The Book

The Book_blog photo
Courtesy tazzerwhite.

It had been a terrible day, but it had been a worse eleven months. If not for the previous eleven months, the day would have just been annoying. Annoying days are simply standard operating procedure within the corporate event industry. Between obnoxious vendors and even more obnoxious clients, the long hours, the shitty food, the inevitable equipment failure, and staff who let the Las Vegas culture get to them a bit too much, every day onsite has the tendency to be a headache. Today would have been yet another headache if it weren’t for the terrible day eleven months ago that changed everything.

Today would have just been a misunderstanding if Celia weren’t still so fragile. Women within a corporate setting are so competitive despite touting a mantra of sisterhood and building each other up. In reality—at least in this particular environment—women are cutthroat and merciless in their need to prove themselves amidst attempting to claw their way up the corporate ladder. It’s still a man’s world, a boys’ club, and your fellow sisters will not hesitate to throw you under the bus if they think they can get a leg up from your metaphoric corpse.

Laney, the special projects director for the Venetian’s conference center, is one of those women (but weren’t they all?); one of those well-dressed, pin-thin, sharp women in sharp stilettos, who march around the venue as if they own both it and the entire conference. And Laney, for whatever reason, didn’t like the tone Celia had used to communicate with Laney’s husband in a few of the group emails that had gone around during the last minute preparations. Laney’s husband Max, being the event manager, essentially does own the entire conference, and it’s part of Celia’s job as the project manager for the marketing analytics provider to talk to him. But Laney thought Celia had been flirtatious—apparently, politeness is so rare these days that it comes off as flirtation—and Laney had made that painfully obvious to Celia that morning. All while fellow event staff and a large handful of conference attendees had been watching.

So there she’d stood that very morning, next to the registration desk, trying not to make a scene, when Laney had reprimanded her loudly and pointedly enough that now a bunch of people probably believe Celia is a wannabe homewrecker. What sent the confrontation over the edge from annoying and embarrassing to humiliating and heartbreaking was when Laney cited the lack of Celia’s spectacular, yet understated wedding rings, which had been present at last year’s conference and were now suspiciously absent. How such a small change had been so noticeable was beyond Celia, but it seemed Laney was looking for evidence and found it in the missing rings. And that was when Josh appeared from out of nowhere.

Sweet Josh. Nice Josh. Quiet Josh, who’d never confronted anyone that Celia had ever seen, at least not in the three years she’s been working this conference. Friendly Josh, whom Celia had spoken to all of maybe five or six times in those three years. Subtly handsome Josh, whom Celia had never really noticed was subtly handsome until she woke up at 4:45 AM just now. Now, as she’s studying his sleeping face.

Josh, who is the director of conventions and corporate events for the Venetian, Palazzo, and the Sands, which makes him Laney’s superior, but not Celia’s. With endless vendors and clients, the hierarchy within the corporate event industry can get a bit confusing and muddy, so Celia can’t help wondering whether Josh being asleep in her hotel room at quarter ‘til five in the morning is a conflict of interest. If it is, he certainly hadn’t acted like it. But then again, it had been a terrible day for both of them and maybe the terrible day is justification for what they did in here.

How Josh had known that the topic of the missing rings was an emotional sticking point for Celia was also beyond her, but apparently he’d noticed her a lot more than she’d noticed him. Because there he suddenly was, telling Laney to shut it down and act like a damned professional, before hooking Celia’s elbow and ushering her into one of the session rooms that wouldn’t be in use for another couple of hours.

Eleven months, which had crawled along slower than molasses in January, suddenly felt like eleven minutes ago and Celia nearly cried like she did when she got the awful news. But she couldn’t cry like that. Not right then. Not while Josh was standing there, his presence suddenly mammoth when it had previously never more than barely registered in her consciousness. Instead of crying, she sat in one of the empty chairs, staring at the gaudy pattern on the carpet, breathing, and attempting to steady her shaking hands. She would have been fine—relatively fine—but then he had to go and open his mouth.

“That wasn’t about you,” Josh began. “She and Max had some kind of an issue earlier this year and she’s rattled. She doesn’t know about your um… your loss.”

Celia glanced up briefly in surprise. “But you do?” There wasn’t any way to ask without sounding almost offensive or rude, but Josh didn’t appear to be fazed.

He slipped his hands in his pockets and looked apprehensive, as if he was suddenly struck by the intimate nature of the environment he’d placed them both in. “Ted was meeting with some of the people from your team during a site visit early in the year. They told him you were supposed to be there, but you were still on a leave of absence. Afterward, he mentioned it to me because I guess he felt the information was something I’d find relevant. Or maybe relatable. I don’t know. Maybe he was just gossiping.” He tried to laugh casually, but it came out forced and awkward. “You know how people in these circles like to gossip.”

