Flash Fiction Challenge 2010: Challenge #1, Round 1
Genre: Romantic Comedy
1,000 word limit
Tess ignored the fact that her handcuffed companion had stopped running.
She charged past him to reach the end of the alley, her momentum pulling him forward and her back, their bodies colliding and sending him sprawling, off-balanced into the side of a dumpster as her shoulder connected abruptly with the bricked wall of a building.
“What the hell are—” Jack gasped.
Tess contorted herself, twisting around until she faced him, her hair slipping loose from the knot she’d tied at the nape of her neck and clinging to the sweat marking a trail down the side of her face.
"Do you want to get shot? Is that it?" Jack growled, jerking her cuffed arm roughly and pressing her against the wall. “We have to get to the ferry, Tess.”
“The ferry is obvious,” she argued.
The barb of the rough-hewn bricks poked through her thin T-shirt. Her jeans felt weighted, heavy against her thighs. The tang of sweat, dirt, and old garbage wafted around them.
And Jack was standing too close.
“Exactly,” he nodded. “An obvious place to hide.”
“Or get caught,” she retorted, pulling her arm from his grip. “We need to go to the bridge.” She bit off the end of each word.
Brow puckered in a frown, Jack darted a look around the corner of the building Tess leaned against, then ducked back, shaking his head.
“The bridge is out,” Jack pointed out. “There are cones and orange barrels everywhere.”
“Exactly,” Tess countered.
Jack’s glance was incredulous. “And this helps us how?”
“If we get on the other side of the barricades before they find us,” she lifted a shoulder, “we could lose them in the city.”
“Listen,” Jack said, his voice assuming an air of authority. “I’m fairly accustomed to bringing my witnesses back alive.”
“Fairly?” She scoffed. “Not exactly a confidence builder, Counselor.”
“You’re my witness,” Jack said through clenched teeth. “It’s my case. And my job to get you back.”
“This is my life,” Tess snapped, rattling their cuffs.
“Tess,” Jack said softly, grabbing her attention. His eyes seemed to turn her to glass. “We need to work together on this.”
“Then trust me.” She matched his stare.
Tess had resisted the confines of a conventional lifestyle for too many years to relinquish her perception of control to the reasoning of this man. No matter if that damn half-grin of his caused a tick in her gut every time he dug it out.
He wasn’t grinning now, though.
Her gaze took in the set of his mouth, lines drawing the edges down in a bow of worry. The events of the day had tarnished his polished appearance. Strands of his impeccable brown hair had fallen across his forehead, giving him the illusion of innocence. His tie was askew, he’d left his suit jacket back in his car, and he was missing a cufflink.
The fact that he even wore cufflinks made her want to laugh.
The fact that she liked them on him made her want a stiff drink.
Jack was the first to look away, reluctant surrender evident in the roll of his shoulders. “The bridge? You’re sure?”
He pulled his lower lip against his teeth, biting it in what she’d come to recognize as nervous habit. She struggled to ignore the irrational desire to bite it for him.
“The bridge,” she asserted, trying to keep her voice even. “Get on the other side, slip into some pub, and call for back-up. Or whatever.”
“The ferry’s still a better idea,” Jack grumbled.
“Well, if I’m wrong,” Tess said, glancing at him askance, “feel free to gloat.”
Jack’s grin hit his eyes and clenched her stomach. “You can count on it.”
They stepped clear of the alley, moving with casual swiftness toward the barricaded bridge, avoiding curious eyes, Jack’s arm around her waist, her arm behind her back, their bodies close.
As they approached the last crosswalk before the bridge, the plaintive sound of a guitar drew Tess’ attention. A man sat slouched in a doorway, eyes vacant, dirty fingers gathering rhythm. Next to him, leaning against the door as if waiting for its cue, was a tarnished saxophone. Pulling Jack to a halt, Tess dug into the pocket of her jeans and retrieved a bill, dropping it into the overturned tambourine near the street musician’s feet.
“Why’d you do that?” Jack asked, slightly breathless from keeping pace.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Tess replied softly.
“Even lawyers?” Jack asked.
Tess didn’t allow herself to glance his way. “Almost everyone.”
