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Always

by Alexandra Heatwole 5 months ago in Short Story · updated 4 months ago
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"You belong with me," she said.

Always
Photo by Eduardo Vázquez on Unsplash

It was starting to rain again. Drops of water landed on Val’s face, disappearing into the constellation of freckles that spanned from cheek to cheek, crossing the bridge of her long, slender nose. Those eyes–green with flecks of hazel–my god, they were beautiful, even now, as tears threatened at their edges. She was speaking, but Esther couldn’t hear what she was saying. It felt like her head was underwater–everything was muffled, quiet. Val was reaching out for her, but suddenly Esther was falling, endlessly, not knowing which way was down, until–

Esther’s eyes opened slowly, adjusting to the soft light streaming through the Venetian blinds. Her head still felt like it was full of water. She shook it from side to side and waited for the sounds of morning–the thump that heralded the arrival of the daily newspaper; the hum of engines as the men left for work. She sat up in bed as her head began to clear.

Where was Howard? In nearly twenty years of marriage, he had been up before her once, maybe twice, when she’d been laid up with the mumps. What time must it be? Through the slats, she could just see the fog still clinging to the clifftops across the street. This time of year, it rolled in around sunset and stayed until the morning sun had had time to burn it all away. It had to be well after eight. Esther hurried downstairs to make the morning coffee.

Passing by the landing window, Esther paused to look down at the garden next door. She'd spent many a sultry afternoon there, in the summer months, while Howard was at the office. She could almost see herself, there at the wrought-iron table, leaning over her highball to lower her voice so only Val could hear. She pressed her hand against the glass, wishing those days back into existence.

She could hardly believe it had only been six months since Val arrived, her beat-up wood-paneled station wagon drawing disapproving eyes as it puttered up Crescent Lane. Esther had liked her immediately, watching her unpacking the car, her dark, messy hair tied back with a knotted headscarf. She was the first woman in the cul-de-sac that Esther had seen wearing jeans. Howard wondered aloud if she was one of those greasers he’d heard about, and Esther had laughed politely. He thought it best that they kept their distance, but Esther said it wouldn’t be neighborly. The next day, Esther was standing on Val’s front stoop, casserole in hand. Val smiled with half her mouth, which gave Esther an odd feeling in the middle of her chest. Val invited her in, and a friendship was born.

It hurt Esther, physically, to think about it now. There, in the same place as the half-smile feeling. As Esther placed her hand on her sternum, she realized she was standing in the foyer. The light outside had changed. How much time had she spent reminiscing? Howard would be home soon and she hadn’t even started on dinner.

Going through the motions–that’s what Val had called it. She was the only one Esther had ever confided in about this emptiness she’d been feeling inside, an emptiness she’d gotten so used to that she didn’t even know when it began. She resented Howard, and felt terrible for it. He wasn’t cruel, like some husbands. He didn’t drink or run around with other women. It’s just that she couldn’t stand the very fact of him. And yet every day, she put on a nice dress, made him his meals, and spent the evenings in a mostly comfortable silence, watching TV, or reading–together, but alone. Their only son was grown now, off at the Naval Academy, and Esther had nothing to think about anymore but the emptiness that threatened to swallow her whole. Until she met Val.

Val was fixing up her house for resale–it was how she made a living, she said. Val had all kinds of questions, about everything from wallpaper to landscaping–and Esther had answers. She had a flair for it, according to Val. You could be an interior designer, she’d said one day, lighting a cigarette in the shelter of Esther’s covered porch. Or better yet, a chef. Esther had shaken her head. The thought of a career–and her, nearly forty! It was laughable. But every time that Esther was making a sauce or a stew, Val begged for a taste. She’d close her eyes, savoring the flavor, and Esther would watch her tongue as she licked her lips. Howard is a lucky man, she’d say, and for the first time, Esther began to contemplate her worth.

She turned to look in the mirror, expecting to take in the delicate features of her face, the carefully coiffed hair, the soft cashmere of her twin set–but she couldn’t seem to remember where it was. That sound, the stifling hush in her brain was creeping back. She thought perhaps if she just put on some music, something to get her mind off things–but face to face with the record player, she realized her mistake. There was the empty turntable where the Patsy Cline record usually sat–the very record that she had left at Val’s…was it only yesterday? The album she had brought over with so much pride, so excited to be the one for a change who had something to show and tell.