Celia huffed. “I do.” Gossip in the events industry is a sport that everyone plays.

He slid a chair in front of her at a respectable distance and sat, spinning the platinum band on his left hand. “I know that it’s not really what Laney accused you of. I know it’s more like, you’re still getting used to the idea of not having that person in your corner. You were married… how long?”

She swallowed and set her chin in a feeble attempt to hold herself together. “Seven.” She had to pause. “Seven years.”

“Seven years,” he acknowledged, nodding. “That’s a long time. So it was like, you guys were together through a lot of stuff. Probably college and starting your careers and everything people do when they’re, you know… young adults who grow into older adults. If that makes sense.”

It does, she wanted to say, but she couldn’t say anything because, my god, this was not a time when she wanted to cry. Instead, she settled for nodding back at him.

“And you’re used to having them to call and vent to when you have a really shitty day. Like when someone onsite is being an asshole and you just need to be like, ‘Babe,’” he said, holding his hand up to his ear, mimicking a phone call, “‘you wouldn’t believe what this guy said to me today.’ And then they’re like, ‘wow, what a piece of shit.’” He laughed again, but it was a blatantly sad-sounding laugh. “And you guys have this little pep rally over the phone and you feel better. But suddenly, you can’t make that call anymore and it makes what the asshole said or did that much worse because you don’t have anyone to confide in who can help you build yourself back up afterward. And you miss a lot of things, but right then you miss that the most. You miss your partner. The person who’s always had your back no matter what.”

And then, Celia might as well have been alone in the big, empty session room because—Josh or no Josh—she had to cry. How he’d known exactly what the whole situation felt like was beyond her, but it seemed less than important. She leaned over her knees, clutching her face, trying to be discreet, even though she knew it wasn’t very discreet, but that also felt less than important.

“That’s what’s so hard,” he went on. “And that’s what always hurts and always makes you feel more alone than anything else. Having to go through the mundane, day-to-day shitty stuff alone. And that’s why Laney’s stupid ranting is more than just stupid ranting, and that’s why it bothers you more than it would have.”

He placed his hand on one of her shoulders for all of one second before retracting it and exhaling loudly. “I never used to work this conference because it always falls during the week of my anniversary. So my wife and I were always as far away from Vegas as possible. We usually went to California to hike. One of our bucket list items was to hike the entire John Muir Trail. That’s like… probably three to four weeks of hiking, so it wasn’t something we’d be able to do for a while. We usually just hiked portions of it.”

She was suddenly distracted from crying and glanced up again. “You’ve been here every year since I was assigned this event.”

“Yeah,” he said quickly and then cleared his throat. “Misty… my wife… she got sick three and a half years ago. She caught the flu. The flu, right? You don’t think the flu is that big of a deal, especially not for a twenty-nine year old person in really good health. But she caught a secondary infection, caught pneumonia, and it was all downhill from there. She was just fine, and then over the course of about a month and a half she was just gone.”

Celia covered her mouth and her eyes widened. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, well.” He gave another defeated laugh. “Always get your flu shot, right?”

She nodded. “Flu shots are important.” After all, what else are you supposed to say to something like that? “So this is your anniversary week?”

“Yeah. Today is actually my… or our…” He paused and looked at her through red-tinged hazel eyes for a moment before he looked back at the floor. “Anyway. Today’s the shittiest day of a really shitty week, and I heard Laney running her mouth, and I knew you were like… you know. But to answer your question, yes. And work is a good distraction, so now I always work this event.”

“I’m so sorry, Josh. Truly.” He nodded again, but continued to stare at the floor and said nothing, so she added, “Micah was a runner. He always ran before work before it got too hot. He basically ran in the dark and I always told him that was so stupid because drivers couldn’t see him very well. But he was stubborn and I was right. And here I am. That was eleven months ago.”

“Ted mentioned it was something along those lines. How ironic, right? You think eating right and staying active will give you longevity, but sometimes shit just happens. It sucks.”

“It totally sucks. Have you gone to like… meetings and stuff?” she asked cautiously. All those ridiculous meetings for widows. Absurd. A widow at thirty years old.

“I went to a few. I was the only person there under forty-five and I couldn’t relate to those people. They all looked at me with pity, which annoyed me and made me feel like a child. So I stopped going. I’d rather just work.”

