Merlot and Scars
Some people won't let you move on.
"I'm not sure if I should," Jessica mutters, looking down at her phone. "What if he doesn't like me?"
"How could he not?" Brittany reassures her.
"Because I can't... you know."
"If that's all he wants, then he's not worth your time, hun."
"But what if..." Before Jessica could continue to protest any further, Brittany snatches the phone out of her grip.
"Oh, what if, what if, what if. You can't let yourself get caught up like that," Brittany tells her, while quickly typing a message. Jessica takes the phone back from her, but the message has already sent.
"'Dinner at my place?'" Jessica reads. "Why'd you do that?"
"Because this will be good for you. Because not all men are like Bill."
"He'll probably say no anyway."
"Say no? He asked you," Brittany reminds her. The phone buzzes and Brittany's eyes light up. She moves to peek over Jessica's shoulder. "What did he say?"
"Hang on, hang on, give me time to open it," Jessica reads the message, then smiles. She had a date. For the first time in two years, she had a date.
The two of them, Jessica and Terence, had been talking for a while but so far it had been only that. Texts back and forth through the day, and the occasional Facetime. Jessica hadn't expected it to turn into a date - and a date date at that - so quickly. But here she was, in her little black dress, table set with dinner plates and wine glasses, a homecooked meal in the oven. She felt excited and scared at the same time. She hadn't felt like this since... No, Bill had never made her feel like this. Scared, yes, but not in a nervous-giddy way. The thought of him almost brought bile to the back of her throat. He was gone for good now; he couldn't touch her anymore. So then why was she shaking?
A knocking from the hallway snaps her out of it. That must be Terence at the door, she thinks and walks out into the hall to answer it. The thudding happens again and she turns to face the source: the built-in hallway closet. Unlike the rest of the house, the door has a thin layer of dust on it. She hadn't opened it for a long time and wasn't going to change that now. Must have just been the pipes, she figures.
She turns her attention back to the table but can't shake the eerie feeling she isn't alone, a similar feeling she'd have whenever Bill got back late from work after the pub. She looks down at the bottle of Merlot sitting in an ice bucket by the table and considers opening it early for a little Dutch courage. Thankfully, a knock at the door saves her from having to make the decision.
She opens the door with a smile, seeing the face she knows well from pictures and video but had yet to meet in person. Terrance.
"Hiya, umm... Hi... I mean..." she takes a breath to compose herself and starts again. "Hey, found the place okay then?" She stands aside to let him in.
"Yeah, no trouble," he sniffs the air. "What's cooking? Smells amazing."
"Jackfruit coq au vin."
"Ooh fancy. Didn't know you spoke French."
Jessica blushes slightly. "I don't, I mean... Yeah, I wanted to try something different. Hopefully, I haven't messed it up too badly."
"Hey, the best I can do is instant noodles, so you don't have a high bar to hit."
Jessica grimaces but laughs. "Yeah, I think I can do better than that."
She leads Terence in and is just about to point him towards the bathroom when a loud banging comes from the closet door again. Both of them turn to look at the noise.
"What was that about?" Terence asks.
"Neighbours. Think they're having some work done," she lies.
"Bit late for that," Terence says.
"You're telling me. I could go next door and ask them to keep it down if it's going to be a bother..." she offers.
He shakes his head and goes to wash his hands. He returns after a few moments, and Jessica dishes up as they take their seats.
"So, found the place okay?" Jessica asks.
"Yep, didn't get lost on the way back from the bathroom," Terence replies, smirking.
Jessica realises her mistake. "Sorry, I'm not used to this. I don't do these often. I'm a bit out of practice."
"Hey, don't worry about it. Me neither," Terence says.
Once more a banging rings out, harder this time. Hard enough for the closet door to shake. With a gentle creak, the door that had been closed for years slides off the latch and opens slightly, unnoticed by either of the room's occupants.
"Neighbours at it again, huh?" Terence jokes.
"Uh, yeah," Jessica replies then laughs nervously.
Unseen by the daters, a path of large, muddy shoe prints appear one by one, leading from the closet door towards Jessica's room. As they reach the doorway, a cold breeze blows through the apartment and the temperature drops suddenly, causing both Jessica and Terence to shiver reflexively. Neither notices, but their breath makes visible clouds in the air when they exhale. The thudding gets louder and Jessica's skin begins to crawl, her heart rate quickens. The familiar scent of beer-soaked breath fills her nose. Before her, the plates and cutlery shake on the table, as if jostled violently by someone, and her glass falls over, spilling red wine over the tablecloth as if slapped by an unseen hand.
