This short story is a response to one of Poke Traveller Lola’s November writing challenge prompts. The prompt I’ve chosen is “I’m no illusion”. Just as a warning, this story does get a bit dark at a couple of different points. Just a warning in case you need that.
“It’s not coming clean,” I mumbled.
“What’s not?” yelled Sara from back inside the house.
I continued scrubbing, trying my hardest to get the dust and grime off of my car, hoping to get it even remotely close to the shine it once had.
“Whatever I got on my car,” I shouted, my voice echoing through the cavernous garage.
“How did it get on there?” she asked, walking out the side door and making her way towards me.
I felt the palm of her hand touch the back of my arm. It was cold; a pleasant reprieve from the summer’s oppressive heat and stickiness. She ran her fingers up my forearm towards my shoulder, her fingertips catching ever so slightly on the sleeve of my black t-shirt. Sara caressed the back of my neck with a soft, fluttering motion that never failed to get my attention.
“I don’t know,” I replied, tossing my soapy rag against the car’s quarter panel. Someone had to have hit one of the puddles by work and splashed it onto the car.
“We could take it to a detailer, you know?”
“I’m not spending a couple of hundred bucks just to get shit off my car.”
“But is it worth your time?”
“Yes!” I yelled incredulously.
“And your frustration?” Sara retorted, her eyes drilling holes in me.
I sighed and picked up the rag.
“Sorry, hun,” I said. “I just want it off.”
“I know. Try again after you’ve calmed down?”
Sara took the towel from my hand, tossing it into the bucket of water placed by the car’s wheel.
“Shower or lunch first? And before you answer, I’m joining you for both. Choose wisely.”
I stared at the clock on the wall through the darkened room. A quarter after one. I think. Could be just after three. I can’t tell. It’s not backlit and I’m not turning a light on. Fuck that noise.
I hate this night. I mean, I hate every night. The thoughts going through my head that keep me from getting to sleep. Sure, they start innocent enough. There’s a girl. We’ve got a date coming up. Thursday night. We’ll get dinner. Maybe go to a movie, to a bar, or bowling. It all depends on the girl. The dates all start mostly the same. They all end the same way. Either I drop her off at her place or we drive to our own homes separately. She does whatever she does. I go home and try to sleep. I try to think about how I can stop this cycle.
It doesn’t stop.
It’s after midnight though. That I know for sure without knowing exactly what the clock says. Through the blinds, a car slowly makes its way past my yard and down the street. It’ll turn at the intersection. Statistically speaking, it’s one of the local cops, scouting the neighborhood to make sure there’s no crime. They come by a couple of times a night on their patrols. No one else comes by this late.
I lean my head back, leaning the back of my chair until it touches the wall behind me. If I close my eyes for just a second, maybe sleep will come like it does in the movies.
“It’s not good, is it?” I asked, cutting Sara off.
She set her fork down on the edge of the plate.
“No,” she said. “It’s honestly disgusting.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “I was afraid of that.”
“But hey! You didn’t burn it tonight. That’s progress.”
Sara grabbed my hand, holding onto it with both of hers.
“You’ll get this,” she said. “I know you’re trying.”
“I am,” I answered. I followed my half-hearted response with a deep sigh.
Sara walked to the pantry and dug around for a few moments before poking her head out and shrugging.
“How much money do you have on you?” she asked.
I reached in my back pocket and grabbed my wallet, thumbing through the bills to get a rough count.
“Two fifty,” I replied. “But I’ve got to get gas and pay the internet bill. I don’t get paid until next Tuesday.”
Sara stared at the calendar over the counter. If it were me, I’d be doing the math in my head. Eight days. $250 to live off of. One, maybe two tanks of gas needed to get me to and from work. She’d likely need tank as well. Though I didn’t know what was in her purse, there was a good chance she’d come ask me for that gas money when the time came. Being a student didn’t pay well. At least that’d be over soon.
“How’s pizza sound?” Sara asked.
“Sounds like money,” I answered.
“Please? It’s a night away from our house.”
“It’s not our house,” I insisted. “We’re just renting it.”
“I know,” Sara answered. “But one day we will have a house that’s our house.”
She walked over to me, wrapping her arms around my neck. From my seated position, I rested my head against her side, only for her to pull me in closer, practically trying to drive me through her ribcage and literally into her embrace.
“We’ll go to the all-you-can-eat place and bring home enough for meals for a few days. I’ll even ask for a mac and cheese pizza. Please?”