“I went to them for about three weeks before I couldn’t go anymore,” she said. “I’ve been seeing a therapist. About six months ago, she told me to set a goal date to take off my rings. She said it was a ‘practical step in moving forward,’ but I don’t know about that. But I did it anyway. Two weeks ago, I put them in my jewelry box.” A lump formed in her throat and her eyes spilled over again. “I didn’t exactly have a chance to explain that to Lane—” She couldn’t even finish saying the woman’s name before she had to stifle another sob.

He placed his hand on her shoulder again and let it linger there that time. “Laney’s an asshole. She’s taking out her personal problems on you.”

Celia shook her head. “She just doesn’t know.”

“I know. But I’m sorry she unloaded on you.”

They went silent and she found them looking at each other. Her sniffling back sobs and him with his eyes red. They shared a similar look several hours later when they stood outside her hotel room, and it was what compelled her to invite him in. And that’s how he ended up asleep in her bed right now.

Back in the empty session room, the look lasted until Celia’s radio chirped.

“Celia!” came a voice over the tiny speaker. “The kiosks on level three all have the blue screen of death!”

She groaned as she stood up and lifted to radio to her mouth. “I’ll be right there.”

Josh stood as well. “Never a dull moment. You okay?”

“Of course. Thank you for that.”

“Don’t mention it. I’ll have a word with Laney.”

“You don’t need to do that. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” He slipped his hands into his pockets and took a step away from her. “Well if you need anything, just holler.” He pulled a radio out of his pocket. “I’m on here, too.”

“Thanks. I’ll probably see you around the floor.”

He hesitated for a moment. “You guys are planning to be at the reception tonight, right? CVI ordered lead retrieval, didn’t they?”

She nodded, suddenly wondering if it was strictly work-related question or if it was more her-related. “Yes, we’ll be there until after the reception ends.”

“Sounds good. Then I’ll see you there.”

“I’ll see you there, too.”

She didn’t actually see him there, at least not until it was almost over. She was swapping out chargers for the lead retrieval scanners while most of her staff was sneaking off to the open bar, and he’d approached the booth expertly balancing two plastic cups of wine in one hand, a small plate of food in the other, and what appeared to be a small book under one arm.

“Celia,” he’d said over the obnoxiously loud music, setting the plate and cups down on the counter. “I’m guessing you didn’t grab a bite yet.”

She smiled gratefully. “I didn’t. I didn’t get much lunch either. Thank you, you’re a lifesaver.”

“No problem.” He pulled the book from under his arm and held it against his chest. “Are you feeling any better?”

“I am. Sometimes you just need a moment, I guess.” They both picked up the cups of wine and she gestured toward him, feeling like a toast of sorts was politely obligatory. “To um, having someone to commiserate with.”

“And to the people we commiserate over,” he added, and she had to immediately drink, because damn.

She noticed she unintentionally downed the cup. “Today sucks.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Fuck today.”

She had to laugh. “Fuck today, indeed.”

He pulled the book away from his chest, tilted it toward her, and started saying something just as the announcer boomed overhead, “Ladies and gentlemen, please remember to return your lead retrieval devices to the rental booth prior to leaving the show floor. Thank you.”

“What was that?” Celia asked, leaning across the counter and glancing at the book.

“I was just saying this book is something that really helped me when I—”

“What’s up Joshua!” AJ, one of her staff hollered as he, Stephanie, Todd, Sandra, and David descended upon the booth again, all double-fisting cups of free wine.

“Not much,” Josh said, placing the book back under his arm and shaking AJ’s hand. “How’s it going? Working hard or hardly working?”

AJ laughed and lifted his cup. “You know how we do!”

“Yeah, I know how we do, too,” Celia butted in. “And unless all of you want to get a late start at the blackjack tables, you might want to get back here and help me charge batteries. Or start going to the booths and pick up devices so we don’t have to wait for everyone to come here.”

“Yes, ma’am!” AJ said before downing his drink and disappearing behind the back curtain with Stephanie and Todd. Sandra and David picked up checklists and meandered back out into the crowd, leaving Celia and Josh alone again.

“So what were you saying?” Celia tried again.

“Oh yeah.” Josh pulled the book out from under his arm a second time. “So anyway, about six months or so after… after, um…”

“Just after,” she finished for him.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “This book… it was really helpful. It’s not just about, you know, all that, but it has one section that—”

“Celia!” Stephanie hollered from behind the curtain. “This entire charging station isn’t getting any power!”

Celia briefly lifted her gaze to the ceiling in exasperation just as David returned wearing a look that told her there was an issue with one of the lead retrieval devices.

