Friday, December 18, 2015

The Longest Night





Happy Friday!
This week, I have another holiday-themed short story for you, along with some blog-related news.
First, as you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been playing with the format and background settings here. I’m quite happy about some of these changes, particularly what you’ll find in the right hand margin.
Go ahead and take a look. I’ll wait, I promise. ;-)
As you can see, there is now a place where you can sign up for my blog posts by email. Cool, right? Not only that, but I don’t even get a notification that you’ve signed up…so you can subscribe and read in utter privacy. I won’t see you at the grocery store and ask you what you thought about my most recent story. Ha!
Second, you can also see that there’s a lovely section over on the right where you can click on any of my book titles, and the link will take you to Amazon where you can buy a book…at least if you’re in the U.S. If you’re outside the U.S. and wish to purchase one of my books, simply go to your Amazon site, and keyword search my name or the book title you’re interested in.
The best part of having a built-in link to my books, is I no longer need to place a promo for my books at the bottom of every post. Now I can link to my blog in places where “no book promotion” is the required etiquette.
Third, and finally, is something that those of you who follow me on Facebook already know. I want to collaborate with visual artists (pro and amateur alike) here on my blog EVERY SINGLE WEEK! If you're interested in collaborating with me, visit my Collaboration page!

The Longest Night

When I get Amy’s text, I turn my hazards on and pull off the road. Then, I take a shaky breath and reread the message.
It’s been six weeks since Amy moved out, taking the coffee table, the battered chintz love-seat, and our one-eyed cat, Rolf, with her. Had there been warning signs? I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times a day since she left, but if there were signs, I never saw them. Twice, I’ve called her, questions bubbling out of me like air from a drowning woman. Did I do something? Can we fix it? Is there someone else? Can we meet and talk? Maybe have a cup of coffee? Both times she’s skirted my questions, not answering anything. Both times the conversation ended with me sobbing into the phone.
And now, there’s this. A three-sentence text message. Phoebe, it says. I wanted you to hear this from me and not the rumor mill, but it doesn’t change anything between us. My cancer is back. It’s stage IV and the doctors say I have two months.
I exhale until I am dizzy. Until I can’t make out the words on the tiny glowing screen. Until the world goes grey and pixelated like a grainy old black and white. I’ve forgotten how to breath, or else all the oxygen has drained out of my car. My arm moves slowly, laboriously, to the door handle. I grip the handle in slow motion. It takes me a decade to open the door and century to pull my numb body out into the ankle deep snow. I stumble to the edge of the embankment and look down. Down, down, down into the cold darkness. Sixty odd feet below me, I hear the ocean lapping against the rocky shore and I decide I need to be there, beside the ocean, and so I lurch into the dark unknown.
I’m wet and bruised when I reach the beach. My hands sting where I’ve grabbed the spiny stalks of Devil’s Club. Far away, in the back of my brain, I realize that I left my car door ajar. Ding, ding, ding, it sings, faintly, into the night. I walk down the beach. I’ve forgotten that I was on my way to a Solstice bonfire. I’ve forgotten that I left my phone and purse in the car. I’ve forgotten everything except this ferocious grief, wrapping its tentacles around my chest.
At the edge of the beach, I squat and dip my hands in the ocean. I let the frigid salt water cup my hands like a lover. Above, the waxing moon emerges from behind a cloud. I watch the moonlight frolic atop wavelets.
Seventeen years is a long time for two people to be happy together. Maybe too long. Maybe we’d been too happy for too long. Did we throw the Earth’s axis off? Was some vast equation disrupted by our joy? Some enormous scale that could only be brought back into balance through suffering?
I squat there, my hands growing stiff and numb from the ocean’s cold grasp, until the bottle washes ashore a foot from me. I can see that there’s a piece of paper rolled up inside the bottle, brown and aged. My knees creak as I push myself upright. My hips and lower back ache. I reach for the bottle but my hands have forgotten they are alive, forgotten they are servants of my brain. I press hands, as nerveless as wooden blocks, against each other. I try to rub them together, but they’re too clumsy. A thread of panic starts at the base of my spine and rises towards my neck and head. Without functioning hands, I don’t think I can climb back up the embankment, much less turn the key in the ignition of my car. If I can’t warm my hands back up, I’ll die here of hypothermia, on the longest night of the year. The irony of that possibility pleases me. Would Amy be surprised to learn of my death? Would she grieve? For a few moments, I actually consider sitting down and waiting for death, but then I look at the bottle again.