Esther knew a thing or two, but it was Val who had the stories, the culture. Val who had been to Paris, London, Rome. Val who took her to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and hummed “I Will Wait for You” on the walk back. Val who had introduced her to the Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath. Esther had taken Val’s well-worn copy of Mademoiselle home and read “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by lamplight, heart pounding, while Howard slept next to her. Something was happening, Esther felt. She didn’t understand it yet, but she wanted it, desperately.

When Val said she hadn’t heard of Patsy Cline, Esther felt that finally, she had something to give in exchange for this summer of awakening. She had felt herself opening, heart and soul, in these stolen afternoons with Val, laughing over drinks in the garden, and, as the summer changed to fall, in the soft light of her sitting room. It wasn’t much to offer, considering, but Patsy’s hauntingly beautiful voice, echoing from beyond the grave, had exactly the effect that Esther had expected. She watched Val, her eyes closed, the cool, dark notes of “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” washing over her, her lips curled into that half-smile that was now so familiar. Esther unconsciously held the cool of her glass against the rising heat in her chest, never looking away from Val. And then all at once, Val had closed the distance between them, and before Esther understood, she tasted the whiskey and cigarette smoke on Val’s lips.

Val pulled away and waited, giving Esther time to make her choice. But for Esther, the choice had been made already, a hundred times. Every time she crossed the boundary between their houses, returning to the solitary confinement of domestic life. Every time she looked at the man she had married with no better rationale than that he had asked. Every time she looked in the mirror and saw a woman who was more alive today than yesterday, simply because Val had come into her life. She sprang into Val’s arms, and there she stayed.

Esther opened her eyes–she must have fallen asleep. It was nighttime now. Her head was spinning, and there it was again–the muffled, waterlogged feeling. She let her eyes adjust and looked around her bedroom. Still no Howard.

Perhaps he’d left her, she thought, almost hopefully. Good. Honestly, he deserved a proper marriage, with someone who could bear to look at him, and if he left, then–no, it was no good thinking about it. She was a married woman. A mother, no less. It just wouldn’t do.

The fog was thick tonight. The moon was peeking through the clouds; reflected in the fog, it gave everything an unearthly feel. Esther found herself at the landing window, looking down into the soft gray blur below. There was music playing somewhere. She strained to hear. Was that…? Esther smiled. “Faded Love.” She hummed along softly, searching the fog for some sign of Val down below. Esther’s head began to hurt. She couldn’t remember how they’d left it…was it only yesterday? The feeling that something was wrong–that she had wronged Val in some way–gnawed at her. She searched her memory. What had happened after–

Ah. There it was. She hung her head, leaned her forehead against the window pane, and shut her eyes.

She remembered the night when Val had kissed her, the night she had finally gotten the unnamed thing she had wanted and needed for so long, perhaps all her life. She remembered the spiral of thoughts that had gone through her head, all at once: a barrage of old answers, new questions, tentative hopes–and finally, the fear. Fear that started small, like a worm in the back of her brain, and festered, grew large, and spread its poison until not even the euphoria of the moment could drown it out. Esther had pulled away. There had been some lame excuse, and Val had seen through it right away. As Esther collected her things to go, Val had reached out for her, and she had burst into hot tears, born both of confusion and the certain knowledge that she was making a mistake. Esther had shaken free, crossed the lawn, burst through the front door, and thrown herself on the bed, sobbing, before Val had even had time to say goodbye.

Esther had tears in her eyes even now, remembering it. She wiped them away and was surprised to find herself standing in her yard. She could see only a few feet in front of her. The music was louder now, the walking bass drawing her toward the low picket fence that separated her property from Val’s. Hesitantly, she drew close, peering into the fog. She could hear something, indistinct, but human. Her head ached with the effort, but she focused, and recognized that she was not the only one who had been crying.

“Val?” she whispered into the night.

The sound stopped abruptly. In the fog, a shape moved, human-like. Then Val’s voice, choked:

“Esther?”

