Apart

I said goodbye to you without crying. I left what remained on the sidewalk there with you to be run over, stepped on and kicked aside. There wasn’t much left anyway.

Ours was a relationship that crumbled. We held it tight in our sweaty hands, clasped together, but it was seeping slowly through the cracks. We tried to catch it and let it pile again, make a shape, build on our palms. All it did was run over our skin. It was smooth as it dripped and slipped and slid away, it was soft and lovely, and then it was gone.

Perhaps, someday, we will find one again. A relationship, a life, something. We will never find those powdery remnants of love that was. Those are lost. Maybe someday we will find a new place, a new way, and it will be something too strong and solid to ever crack. It will never crumble. We will never have to grasp, frantic and falling, at one another to hold it together.

The Life of a Storyteller

A story is a living thing. People sometimes don’t understand that. They don’t understand the way stories are born, that they grow up and grow old and die slowly or all at once. They have never been to my homeland and could never have seen stories breeding and multiplying. We watch this happen as if we could see destinies woven into strands of DNA, little cells that twist and twine into something new.

I was twelve years old when I got my first story. It was born during sentencing season when ideas are blooming and the stories are suddenly something from nothing. I named it – I can’t tell you the name now though – and I took it home with me. I fed it from a little bottle and I wrapped it in a blanket. I slept curled around it for weeks until it was too big to fit in my bed. It grew quickly, my story. It was from a common and vigorous breed, but I loved it as if it was new and like nothing told before.

Hardcover book gutter and pages

Most stories are old stories. Old breeds, rather. The strains of story have gone back generations, millennia. We recognize the shapes of their bodies. The curves and shines of their faces are familiar to us. We tell them again and again, in new forms. Some of these stories are old and tired, breeds that perhaps should have died out long ago. Most of them are well-loved, for all that.

My first story was one of these. Of course my parents would never have trusted twelve-year-old me with a rare breed. I didn’t care, though. I’d grown up in a family of tellers, and I told my story as if it were special. Children are often the best storytellers for that reason. That is, they love stories for themselves, however overtold they are. Children haven’t learned yet to scoff at the faded strains of story.

Stories are something like pets. They find tellers they like, and they hang around wagging their tales or brushing against legs until they are stroked into complaisance. Some people sort of collect stories, amassing all sorts of different kinds. Some people just tell the same story over and over again, or they trail a pack of stories that all look alike. I guess they find comfort in uniformity. Sometimes, if you look closely enough, you can see that stories have little notches or curves that make them distinct, despite their similar shapes. Sometimes, though, you look at a story bedecked and embellished to find that under all that it’s the same as the one next to it.

I guess the point is that you never really know. I raised my first story and told it out into the world, whispering it into an ear, sending it on its own to find its way. I’ve had countless stories since then. I’m a decent teller. It’s a lovely thing to watch, a story that gets to where it’s meant to be. They fill the world, like shadows, even when you can’t see them in the dark. They know when they’ve gotten to the right place. I like see them scamper or slink or swagger away from my window, where I sit with a couple of new tales and, perhaps, a book.

Journeying

It was already six when Evan showed up at the house. They’d meant to leave at five, but Sarah’s phone needed charging and Evan’s keys were at the bottom of his laundry basket. He got inside, hugged her in a perfunctory kind of way, and sat at the kitchen table while she flitted from room to room, taking a bag from bedroom to kitchen and then hurrying it back in to add something else. It was seven by the time they left, throwing the bags in the trunk and scooping up an armful of snacks on their last swing out the door.

They played music for the first hour of the drive, humming or singing along. Some of the time they just sat in companionable quiet and listened to the voices buzzing from the car’s speakers. Sarah drove. She promised Evan that when she got tired they’d pull over and switch. He was glad, because he didn’t like driving much anyway. It was dark out, and their headlights hollowed a patch of night before them as they went. He was easily spooked and more easily anxious, so he watched comfortably as Sarah navigated the twists in the roads and the stoplights blinking to yellow as they approached. They were on the highway within half an hour, and from there the way was smooth and plain. There were no more turns and no more interesting buildings at the side of the road.

