This story is by Vraey and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Where have you been?” She asks me as she flicks her cigarette into the overflowing ashtray.
Judith has not always been like this, you know? I fondly remember her welcoming me with little skits, confessing her unconditional love. Ever since I told her about my leaving town however, her attitude soured. It started off with simple disbelief, yet soon turned into apathy. Alas, she did not stop there, but turned to cigarettes and abuse shortly thereafter.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter! Let’s just get this over with.” Judith grunts.
I have tried pleading for clemency and expressing my sentiment, but it was a waste of time. After all, I am the one at fault. I am the one that never listens, and I am the one that never loved her. Were I to object now, abuse would be my sentence. I just need to stay quiet, endure the pain, and wait for the nicotine to dull her mind.
“Anyone else outside tonight, maybe someone you’d rather meet?” Judith enquires, as she gets up and dons her jacket.
“No, well yes. I mean barely anyone has left their house lately, but I have seen the streets get livelier though. – Oh, mind handing me an umbrella. I’ve left mine in the luggage.”
Judith rummages in a drawer, withdraws a foldable umbrella and flops it onto the stained table. It is different to the one I gifted her.
“A red one? What happe-”
“The clerk gave it to me. A parting gift. Some sort of experimental nonsense. He also asked me to wish you all the best and good luck, or whatever.”
I analyze the umbrella: No traces of craftsmanship to be found, but it certainly is light. Were someone asking me to choose between this and one ‘Made in China’ though, I would pick the latter.
“Much appreciated. You sure it works? Eh, I mean, I ain’t complaining if it gets the job done. Anyway, got your mask?”
“Yes, yes, I’ve got one. Let’s go. We haven’t got all night.”
It has been quite a while since I felt the rain pouring down, literally… The streets around us were once devoid of life, but now this asphaltine wonderland is slowly regaining visitors.
“Got a light? Forgot to bring mine.” Judith interrupts my thought.
“You know I quit. It stinks up my clothes.”
Her expression sours and she heads back inside to grab a lighter.
I do carry matches on me. They are neatly packed away in the inner pocket of my coat. I have tried helping her quit, but she keeps on throwing tantrums once withdrawal symptoms kick in. Today would be our final meeting and after that we split ways. I will be moving overseas, while she will stay.
Judith returns and complains into her fag.
“What are you even good for? You can’t do a single job correctly: Forgot your umbrella, got no lighter, got no nothing. Will you at least be a decent human being and miss your partner of – what was it again? Some years, or so?”
“Why are you ruining my last day?” I mumble to myself, trotting along dejectedly.
Judith stops dead in her tracks and pins me against the wall.
“Your last day, eh? It’s always been about you, hasn’t it? You are deserting us. You are the traitor, and now you try and victimize yourself? To hell with that cowardice! But…” A malicious grin forms on her face, as her smoke assaults my senses, “consider my benevolence a parting gift. Let’s go.”
I find myself dragged across town, like a child to the car after an unfortunate divorce. I love her, but I cannot understand her behaviour. Why, just why does she not understand that I do not want to die just yet? I quit because this job is killing me!
“Good evening, Judith. Would you kindly follow me to your table?” The waiter of the rustic bistro asks, as he welcomes Judith and escorts her to the table.
I take off my mask and force a wry smile.
“Thinking about it, isn’t it pretty ironic? Our last meeting coincidentally also is our first real date, outside of work. Had we met under different circumstances, who’d’ve known? You know, especially with this whole pandemic delaying my travel plans.”
“So, you would’ve betrayed us earlier, have you had the chance? That’s good to know. How about this: I’ll make you an offer you oughtn’t decline. Stay with us, and everything will be forgiven and forgotten.”
“Have you decided on what you’d like to eat? Our chef recommends the ‘Beef Brasato with Pappardelle’.”
“Two sets of grilled Salmon and a Red Wine that pairs well with it. Thank you. Goodbye.”
The waiter, taken aback by her brevity, retreats to the kitchen.
“You were talking? No, wait, that doesn’t matter. Tell me, why are you leaving us? You were invaluable and we needed you as part of our intelligence division. Yet here you sit, tail tucked between your legs. What a pathetic sight. I expected you to be more of a man. Confess, and we might welcome you back without repercussions.”
It has always been about the agency for her, never about us. There is no turning back for me anymore. The conditions are worsening and at this point I am officially treated as a traitor.
I take a deep breath and speak up.
“I have only worked for the agency to settle my debt. This is what we agreed on, and this is what I did. Nothing more, nothing less. Also, nobody has bought my allegiance, and neither do I plan to partake in any dangerous activities, you know? I just want us to leave this behind; to start anew, without this intelligence business, just like normal people.”
“I have friends, I have responsibilities! Do you honestly believe that I can just drop everything and go? How do you even expect this to work out? Wait, no. I don’t need to know. I’m done with this nonsense. It’s sad to see you not budge an inch, but let me ask you, once and for all. Are you absolutely sure you won’t ‘fess up?”
I have made it clear to her, long ago, that I will be leaving the agency. Why will she not understand that this job holds no future for us? Does she think that I have never considered her circumstances? Alas, it does not matter anymore. I do not think that we will be making any progress, so I must end it here.
“Unfortunately, yes. There is no way around it. I never enjoyed this business and I fear that it’ll spell the end of me. Judith, I have enjoyed the past years I’ve spent with you. And I wholeheartedly wish you many more enjoyable years to come – with your new partner.”
Silence befalls the table.
“Miss, this is our finest dry red wine. Please enjoy.”
I raise my glass and toast, “To our past, a wonderful bedding of respite, and to our future, wherein a new start shall welcome us.”
Judith does not react, instead I am left to tackle the worst meal I have eaten since trying out dubious street foods in Thailand. I steel my resolve and face the enemy.
It used to be a great pleasure working with Judith, before things turned sour, but I need to sever all ties. I have arranged for everything. Once I leave the bistro, I will be picked up and immediately transported to the airport.
“I must cut this short. Work called while you were in the restroom. I have already paid the bill. The waiter will bring you an after-dinner espresso, for the ride. Goodbye.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Judith gets up and heads for the door. In the wake of her explosive exit, the waiter brings me my espresso. I pour it down my throat and leave.
I just wanna smoke.
“Truly a shame that it had to end this way…”
I light my cigarette and feel my throat tighten. My heart rips my chest apart and my legs give in. I crumple up against the wall, embracing the wet dirt that awaits me. I truly have chosen poorly. Nobody will hear my cry for help, much less respond amicably to it.
I force a wry smile and utter my final words.
“‘tis truly a shame to end like this.”