Esther opened her eyes. She felt awfully slow this morning. What time must it be? She turned over in bed–where could Howard be? The fog was still thick on the ground–though going by the light alone, she figured it must be at least midday. Time to start the morning coffee.

On her way downstairs, she paused on the landing to look down at the garden below, though she couldn’t see much of it right now. She remembered fondly the many afternoons spent–

Wait. She was sure she’d done this before. Everything seemed so upside down. She knew she’d been feeling funny lately. Perhaps if she just concentrated, she could clear her head.

With some effort she went back to that night–the night she’d taken the record over to Val’s. She recalled the kiss. She even recalled her dramatic departure.

Her head was pounding. She was missing something. She closed her eyes and pushed herself harder. She tried reciting Plath to herself. She'd just gotten to the third whispered stanza when, wave-like, it all came rushing back to her.

Val, in the rain, her hair flat and soggy, plastered against her temples. No head scarf in sight. Standing there, on Esther’s stoop. In that moment, Esther had known that Val was the only person she had ever loved.

Esther had ushered her away from the door, called to Howard that she was going for a walk, didn’t stay to hear his response. The fear still there at the back of Esther’s mind. Afraid of what might happen if they went back to that cozy, low-lit sitting room.

They took the footpath to the cliffs. The fog was rolling in.

Val had stood there. Waiting, again, for Esther to make a choice.

Esther had looked away. All the reasons sounded like excuses. The husband, the son–the part about indecency sounded flimsy even to her. Val wasn’t hearing any of it.

You belong with me, she had said firmly.

Even as she prepared to deny it, Esther knew it to be true.

For the first time since she’d known her, Val looked lost, and when she put her arms around her, Esther could not pull away. Her heart beat faster as their wet skin met, and, her objections all undone, Esther pulled Val in for a kiss.

For an instant, a million different futures opened up to her. Futures where the emptiness was gone, where she could escape this prison of a life she’d built around herself. But it was only an instant, and then it was gone.

A light in the fog. Voices. Someone was coming their way.

Panicked, Esther pulled away. The what-ifs were coming fast now. What if they'd been seen? What if her son found out? Val turned to her, still holding on to her hand.

Esther–she said, but Esther shook herself free. She was backing away now, not looking over her shoulder. Esther! Val called again, more urgently this time.

And then she understood.

Esther opened her eyes. The fog had dissipated, and there was Val, clear as day, sitting at the wrought-iron table, head in hands. She looked like she’d been there all night. Somewhere, the record was skipping.

Esther put her hand on the glass, longing for even one more moment with Val, knowing it would never come.

***

Kate opened her eyes. She’d been having that dream again, about the strange woman in the fog. She thought it was the weather here, or maybe baby brain. Or both. Either way, the dream always made her wake up feeling off.

“Hey there, lazybones,” said Dylan, adjusting his tie as he leaned down to kiss her on the forehead. “Nice to see you’ve finally joined the land of the living.”

“I’m in the land of the very, very pregnant, thank you very much,” said Kate, holding her belly as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. “I will sleep till whenever I choose.”

“Fair enough,” said Dylan, raising his hands in surrender. “Just don’t forget the movers are coming today with the second round.”

They’d only just finished setting up the furniture–now all the dishes and books and linens were on the way, as well as all the random assorted stuff they’d accumulated in four years of marriage. And now Kate would be left with the task of getting it all sorted while Dylan was wining and dining clients.

“Which of us is on maternity leave, again?” asked Kate, throwing a fleece robe over her shoulders.

“Have fun,” called Dylan as he headed off to work.

Kate brushed her teeth and went downstairs to get started. On the way, she found herself pausing on the landing and gazing down at the garden of the property next door. A wrought-iron table sat gathering rust, and weeds threatened to overtake its matching chairs. She felt a little leap in her chest–the baby kicking, no doubt. She was tempted toward the kitchen by the smell of coffee; Dylan always put on a fresh pot on his way to work.

Before she’d even taken her first sip, Kate was suddenly overcome with the need for a little fresh air. Her OB-GYN had recommended light exercise, after all. There was a little park just across the street, along the cliffs. She’d been meaning to check it out since they arrived. It felt like time. With an effort, she pulled on some fuzzy boots and an overcoat against the last of the misty morning chill.