Highway at night

When the radio played the song they both loved, they threw their voices into it. Their singing filled the car, thin and wavering as it was in their imperfect voices. On the flat straight highway the notes bounced and rocked. They wailed the last soaring word and fell silent as the next song began to sprinkle pinging notes into place, and their song faded out. Sarah, without looking, turned down the volume and said, “I love that song.”

“Yeah,” said Evan. “I know. Me too.”

“The ones I love best, the songs I mean, they’re the ones that I feel like really say something. You know what I mean? Like the songs that have lyrics that make sense to me, or that I relate to. That sounds dumb, but you know, the words that I feel like I could’ve written. If I were any good at writing songs.”

“Exactly.” Evan smiled. “I know exactly what you mean. Things mean more to you when they have to do with some experience, or feeling or whatever, something that you’ve lived. Some kind of common perspective, kind of.”

“Right,” said Sarah. “That’s what makes something really meaningful, right? Something that people have in common. Right. But like, not that you have to have the same interest or situation in common. You can feel the same way about a situation, though.”

Evan said, “You know, I always wanted to write songs or something like that. It’s like poetry, I don’t know. Because you said, I mean what you’re saying is exactly what I always really loved about songs or movies or whatever. Movies, actually. I would love to write movies, the kind of movie that you watch and then it ends and you just feel understood. You ever watch a movie to make you feel like that?”

“Just last week, when we watched that one online, that gave me that feeling at the end. I totally know what you mean. When you see something, and you hear it saying something you already know. Except in a new way, maybe. Or like you have the same problem in the movie and in the movie they find the solution and watching it makes everything make a little more sense for a while.”

“Right!” Evan’s voice rose. “You so know what I’m saying. You should help me write a movie. We could do that, you know. Make something that helps people understand their lives a little better.” He settled back, quieted a bit. “I mean, okay, I know that sounds crazy. But we could, I think.”

Sarah smiled at the dark highway ahead, and signaled right. “Yeah. Okay, anyway, I’m going to go to that gas station at the next exit, I want to switch for a little. Or maybe I just need to stretch my legs.”

Evan nodded, though she couldn’t see. She pulled into the gas station, filled up the car, and leaned over to his window. She said, “Actually, you know, I think I’m fine. Just needed to get out of the car for a minute.”

She went around to the driver’s seat again and started up the car. She sat, staring out the windshield, for a long moment until Evan’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. He said, “Right then, let’s go. We still have a long while to go.”

Coffeeshop Stories

Eva sipped her coffee. It was just cooling to lukewarm. The curls of steam had fallen like limp ribbons and the bitterness was tepid on her tongue. She was still holding the pen in her right hand, clicking the retractable tip in and out, in and out. The two women at the table behind her were animated. Their voices rushed along, clattering together.

“I know, but then at the end –”

“When he did, and then it could all have been, I don’t know –”

“Like a dream or something, the whole thing made up –”

“Brilliant, right?”

They paused, presumably to sip their drinks. Eva leaned over her notepad and scribbled a few words. Talking, conversations, television, vampires? She scratched at the letters idly, and then noticed her pen wasn’t writing. She’d clicked it without noticing, and she jabbed the button again. Then she looked at the pad, focusing on it. Time to really write something, get a head start on this story, maybe sketch in an outline. Anything, really. The women began to talk again.

“So have you heard from Charlotte?”

“Yeah, actually, she just called me a couple days ago. You know she broke up with, um, what’s his name?”

“No way, really? I thought they were going to stay together forever. She was so crazy about him.”

“Oh well, I guess. She’ll do better next time.”

“That doesn’t help now, though. She must be crushed. Poor thing.”

Eva clicked her pen again and wrote, Breakups. Gossip. Friendship. Two friends discuss the life of a third. Are they concerned? Just gossiping? Do we learn more about the friends or about the subject of their conversation?