“Celia,” David said. “Beta Tech says their device isn’t showing any of their scans from today.”

Josh slipped the book under his arm and smiled with understanding and good humour. “This is a bad time. I’ll let you handle up.”

“Okay, I’m so sorry,” she said genuinely. “Can I try to find you later? I’d like to hear about the book.”

“Yeah, I’ll be around. I’m sure I’ll bump into you guys.”

The book. It’s a beautiful book. Right now, it’s sitting on the nightstand and Celia sets her phone back down next to it after checking the time. Her movement causes Josh to stir and he reaches for her, pulls her close to him, and she’s almost one hundred percent positive he’s merely acting on his subconscious, possibly his dreams, where he’s undoubtedly reaching for his wife.

“What time is it?” he murmurs, eyes still closed.

“Early,” she says. “Not even five yet.”

He hums and tilts his head, resting his cheek on her forehead, and his breathing becomes long and deep once again. Her ear is on his chest and she closes her eyes. Eleven months ago, she did this. Rather, eleven months ago, she stopped doing this. Her heart aches again for the umpteenth time that day, a tear spills onto his chest, and she lets herself pretend she’s listening to Micah’s heartbeat.

Earlier, when her team had been securing everything for the night, they kept running post-work plans by her, and Celia couldn’t help noticing she wondered about how conducive each idea would be to bumping into Josh. And then, of course, she couldn’t help wondering about her own motivation. Did she just want to hear about the book? Or did she suddenly have a thing for Josh? Josh, who’d barely registered in her mind prior to the Laney incident. Or was she just lonely? Attention and affection starved? And if that was the case, was that really the best idea? After all, even if she did suddenly have a thing for him, he clearly still had a thing for his wife. The face and behavior of a person whose grief is still open and raw is distinctive and Josh’s person was riddled with it even three years after the fact.

No, Celia told herself repeatedly as she followed her group through the casino. No, no, no, in time with the chimes and jingles of slot machines. No… no… no… with each of sip of her martini while she sat with her colleagues around a blackjack table.

She doesn’t even play blackjack. It’s always just a place to be so she doesn’t have to be by herself. She gets enough of that at home and she still doesn’t like it. The conferences are a good escape from reality, which was why, after she returned from her leave of absence, she asked for an increase in her workload. Now, she manages and travels to three conferences each month, which, truthfully, borders on too much work. She constantly feels like she’s on the cusp of either dropping the ball or losing her sanity completely.

As she pondered all of this, she thought again of Josh and the book. He said the book helped him, but he still seemed so sad. Maybe he’d been even sadder. Or maybe the book didn’t really help him, but he thought, maybe, it could help her.

And then, as if thoughts had the ability to materialize people and things, her radio chirped inside her pocket. She pulled it out and saw the screen read, “Joshua D.” She placed it next to her mouth and pressed the button, telling herself the call was likely work-related.

“Yes sir.”

“You don’t have to call me that.”

“Sorry. Is something going on?”

“Are you busy?”

“Not at all.”

“Want to meet me somewhere?”

Actually, yes, she wanted to say. “Sure. Where?”

“Are you staying at the Venetian or the Palazzo?”

“Venetian.”

“There’s a casino bar halfway between the lobby and the main escalator. It’s blue. Meet me there in ten minutes.”

It took longer than ten minutes to walk from the blackjack table in the Palazzo to the blue bar in the Venetian. While she was still a couple dozen yards away, she spotted him. He’d shed his tie, but still wore his jacket, and even from across the room she could tell he looked somber. In spite of that, he smiled cordially when she joined him.

“Celia,” he greeted her, offering his hand and she politely shook it before he gestured at one of the stools.

She sat, shifting slightly to face him and he sat as well. “Hi, Josh. How’s it going?”

“It’s going. Another long day.”

“Very long as usual,” she agreed.

He gestured at the shelves of bottles. “Whatcha drinking?”

“Maybe just a beer. I already had that wine earlier and a martini about a half hour ago, and at least one person on my team needs to show up tomorrow morning without a hangover.” Truthfully, she didn’t want to get drunk and do something stupid, like invite him up to her room. But apparently, she hadn’t needed to be drunk for that to happen.

Josh chuckled as he placed the order and then turned back to her. “Then you’ll be the only person on the entire event staff who’s not hungover. Maybe the only person at the event, period. You know how the attendees like to tie one on.”

“They certainly do, but hey. When in Rome, right?”

He gestured around the room grandly. “Or in Venice.”