As I child, I yearned for someone, anyone, to see me. I yearned for connection. For love. For magic. I was the kind of child who wrote in her diary every day. The kind of child who met friends in books, who kept half a dozen pen pals, and who talked to wild animals expecting that someday, one would answer. I was the kind of child who wrote messages and put them in bottles, always hoping for a bit of magic. So far, in my fifty-two years, the only messages in bottles that I’ve ever found have been ones that I wrote to myself and tucked into my underwear drawer. So far, the only magic I’ve found has been Amy.
I unzip my coat and stuff my useless hands into my armpits. It’s like putting ice packs under my arms, and for the first time, I begin to shiver. I bounce up and down on the balls of my feet and realize that my toes are almost as numb as my hands. A few minutes pass and I stomp and bounce until I’m breathless and my hands feel like they’re on fire. Every nerve aches and burns until I’m tempted to dip my hands back in the ocean to relieve the pain. I reach for the bottle again, but my hands are still clumsy and I know I won’t have the dexterity to remove the cork. I stuff my hands back into my armpits and use the edge of my boot to nudge the bottle, gently, up the beach a few feet, and then recommence my awkward warm-up dance.
It seems to take a long time for warmth to return to my extremities, and I pass the time wishing that Amy were here. Was I ever this cold when Amy was with me? I don’t think I was. Love is like a fire, and her love kept me warm. If she were here, now, we’d be laughing and I’d be warm. We’d be talking about childhood dreams, and we’d be planning to leave bottled notes for each other, floating in the bathtub.
Finally, the pain in my fingers recedes and I reach for the bottle again. I pick it up and examine the cork. It’s wedged far down into the neck of the bottle. If I had my purse, I could use the corkscrew on my pocketknife, the one Amy gave me our third Christmas together, to pull the cork out, but my purse is in the car. I pick up a small stick and push it into the neck, and against the cork. Maybe I can push the cork into the belly of the bottle. The cork doesn’t budge. I push harder. The rolled up paper inside the bottle looks old and brittle, much older than the bottle itself. Again, I push with the stick. Again, the cork refuses to move. Maybe I should give up. I set the bottle back down on the beach. I should go home. I need a hot shower and sleep. I shake my head, irritated. How can I sleep? How will I ever sleep, knowing that Amy is dying? How will I sleep when she is dead?
My teeth are chattering and my hands are getting cold again. I feel like I’m caught in a trap. I cannot go forward, nor can I go back. I start to move my feet again, up and down, but still not going anywhere. I’m trapped. I’m stuck.
Go sideways!
There is a note of command in the tone. As though it’s a separate entity, my brain has come to its own conclusion. I mull it over. How? How do I go sideways?
Seemingly of its own volition, my body bends down, my hand grasps the bottle, I raise it up, up, up…and smash it down onto a sharply angled rock the size of my head.
Shattering glass sounds like shattering ice and I recall the winter Amy and I lived in a float house. Every day that winter, we’d walked the beach, picking up, and tossing back down, sheets of ice left behind by the retreating tide. We spent that season laughing at every crash and tinkle, feeling like vandals, but without the guilt.
I look, wide-eyed, at the jagged edges of the bottle in my hand and shake my head, trying to dislodge the image. I don’t break things. But now I have. And I am shocked. I drop the broken bottle and reach for the paper that has fallen to the rocky beach. I unroll the paper, slow and careful. In the moonlight, I can see that there’s no date and no signature.
You are loved
You are enough
Love fills the universe
Look at the ocean and at the sky, for they love you
Look at the beach and at the plants, for they love you
Breathe love in,
and
Breathe love out

I glance up at the moon, take a deep breath and repeat the last three lines. “Breathe love in, and breathe love out”. Louder, now, I address the silvered waves. “I breathe love in, and I breathe love out.” I exhale, then inhale again, deep and shuddering. “I am loved! I am enough! I breathe love in, and I breath love out!” I shout.
Then, I turn, and make my way back up the embankment to my car.