That seemed like a good start. It was an interesting idea. She took another sip of her cooling coffee and made a face. She didn’t love it to begin with, but when the heat masked the taste she didn’t mind so much. When it was barely warm she couldn’t fool herself that she was drinking coffee for anything but the caffeine. She stood and walked a few steps to toss her cup into the trash. When she sat back down, she picked up her pen and click-click-clicked. She had to really concentrate.

“Anyway, we should hang out and watch something. Have you been watching anything good lately?”

“A few things. I have ideas. What are you in the mood for?”

“Huh. Well, nothing too sad. Nothing dark, not today. Not romance either. Something funny, or maybe an action sort of thing. How’s that sound?”

“Let me think about it.”

They kept talking, but Eva stopped listening for  a moment. She wrote more words. Movies. Escapism. Grief. Pretending.

She would go soon. She wasn’t getting any work done here, not really. Click-click-click. The page looked so empty with just her lists and half-broken sentences down one side of it. Absently, Eva doodled a flower in the corner. That cheered the paper up a little bit. Maybe she could get a little farther with the story once she got home and thought about it some.

The women at the table behind her were talking still. One said, in a lowered voice, “God, that clicking is really annoying. Is that her pen? Maybe we should go.”

“No,” said the other. “I think she’s leaving. Look, she’s getting her stuff. She was here with a notepad. I wonder what she’s writing about?”

Sunlight Stealing

Sunlight slipped through the window like a thief easing his way into their bedroom. Laura flinched from the brightness pressing at her eyelids, flaring in her half-sleeping sight.

She was just about to face the end of it. Falling asleep, she’d been brooding on their fight. Andy had curled up on his side of the bed, so she’d huddled on hers and run the lines through her head over and over like a script she was memorizing. She had been sure she was right, he was wrong, he should have called, she should be angry. Then she repeated the argument and she doubted. Later, though she couldn’t remember it, she was certain that the fight looping in her mind was the reason for the dreams.

Sleep swallowed her up while her lips were still moving around the angry words, and she dreamed. She found herself alone, in a vast and flat wasteland. There was nothing but desert sand and a wind that billowed and swirled around her. It pushed Laura, unyielding, until she dropped behind a hill. There was a cave there, lit from within. The sky was dark then, the sand near invisible, so she went inside. As she entered she saw that the cave glowed, an unearthly light from the crystals embedded in the walls. It was a tunnel, deep underground, and it wound and wove as she walked on.

There was the brief sensation that she had turned upside down. Laura knew she could feel it in her stomach, the quick twist from left to right, down to up. There was sky now, in the space she thought had just been the floor. It loomed above her head. It was lower, angrier, than the sky was normally, and it was a dull orange. She nearly brushed her nose on it when she looked up at the stars. The area around her was narrow, a long cramped room with the sky opening above it. Andy was there, and an elf, and a talking raccoon. They turned to her, and they said, “Hello, Laura, are you ready?”

She squeaked, “Ready for what?”

They did not answer her. Instead they turned, her lover and the talking raccoon, and gestured onward. At the end of the cramped room under the low dusty sky there was a door. It was nothing but wood planks, bound by iron and adorned with only a latch. Light shimmered around its edges. She reached for it, and it swung open. Andy walked up to stand next to her, at her right hand, and the raccoon appeared at her left. Andy said, “It’s an adventure, love. We’re going to face it together, just like everything else.”

She smiled, weakly, and the raccoon snarled, “Gods above, but dreamers in love make me sick. Come on, you humans, let’s go defeat the evil already.” She smiled at him too, and together they stepped forward.

When the mist cleared from around them, they were in a fair. There were balloons clamoring together in the sky and a little girl with a cloud of cotton candy. There was a giraffe walking past them and a clown flying by. Laura knew that the fight lay at the end of the lane, and with Andy and the raccoon beside her she walked bravely toward it.

