This story is by Nathan E. Stone and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He sat on the edge of the bed, pulling his legs back into his jeans. She lay on her side, watching the smooth flow of his muscles, the voice already beginning to whisper in her head. Ahead of her, in her mind, the four blocks to the L station, the 20 minutes ride back t0 Berwyn and then the last seven blocks back to the house loomed, giant and ghastly in the darkening twilight that turned the old, yellowed blinds a sickly rose color with dying light.
She crawled closer, pulled herself up by his shoulders and wrapped her arms around him. “Don’t go yet,” she whispered. “I can call John and say—anything. That Lori invited me to spend the night. That I ran into my old roommate. That I’m going to the club, or a movie. Anything. Just please, don’t go yet.”
She could hear the voice growing in its volume, certain words becoming distinct, while the rest were still veiled in babbling.
He let out a small sound. She jerked up, realized that her nails were dug into his skin. “Oh, babe, I’m sorry! I didn’t realize—”
“It’s all right,” he said, the smile in his voice, full of summer sun that never set. He turned around and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I wish I could stay,” he said, “but I’ve got that quarterly project to finish tomorrow. We’ll be back here in ten days. And that will be for a long week-end.” He gave her his smile, the same one he had flashed the day they had met, four months ago. It still sent butterflies through her. More importantly, it blunted the voice that had grown to a regular pitch.
He got up and slipped his shirt over himself. He laughed at the frown in her eyes and cupped her face in his hands. “Just ten days,” he whispered in her ear. There was the brief last kiss, the final squeeze, the absolute final kiss and then he was gone.
The silence and emptiness flooded in, filling the room with their void. It pressed against her, pushing her off the bed, onto the floor, her feet moving in a reckless rhythm over the broad pattern of floorboard and old rug.
She snatched her cloths from the floor, pulled them onto her body in a frenzy before peeling the drapes back from the window. The sun was spilling its last watts out onto the street, turning the pavement into immoveable blood but the tops of the brick fronts and apartment complexes and the skyscrapers in the near distance swallowed up the light, soaked up the warmth, leaving the street in deeper darkness.
She felt her mind tear between the fear to stay and the fear to go. Last time it had been pure agony. What if she saw him again? What if the voice beat her down when she saw him again? The burnt memory of a gaunt face with ice white-blue eyes caught her breath, poured ice onto her in the summer heat. Better in light than dark.
She ran out the door, fumbling to lock it behind her before running down the stairs.
She vomited herself out of the old brick building, powerwalking the four blocks to the station. There was still pink in the sky and the tops of some of the skyscrapers still reflected sunlight, rose and antique gold.
She whipped her head, exorcising the voice from her skull, hoping it would shatter or splatter on the sidewalk. It was always worse after seeing Carl. It had been there after the very first time they had met, after finding each other in the Facebook group. Seeing him, being with him, loving him, was the only thing that shut it up in the moment. And leaving him brought it back louder than the last time. And then two weeks ago…
She shook her head again. It was nothing. It had been a coincidence; that was all.
She crossed the second intersection, the cars held back by the red eye that glared at them. She saw it in the corner of her vision. Just like…
No. She ground her teeth, sped her pace. Only two blocks to go.
A man sat huddled against the brick wall of the building, squeezing himself between the graffiti, keeping his head between his knees as the other people on the sidewalk walked past. She quickened her step again. When she was parallel to him, he raised his head, looked at her.
She froze. It was the same face. The face was smooth but hollow and sunk in, strands black hair covering his forehead making his face look paler than it was. And his eyes were the same, glowing in their icy fire of bluish-white. His mouth started to mouth. Why did you betray John, Jess? He would do anything for you…
She broke the ice in her legs, willed the blood to move again and ran down the pavement, weaving her way through the other bodies, pushing aside the ones that refused to move, ignored the stares, the cusses that spun to stick her in the back. Her legs swallowed the two blocks and the L station stood in front of her, skeletal in its spindliness. She rushed up the stairs as the 7:40 Red Line rumbled to a halt, fed her token to the meter and cocooned herself inside of its steel body. There was a pause that held its breath. Then the doors rattled shut and the train pulled itself forward Uptown.
She forced herself to breath deeply, in through her nose, out softly through her mouth like they taught in yoga. Second time in two weeks…She knew the other girls were worried about her. That’s why Jen had even given her the name of a psychiatrist, Dr. Judson or Hudson or something. His card was still at the very bottom of the night drawer on her side of the bed. She hated shrinks. But twice now in two weeks…He could at least tell her what to do to get rid of the voice; maybe, if she was lucky, the face too. A guilt complex or something he would say.
She learned back, eyes closed, against the plastic seat. An appointment with a shrink wouldn’t help her get home tonight. She forced her mind to relive the best moments with Carl; to paint the future she had planned with him in her head. It always helped; made him real and present again.
She heard the rustle of a coat beside her. She opened her eyes. The face was staring at her, its eyes blazing against her.
“Get away from me!” she shrieked. She pushed herself out of the seat, flung herself into the next car, raced to the other end, into the next car and the next…
At the front of the train she stood by the door, squeezing the hand ring, twisting her eyes shut, forced her mind to ignore the bodies that scraped and brushed against her. When the doors opened, she lead the mass out of the car into the nearly born night.
The crowd dissipated, leaving her alone. The seven blocks stretched out for an eternity, disappearing into the maw of the night. It could be anywhere between here and the house…but she couldn’t stay here. With a small cry she started to run. One block, two…the sidewalk still stretched out in the darkness…three, four…her breath was tattered, her legs wobbly…five, six…had to keep going, couldn’t stop now…seven…almost there…almost…
Five houses down on the right, the anomaly of the lamp post twinkled in the night, casting the front door with a red glow. She stumbled in the door and slammed it behind her.
“Jess?” John called out from the living room. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, babe,” she answered, gulping down the air to quench the fire. “I’ll be right down.”
She went up the stair, letting her hair down as she entered the bathroom. She filled the sink with cold water and plunged her burning face inside the pool. Everything was alright. Soon everything would be better.
She lifted her face out and looked into the mirror to dry it.
The face looked back at her, the eyes glowing in the twilight of the room.