He has too many words to say and write and think and they’re pressing and building – and he’s so afraid that he’ll forget how to unstopper them and let them spill out and fall, slip sinuous and puddle in a pool that sinks into the soft weave beneath what holds something together, himself or something else. He’s afraid they’ll stay there, and he won’t be able to let them out. He’s afraid to live quietly. He’s afraid of being alone, and he’s afraid that people are alone, and thinking of it makes him slide apart. He’s afraid he’ll forget the words he needs to say before they slip out, before he slides apart or together or holds himself fast with forgotten threads of memory laced with tears and grief and still bound tight. He’s afraid to speak.
Ned hadn’t talked to Sarah for a long time. When he saw her, pondering three brands of spaghetti, he stared for a long minute before he realized who she was. She looked up, with that crooked eyebrow he remembered, skeptical about the strange man eyeing her in the supermarket. When she saw him her face brightened and she smiled, until she seemed to remember and the gladness dampened a bit. He grinned, steeled himself, and lunged for a hug. She let him, though her arms were stiff and she pulled away too soon.
“Sarah, my God, I haven’t seen you for ages. How have you been?” His voice wavered with the question.
“Pretty good, all things considered. You know, working and things. I’m really busy lately, actually, which is nice. How are you?”
Ned nodded. “Pretty good too. I actually just moved back around here, I’m about half an hour away but I work near here. Never did go back to school.” Her wry grin crinkled at the corners just the way it used to.
“Well,’ she said, “you’re working, you’re doing okay, right? So I guess you never needed to.”
“Guess not. Sometimes I wish I had. What about you?”
“You mean, do I wish I had? I did. Or were you asking something else? I mean, that’s what I would have wished, if I hadn’t. Oh, that’s all confused. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so,” he said. He didn’t, but he didn’t think it mattered.
Sarah snatched a box of pasta off the shelf and tucked it into her basket, starting off down the aisle. She said, “Listen, I actually have to run. Good talking to you.”
Ned wheeled. He called after her retreating back, “I’d love to catch up sometime, if you have a moment, you know.” He cursed his tongue-tied fumbling. That felt familiar. “I mean, we haven’t seen one another for a good while. It’s been too long.”
She looked at him. “Has it, though?”
She is an old woman, querulous and domineering. He is a gruff timid old man, sometimes biting dry words into splintered shards. She snaps at him, shrilly plies plaints of empty supermarket shelves and rude waiters. He winces at each grating note, flinches when she begins to speak. And mostly he stays quiet, until he can listen no more, and hears a second of silence to speak, and grumbles a complaint of his own– then the cycle begins again. Every so often, he would be quiet for a long time after one of her tirades. She would look at him, and then her voice would be brittle and bright as she recounted some event from the news. Every so often, she would frown and turn away when his voice was too rough and impatient aimed at her. He would put a hand on her shoulder, and hold it there for a moment, before creaking up to standing and walking away.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
- You called your dad to tell him you had a new girlfriend. He sighed and said, “Oh, another one?” You felt a flare of self-righteous defiant falling-in-love, just to spite him. You filled yourself with a determination for the new romance that lasted at least a month.
- When you met her, she smiled at you. Across a crowded room, no kidding. She’d made you feel like you were special, and that you mattered to her. She could hold your gaze and you were weightless. When you met a year ago you felt like you were floating when you looked in her eyes. You were mesmerized by the gleam, the shine in the way she looked at you. Now in a crowded room you can’t read her glance, if she’s looking at you at all.
- Sometimes she’ll say something. Call you “honey” out of habit, or laugh too loud at a joke you’ve already told. Those times you feel a rush of warmth, a love that suffuses your tired heart and rushes up to flush your face. After a while it goes away again.
- It took you months to put any of this unease into words. Now they’re words you’ve hidden away, folded and tucked into a crack between thoughts, because you don’t want to have to look at them.
- Your best friend got a sweater when you were at some department store together. It was cashmere or something fancy, warm and soft. You’d loved it, been jealous, because it was your favorite color. A sort of gray-green, a soft pretty color. She bought you a sweater for your birthday. It was red, and when you opened the present the smile you showed her felt familiar.