Laura groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. The movement only jostled her awake, though. The pale stealthy light of the sun had already made its way into the room, and it had robbed her of her dream. She turned, and saw Andy. He was frowning in his sleep, probably still angry from the night before. She glared, annoyed, at the sunshine. She wanted the rest of her dream, the end of her story. She sat up instead, because the sun had come up before she could finish it. Her hands fumbled, her eyes still bleary, but she found her glasses on the nightstand and set them on her face so that she could see clearly. The dream was already fading as she shook the sleep from her head. The room around her was pale, just traced with enough light to see by in the waking day.

Fates

“What are you working on now, sweetheart?”

“Oh,” said the girl. “I’m just starting something new. I’m not sure. Probably just another ordinary old bit like the last, and it’ll all look the same.” Her fingers moved over the thread, twisting it in a practiced motion as the whorls and tangles of wool smoothed in her hands. They coiled around the bobbin in a perfect circle that grew and swelled as she spun.

Wool

The mother moved closer and looked over her shoulder. With her came the scent of baking bread and a comforting warmth. When she spoke, her voice was a note below shrill. “Don’t say that, dear. Everything you make is lovely, you know that. You mustn’t underestimate nor scorn the thing created.” She held the last skein of just-spun yarn, and without looking at what she did she worked loops, knots and tangles. The fabric jumped and spread from her hands like cold water puddling on stone. It reached with tentative out from itself and then pushed out until it pooled. Its surface held designs, cables and bobbles, twists and twirls and sprays of thread. Her fingers flashed too quickly to see.

The grandmother, in her rocking chair in the corner, chuckled. She was bent over the fabric in her lap, but one elbow rested on the television remote. In a cracked low voice, she said, “Now, child, don’t pay any mind to her. She gets off spinning stories and you’ll forget to spin thread. The thing created, such as she may say. You just keep going with the creation and it’ll figure itself out.”

The house fell silent but for the mutter of the television. The three watched a reporter appear on the screen, microphone poised, waiting for the signal to speak. The woman on the television resettled her blond bob, smiled, and started to talk. The family was still, eyes intent, fingers busy. After a few minutes they bent again to spin and knot and snip. Eventually the mother murmured, “What a shame, that poor boy from down the block, what’s his name? Car crash. Terrible.”

“Oh no,” said the girl. She put her hand over her mouth, leaving the other to twirl tufts of wool lazily over her knees. “Sam? Died?” The mother leaned to her and pressed a kiss onto her forehead.

“Yes,” said the old woman, absently, her face hidden in the shadow of her hunch. “I did that one last week, I remember.” She jerked at the mess in her hands and, with a sharp scrap of sound, tugged a jumble of thread loose. She cast it onto the floor where it sprawled, a cloud of woven wool on the bleached floorboards. “People dying all over the place, there’s a genocide. And car crashes, famine and sickness and accidental falls from eighteenth-story windows. Keeps a body busy, it does.” Neither of the others answered her, and the babble of the television was the only sound for a while.

When the sun began to lower and the light was left in little stretched squares on the wall, the mother bustled behind a counter. She filled the kettle and set it on the stove, all with one hand while her other twisted thread through loops and pulled bits tight and tied. Before long it began to whistle. The shriek of it started, small and thin. It grew until it screeched enough to fill the whole house, and the mother pushed herself out of the chair again and started for the stove.

“Darling,” said the old woman from her corner, her voice high and peevish. “Get that, would you? Nobody likes a nasty thing like that.”

The mother lunged for the kettle and shifted it aside, and suddenly the wail ceased and there was silence in the house.

The Stranger’s Tale (part two)

“In any case, nobody agrees on who that stranger may happen to be. If some say it is a fragment of a shattered past, some too think that the stranger is a messenger from the future. A ghost of what is not yet living rather than a ghost of the dead. A whole different kind of eerie. Some think that it’s nothing of the sort and rather a person born of dream and chaos. I think I’ve said that one already. The stranger appears, and tells her story, and disappears again. It’s as simple as that. A stranger in a wood, after all, can be almost anyone at all, and too a storyteller is both anyone at all and everyone at once.” The woman gave Ella a wink and a smile.