She laughed, feeling more than a bit appalled at the fact she found him to be concerning levels of cute. That was both old and new. Old, because the last time she’d thought about a guy as being cute was way back in college, and then she married him. New, because of the same reason. And whether it was the old or the new, or simply because it was different, she felt a stab in her heart and suddenly longed fiercely for the wedding rings back home in her jewelry box. Or more specifically, the man who’d given them to her.

The bartender set down the bottles and Celia suddenly couldn’t decide whether to down hers and then politely leave or feign fatigue and excuse herself right away. She felt her eye rims begin to prickle and hastily took a sip in an effort to wash down the lump in her throat. As she did, she noticed Josh picking at the label on his bottle with his thumbnail, which caused his wedding band to reflect flashes of the blue neon lights into her eyes, and she wondered what on earth they were both doing there like this. It suddenly felt like an emotional affair, because the both of them were clearly still emotionally unavailable. That is, if that was even what they were doing there. What was this? She didn’t know, she was afraid to find out, and subsequently wanted to evaporate into the air along with all of the cigarette smoke that hung in the atmosphere.

“You look like you did earlier,” Josh said, shaking her out of her thoughts.

“What do you mean?”

“When Laney was laying you out, you had that same look on your face.”

She closed her eyes briefly as she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’m just having a day.” She paused. “Still having a day, I guess.”

“I hear you,” he said, leaning into his elbows against the bar. “Do you ever notice they seem to practice age discrimination in this industry?”

She crinkled her brow. “Not really. I feel like there’s more of a problem being a woman. The events industry is a total boys’ club. If I’ve had any problem, it’s been with not being taken seriously because I’m not one of the guys. I’ve had event managers walk right past me to talk to guys on my staff because they assumed they were in charge.”

“I guess I’ve seen that too.”

“And,” she added, “it’s what makes women act like Laney. This morning isn’t the first problem I’ve had with her, and she’s not the first woman I’ve had a problem with.”

“That’s sort of the same thing I deal with constantly. People will go over my head when they don’t like an answer I’ve given them or whatever. And it’s actually pretty hard to go over my head. Within the convention arm of the Sands, there’s really only two people above me and they don’t really give a shit about what these clients typically want to whine about. But clients have trouble hearing no from someone younger than them, even though I basically run all of this,” he said, flipping his hand in the air.

She smirked to herself before taking another sip. “Big man on campus. I feel so sorry for you.”

“I don’t need you to feel sorry for me,” he said defensively. “I’m just saying I hate my job sometimes. I busted my ass to get to this position and people still walk all over me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. That’s exactly what I deal with, too. It’s annoying and it’s just the way things are, and there’s not really anything anyone can do to change it,” she said, absently patting his hand. He glanced at their hands and then at her face, and she pulled away.

“Sorry. I’m too touchy-feely. It’s not really appropriate.”

“It’s okay. That wasn’t inappropriate.”

“Well, I’m sure if Laney saw it, she’d think otherwise.”

“Laney’s just not happy. Not everyone has a great marriage.”

“That’s really sad,” Celia said before pursing her lips and turning her gaze toward the shelves of bottles. “I had a great marriage.”

He nodded as he sipped his beer. “So did I.”

“Not that we never had our problems,” she added. “Everyone has problems sometimes. The difference is how you deal with it.”

“Exactly. When we’d have a fight or something, we wouldn’t go to bed without resolving it. That was a rule she insisted on since the very beginning. Never go to bed mad.”

“Oh yes,” she said enthusiastically, turning to him again. “We had that rule too. And sometimes we’d be up until all hours of the morning hashing through stuff.”

“Yup. The major fight we seemed to have was about kids. There was a period of time when we lost a lot of sleep over that one.”

Celia lifted her eyebrows. “You have kids?”

“No, and that was the thing. I wanted kids and she was always on the fence. As time passed, she decided she didn’t. She was really career-driven. Not a workaholic, just ambitious. And like you were saying, it’s sometimes harder for women to get promoted specifically because of things like having kids. Taking maternity leave and all that. She didn’t want to do that. And I was always saying, but what about beyond our careers? Someday we’re going to be old and we won’t be able to devote all this time to work or traveling or hiking, and what’s going to happen when we’re really old and one of us dies? The other one would just be alone.” He paused, pulling his bottom lip between his teeth while he picked at the label again. “We’re both only children and we’re not really close with our parents and our jobs don’t really lend themselves well to cultivating close friendships. I was constantly saying we needed something more, and truthfully it was because I hated the idea of her being totally alone one day. I was older, and I was the man, and for some reason I always believed I’d be the first to go. But she said I worried too much. And now I’m the one who’s alone in a Vegas casino bar on my anniversary.”