My eyes are dry. Whenever my eyes get dry, Ben Stein’s voice comes into my head. That reference hasn’t been relevant in decades. It still happens though. Some things just have an association with them though, whether I want that link to be there or not.
Songs are the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I love music. But I hate how I can hear a song and immediately snap back to a feeling or a moment or a person that I’d tried my hardest to forget comes charging back. Sure, there are positive musical associations my mind makes. “The Entertainer” by Joplin was my first piano recital piece that people did more than clap for me on. I’m transported back to my first night with Sara whenever “Aero Zeppelin” by Nirvana comes on. Even the theme to “The Exorcist” is calming, as I associate it with high school bonfires and hot cocoa.
When Sara and I split, the first song I heard after we went our separate ways was “Through Glass” by Stone Sour. No matter when I hear it, I’m taken back to that moment. The complete and total silence echoing through my head before my car’s engine started and the song came blaring through my speakers was deafening. While I yearned for something, anything, to break it, the song did me no favors. I didn’t have to look in my rear-view mirror to know that my face was a disaster. My hysterical sobs assured that would be true.
My house is dead silent. Not even the airy breath of the furnace pushing heat through the vents is present right now. Just that song, repeating through my head on loop. I want to cry. My eyes are too dry.
“Are you excited for your first day, Dr. Carrier?” I asked, wrapping my arms around Sara’s waist as she fiddled with the clasp of a necklace.
“I’m nervous,” she replied, leaning back into my arms. “I don’t get ready for something 90 minutes before I need to be there if I’m excited.”
“You’ll be fine.”
Sara latched the necklace, tucking it under her shirt. I leaned my chin over her shoulder, placing soft, patient kisses along the side of her neck.
“This isn’t the day for that,” Sara replied between giggles. “When I get home, alright?”
“I’m just trying to calm your nerves,” I said.
She turned around and embraced me, resting her head against mine.
“You’ve got this,” I said.
“I know. You do too.”
It’s after four now. I can’t quite see the minute hand because of the way the shadows are hitting the face of the clock. But it’s some time just before the half-hour. Part of me wants to know the exact time. Part of me doesn’t care. Most of me though just…is.
This was always the cycle when things were good. Sara would have these days where she’d work overnight shifts at the hospital. I’d stay up so that she could have dinner — more commonly known as breakfast to those not working at night — when she got home. We’d share eggs, bacon, and bagels, take a quick, usually uneventful shower together, then curl up in bed and sleep until three or four in the afternoon. We’d occasionally get awoken by a delivery driver knocking at our door or the garbage truck’s chimes that sounded out as it reversed during turnaround. But most days, as the world pressed on around us, we slept. Our fluffy comforter was our armor against the noise of the outside world.
My body hadn’t corrected to living in the daytime. Not yet. You’d think a year and a half would be enough. Apparently not.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
I woke up to the afternoon sunlight skirting past the edge of the blinds and into my eyes. I blocked it out with my arm, annoyed that nature dares exist, then rolled over and faced away from the window. Sara was still asleep, her raven hair obscuring her face from the trickles of sun that tried to reach her. I resisted the urge to wake her. I knew she needed sleep. We were both exhausted, though not for the same reasons.
Sara’s least favorite part of her job — or at least the part of it she complained to me about the most frequently — was the days where she was the on-call doctor. From what I could gather, it was a hard gig for most doctors. But for a pediatrician like Sara, being on-call combined the uncertainty of her normal job, the potential exhaustion from a night of sleep interrupted, and the fear of losing a patient too young to tie their shoes in the middle of the night, and suddenly being on-call was its own special hell.
For me, this was month six of unemployment. The company that had employed me as a security guard had gone under, leaving 130 employees out of work. Though I’d tried my best to find a job, there just weren’t a ton of companies looking for an ex-security guard with an English degree, three year-plus gaps in employment due to health issues, and a preference to not work nights.
Sara said it was fine. Repeatedly. She said I’d find something, especially if I looked beyond security work. At first, I believed her. But at this point I was losing faith.
The sun is going to come up soon. I think. I’m not sure what time the sun rises in November. Fucking time change.
My head is being held up by the bookshelf to my right, though my eyelids don’t have similar support. I want to walk to bed or to crawl myself to the couch. If I do that though, I’ll wake myself up. If I wake myself up, I’m going to go through this all again. Another hour or two or three or four or more of not being able to sleep. Only this time, somewhere along the way, the sun is going to come up. And for as easy as it can be to sleep with the sun out — thank god for the inventor of the blackout curtain — falling asleep in daylight is a whole other matter.