Chatyr-Dag Night Forest

“Of course, the story comes in many different shapes. In many -” the strange woman leaned toward Ella across the clearing, as though telling a secret, and her voice dropped to a tone that was soft and low, “the story is a truth, a terrible and beautiful truth that can never be untold, and is only given to those who seek it. It’s a warning, an omen, or a fact, I suppose. A telling of what is more true than any other, what’s true about people and the universe, what’s real in the dreams.” There was a moment of utter silence, and Ella’s heart burned and twisted in her. The black of the night seemed to advance, shadows curling like cats in their laps.

“Of course -” and now the woman’s voice resumed its conversational cadence, “that’s utter nonsense according to others. Then again, those others are often the ones who think that the story is something horrid, twisted and fearful.” Ella thought she heard voices around them. She looked from the corners of her eyes, trying to listen to the cries and groans that were almost too faint to hear. The strange woman continued talking as Ella’s ears strained for the voices in pain that swirled and spun in the darkness, but they faded away and she couldn’t hear anything. The voices may not have been there at all. Perhaps she was imagining it. She was simply getting spooked by the story, that was it.

The woman was saying, “and there are some people who think that the story is naught but a dream misremembered, nothing but a bad night’s sleep with only bits of anxiousness and terror grumbling in your stomach. It could be that, I suppose. No more than the hidden misgivings that appear and speak to you in the gloom. It could also be the wish of the past or the fleeting sight of the future. Nobody knows, do you see?”

The moonlight flickered on the strange woman’s face, and the two of them sat cloaked in quiet. Around them the forest was still. Nothing moved except a shiver crawling up Ella’s spine. When her shoulders trembled the stranger began to speak again. “My dear, it’s but a story, or rather bits of a story that don’t quite make sense. Nobody knows what it means, a story from a strange person in the night. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. If you don’t think it does. If you get a chance, though, sweetheart – do try to tell it again. It’s a story that’s meant to be told, for all that it’s made of wishes and fancies, hollow ones at that. Anyway, Ella, think on it some. Dream about it a little. Don’t forget.”

Ella looked at the woman, sitting serenely and looking straight at her. She watched the shifting glimmer in the woman’s dark eyes, and wondered at herself for being so calm, for accepting this bizarre thing that was happening to her. She didn’t want to forget, and against the words ringing in her head and the woman sitting against a tree whose story was finished, she closed her eyes. She told herself the words she had just heard, the ragged patched-together story made of dreams and retellings. The words pirouetted and dipped in her head, dancing fast to the beat of her heart.

She told herself the story against the dark behind her eyes until the words blurred and ran in her mind. When she opened her eyes again, she was alone in the forest under a lightening sky. She hauled herself to her feet and looked for the sun, and the shadows that would point her way home.

The Stranger’s Tale (part one)

Everything began when Ella got lost in the woods. She’d been hiking, watching the sun stream in languorous ribbons down the trees and crumble through the leaves. She got distracted. It was easy to do when the light sliced through the forest the way it was doing. But then the shadows grew, and stretched. The light faded and the blue darkness pooled on the ground until the trees and the sky were steeped in it. The shadows spread and Ella was alone in the forest in the dark under a violet dimming sky.

Ella tried to figure out which way was north, or which way she’d come. The moon was no help at all. It just glimmered at her, indifferently, offering a sliver’s worth of silver light. She’d worn shorts and a sleeveless top, which was sensible in the sun. In the deepening dusk the mosquitoes swarmed and before too long she was covered in bites, slapping at her arms and brushing bugs from her neck. Finally Ella sat, her back to the prickly bark of a tree, and closed her eyes to wait for the sun.

