It was the one thing you knew you had to do. You still know it. It feels wrong but you know it. Deep down in the coldest part of your brain, it’s there. She is the one thing that can bring you back. And she is so close.
You hang up the phone. It crashes into the receiver with the familiar metallic crunch. Your hand stays wrapped about the handle for a moment, unwilling to release it just yet. She’s waiting for you now; waiting for you to be there once more; waiting for you to hold her like you used to, arms about her and your chin resting atop her head. On the other end of the line her voice sounded beautiful, not at all like you remember it.
A car spatters down the slushy street. It sounds crisp in the frozen air. Nighttime in the winter does that to sound, sharpens it. You never noticed that before now. The way that even the noise in the air hurries to its destination. None of it lingers in the cold.
The street lamps aren’t working. The nearest light comes from the little cafe across the street. It spills out onto the wet sidewalk and trickles into the black asphalt. Where it strikes the snow, it fizzles out. Through the windows you can see the customers looking warm in their little environ of summer. There are even a few pink and yellow flowers blooming on the windowsills. They obscure a couple wearing matching sweaters, in intimate conversation. Steam wafts up from their mugs and paints odd pictures of fog on the panes. The frosted images move and disappear, like a movie in perpetual slow motion. You can’t remember the last time that you saw a movie.
With your left hand, you pry the fingers loose of the phone handle. There are nails missing on both hands. You never lost a fingernail before, even the time you slammed your thumb in the car door. But now you’ve lost three on the right hand. The cuticles have rotted away. In their place are black spots and wan divots. Beneath the skin on the tips, the color has changed from pale to violet.
She has beautiful fingernails; she gets them manicured every week. They are sharp and when the two of you make love she rakes them down your sides. Sometimes she draws blood. The two of you haven’t slept in the same bed for a while now, even before your death.
Behind a dirty bandage wrapped over your wrist are three narrow gashes. When you woke after the accident, when you realized that you should not be alive, you slashed your wrists. They bled a dark fluid. It smelled of funeral parlors. You drained all of it from you, but you did not collapse, did not return. Looking back, it seems a silly thing to have done. How could you bleed to death?
You press a finger to the cuts, which give way like paper. Around them the skin is almost perfectly white. They peek out on either side. In the dark they appear deeper. You tug your sleeves carefully over them and hunch your shoulders forward to shorten your arms. It occurs to you that you have pockets, so you shove your hands there. The cotton feels slightly oily to the touch. The jacket’s previous owner said he didn’t wash it much. You paid him twenty dollars for it.
You start for the street. Your boots make a thick clunking noise against the sidewalk’s cement. Your left foot drags a little before it comes down completely. They are good boots but they don’t belong to you. They came off a man you killed. When you stripped them from his feet they still smelled like fresh leather. Now they reek of sweat and decayed flesh. Their light brown color has deepened—almost black. A vile goop the consistency of sandy mud has built up inside the lace holes and along the edges of the tongue. In the light you can see little specs of orange and white embedded in it. You haven’t taken the boots off once since donning them for the first time. Now you don’t dare to for fear of seeing what has become of your abused feet.
You step to the curb. No cars are coming in either direction. Sound from the city barely carries into this narrow lane. Both sides are lined with vehicles; parking looks to be more trouble than it’s worth. Most of them are dulled by mud and dried road water on the windows. Her car, a black SUV, is parked just to the right of the café. It is the only one shining in the starlight. You wonder how she managed to get it down the street unscathed or how she even parked it.
The door to the cafe is glass. Nighttime provides a little advantage. Nobody can see very well outside; they cannot see your looming figure perched on the cement, watching them. You bow your head a little to keep the shadows on your face. If anyone were to see you now, they’d scream. Your dry gut twists a little; there are no shadows in the cafe. You pause to reconsider.
It is just past ten pm according to the clock inside. It’s a little analog one, the kind you hate. There is one just like it in your kitchen. She replaced the digital one with it. The minute hand is too small to see, even in the good light. Your eyes aren’t what they used to be.
A few people wait patiently at the counter. Two baristas work beneath the clock. One is taking orders; she chews a stick of gum between her frighteningly white teeth and writes them casually onto cups. The other, a short, plump girl wearing horned glasses is busy juggling all of the cups at once and casting annoyed glances at her partner.
Sitting at a table near the bar are three students. The nearest one to you looks like he might’ve spent too much time in the sun as a child. His skin is stretched taut over his bones but appears rough. He needs to shave as well. The other two are his opposite. Their white skin appears soft and unmarred, almost babyish. Neither have even a hint of beard growing.