They walked in silence for several beats until Jack suddenly rolled her roughly against him. Before she could protest, he’d guided her toward an alcove doorway, tucked her into the corner, and blocked her from sight. Her heart shivered at his touch.
“Quiet,” he whispered urgently, his lips close to her ear. “I saw them. Heading toward the bridge.”
Jack looked over his shoulder. “Pretty sure.”
Tess peeked out from beneath his protective arm. Near the orange cones that blocked the bridge entrance stood two men whose imposing figures were frighteningly familiar.
“Maybe we should try the ferry,” Tess said in a small voice.
Jack’s quiet laugh was quick and unexpected.
She blinked up at him. “What’s so funny?”
“I had plans to meet another attorney at Chez Marius tonight,” Jack said quietly, his grin coating the words in honey. “Looks like I’m not gonna make it.”
Tess pursed her lips, daring another glimpse around Jack’s arm. The men were still there. “Sorry to ruin your plans,” she muttered.
Jack lifted their cuffed hands and rested his palm on her jaw. “You were wrong about the bridge.”
His lips hovered close to hers, his breath ghosting her cheeks.
“What are you doing?” she asked against his mouth, her eyes slipping shut.
“Gloating,” he replied.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
This was an entry for the 2010 Kansas Fiction Writers contest, written in March 2010.
How little today resembles what yesterday thought it would look like…
--Jim Beaver, “Life’s That Way”
Seth Ramsey was no stranger to the dark.
For the past year, he’d carved out a fledgling reputation as one who was never far from the shadows. Darkness was often blamed for hiding secrets, but it seemed to him that people who claimed safety inside the day were only fooling themselves; the light too often teased with promised relief and brought with it only the pain of reality.
It had been day when he’d learned Sophie was gone, light spilling all around him.
His eyes wandered the moonless sky and the still-bare limbs of the scattered trees. He’d parked his car in the hollow of a dead-end gravel road and perched on the scuffed black hood, cloaked completely by the night. He’d made the effort to sneak into the shed behind his father’s house undetected, slipping his old Ford out from beneath the tarp and driving the ten miles to the house he’d once lived in just to go inside. Alone.
Now that he was here, though, he was going to need a minute. The courage he needed to face the truth was buried too deep inside for easy retrieval.
The orange and blue flash of a match head briefly cut through the shadows, momentarily illuminating the black of his jacket sleeve and jeans. He lifted the flame to the end of his cigarette, the leather of his jacket creaking, and then shook out the fire, the softer glow of burning tobacco and paper replacing the bright flare. The tang of the nicotine hit the back of his tongue one heartbeat before a thin tendril of smoke snaked through the air and wrapped around him like a familiar embrace.
Using the tips of two fingers calloused from years plucking guitar strings, Seth drew the unfiltered cigarette from his mouth, darting out his tongue in a quick gesture meant to rid his lips of the cling of roll paper. It was a crutch he couldn’t put away and, at times, the only way he could find balance in a world that fed on chaos. Taking another drag, he exhaled tandem rivers of smoke through his nostrils and watched as the headlights of an approaching car skimmed the silhouette of a small house across the road from him, revealing the sparse, gnarled trees scattered across the bare yard. He’d never been one for landscape upkeep, and since his departure, the land around the house had surrendered to the conquest of dirt and weeds.
As the car continued down the road, wheels gracing the rumble strips that warned it was too far right of center, Seth let his eyes track the retreating taillights, flirting with the idea of following. Leaving. Shaking off this insane search for absolution and walking away. But his heart beat in a shaky reminder of what had brought him to this moment in the first place: he couldn’t escape his past.
It had been a year since he’d left this house; a year to the day. He’d spent most of that year on a French Quarter high, bouncing from open mic to empty stage, using his voice to try to rid himself of the youthful disease of malcontent, seeking fulfillment and finding emptiness.
Most people he’d encountered in his recent travels had viewed their own yesterdays through the comfortable veil that was memory, washing angst with the brevity of lessons learned and tempering heartbreak with the benefit of experiences. For Seth, thoughts of his past loomed like a cold specter in a circle of warm, familiar faces.