He cast a sad sidelong glance at Celia. “It’s pathetic.”

“Well,” she said, lifting her shoulders slightly, “I’m alone in a Vegas casino bar too. Because I am a workaholic, and I’m a workaholic because I don’t want to be alone in my empty house. All I have is my job, too. So I guess that makes me pathetic also.”

He let his chin sink into his palm while he stared at his beer, so she stared at hers.

“We were planning to have kids,” she said, mostly to herself. “I was concerned about work too, so I wanted to put a good five to seven years in at my company. I’d been reading all of these articles about how pregnancy in your thirties isn’t as bad as everyone seems to believe. It’s actually better to be more established in your work and finances and stuff, and in your thirties you’re more emotionally prepared for parenthood because you’re more mature. So we said we’d start trying after my thirtieth birthday.” She pressed her lips together as she swallowed and then took a deep breath. “I turned thirty four months ago. And it just came and went. No more husband. No pregnancy. Nothing. Except for work. Pathetic indeed.”

“Maybe pathetic is the wrong word,” he finally said. “Maybe it’s just sad.”

She nodded. “Sad. Yeah.”

That time, he was the one who placed his hand on hers and she decided he was right. It wasn’t inappropriate. Or if it was, that didn’t seem to matter because right then what she wanted more than anything in the world was someone to hold her hand. And maybe that’s what he wanted more than anything too, and maybe that’s why he did it. And maybe they weren’t the people they each wanted to be holding hands with, but they each were the only person there for and with the other.

“Not how I pictured ‘til death do us part,” he muttered.

He said it quietly enough that she knew he wasn’t talking to her, rather just saying it because he needed to. She wondered which anniversary this would have been for them. How many years ago had they said that to each other? She and Micah had said it about seven and a half years ago, and she had to agree. This wasn’t what she pictured either. Not that she’d really pictured it. But when saying it, a quick mental picture flashed in her mind. Old and gray. Maybe in bed together. At the same time, of course, even though that wasn’t realistic.

Josh rubbed his thumb over hers and she had a sudden realization that this was exactly what ‘til death do us part looks like. If their souls left the earth at the same time, would they really be parted from one another? She didn’t believe that. Death do us part meant one leaves before the other. And that’s what happened.

Her breath hitched in her throat, but it was concealed by a stomach-pounding thud of bass from the speakers in the bar and an auto-tuned voice repeatedly booming the words, “Welcome to Las Vegas!” The kicker was when the cocktail waitresses all climbed onto the bar and began twerking only a couple of feet from where she sat.

“Okay,” she said, pulling her hand away. “I think I need to call it a night.”

“Yeah,” he agreed as he stood with her. They stepped out of the raucous bar, heading toward the escalator and when they reached it, she turned to him to say thank you or goodnight, but he spoke before she could. “Want me to walk you to your room?”

Was that a loaded question? Possibly, but she still said, “Sure.”

The elevator ride was silent as she continued to ponder the question, continued to wonder what exactly was happening between them, or if there even was something happening between them, and if there was, how she felt about it. All of the questions in her mind returned unanswered. And yet, when they stood next to her door, she looked at him and he looked at her, and his eyes were so sad, and she found herself asking another question, but this time she asked it outloud.

“Do you want to come in?”

Why? Why had she asked that? And why would he come in? She tried to tell herself this is what single thirty-something year old adults did. Especially in a place like Las Vegas. That was part of the reason there are so many relationships and marriages amongst people in their industry. People came to Las Vegas for a week at a time several months out of the year and they saw the same people and found companionship with those people. But this wasn’t exactly like that, because she and Josh weren’t single. Not really. Single meant unattached. She and Josh weren’t exactly unattached.

Nevertheless, after a hesitation, he gave a single nod. “Sure.”

Now what?

Inside the room, Celia slipped out of the jacket of her skirt suit, draped it over the chair at the desk in the corner, and turned to face him in a way that she felt was blatantly expectant. Expectant of what, she wasn’t sure, but she was suddenly very nervous, as if she’d irrevocably signed up for something that she wasn’t convinced she wanted.

He crossed the room with distinctive intention, holding her gaze, and stopped right in front of her. He stood there for a moment and she was sure she looked terrified. And maybe that’s why he didn’t kiss her, rather slipped off his own jacket, draped it next to hers, and pulled a book—the book—out of the inside pocket.

He held it against his chest and said, “Let’s read this. I think you’ll like it.”