My neck is going to hurt after this. It’ll be ten or eleven in the morning when I inevitably slump forward, my head will crash into the floor, and I’ll wake up in a daze. I’ll be confused for a few seconds, then I’ll get up, take a lukewarm shower, and move on about my day with three to four hours of sleep. My head will hurt from the combination of the neck stiffness and lack of rest, but at least I will have slept.
As I feel my eyelids come together, I hear a squeak coming from the front of the house. The front door is just out of sight, but I recognize that sound. The sound of a key turning and a creak follows. My eyes stay closed as the sound of the door shutting and light footsteps echo throughout the home’s main floor.
“You’re not actually here,” I grumbled. “You’re the just the bitters and the brandy playing tricks on me.”
“Cole, get up,” Sara said, her voice exhausted.
I heard her set a plastic bag filled with something down on the counter. Or at least that’s the sound I thought I heard. I rubbed my eyes. Hard.
“Why is my head fucking with me like this?”
“I’m no illusion, Cole.”
I leaned back against the bookshelf, trying to get comfortable again. I felt Sara sit down beside me, the palm of her hand covering my own, intertwining her fingers with mine.
“It’s another bad night isn’t it?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t.
“Where has the rabbit hole gone tonight? Is it somewhere I can pull you out of?”
I felt tears run down my cheeks, but I wasn’t crying. My body was releasing them for me, completely against my will.
I shook my head, the right side lightly knocking against the wood of the bookcase.
“Cole. You can’t keep doing this by yourself. You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”
“It’s going to all go away,” I whispered.
“What is?” Sara replied calmly.
“You. This house. Everything.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“It’s been eighteen months since I worked.”
“I can’t keep letting you down like this.”
“You’re not letting me down.”
I squeezed Sara’s hand. She was there. I was sure of that. I didn’t want to open my eyes. Not because I feared she’d be gone if I did. It just hurt too much between the tears and the fatigue to do so.
“You were gone tonight,” I said. “All because I can’t control this. There was a story to it and everything.”
Sara pulled my head into her shoulder, stroking my hair repeatedly kissing me on the head.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she answered.
“I’m broken, Sara.”
“You’re not. But you can’t do this alone.”
We sat there for some amount of time I couldn’t begin to estimate. I didn’t even notice that Sara had stood until she was grabbing my hands and trying to pull me up.
“Come on,” she said. “Not sleeping only makes it worse.”
“I know. But I don’t think I can.”
“Then come hold me until I fall asleep. You’re always good at helping me.”
I walked up the stairs trailing Sara, my hand still in hers. We stripped off our clothes and crawled into bed, though her arms wrapped around me instead of the opposite as we’d discussed.
“This is a trap,” I joked.
“Just lay against me,” she replied, her hands running through my hair. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I don’t remember falling asleep. The last thing I recall feeling was the light touch of Sara’s fingers in my hair. Sure enough, the sun was out when I woke up, but instead of the beams falling on Sara’s hair, they landed on the sheet beside me.
Was she gone? Had I actually dreamed her like I initially thought?
I climbed out of bed, grabbing a pair of pajama pants out of the drawer, and making my way downstairs. Before I’d even made it fully down, I came to a piece of notebook paper taped to the wall with a bright pink sticky note on top of it.
Ran to IHOP for day off breakfast. Back soon. Love you.
I peeled the sticky note off of the notebook paper. I knew what the paper said. It was the same paper that Sara left me every day. I’d read it so many times that I could recite the instructions at the top of the paper from memory, even without re-reading it.
Hey. Here’s some options when you’re ready to talk to someone. If you want me to call, I’ll be there and help you. If you want to do this yourself, here you go. Whenever you’re ready, I’m here for you. However you need me. -Sara
Beneath Sara’s instructions was a list of phone numbers for five therapists Sara had suggested I see. I knew I clearly didn’t need to see all five. These were just options. The list has been the same for the past six months. Just pick one of the numbers and call. That’s all I had to do.
“Good morning, handsome,” Sara said.
“I didn’t notice you come in,” I replied, putting the paper down to my side.
“I know. You busy or you ready for breakfast? Or lunch? Or whatever this technically is?”
I mashed my lips together and stared at Sara. She didn’t deserve to deal with this. She held herself and me together on a daily basis. I couldn’t put her through this. Not anymore.
“Can yo…can..” I fumbled over my words. “Can we eat? Then will you help me? Please?”