He jerked, startled from his reverie, as Alice in Chains’ Rooster suddenly echoed from the lining of his jacket pocket, cutting through the quiet of the night with a reminder that he was not, in fact, alone. He knew before retrieving his phone whose voice he’d hear on the other end; she called every week like clockwork, ignoring his half-assed attempts to dissuade her by simply not answering. She had been persistent in her efforts to keep what was left of their family connected, however tenuously.
He turned the cell in his hand to look at the display, his lips wrapping around a whisper of her name: Renee.
She sighed relief into the phone, the sound of her breath skipping across the mouthpiece to rest in his ear. She said nothing else for a moment, but he heard the confused tangle of her words anyway: come back, stay away, don’t go, leave…
“You’re at the house, aren’t you?”
He didn’t answer her. She’d always known him better than he wanted to admit. She’d been both sister and mother, in the absence of their own. She’d been his conscience for as long as he’d allowed her and his protector when he’d tested the limits life naturally put into place.
And when he’d walked away from everything, he’d walked away from her.
“You don’t have to do this,” Renee said.
He heard latent tears in her voice; she wouldn’t cry, not to him. But he knew she had been.
And he knew she would be.
“Yeah, I do, Ren,” he replied, lifting the cigarette to his lips and pulling in a drag, letting the buzz hum through his brain as he waited out his sister’s next argument.
“There’s nothing there,” Renee tried. “Nothing that matters.”
Seth looked across the road at the small house. A pseudo-porch flanked the bungalow-style building, blue shutters gracing the two front windows like lashes on sorrow-filled eyes. Even in the dark he could see that the graying paint was peeling from the boards; yellow crime scene tape still crossed the front door, though the edges were frayed and flapped a bit in the mild, early-spring breeze. The nearest neighbor was a quarter of a mile down the road to the west and the gravel road, where he currently sat hidden, ended at the shell of an abandoned church.
It had been their childhood home until their mother died. His father had kept it; claiming it would be needed some day. That day turned out to be Seth’s nineteenth birthday, when he’d found himself tearing down walls of indifference between himself and his father and Renee had stepped in with a solution before words had evolved into blows.
“I’m still here.” He exhaled a heavy breath, his cigarette now resting in the corner of his mouth, the dull orange glow bouncing as he spoke.
“You’re smoking again,” Renee guessed.
Seth didn’t reply.
“You really think that’s a good idea?”
“How about we pick one battle at a time?” Seth rebuked.
“You’re a singer, Seth,” Renee hammered.
“I’ve got a Plan B.” Seth lifted the cigarette from his lips and dropping his hand to rest on the top of his thigh.
“Guitar?” she asked, the word a one-note scoff.
“Drop it already.”
Renee had moved him into that house, choosing to stay with their father until their youngest sister, Sophie, was old enough to be on her own. It had been his refuge—a fortress of solitude in a life that would soon be over-exposed. Five years later, Sophie had moved in.
Seth closed his eyes, blocking out the sight of the dying house. There were entire days from this last year that he couldn’t recall, liquor and late nights having rubbed out their imprint on his memory. There were faces of women who’d lain next to him for the space of a night that he’d pass by in a crowd without even a glimmer of recognition. There were roads he’d travel twice because he didn’t realize he’d been there before.
But he’d never forget the day Sophie had joined him in living at the old house, escaping the bad choices of her youth and seeking solace in her older brother’s irreverent life that her older sister’s structured lifestyle simply couldn’t offer.
“I wish I could say I understand why you’re doing this,” Renee sighed.
“It’s been a year, Ren,” Seth said quietly. “I just…I gotta know.”
If I can face what I didn’t do. He rolled his neck, hearing the vertebrae crack with the motion. Renee didn’t bother to wait for him to figure out how to answer her question.
“Just walk away again, Seth.” Tears balanced on the edge of her voice. “Leave.”
“Why not?” Her voice became slightly shrill. “You didn’t come back when she died. You didn’t come back when we buried her. You were gone, Seth. Free of this.”
“No, I wasn’t.” His quiet admission brought her voice back to normal.
“I haven’t even been back inside since…since that day,” she told him, offering him an escape clause. “No one expects you to go in there alone.”
He rolled his lips against his teeth, pressing them together, searching his supposedly bottomless repository of words for the right ones to fit this situation and coming up empty. Even now, even after everything he hadn’t done, she was still trying to protect him.