She nearly passed out from relief. “Okay.”

They stepped out of their shoes and sat on the bed next to each other, propped against the headboard, and he held the book between them.

Kahlil Gibran’s Masterpiece: The Prophet.

“This is basically a collection of philosophical poems about some of life’s great experiences and other facets of the human experience. Love, marriage, joy and sorrow, freedom, friendship, children, death,” he said. “At our wedding, Misty read the passages about love and marriage. And so reading it on our anniversary became an unofficial tradition of ours. You know, to remind us of what we had promised each other and signed up for. After she died, I couldn’t even look at it for about six months. But when our first anniversary after that came around, I was so desperate for something. Just some kind of connection to what we had that I picked it up again. I sometimes read the whole thing, but at the very least I always read the sections on love, marriage, and death.”

“Is it a religious book?”

“I don’t think so. I think it’s just about life. It doesn’t really tell you right from wrong, or what to do. It just makes you think.” He opened it, flipped to a page, paused, and glanced at her. “May I?”

“Of course.”

And he began to read:

“Then Almitra spoke again and said, And what of Marriage, master?

And he answered saying:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

You shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of heavens dance between you.”

As he read, Celia picked up a pillow, pressed it to her mouth, and drew her knees to her chest. Her mascara smudged on the pillowcase and she turned her face toward the opposite wall. But he continued to read. His voice was quiet and held just a hint of fragility. He read for several minutes until he stopped and she was still wiping her eyes on the pillowcase. They sat in silence for a while until she spoke without even thinking, not really even to him.

“That is so beautiful.”

“Yeah,” he said, quieter and more fragile. Silence resumed for several more minutes when Josh reached for a tissue from the box on the nightstand and handed it to her.

“I really wish,” she started to say and her breath hitched. “I wish I’d known about that book. I wish I could read it to him.”

He nodded. “I wish she could read it to me. She always did.”

“What anniversary is this?”

“It would’ve been number twelve.”

She reached for his hand and he not only let her hold it, but also slipped his fingers between hers, interlacing them together.

“Happy Anniversary, Josh.”

“Thank you, Celia.”

Silence resumed for another beat or two, when he broke it by speaking quietly. “Want me to read from the beginning?”

“Please.”

And he did. And that’s the last thing she remembered before waking up at 4:45 to check the time, when she suddenly found herself with her head on his chest and his cheek resting on her forehead. When she fell asleep to the sound of his heart while pretending it was that of her husband.

The next thing she knows, a hand is stroking hers and she peels her eyes open to see a desert sunrise.

“Celia,” he is saying. “Celia. Celia, it’s almost seven. I have to get going and you probably do too.”

She sits up and sees he’s once again wearing his jacket and shoes, but now he’s also wearing splotches of smudged mascara just to the left of the white shirt’s buttons. She wonders if she should try not to think about the fact that he slept in here. Thinking about it too much would surely complicate something that wasn’t really complicated. She tells herself there are worse things. Worse things like kissing him or sleeping with him in the other sense of the phrase. Somehow, it seems what actually did happen between them in her hotel room last night was far more intimate than those things. And that is what she definitely needs to avoid thinking about.

She walks him to the door and he pauses just outside, facing her.

“I was kind of having a terrible day yesterday and… um,” he starts to say, but settles for, “Thanks for humoring me.”

“If I humored you, then you humored me, so thanks for that.”

He cracks a smile and then leans down to kiss her cheek as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it doesn’t feel that way and his faces suddenly says as much. Her eyes dart back and forth between his eyes and his lips and for a second she wonders, but then he drops his gaze to the floor.

“Have a good day, Celia,” he says to the carpet as he turns and starts down the hall.

“You too,” she says, barely loud enough for him to hear, but it seems he hears her anyway because he abruptly stops and returns.

He stands in front of her again and holds the book out, but she can’t bring herself to take it.

“I’ve read this so many times that I’ve memorized it,” he says. “I want you to have it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Completely. This isn’t the original copy I’ve always had, it’s just the one I carry with me.”

Hesitantly, she takes it from him and holds it against her chest. “Thank you.”

He nods and turns to head back down the hall, and she wonders if that’s it. If that was the extent of their emotional affair. But when he reaches the corner at the end of the hall, he pauses again as he glances back at her.

He smiles. And she wonders.

****

If you liked this story, let me know! If I get enough interest, I’ll write the full novel

The We and the They

british-army-patrol-on-the-nationalist-falls-rd-after-a-night-of-rioting-bx1rkt“The We and the They didn’t used to exist,” Great Aunt Alexa says, pulling the curtain back and peering out the window. “It used to just be the US.”