It was still just a bit hazy when she got to the end of the footpath, arriving at the little memorial garden. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets and hunched her shoulders, trying to gather her body heat inward. She approached the gray stone, her eyes drawn to the italicized inscription at its base: Not for just an hour/ Not for just a day/ Not for just for a year, but–

A small cough behind her drew her attention to the little green bench on the path along the cliff edge. She hadn’t noticed the elderly woman when she’d arrived, but there she sat, a scarf wrapped all the way up to her ears. She waved amiably to Kate.

“Beautiful up here, isn’t it?” she said. Her voice had the gravel of old age, but it was bright and almost musical in tone.

“I suppose,” said Kate. “When you can see it.”

The woman laughed.

“Do you live around here?” Kate went on.

“Used to. A long time ago,” she said.

“Ah,” said Kate. Looking now at her long, slender nose, the eyes that still gleamed bright green against the lashless eyes–she was sure she’d seen her before. She took a few steps closer. “Sorry–have we met?”

The woman laughed. “It’s funny–I get asked that a lot. But no, I don’t think so.” She extended her hand. “Valerie.”

“Kate,” she offered. Valerie motioned to the seat next to her. Kate took it.

“Which one was yours?” Kate asked.

“One twenty-six,” said Valerie, pulling a woolen hat down over her ears, pink from cold.

“How funny,” said Kate. “I’m one twenty-four.”

Valerie smiled. “I could have guessed. It seems whenever I visit, I get to know my new neighbor.”

Kate pulled her collar closer around her neck. She could just make out the ocean below emerging as the last of the fog burned away. As her vision became clearer, she saw a fresh bunch of lilies had been laid at the base of the memorial stone.

“Did you know her?” asked Kate.

Valerie looked down, still smiling. “Yes. She was…a good friend, I guess they’d call it, back then.”

Kate frowned. “I heard it was the fog. I mean–that’s why she fell.”

“Sure,” Valerie sighed. “That’s part of it, I suppose.”

An awkward silence followed. Kate tried to think of something to say. “When did you move away?” She offered.

“I stuck around for a few years after–” Valerie paused, staring out at the sea. “It was like she was still there, somehow. Like if I reached out in just the right place, pushed here or pulled there, maybe I could find her. But–”

Kate instinctively put her hand on Valerie’s arm. The old woman patted it, still smiling, but her eyes were tired.

“You have to live your life,” she continued, shaking her head. “You only get the one, you know.”

Valerie rose slowly. Kate stood, offering her arm. Together, they walked the path back towards Crescent Lane. Kate saw a big boat of a car parked in the small lot by the cliff path, and began walking her toward it–but the older woman resisted, directing them toward Kate’s new house.

“I’d just like to have a quick look,” she said.

With her own labored walking, she and Valerie kept good pace. She seemed pretty spry for her age, thought Kate. She must have been in her late eighties, at least, Kate estimated, but she burned bright with an energy that felt familiar, somehow.

“Are you sure we haven’t met before?” she asked, trying to place her.

“Maybe in another life,” said Valerie, winking. She stared up at the house, now almost a century old, its Venetian blinds pulled all the way up to let in the bleak early winter light. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes as she let it out. Kate noticed a tear leaving a trail down her cheek.

“Are you alright?” she asked with concern.

Valerie smiled. “I’m fine, dear.” She pulled a handkerchief out of a jacket pocket and wiped her face. “I just hope wherever she is now, she’s finally free.”

She said her goodbyes and wished Kate joy of her new neighborhood. She took one last, long look, and then Kate watched as she made the slow journey to her car. Kate shook her head, marveling at the strangeness of the morning and the chance encounter.

As she turned back to the house, her heart leapt into her throat. For just a moment, she swore she could see a figure at the window–a well-dressed woman, her head turned toward the park, her hand pressed against the glass. She blinked and the figure was gone.

First the weird dreams, now Kate had progressed to full-blown hallucinations. This pregnancy was really doing a number on her. She needed to sit, listen to some nice, calming music, and relax. Back in her new living room, nestled onto the couch, Kate activated the voice assistant on her phone.

“Play Patsy Cline,” she said.

Short Story

About the author

Alexandra Heatwole

bookofalexandra.com

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