A chirp sounded. She sighed. Crickets. Another chirp, and another rang out. Soon the air was clamoring with crickets, and probably the odd frog. The noise continued for a while, and then in a moment the forest was silent. Ella opened her eyes.

There was a woman there, sitting against a tree facing Ella. She was wearing long pants – Ella’s bug bites itched in envy – and a t-shirt. She smiled when Ella looked up at her, and said, “Hello there, sweet one. You seem a bit lost.”

Ella scrambled to her feet, bracing herself against the tree when her legs buckled. Her whole body seemed to be asleep. The strange woman rose too, somewhat more gracefully. “Yes,” said Ella, her voice loud against her own ears. “Could you tell me the way back to Angram Street? It’s just against the woods, it’s where I came from -”

The woman was shaking her head. “No, dear. I’m sorry, I simple don’t know the geography of this place. With me, though, you have nothing to fear, and I can tell you a story to pass the hours until day breaks. If you like, that is.”

Ella’s brow crinkled. What a strange suggestion. “Okay,” she said, knowing that she sounded as bewildered as she felt. “Sure, I’ll hear a story.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” the woman clapped her hands together. “But first, what is your name?”

“Ella.”

“Ah.” The woman let out a long sigh. “Ella. That was my name once.” Ella just looked at her, blank.

“Right then, on with the story. It’s a tale long and seldom told, a tale you can find once and never again. A tale that is spun lost in the wood by the light of the almost-moon. It’s about a story, in a manner of speaking. A tale within a tale. Though what is a story, of course? That is the question. A dream, a ghost, a wish? I wouldn’t know, of course. I only tell the tale. You know, when the tale is told by a good storyteller, all else ceases to exist? But I’m rambling now, and I will tell you.”

Ella was thoroughly perplexed at this point, but the strange woman continued.

“This is a story cobbled together from the half-remembered and nearly-known. It’s about a ghost more than a wish, I suppose, because it’s about itself. You see, when a person -” she nodded to Ella, “when a person such as yourself, my dear, finds herself wandering a strange place where the moon is barely gleaming on the trees, she may meet with a ghost. Or a dream, or whatever else it may be. Nobody quite knows who the stranger is, who the dream is. There have been arguments on this point, naturally. Some say that the dream is nothing more than that, the fancy woven of fear and moonlight. Some say that it is a shadow of the past. Those ones have a story all embroidered and blood-spattered. It’s the ghost of a woman who fled to freedom, who escaped a vengeful lover, who – oh, I don’t know. Who can say. Those ones think it’s the heroine of some story who’s run from it, only to find herself in another. It’s a very dramatic view of things.”

Ella coughed and the strange woman looked up, as though she’d forgotten her listener was there. Neither spoke for a minute, and then the woman went on with her tale.

Five Minutes to Breathe

Clouds stood crisp and white against the blue of the sky. The edges furled and wrinkled, faraway fjords in nothing but sunlit mist. It looked so close that he could touch it. Higher up the clouds dissolved and swirled like sheer scarves of gauze. Brian settled back onto the grass, letting the soft blades tickle the back of his neck and his shoulders. He had five minutes left. Then he’d have to get back to the factory for another four hours. He let out a long, slow breath.

A sigh sounded next to him. He’d nearly forgotten that Tam was next to him. She scooted over to press her arm against his. The warmth of her skin thrilled against his own, deeper and more solid than the sun melting on his face. He turned his head to smile at her. She was looking at the sky too, her eyes fixed on a cloud or maybe just lost in the dusty blue. He smiled at her profile instead, at the intent eyes and the peace smoothing her face.

After a moment she turned and saw him looking. They were so close that her breath whispered against his cheek. Abruptly she shifted, pushing a hand onto his shoulder to lever herself up. Once standing she offered a hand and pulled him to his feet. She kept her hand in his, her fingers small in his, and tugged him toward the road. “We should start walking back,” she said. Her voice was husky after the silence, raw in the still air.

