory of him with the passing of time. She doesn’t want to forget him. She doesn’t want to forget what it felt like to be with him, but at the same time she knows that it’s the inevitability of life. One day she’ll look back and maybe he will be a name from her past, some faded, lifeless memory. What is, in the end, the year they shared over the course of a whole life? Not enough to leave an everlasting mark, but still enough to shatter her. She wants to remember the good because those are the memories that fade away more easily. It’s always the bad ones that remain and she built so many of those to last for a lifetime.

She caves in to the need to see him and with trepidation she inserts the tape in the video recorder and presses play, already knowing she’s going to regret it.

A lump shapes up in her throat as the familiar setting appears on the TV screen. It’s the same surrounding that’s hiding her now, yet it feels completely different.

The camera panning slightly over her, she was sitting on the bed, red nightgown, silk legs outstretched above the sheets and a smile that belonged to someone she ceased to be long ago.

She can feel every nerve of her body beg for mercy and mentally yells at herself to stop it while she still has the chance. But she doesn’t and she scolds herself for not being strong enough to do something so simple like pressing a stupid button.

– Are we really doing this, aren’t we? –

Her body shudders and tingles.

That voice. His voice.

In spite of the gentleness of the tone, it cuts her like a sharp blade from side to side. When was the last time he talked to her with a tone that wasn’t meant to hurt her? When was the last time he talked to her with the tenderness that made her feel so special? She thinks, fumbles with the memories, searches desperately for that single moment but falls through. It’s just one of the many memories that is already lost.

– Already having second thoughts? –

A raised brow, her legs crossed with studied slowness for any second thought to get dissipated in his head. And it sure worked.

– Are you? –

– Do I look like I am? –

Teasing.

Lighthearted and amused. Spontaneous and easygoing. It had always been like that between them. And surprisingly to her, longtime gone memories of their early Yale days resurface from some closet where they had been hiding for a couple of decades. Yes, it had always been like that. Maybe memories don’t evaporate after all, and the thought brings an invisible smile on her face, a smile that fades out as quickly as it appeared as soon as her image on the screen disappears, covered by someone else’s.

She clouds, flinches, chokes back a tear. It’s senses-shattering.

This is how he looked.

Her eyes run up and down his face, marking every line, capturing every shadow, storing every imperfection of his features because she wants to remember him exactly as he was. That was Scott. And that’s what she wants to hang onto, not some distorted, reworked projection of her mind. Her gaze roams frantically, striving to save as much as possible because she already knows she’ll never watch this again.

She remembers. Every single detail. Every word that was spoken. Every kiss that was shared still strikes her with its intensity.

White shirt, hands firmly on the sides of the camera to adjust it one last time, his laughing eyes focused straight on it as he cleared his throat and it feels like he’s about to talk to her but he’s not.

– I would like to put on record that I have absolutely no involvement or responsibility in the events that led to that woman’s decision. –

His lawyer-ish attitude made her giggle in disbelief and burst into a hearty laughter. It did back then and still does now as she realizes she’s laughing for the first time in days and it’s not from the effects of being drunk.

– Are you putting all the blame on me? –

Her arms flung open in pretended shock and he didn’t miss the opportunity to slide in and lay his head down tenderly on her chest.

She still can feel her heart beat fast under the union of their warm skins and his body rise and sink steadily with every breath she took.

– Absolutely yes. –

The shameless admittance. The quickly stolen kiss. And his eyes, wandering with failed discretion over every curve of her body. She always loved the way his eyes worshipped her. They never stopped doing it, even when it was over. And maybe that’s one of the many reasons why it was never over for real, why she never succeeded in letting go of what they had. Even when mad, even when at odds, even when he hated her – and she knows he did – his eyes never ceased to love her. Maybe they still do, but the thought that she’ll never see them again, that she’ll never feel them again, is soul-consuming.

– That’s so lame. –

It was so lame and still he managed to wheedle one more kiss out of her. His hand played with her arm, tickling it with delicate caresses.

Her hand moves to rest delicately on her left arm in an unwitting gesture as if she could meet his halfway, when she perfectly knows it’s not going to happen. Nevertheless, her skin is electric. She would give everything for the chance to feel his soft touch again.

– That’s instinct of self-preservation. One day you’ll regret it and pick on me for it. I’m leaving evidence of my innocence. –

One day you’ll regret it.

She still doesn’t. There are a lot of things she regrets but that’s definitely not one of them. It’s evidence indeed, but of the fact that the happiness of those moments is not a figment of her imagination. It was genuine and concrete like only a few other things in her life are.

There are a lot of other things she regrets. Both leaving him and being with him are causing her an unbearable suffering. If they never had a chance in the first place maybe she wouldn’t be aching so much. She would have lost a friend, still painful but in a different way. She regrets giving up that bliss. For what in the end?

– You’re so prude. –

– Excuse me, I’m what? –

And this time she was the one to lean forward to kiss him, to shut any needless words.

Her finger presses pause on an image she hopes never to forget.

Smiles between kisses. Hands entwined in the hair. Eyes which didn’t need words. Everything that came afterwards doesn’t need a visual reminder.

She never told him what he really meant to her. She remembers telling him she was happy and hopes he left knowing that it was much more than just that. She hopes he was good at reading her eyes like she had always been at reading his.

Her fingers brush her lips. She can taste that kiss and all those which followed.

Do you really think that your life would have been better, had you made a different choice?

Words she asked herself so many times and now bite her back. Would her life have been better? Would have she been happier? She never thought it. She can’t know it, she never will. All she has is the awareness that at some point she was happy, at some point she felt alive. She has learned better than to think happiness lasts forever.

She hits stop, takes the tape off and hides it on the safer bottom of a box in her wardrobe where it’ll remain forever, reading the date on the label for one last time. May 1984. It’s her only tie to a life she wants to remember, when things still made sense. She puts the box back in its place right in time before the front door opens to the lively voices of her husband and Maggie, their two-year-old daughter.