“You want to go with me?” he asked, knowing the answer, but offering her a chance to once again hold the role she felt most comfortable inside.
“I will if you’ll wait until tomorrow.”
“No.” He shook his head, feeling his shoulders tighten as he resisted. “Tomorrow’s…no good.”
“What’s so important about tonight, Seth? The anniversary isn’t for weeks—“
“Because, Ren,” Seth snapped, irritation at having to justify himself shimmering just below the surface. “Because this is the day I left her. This is the day I walked away.”
When the edges of their lives had fallen in, Renee had done everything short of showing up on stage and dragging him back home by the scruff of his neck. She’d made calls, sent emails, written letters. Her eloquent words had threaded through the numb rejection of the moment with an impotent attempt at reason, and in the end, he found that he simply couldn’t believe her. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d come home.
What mattered was that he’d left.
His family had fallen apart with alarming speed, and he’d simply walked away. The only thing that had him here now was the soul-killing realization that he had nothing to walk toward.
“You couldn’t have known,” Renee tried, her tone gentle. “There’s no way any of us could have known.”
“I was living with her,” Seth replied. “I should have seen. If I’d…paid attention, I could have known.”
He heard the desperate edge in his voice slipping through the cracks of the quiet. It had been frighteningly easy to create the mystery that followed his music: he simply hadn’t allowed himself to feel anything he wrote. His lyrics held emotion that would enthrall audiences, allowing them to see his pain through the individual filters of their own lives, telling them who he was in whatever way they wanted to define him.
But he hadn’t felt it. It hadn’t reached him. And he’d been able to exist inside of that. Until tonight.
“People survive stuff like this all the time, Seth,” Renee said. “We’re not…unique.”
“What, and that’s supposed to make it better?” His voice hardened, the edges of his words becoming clipped and sharp. “You think I care that everyone has a sad story?” He curled his fingers against his palm as he spoke, tightening his grip until he felt the blunted ends of his fingernails dig into his skin. “This happened to us, Ren. To me and to you and to her.” He felt his body want to echo the movement of his hand, his belly coiling, his legs twitching.
“Stop it,” she ordered, her voice matching his in edge, the fragility hidden in her tone coming close to shattering him. “You don’t get to say that to me, Seth. Not you.”
The word sorry snagged on the inside of his throat, unable to find its way into the open air of the world. He was sorry; everything about him at the moment was an apology. But his lips went numb at the thought of confessing that truth before he’d walked through the door of the house.
“Why are you doing this, Seth?” Renee asked finally, cutting the heartbeat-filled silence with a trembling plea. “What is it you think you’ll find? There’s no…reason it happened. It just happened.”
I’m lost, he wanted to admit. But his lips didn’t move. His lungs rebelled against the necessary breath needed to speak. I’m doing this because I can’t do anything else.
The worry laced through that one word chilled him, an inadvertent shiver slipping up the length of his spine and settling like a cold hand at the base of his neck. His name seemed to be suspended in her voice, captured in her mouth as if she were trying to keep it—and him—safe.
His eyes burned and he realized he hadn’t blinked since his outburst. His cigarette had burned ash down to his fingers and he forced his fist open, dropping the butt into the gravel at his feet. The act of snuffing the smoldering tobacco with the toe of his boot drew him from his stupor.
“I know what I’m doing,” he promised her, feeling a suddenly affectionate smile tug the corner of his mouth and he tucked his chin to his chest, knowing she heard the scratch of the scruff that framed his jaw as it raked against the end of the cell phone. He knew she didn’t want to hang up, just as he knew she’d run out of things to say.
“You’re really sure about this?” One final time.
He lifted his eyes, regarding the house. It was waiting for him. He somehow knew it had chosen him to be the one it spilled it secrets to. He knew it as clearly as he knew his eyes were green, the scar on his cheek had come from a blow meant for someone else, and the lyrics to his first ballad had been stolen from a love letter Renee had written to a boyfriend.
This night was going to change his life one way or another.
“Call me when it’s over.”
He’d never tell her, but she sounded exactly like their father when she issued requests in the form of orders. She expected nothing less than agreement when she spoke in that tone.
