This story is by KG and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
KG lives in the Pacific Northwest, is married to her best friend, and has too many dogs. She started writing when she was a teenager in a horribly misguided attempt to be cool. Her hobbies include reading, video games, running, and baking. You can find her on Twitter (@prettytruestory).
Henry stood in Rachel’s bedroom, holding the fiery red leaf he had picked up on his morning walk. He’d brought it as a gift but now he felt foolish standing in her room holding a leaf, even if it was beautiful. He placed it on the dresser and sat on the edge of the bed, where her scent lingered in the unmade sheets.
He knew what she would say: they had an agreement. A business transaction. Seven years was long enough to not arouse suspicion, but short enough that they could still find true love, if that’s what they wanted. Rachel had rolled her eyes and made quotation marks in the air at true love, as if anyone could believe in that fairy tale.
Henry dreaded the sound of his wife’s car pulling into the driveway, because it meant he had to tell her two days before their divorce he had somehow accidentally, amazingly, fallen in love with her.
Henry met Rachel when he had been slumped at a bar, engaged in a one-man pity-party. Rachel had sidled up to the counter and leaned on it without looking at him.
“Why the long face, sourpuss?”
He’d cast her a sideways glance then told her because what did it matter? His work visa was expiring in six months and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. She’d listened to his entire story without interrupting.
“That’s a real bitch,” Rachel said, then immediately launched into a joke about a pirate that walked into a bar. Henry gave a short, abrupt laugh. He couldn’t tell if she was kidding, but then she started another story about a dog and he never got around to asking.
At the end of the night, Rachel and Henry exchanged numbers. The next day, she texted to ask if he wanted to meet for lunch and soon they were texting each other over trivial things, then meeting at their respective homes to watch movies or eat together. It just made sense to share dinner and the Netflix account. It was, as Rachel described it, a friendship forged in the heat of desperation.
One morning, they were having breakfast at Henry’s as Rachel sorted through her mail. She opened her Visa statement and made a face.
“Bad month?” Henry inquired mildly. He was making pancakes and watched as the bubbles rose around the edges.
“It never is.” Rachel pushed the offending slip of paper away, and from the corner of his eye Henry could see numbers in red.
“You know I’d loan it to you.” He flipped the pancakes.
This was a conversation they had had before. Henry always offered but Rachel always refused. He didn’t know if it was pride, embarrassment, or a mix of both. She seemed uncomfortable with the idea of owing anyone anything.
Unless, of course, it was the Visa corporation.
“Maybe we should just get married and solve each other’s problems.” Rachel tapped the statement against the counter. Henry poured more pancake batter onto the hot griddle and shifted his weight. This topic had also come up before, usually once enough wine had been poured.
“Only if you get caught.”
Henry was spared a response when Rachel’s phone beeped at her. Henry plated the pancakes and they ate and discussed the latest political scandals. He scraped pancake through the maple syrup pooling on his plate and foolishly thought the subject closed.
“It feels weird,” Henry said later that week. They were eating Chinese takeout and had agreed to start House of Cards. Rachel had come at him with a written proposal for her green card marriage idea a week ago and Henry was surprised by how concise and logical Rachel could be when she wasn’t losing her keys or forgetting things in the oven.
“Think of it as a loophole.” Rachel piled lo mein on her plate and sat on the couch. “You get to stay here and I get to wipe my financial slate clean.”
“So you take my money and I take your citizenship?” Henry joined her with a smaller portion of noodles and a few pieces of chicken.
“Sure. We’re just trading goods and services, aren’t we?” Rachel slurped a noodle and clicked the remote. Henry picked at his chicken. He didn’t want to be part of anything illegal but was desperate to stay. America wasn’t perfect, but it had the Internet, and grocery stores bursting with food. Time was running out, and Rachel’s plan didn’t seem as preposterous now that he was holding a written plan.
It could work, Henry’s brain whispered as Kevin Spacey’s unhappy face filled the screen.
Halfway through dinner, Henry asked Rachel if it bothered her to marry for convenience. Rachel paused the show and made unapologetic eye contact in the flickering blue light.
“I don’t believe in marriage.” She picked the remote back up. “I do believe in making your own luck, though.”
Henry couldn’t argue with that.
Henry sat on the edge of Rachel’s bed, watching as she dug through her closet. It was the evening of their anniversary, but they had elected to stay in after the weatherman warned of wind gusts.
“Finally! Why do I always lose things?” Rachel held up the shirt she had been looking for then joined him on the edge of the bed, their thighs not quite touching.
“You’re a slob.” Henry said. Rachel slapped his leg.
“We made it.” She pretended to wipe sweat off her brow. “Any regrets?”
He didn’t know if she was referring to them, or the impending divorce, or their decision to lie, or everything all at once.
“None. Well, maybe not such a big cake next time,” Rachel joked. On their wedding night they had stayed up watching The Walking Dead and eating their way through a sheet cake from the local grocery store. Henry ate so much of that cake that for two years after, he couldn’t bring himself to touch anything that resembled cake.
They sat in companionable silence, and when the lights flickered again they smiled at each other.
“I guess we’ll look into the paperwork soon,” Rachel said.
“I’ll pack my things next week. I’ve got a paper I need to finish this week …” Rachel trailed off.
Henry drew a deep breath and opened his mouth. The words perched on the edge of his tongue, eager for flight.
You don’t have to pack. You don’t have to go.
“Henry?” Rachel fiddled with the edge of the sheets.
“I have to tell you something.” She looked up at him with bright eyes and he couldn’t help it; he smiled back.
“Nate’s asked me to go to Vermont.” Rachel cupped her hands and covered her mouth in an attempt to hide her grin. It was such an un-Rachel like gesture that for a moment, Henry was disoriented.
“Oh?” Henry’s voice was faint, like he was shouting down a tunnel. Henry had met Nate a few times; he was Rachel’s classmate. Henry had liked Nate. They had talked about their upcoming weekends and their eagerness for the cooler fall weather.
“Yeah. We had a big talk …” She leaned back and gazed at nothing.
The lights trembled and went out. Neither moved.
“I think I’m in love with him.” Rachel’s voice was small in the dark.
Henry remained silent. He wanted to grab Rachel, hug her to him and hold tight. But he was not Nate, and he would not get to be with Rachel. The pain of this knowledge brought everything into a sharp, clear focus.
“You should go.” He spoke before he could change his mind.
“You think so?” Rachel said.
Henry didn’t answer, but went to the dresser and picked up the leaf from two days ago. It was still the same dark red, but when he picked it up small pieces broke off, as if his touch was too much.
Rachel joined him, searching his face. He studied her back. Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her skin was flaking around the scalp, dry from the cold weather. He had spent seven years with Rachel and knew that she laughed too loud at sitcoms and sometimes chewed with her mouth open. She always crossed the street if she saw a dog she could pet and when she got too excited she couldn’t form complete sentences.
Henry felt his heart crack in half. He opened the window and held the leaf out, watching as the wind snatched it away. Rachel smiled at him, and he forced a smile back. He could fake a little happiness for her.
“Yeah. It isn’t love if you don’t act a little crazy, right?”