You see her. She has just returned from the bathroom and is taking a seat at the back of the cafe. You breathe out and your breath does not steam in the chill air. Your eyes widen. Raw, unprocessed emotion floods into the back of your brain. It rushes forward, fills your thoughts. Your stomach floats for a moment, insisting that gravity does not exist. A surge of cold electricity slips down your neck, flirts with the decaying skin on your forearms. Your jaw stiffens and were it not for the lump in your throat, a cry of happiness might’ve escaped your lungs.
It is the first time in this strange city that you have recognized anything, for in the dark, a city changes. The familiar roads and thoroughfares you used to travel merge into shadows. You live in them now, hide in them.
You didn’t believe her when she said she’d come. But looking now, she certainly has. Her eyes appear glazed and dull. She holds a thin kerchief in her left hand, in her lap. Her lashes are invisible. She didn’t wear mascara; she didn’t want it to run. You can see though, where her tears have flowed. Little red marks wash down from the corners of her eyes, over her round, slightly wrinkled cheeks. She applied a little rouge. She always says that her cheeks are unnaturally pale. If only she could see yours.
You think about the last time you touched her. The deadened nerves on your palm tingle with the memory. You don’t remember what the fight was about. She came into the kitchen and cursed at you, swore at you, struck you with her fists. You struck back. It had been an automatic reaction. You hardly remember doing it yourself, but you didn’t apologize. You left a few hours later, unable to bear the eerie silence of your home.
Your eyes look into hers. She cannot see you behind the glass; instead she looks through you, into the darkness that you are a part of now. She hasn’t done that since you first met her, looked through you and to something else. Suddenly she seems less real than you thought. As though the glass is just a flicker show and nothing really exists behind it but a circuit board. If you could touch her, that feeling would go away. A burst of desire detonates within you. If your dead heart still worked it might’ve skipped a beat. You want to step through the door and go to her. You want to touch her and to be touched. You want to feel her against your skin and hold her close because she fits just beneath your chin.
You look down; withdraw your hands from your pockets. They are still grey and discolored, still dead. You are still a person in violation of nature. You cannot enter that cafe and speak with her, you cannot kiss her, and you cannot have her again. Dead men are not entitled to warmth.
As you step away, the hard rubber of your soles echoing off the pavement, the door of the cafe jingles. Instinct turns you around. She is there. There and impossibly alive. The lump in your throat grows and a sob of rotten air forces through your lips. It tastes like sweat and molded bread. She steps forward.
“Don’t come any closer,” you warn with an outstretched hand. “You don’t want to see me up close.”
She looks at your hand first and heaves out a shuddering breath. The skin on your palms is mostly flayed off. The muscle is dry and grimy. She looks at you. It’s the same look she gives you whenever she’s hurt you. You remember it from the time she told you about him. Just the first of her many students she took into your bedroom. She looked at you like that when you confronted her with divorce papers that you never intended to sign. You were equally guilty.
“Does it hurt?” she asks. Her voice quakes; she is on the verge of tears.
“No,” you lie. The reality is that it hurts very much. Every movement is filled with pain. Bone grinds on bone where the cartilage has withered and broken. In the heat of day you dry out so fast that you can no longer stand the sun. Sleeping, if it can be called that, occurs in caves where the air is damp and the water soaks up into your skin. On nights like this, you freeze and so does the water inside. It seeps into your joints and expands. Water, both life and death, as always.
“When you called…” she trails off. A cold tear runs down her cheek and you wish you could cry with her. “I miss you,” she says. For a moment, the world is quiet. Even the clink and clatter from the cafe ceases. You consider briefly going to her, wrapping her up in your arms but you are afraid. She will be repulsed by the reek of your dead body. You remain guarded, at a distance.
Instead she comes to you. Before you have a chance to react her arms wrap themselves about you. They are terribly warm, even through the jacket. She cautiously reaches up and pulls away the hood. There is terror in her eyes as she gets a first glimpse of your disfigured face. You hide in shame.
“It’s alright,” she coos. Her lips press hotly against your thinning cheek and she whispers through tears, “God, I wanted to say that for the longest time.”
It is wrong. You have died and you should not be here. You should tell her that you must leave, but your dead lips are cowards and your stiffening tongue untrustworthy. Instead you close your arms about her and rest your chin on the top of her head. Because she fits there.