Renee never said goodbye. She’d toss up a smile; perhaps a nod and a wave, or she’d part with a love you or maybe a see you later, but never goodbye. Seth listened as she cut off their connection and waited until the dial tone sounded in his ear before closing his phone and stuffing it back into the pocket of his leather jacket. He pulled his lower lip into his mouth, still tasting the cigarette.
Sliding from the hood of his car, he retrieved the mini MagLite flashlight from the recesses of his jacket pocket. Twisting the head, he pointed the narrow, intense beam at the house and resisted the urge to wince as the too-brilliant light further exposed the neglect the house had suffered since his younger sister had died inside its walls.
“Here goes nothin’.” He stepped from the illusion of safety the shadows provided and crossing the silent street.
The air seemed to cling to him like cellophane, giving him the sensation of walking through spider webs of memory. He almost reached up to brush them away from his skin, but stopped just short of lifting his hand. He reached the porch and kicked aside one of the decorative rocks that flanked the steps leading to the door. Beneath was a small, silver key.
The individuals who had once resided inside this house had perpetuated human mayhem with storms of emotional outbursts and gales of near-hysterical laughter. But at the core of it all, they had been family. And he knew that nothing could twist him up as completely as his family. They’d been his last line of defense and first enemy; they’d known all the buttons to push and the right order to push them in. And he knew that somewhere in the memory of that chaos the reason Sophie was gone lay hidden.
“Man up,” he scolded himself, gripping the key and unlocking the door. It swung wide and he swiped his hand down, breaking the decaying hold of the crime scene tape and stepping across the threshold.
It was as if the house took a breath.
For a moment, the darkness inside that perceived gasp of air was so complete he felt as if the walls had absorbed him. The cloistering, panicky feeling of imprisonment gave way to complete, irrational terror when the wind picked up, sucking the door from his hand and slamming it closed decisively, as if punctuating the end of a sentence.
Seth felt the muscles across the plain of his belly tighten even as his legs seemed to liquefy. He couldn’t quite justify his fear; he’d lived here in his youth and as an adult. He’d lived here with his sister as his career ignited. It should have been a place of peace. Yet the darkness that had lately been his salvation became almost a predator and he felt himself shrinking away.
Instinctively he reached for the wall switch, though he knew Renee had turned off the power to the house long ago. Habit had him nervously flicking the switch twice before the signal that it no longer worked traveled from his fingers to his brain. It took him a moment to think to raise his flashlight, letting the beam score the dark and chase away the terror.
“There’s nothing here, Ramsey,” he said aloud, needing the sound of his own voice to steady him in the heavy quiet. “There. Is. Nothing. Here.”
The house was cold—almost colder than the outside. He moved into the small living room; the furniture was where he’d left it, but the bookshelves were a mess: paperbacks fell in haphazard stacks, some spilling to the floor to lay with their spines spread wide. Sophie’s snow globes were still there, dust having gathered in the waning time and dulling their reflection in his flashlight. Continuing to trail the light around the room, Seth shook his head, somewhat awed at the disorder left behind when the investigation into his sister’s death had been completed.
He lifted the beam to the wall above the sagging couch and felt himself stumble back a step. Pinned to the wall with thumb tacks was a broad, loose canvas. On it someone had sketched the outline of a jigsaw puzzle with what looked like charcoal. Across the assembled pieces, Seth saw various images that he worked to place. Concentrating the light at the top left corner of the canvas, he worked his way down, feeling his chest burn with a latent ache as the image slowly solidified in his brain.
Lyrics from Seth’s music overlaid sketches of guitars and a bar of musical notes that his mind immediately connected with a chord from one of his songs. He read excerpts from Renee’s favorite authors, pieces from political speeches their father had all-but memorized, and partial recipes from meals their mother had cooked. He saw flowers pressed in wax paper overlapping postcards from towns he’d played on what he laughingly called a tour.
Stepping back further in an attempt to widen the beam of light, Seth saw that what was tacked to the wall were moments of every family member’s life—except for Sophie. As he traced the beam lower, he saw that the puzzle wasn’t completely put together: one piece was missing.
The edge of the puzzle piece was sketched off to the far lower left of the canvas. Inside, a peace symbol had been drawn, wildflowers pressed flat and lacquered to the canvas inside the sketch. Frowning, Seth moved closer, shining the flashlight onto the symbol. It took him a moment to see it, but the wildflowers spelled out his sister’s name inside the peace symbol.
