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Absent Friends

My love is gone, carried away...

By Alexander McEvoyPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 10 min read
Image Generated Using AI

His eyes stared at something just out of sight. Often, he would sit like that, letting a cigarette burn down and watching the smoke rise into the frigid air. He had quit smoking long before Mellan ever met him, but he often kept a pack on him just in case he needed one for something.

Most often, he said that he was using the smoke to carry his prayers, which she found odd since he always professed to have no faith. But one night, when the empty wine bottles numbered enough to play chess with, she asked him what he meant.

The explanation still ran circles in her head from time to time. "We all carry a certain amount of hope in our hearts," he had said to her, with a sad smile. "For me, it's that this little ritual works. That the people I want to hear me do."

It was an old tradition, as he explained with a little more prompting. When Sky Woman first climbed onto Turtle's back, the Creator had given her tobacco plants. These she would burn so that the smoke could carry her thanks to Turtle's spirit and let him know that his sacrifice was remembered and appreciated.

Following on, it became known in many First Nations that tobacco smoke could carry the thoughts and prayers of the person who burned it into the spirit world. Even though the stuff in cigarettes was not the same as ceremonial tobacco, technically speaking, he thought it worked the same. Or at least, close enough for his ends.

Looking over her shoulder to the warmth of the bar, Mellan struggled with herself. When he was outside like this, it meant he wanted to be alone. That the sights and sounds of the bar were too much and he needed time to himself. But she wanted to know, needed to finally ask.

Squaring her shoulders, she approached and sat next to him. On instinct and without breaking his stare at nothing, he extended the pack of smokes to her.

"No, thank you."

The pack vanished into his pocket, and he sat, still staring into the slowly falling snow. A wind whipped up off the river and howled through the Byward Market, knifing through her coat and raising goosebumps down her exposed legs.

Hoes don't feel the cold indeed, she thought bitterly. I guess I'm a little out of practice.

"Einar," her words faltered as he turned to stare at her. It was always a little unsettling, being the object of his direct attention. Almost as though his gaze had weight. "I've been wondering for a long time... why do you do that?"

He followed her gesture and looked at the cigarette in his hand, trailing a thin stream of blueish smoke that hung in the humid air. Carefully knocking ash from the tip so that it kept burning, he returned his eyes to her, minus the previous intensity.

On a sigh he said, "to carry my thoughts to the spirit world, if the elders are telling the truth."

"You don't believe?"

"I don't know what I believe, Little Lightning," he smiled sadly at her, using her literal name instead of the one she was born with. "But this... it brings some comfort. So, I do it and hope. Really that's all we can do, isn't it?"

"What are you hoping for?"

"You know that I was... a fighter, right?"

"Yes. You said you were kidnapped and... uh... conscripted."

"Right. That's why I was confused the first time the group asked me about my kill count."

"I remember, you said fifty-six and asked why. Then when I explained how impressed I was, you said, 'oh! In that case four,' and never went any further. But I've pieced it together since then."

His laugh was small, almost mirthless. "Yeah. That was an awkward conversation for me."

"But I want to know why you do it? Is it for... for the others?"

"After a fashion," the cigarette burned down to the filter and he pushed it into a snowbank. "Come on, let's get you out of the cold before I answer any other questions."

At their table, which was just far enough away from the dance floor that they didn't quite have to shout over the thumping music, Einar ordered a round of shots and a cocktail for each of them. When the drinks arrived, he picked up his own Long Island Iced Tea and clinked it against her glass before taking a small sip.

"What do you want to know?"

Mellan took her time in answering, covering the gap by drinking deeply and carefully replacing the glass on the table. "Who do you burn tobacco for?"

"Lots of people. But for one above the rest. Her name was Valda. The little rebellion we put up was her idea. The rest of us were floundering, but she knew exactly what the kidnappers wanted from her and would rather have died. She riled up a full-fledged revolution and... well... you know about what happened next."

She did. Two full years of fighting their way out of enemy control and across a border where they could get embassy access. After meeting him she had looked up his story but never found anything satisfying. It was almost like he had simply dropped off the face of the Earth then miraculously reappeared one day on the tarmac at CFB Gagetown.

Before their first meeting, she had actually read one of his books. Then, to her eternal shame, the first thing she had done after learning who he was, had been to beg for an autograph.

"Valda? Why do I know that name?"

"That book you got me to deface," he said it with his usual cheeky grin. The one he always wore when he reminded her about that night.

Fighting down her usual playful frustration with that, she said, "you dedicated it to her. She must have been very important to you."

"Yeah. 'For Valda, who now is free to the wind that shakes the willow.' Cheesy, but I think she would have liked it."

"That's from something... I know that line."

"It's a song from the Wheel of Time, her favourite series. Honestly, the fact that I had read it is probably what connected us at first. She loved those books, and it was nice to have something nerdy to talk about. Something other than... well, you know."

"You loved her," it had been so obvious. Mellan kicked herself for never putting the pieces together before. Of course, he had. People don't dedicate novels to randoms that meant nothing to them - besides, he had always been so cagey and guarded when she introduced him to girls, she thought he might like.