"Shit," she says, and quickly grabs a napkin and begins dabbing frantically. "Sorry, I didn't mean to..." She trails off as she looks up and sees Terrance's eyes are not fixed on her, but rather over her shoulder at something behind her. She turns around to look at what.
In the doorway to her bedroom stands a male figure, tall and burly, dressed in a dishevelled suit, with a loose tie and no jacket. In one hand he holds a bottle of cheap beer. Even with his face hidden in shadow, Jessica instantly knows who it is. She speaks his name, her voice quivering with fear.
Bill takes a step towards her, and the whole room seems to shake. He takes another. His strides are slow, but there is no need for him to rush. Jessica looks at him, paralysed by fear.
"You're not meant to be here," Jessica says, barely above a whisper. There's no command in her voice, no power behind the words. Bill continues towards her, step by thunderous step, his face perpetually in shadow even as he moves further into the light. Pain shoots up Jessica's arms, as old bruises that had long since faded away flare back up, appearing as if they were made yesterday.
Her eyes still locked on Bill, Jessica's hand scrambles over the table for something to defend herself with and finds a fork. She throws it at Bill, not sure what she was hoping it would do, but it passes through him harmlessly. The Bill before her isn't the person she had sent away years ago, he's something else, something with no physical form - yet she is still terrified at what he'd be able to do if he reached her. Her hand goes back to the table, hoping to grab a knife this time, but instead finds something else. Terence's hand closes around hers. She turns her head to look at him.
"Terence, I don't know what's happening. He's not meant to be here, I..." she starts, panicking, not sure what she could possibly say that would make this make sense, but Terence looks calm.
"It's okay. I understand. Look," he says to her and pulls back his sleeve, exposing his bare arm.
Jessica sees a pattern of faded cuts and burn marks. Looking up at Terence's face she sees a faded figure behind him, a woman with blonde hair and mean eyes. She scowls at Jessica and her mouth moves, making the shapes of all sort of obscene words, but no sound comes out. Terence rolls his sleeve back down and the woman fades away. As she vanishes, she swings widely at him, but her blows pass harmlessly through his body.
Jessica looks into Terence's eyes and he looks back into hers. They both see an understanding in the other they had never see elsewhere. Terence breaks the silence.
"She was with me for a long time after I left her. It took a lot of time, but I silenced her. She's not gone, she's always going to hang there as part of me, but she can't do any more damage. I won't let her have that," Terence explains.
Jessica nods. "I don't know how to get rid of him. He's been here for years. Every time I think he's gone I see him standing in the doorway again or smell his beer breath in the air. But it's never been like this, he's never been this... real. I always thought it was in my head."
"It is in your head, but that doesn't make it any less real," he says. "That thing isn't Bill. It looks like him and acts like him, but it's not the real him. It's what he left behind, it's his last effort to control you because he can't do it in person anymore. The only thing that can get rid of it is you. You have to look at that thing and tell it what you wish you'd been able to tell Bill."
Jessica stands and faces the apparition of Bill.
"Out," she demands, a little shake still in her voice. The apparition doesn't react.
"Out!" she repeats, more forcefully. Bill's form flickers like the screen on an old TV.
"All these years you've been in here rent-free, holding me back. Even after the real you left, this thing stayed. I'm sick of it, I'm sick of paying the price for the choice I made when I met you. You do not own me. This is not your home. You are not welcome here."
Her verbal assault continues, each sentence sending ripples through the form of her ex-boyfriend, which stumbles backwards towards the closet. A look of realisation washes over Jessica's face.
"Is that really what's kept you here? Is that really what gives you this hold over me?"
She walks through the apparition, which scatters its form momentarily only to reform and watch as she flings open the closet door. She reaches inside and grabs a jacket: an old grey hoodie sized for a man far larger than her. She carries it over to the table and throws it down.
"I'll get rid of you."
She empties the ice bucket onto the floor and tosses the jacket in. Then she pulls a box of matches from her jacket and lights one.
"Get out of my life, already." She jams the lit match into the box, slams it shut and drops it into the bucket as the whole thing catches alight.
The apparition tries to scream, but no sound comes out. It dives for the flaming matchbox as it falls, but it passes straight through the outstretched hand and into the bucket. The hoodie bursts into flames and the apparition follows suit, reaching out to Jessica as it falls to its knees. She looks down at it without another word, then slowly turns away and retakes her seat. She pours herself another glass of Merlot, picks up her knife and fork and returns to her meal. After a short while, Terence joins her.
Neither could have said when the flaming apparition vanished; they were too focused on each other's company and, before long, the two were laughing and joking as if nothing had happened. Eventually, the flaming hoodie burned out too, and the last momento that Jessica had of her ex-boyfriend was destroyed.