“Aw, dammit, Sophie,” he whispered, straightening up. “How come—“
His own question was cut off as he caught the blurred image of movement from the corner of his eye. Gasping, he turned swiftly to his left and trained the beam of light on the next room, working to steady his quickened breath as he saw it was only the flutter of a curtain. Closing his eyes, he dragged his hand down the length of his face.
“Son of a…,” he whispered, letting the curse trail off into silence as he worked to shake free of the sudden fright. “Get a grip, man.”
His bedroom had been adjacent to the living room, and Seth knew it was empty of furniture. He’d cleared it out the night he’d left for his tour, telling Sophie to stay as long as she wanted. You’ll be safe here. He could still feel those words on back of his tongue. You’ll be safe here, Sophie.
He hadn’t even known what—or whom—he claimed she’d be safe from. He’d just wanted to leave, get on with his life, take advantage of this opportunity. Worrying about a younger sister who was more apt to surrender to fantasies and daydreams than do anything productive hadn’t even been in his orbit of care.
Seth wrinkled his nose at the putrid smell of mold that greeted him. It was evident that the window had been left open a few inches since the last time someone had been inside the house. Weather had been allowed in, rotting the wood of the windowsill, soaking the wall and the carpet beneath. Tucking his flashlight beneath his arm, beam shining behind him, he used both hands to shove the swollen window frame back into place. As he closed the curtains, he caught sight of something reflecting in the window, lit by the flashlight.
It was the figure of a woman.
With a cry of surprise, Seth whirled, dropping the flashlight to the carpet, the heavy instrument hitting the sodden floor with a thump. As it rolled to a stop, the beam shone on a poster of a nameless brunette straddling a black guitar and staring out from beneath too-long bangs, her sultry eyes flashing bizarrely in the swaying light.
He began to shake.
There was no slow build-up, no calm before the storm of tremors that now wracked his body. He started to bend down to retrieve his flashlight but when the room spun around him, he found himself instead reaching for the wall to keep from falling to his knees. His palm slid slightly on the cold wall, his fingers digging for purchase until he found balance.
“I know you’re not here, Sophie,” he whispered into the quiet darkness of the house, his flashlight still shining on the warped poster tacked to the opposite wall, subtly lighting the empty room. “You’re not anywhere. So what the hell am I looking for?”
The police had found her lying curled up on her bed, as if she were asleep. Their discovery had been prompted by Renee’s worry when her sister hadn’t answered two of her daily calls. Renee had phoned the neighbor down the road from her work and when that neighbor hadn’t been able to get Sophie to come to the door, Renee had called the police even before she’d left her office. She’d known then, Seth was sure. She’d known in that moment that their sister was gone. He hadn’t known until Renee had called him later that afternoon, but there was no doubt in his mind that Renee had felt the truth.
Sophie had been dead for nearly two days when her body was found; the pills she’d ingested with a Merlot chaser taking away the pain none of them were even aware she’d been feeling quite so keenly. She’d always been fragile; her voice ice-delicate in his memory. But she’d come from the same family, the same chaos, the same drama that had forged both he and Renee. He’d always assumed her fragility masked an iron core.
Seth all-but staggered from his old room, moving as though pulled by an invisible rope back into the living room, past the jigsaw-puzzle canvas, through the kitchen, only stopping once he reached the threshold of Sophie’s bedroom. The door was closed, the brass knob painfully cold in his grip.
He couldn’t turn the handle.
His lips tingled as if tiny pins pressed against them and he realized he hadn’t taken a breath inside several heartbeats. Pulling in air, he heard it catch on a sob and felt his stomach muscles clench, propelling him slightly forward until his forehead rested on the cold, smooth wood of his sister’s bedroom door.
“I hated you.” The breath from his words bounced back against his face in the narrow space. “I hated you for leaving.” He didn’t know where the words came from, but once spoken, he recognized the honesty threaded through each one.
Tears burned the back of his throat as he felt the truth begin to claw its way from his belly, climbing his lungs and digging its way into his heart. He’d despised himself for so long, berated his weakness for not coming home, for not seeing, for not being there. He hadn’t wanted to recognize that the slow burn twisting around his spine to make a home at the base of his heart wasn’t self-loathing: it was anger in its purest form.