Trees and sunlight

Photo credit: Takashi(aes256)

They walked side by side on the scruffy grass at the side of the road. She let go of him, and his hand felt empty. He curled it into a fist, and his curled hand hung by his side. The sun was high in the sky. The trees were shattered kaleidoscopes of light. The greens and yellows and blues tangled and sliced together, bright and beautiful. Brian could never walk past this street without staring a little. Even after six years in this town, his eyes went to it at once and stayed.

Tam checked her watch. She had to get back at the same time as he did, though she was going to the school instead of the factory. They were right across the street from each other, though. They stole off nearly every day during lunch to slip down to that secret spot of theirs. Sometimes they even brought food, though mostly they forgot. That had been their tradition for a year, since Brian graduated and had been working at the factory. On days when Tam couldn’t meet him, he wandered around listlessly. Sometimes he felt like when he didn’t see her he was holding his breath. The world faded a little bit, and when she was there again it was like the air rushed back into him and he could breathe again.

They were still a ways away from the school factory. They should have left earlier. Lines were creasing in Tam’s forehead as she fiddled with her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. Her voice had evened out, losing the quiet rasp it always got when she didn’t speak for a while. He loved that rasp.

“Race you back,” he said. Tam grinned, and then sprinted off. “Hey!” he called, jumping forward. She laughed back at him over her shoulder, her eyes bright in the midday sun. She ran, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust and her elbows swinging. Brian took a quick deep breath and followed.

Darkening

The people in the park around them were dark and blank against the slipping light of the sunset. The skyline jutted in great bricks of black to carve shapes out from the sky, where the colors spread and dripped past the horizon. Charlotte closed her eyes, leaning against the warmth of his chest, and sighed.

Martin’s arms tightened around her, and she turned to him. He wasn’t looking at her, and she tipped her face up. He noticed, after a moment, his eyes flaring. He kissed her, a brief touch, and then let her nestle against him again. He didn’t move to hold her. Before long, of course, he wanted to leave. They walked, hands clasped, down the street and toward her place.

When they got into the apartment, Martin hissed out an exasperated breath. It was a mess. It was always a mess. He had used to think it was cute, the way she forgot about her coffee mugs and dropped discarded clothes over chairs. That had been months and months ago, though. She scurried from one corner to another, catching up dishes and shoving them to clatter together in the sink, flicking the sweater and the scarf into the bedroom. “Sit, babe, I’m just going to get some water.” He sat and she hid in the kitchen for a moment.

In March, when they were still flushed and smiling about one another, she’d said nearly the same thing. The words rang in her head with the memory echoing behind them. He’d stood instead, surprised her at the sink and wrapped his arms around her waist. She’d set the glass down and turned, forgetting to turn off the tap so she could kiss him.

Charlotte watched the water fill the glass. She thought it would be very dramatic to stare and let it overflow until her hand was shiny and slipping, but she didn’t. She could hear the chair creaking from where Martin was shifting his weight in the other room. The glass wobbled in her hand, water leaning closer to the edge, threatening to spill. She carried it out of the kitchen and sat across the table from her boyfriend.

The room was tinged with darkness. She’d forgotten to flip the light switch. Martin’s hand was on the table, the window sending its shadow to stretch long and straight away from the light. She reached for his hand, curling her fingers around his. He didn’t move, and she felt a heaviness settle in her chest. She was used to the feeling. In the shadowy room she watched him hold still, his eyes downcast, away from her. After a long moment he looked up.

“Actually, Charlotte, I should probably get going. I told Mike we could hang out tonight, you know, I should go grab some food before I meet him. Or we could go for dinner, I don’t know. You okay?”

“Yeah,” she smiled at him. The sadness sat and swelled. “Sure.” Martin stood, slipping his hand from hers, and walked to the door.

He half-turned to her, sitting in the darkened room by herself, and spoke over his shoulder as he opened the door. “I’ll text you or something tomorrow. Love you.”

“Okay,” she said, watching him go. “Bye.”