For months she thought she had guessed wrong and threw in a few guys who might get on with him, but they had had even less success. So, she finally confronted him, and his only explanation was that he really appreciated the gesture, but connecting with people that way was difficult for him.

At least she could understand that. Making those connections was hard for everyone, and tons of people had skeletons in their closet to make the effort that much more difficult. Herself included.

Unlike her, however, he didn't have a roster he could call on when he felt lonely. And even though she tried to convince him he could - maybe even should - participate, he had always just said he wasn't interested in that life. It was a stance she could respect, if not fully understand.

Now, though, things were starting to fall into place.

"By the wind that shakes the willow," she mused, dredging her addled brain to try and find the correct memory. There it was, him in a pool, laughing at something a friend had said and tattooed across his heart, those exact words. "I always wondered why your tattoo meant."

"Now you know."

"Tell me about her. Please?"

He sighed explosively, but a small smile danced across his lips. "What is there to say? She was an incredible woman. Nearly six feet tall, with auburn hair and green eyes that glowed like sunlight streaming through stained glass. Beautiful, and built like a warrior. Really, it's no surprise that we all followed her lead.

"She saved my ass a few times. And I saved her. Eventually, we said that we had saved each other. More than once, I thought longingly about a short drop and a sudden stop, but she was always there to pull me out."

His words petered out, and he slumped. Mellan thought about leaving off, thought that maybe she had pushed too deep. Asked questions he was unwilling or unable to answer. But then he looked back up at her, chocolate eyes flaring with passion.

"I wasn't able to save her, though. Snipers. God above but how I hate snipers. Twelve days later I was on a flight home. Leaving her in a shallow grave in some Podunk town at the ass end of a desert. They built a statue of her there, I've seen images on the news. A statue to a fallen hero, but they don't give her half enough credit."

Memories surfaced, and Mellan sang over the constant thumping of the base and the laughter from the dance floor. "My love is gone, carried away by the wind that shakes the willow. And all the land is beaten hard by the wind that shakes the willow."

He only nodded.

"Is that... is she why..." she didn't have the words for it. But he understood what she wanted to ask.

"A bad habit of mine. My therapist says I'm still waiting for her to come back, that I hold every other woman I meet to her standard."

"That can be... rough."

"Haha, try toxic. Not only for myself, but for anyone else I'm with too. I never told you, but I've been in a few very short-term relationships since I got back. They all fell apart because I couldn't let go of the memories. But I'm working on it.

"The trick to this kind of thing is to avoid pedestalizing her. Run from the inclination to preserve her in my memory as this paragon, a perfect person immortal in the golden light I see her in. So, I'm still trying, and I think I'm getting better.

"She was only human. Not a god. She had her flaws, and that is something I need to keep hold of. Only human. Flawed. And gone. Most importantly: gone. Free to the wind that shakes the willow."

His voice held so much pain that Mellan reached across the table and took his hand. He smiled at her, a sad smile as though the corners of his mouth were struggling to lift something heavy. She imagined tiny ACME anvils tied to each one, with 'memory' written across them.

"So, you burn it for her?"


"I'm sorry. I don't... I don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything," his smile was genuine, and he looked at her with real fondness. "It's not your fault I'm hung up on a ghost. But," the smile turned sly, "that guy over there has been eyeing you since we sat down. Maybe see if you can con a drink or two out of him?"

"How dare you!" the words were hollow, though. She knew he was only teasing her. "I am a lady, thank you very much."

"Sure, you are," the words came out on a laugh. "You're a lady and I'm an officer and a gentleman."

"Well, that's half true," she said on a laugh, finishing off her cocktail.

"Just like you left half of yours. A lady in the streets, maybe," he winked at her, and she told him where to shove it.

Taking up his shot glass, he said, "your good luck in being all lady-like."

"To absent friends," she returned, downing the shot.

"Yeah, absent friends," he said as she stood from the table and swayed over to the guy who had been giving her the eye. For a moment he thought he caught a flare of red under the constantly roving lights, the gleaming hair of someone sitting right beside him. But brushed the thought away.

It was time to stop living in the past. In fact, that time had long since come and gone.

A pretty woman about his own age at the bar winked at him, turning away so that her multitude of dark braids swung just so. Standing, he ambled over to her, a remembered reprimand playing in his head. Advice from a woman long since carried away by the wind that shakes the willows. He meant to follow it this time.

Short StoryMysteryLoveCONTENT WARNING

About the Creator

Alexander McEvoy

Writing has been a hobby of mine for years, so I'm just thrilled to be here! As for me, I love writing, dogs, and travel (only 1 continent left! Australia-.-)

I hope you enjoy what you read and I can't wait to see your creations :)

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  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran4 months ago

    I was able to relate so much with Einar. Only difference is, he's hung up on a ghost and I'm hung up on a ghost of a person who's still alive. Just like Einar, I need to learn to stop living in my past. Your story seems like a sign and an advice but would I take it? That's a question I don't have the answer to. I enjoyed your story so much!

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