Anger at his poor, fragile, lonely, dead sister.
“You were so fucking selfish, Sophie.” He sobbed out the words, his breath crying even if his eyes still could not. In a nauseating rush, the emotions and words he’d held at bay for so long swept upwards, beating against the inside of his skull like panicked hands searching for escape.
She can’t be gone…How could she leave…How did I miss it…What was so bad that she…Why did she do this to The world isn’t right if she’s not How can she not be What am I going to do now Did I let my sister die….
With a cry he slid to his knees outside her bedroom, the flashlight tumbling from his numb fingers and rolling across the linoleum of the kitchen floor. He willed the tears to come. He slammed his forehead against the door, wanting to force himself to feel. But his face remained dry, his eyes burning, his chest such a raw mess of tangled emotions he felt as if he’d fallen on a land mine.
“Fuck it.” He turned the handle and shoved the door open forcefully enough it banged hard against the opposite wall. From his knees, he took in the shadows of his sister’s room.
Everything was still there; the police had searched the room for signs of foul play, looking for any evidence that it hadn’t been a suicide, but all they’d found was the empty bottle of pills and the half-full bottle of wine. Her bed was unmade; the white sheets knotted at the foot. A quiet, heavy, dusty silence lay like a shroud over the pile of dirty clothes in the corner of the room, the stack of books on the desk, the sketch pads strewn next to the door, the collection of candles and wax gathered at the base of a free-standing, full-length mirror.
Seth pawed at the floor clumsily until he found the flashlight, then used the door frame to pull himself to his feet. His shaking had quieted, but he felt weak, spent, as if just getting over a lengthy illness. He shone the light on Sophie’s bed, swallowing past the lump in his throat at the sight of the crumpled pillows and small red wine stain on the edge of the sheets. He swept the light back across the sketch pads, looking for something else that might give him what he needed to see.
Something that might tell him why.
“Were you lost, too?” he whispered to the room. “What couldn’t you live with, Sophie?”
Glancing down at the sketches, he caught sight of a face, the charcoal-like outline partially smeared by hands that saw it not for what it was: Sophie’s voice. The face in the sketch was his, the shadows under his eyes sweeping out like wings, his hair—too long now to match this drawing—framing his jaw line like slim, but greedy, fingers. His eyes, however, had him bending to one knee to carefully pick up the sketch pad.
She’d drawn his face, but her eyes.
They weren’t edgy, cautious, calculating. They weren’t the empty eyes he’d become so used to seeing in the mirror each morning. They weren’t eyes that didn’t reflect the words he’d pressed against a waiting microphone night after night.
They were the eyes of bruised innocence. Eyes that saw too much; that felt it all.
“Is this how you see me?” He asked before he could stop himself. He looked up, wincing. “How you saw me, I mean,” he amended, catching the outline of his own reflection in the full-length mirror. Setting the sketch down on the edge of the bed he turned to face himself in the mirror, the flashlight angled down toward the pile of candles.
He was thin; the darkness he’d wrapped around himself manifesting itself in his choice of clothing, his curtained hair, his barely-parted lips. Only the paleness of his skin and the green of his eyes gave any indication that Seth Ramsey was more than just a shadow. Sighing he shook his head in disgust, the motion teasing the beam of light across the reflective surface of the mirror and exposing an odd smear.
Moving closer, Seth realized that something had been painted or drawn across the glass at the level of his knees—or, he realized, the level of a young girl’s eyes if she were sitting down. Crouching low, he traced his fingers through the dust.
“Wax,” he realized aloud. He tilted the glass slightly, shining the light across the smooth plane.
I was here.
Written in wax, the whorls of his sister’s fingerprints still visible, Sophie had made her final declaration. I was here. She had been there. She had meant something. But it hadn’t been enough for her.
Seth let the mirror fall back to its original position and sat heavily on the wood floor of the room. He tried to breathe, the words he’d spoken in anger just moments ago echoing back at him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, wanting the house to hear, knowing the very thought sounded insane.