- You spent two hours talking to someone about how you felt. A new friend, maybe, and you felt like you were saying something important even when you were quiet, just looking at her. It was probably just that it was different, would have been forbidden if it had been anything. Even so she’d fallen asleep with her head on your shoulder and her hand on your leg, and you’d lain awake feeling wistful for something that never existed.
- Sometimes you have whole conversations with your girlfriend and you get by just guessing when to say “uh huh” and “you’re kidding.” You don’t feel bad. Sometimes you can tell she does the same thing when you talk. Often.
- Last week you saw that new friend. When she smiled at you – it might have just been your imagination – she looked wistful too.
- Yesterday you and your girlfriend argued. It was about something stupid. It’s always about something stupid. You apologized. She said, “I know. It’s okay. I love you.” You didn’t believe her and you said, “Okay. I love you too.” You don’t think she believed you either.
I see a girl on the bus every day, on my way to work. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying this to introduce some romantic fantasy. It’s not some wild pretense that I know her, know deep into her soul. That’s ridiculous, I don’t know anything about her beyond what I can see from a few seats away on the bus. What I can see is this: She sits, always, in the same seat. It’s the third seat back from the front, on the right side. She sits with her spine straight but her neck bent over, head looking down at whatever’s in her hands. It’s almost always some simple object, and she turns it and turns it in her hands, looking at it so intently. Her hands are small, and the nails are barely chewed – nibbled, really – and there’s a round scar on her right wrist, at the top bone where her watch sits. Her eyes are wide when she watches what she’s holding, and they are very round, and blue. They are not so round when she is not staring in fascination, I think, at a penknife or whatnot. They go up a bit on the outside tip, and the blue is grayish but in the brightness, when the bus passes someplace bright and the sun washes over her through the window, her eyes are light and clear. Her hair is brown, and in that light it has hints of red, but otherwise it’s dark and plain, and barely curls at the ends brushing her shoulders. She has a short straight nose and full lips, and her face is round like her eyes. She never wears anything fancy; just sweatshirts, jeans. Sneakers, usually. Sometimes she pulls her feet up onto the seat, her knees touching her chin or pushed to the side. Once in a while she brings a book and reads instead of playing with some trinket, and sometimes she forgets what’s in her hands to stare out the window, face reflecting the play of light as the city rushes by. She has a habit of pulling up one hand, absentmindedly, and rubbing her nose, pulling her index finger over the top of the tip of her nose as if there were a fly sitting on it that she was trying to banish. She does this at least once every time she’s on the bus, and I see her with her hand moving, scrunching up her face, eyes distant. I take the bus almost every day. I’ve memorized the way this girl looks, even though I don’t know her at all. I just see her nearly every day, from 8:13 to 8:29 every morning. I’m often tired, because I’ve had a long day before and not enough sleep, despite everything, and some mornings I have to drag myself to the bus stop even without coffee. I do, though, I wait at that bus stop every morning even when the cold drizzle is stinging my face. Not because I’m responsible and have to go to work – obviously, that too. But each morning, it is oddly and quietly comforting to see that girl, the stranger, rub her nose like she always does.
There seemed to be a dragon flying overhead. Theresa couldn’t believe it. Barely anybody else was glancing up, and after rubbing her eyes and looking back she assured herself it was nothing but an odd-shaped bird.
When she got to the office, she could have sworn that the man sitting at the front desk today had pointed ears. He nodded at her cordially enough, and when she stood in the elevator she shut her eyes tight and told herself to get a grip.
The work day passed mostly without event; that thing that looked like a tail flicking from a co-worker’s skirt was probably a scarf. Or something. She decided to get a lot of sleep that night, she was clearly seeing things.
She walked home, feet tapping the sidewalk as always, chiding herself for being silly – she didn’t believe in that stuff. She needed a good night’s sleep and an aspirin, that was all.
A moment later, she stopped short. That was definitely a goblin walking by.