He’d been wrong, all this time. It wasn’t that he’d walked away. That hadn’t been his sin. Sophie had been the missing piece of the Ramsey jigsaw puzzle. But what she’d been trying to say, what she’d never found a way to tell him—tell any of them—was that it had been peace that she’d been missing. Peace with herself. Peace to accept who she was.
It wasn’t that he’d walked away. It was that he hadn’t come back.
“I’m so sorry that I wasn’t here,” he managed to choke out. “I’m sorry I hid from you. I’m sorry I hid from this. I’m sorry I didn’t let myself see what you needed to tell me. I’m sorry that I—“
He ran out of words.
It had been the catalyst for returning to this house on this night. He’d always been able to pluck a few chords on his guitar, close his eyes against the glare of the stage spotlight, all-but caress the microphone with his lips, and the words had flowed like water.
Until the night he’d simply...run out of words.
Hanging his head low, feeling the tense muscles along his neck pull with the motion, Seth surrendered. The tears rippled through him, falling from the tip of his nose, his lips, his chin and collecting on the candle wax at the base of the mirror. He cried for his sisters, both lost in their own ways, for his father who might never really absorb the reality of his children, and for himself and the year of emptiness he’d somehow survived.
He cried until his body ached, his breath felt labored, and his face was chilled. As he lifted his head to peer once more at his reflection in the mirror, he gasped. Staring back at him weren’t the eyes of a jaded musician. In his face, he saw Sophie’s eyes. And smeared across those eyes, written in wax on the mirror, were the words: you are here.
Seth heard himself whimper and saw his lips turn up in a tremulous smile as the mirage faded and he once again recognized his face.
He hadn’t been there when she’d given in; he hadn’t been there when they buried her. If anything, he’d expected the imprint of her memory in this house to retaliate with residual anger. He’d expected the promise of a tortured soul. He’d expected her to break his heart; he’d expected her memory to tear him to pieces, rip him apart.
The forgiveness and acceptance he felt envelop him for that brief moment left him dizzy with relief.
“I am here, Sophie,” he rasped, emotion turning his voice ragged.
He was here, now.
Standing, Seth looked around the room once more. He slipped his hand in the pocket of his jacket, fingering the book of matches nestled next to his pack of cigarettes. Pulling the matches out, he looked down and realized he knew how to end the darkness this house represented in the lives of what was left of his family. Gathering the sketch books and tucking them under his arm, he returned to the living room and pulled the canvas with Sophie’s Missing Peace from the wall.
When he left the house, the smoke was already billowing beneath the door. By the time he’d crossed the silent road to his car, the fire lit up the night sky like a beacon. He perched once more on the hood of his old Ford, no longer in shadows as the funeral pyre for his sister’s pain chased away the night and highlighted his face.
He set the canvas on the hood of the car next to him and pulled out his cell phone. Renee was going to want to kill him when she found out. But she would understand. He’d find a way to make her understand. She answered on the first ring.
“Seth?” she greeted him.
“It’s over.” He was surprised to hear that his voice was actually steady. The words had felt almost too big for his mouth. “It’s over,” he repeated, just to be sure.
“Over? You’re…are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” he nodded, though he knew she couldn’t see him. “We need to talk.”
Renee’s voice was cautious. “About what?”
Seth looked at the flames eating the wooden structure that had contained so many memories, so much pain, so many explanations that no one had been able to understand. The light from the fire dazzled his eyes, but he didn’t look away. He drank it in, wanting nothing more to do with shadows.
“Missing peace,” Seth replied.
“The missing piece of what?”
“Don’t worry,” he promised her, “I’ll show you what I mean.”
“Give me an hour and I’ll meet you. Where will you be?”
Seth pulled his lower lip against his teeth, unable to suppress a smile of acceptance. No longer did his past lurk at the edges of his attention, haunting him with thoughts of what he hadn’t done, who he hadn’t been. Three words—real or imagined, it didn’t matter—validated the anger at his sister for the choice she made, forgave the disgust with himself for the repeated act of cowardice, and began to soothe a year of pain his shattered heart hadn’t been strong enough to feel.
You are here.
“Seth?” Renee said, her voice giving him a virtual shake back to reality. “Are you still at the house or what?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here,” Seth answered her, feeling his body ease with that affirmation. “I’m here.”
He hung up with his eyes on the fire’s light.