She is worried, but Mom always says she frets too much. It’s what older people have always done. They long for the past and are always talking about the “good old days.” Things were always better back then.

“But we know better,” Mom is always saying, “We are creating a better way of life. The way things are now is not any good and They are entirely to blame.”

Great Aunt Alexa doesn’t like the way Free Oppela is governed or the way it functions, or the fact that We can’t visit Old Oppela. We don’t want to go there anyway.

“They have blocked the N6 again,” the man wearing a patch of the Free Oppela flag says over his megaphone to a group of the We that have gathered in the square. “They are keeping the aid shipments of food and medicine from getting through. They are threatening to shut off the pipelines to restrict the water supply to Free Oppela. We won’t stand for this. We have a plan. We are preparing an offensive. It will begin at the end of this week.”

The crowd of the We begin to cheer and I watch through the windows as the We wave the flag of Free Oppela, a dark blue square with a large, white five-point star in the center.

Great Aunt Alexa closes the curtain and Dad turns on the TV. Though the We are liberated, Free Oppela still receives the government-sponsored channel of the Republic of Saxet. They are talking about the We again, calling the We terrorists, but We know better.

“They are so brainwashed! Listen to those idiots,” Dad says, getting irritated and switching to the only other channel that attenae in Free Oppela can pick up, WNN, which is an international news station. WNN is decidedly on the side of the We. Being on the other side of the world has given the international community a big picture perspective of the revolution and WNN knows that the We are liberators fighting against a murderous tyrant.

“Twenty-seven people were killed, including twelve children, when Saxet government forces targeted the last functioning hospital in South Oppela in an airstrike this week,” the WNN reporter says. “Fifty-six people were injured. Hospitals and schools have increasingly become targets as tensions are running high in the republic, which is now entering its ninth year of civil war.”

The revolution began while Mom was still pregnant with me, so I don’t know what it was like before the We and the They, but Great Aunt Alexa always jumps at the chance to tell the story.

“I was born in Oppela and when I was growing up, it was still just a small town,” she has told me and my little sister, Rim, on more occasions than we can remember. “Most people only lived here because they were students at the University of Saxet and enjoyed the laid back culture, so many of them stuck around, starting families and building businesses. It had a thriving local music scene, and that combined with its proximity to lakes and hiking trails made it a destination of sorts for people from out of state-”

“What’s a state?” Rim usually asked. She’s four years younger than me, so she hasn’t started school yet and doesn’t know a lot of the words used before the We and the They.

“Before the Continental American Territories were established, it was all a single country known as the United States of America. There were fifty states and after Saxet seceded—it was called Texas in those days—many other states did as well, and many of them banded together to form larger territories based on their political leaning.”

“Why was Saxet called Texas?” Rim would ask.

“When Saxet, er… Texas was in the process of seceding, people said it was a backward state and started referring to it as Saxet. The people of Texas considered that a badge of honor of sorts and adopted it as the Republic’s new name.”

“That’s so weird.”

“It’s all weird, Rim. It’s all very weird. Anyway, Oppela became very prosperous and the population was mainly educated people and transplants from other states who had beliefs about how things should be that differed significantly from the majority of the rest of Saxet. Everyone managed to coexist with each other until a very divisive presidential election. Leading up to that election, people were very angry at each other and everyone started speaking in terms of the We and the They. ‘We can’t stand for this,’ people on both sides would say. ‘If They win, it will destroy our way of life.’

“Eventually, Wilhem Ryder won the election and half of the United States, or the US as it was called, became very angry. The other half, Ryder’s supporters, became indignant. Everything was about We and They. ‘They are a bunch of backward idiots. We are going to lose a lot of our rights.’ ‘They are a bunch of liberal crybabies. We are going to make this country great again.’ It was all anyone talked about and everyone talked about it constantly.

“I remember when your father was just a baby, your grandmother used to host playdates with all the other new mothers in the neighborhood and it’s all they talked about. ‘They spray painted a bunch of hateful words on a store in North Oppela. Can you imagine being so ignorant? I’m so glad We are so much more intelligent than that.’ Even when she was rocking your dad to sleep, she’d listen to speeches given by people talking about it. ‘We have to do something. Make sure you’re calling your representatives. Say We won’t stand for what They are doing to our country.’ Everyone talked like that. It became the norm and it made the divide that much worse. An entire generation of people were born and raised with those divisive words of We versus They and it was all they knew. And as that generation grew into adulthood, We and They became more than just pronouns. It became an identity claimed by both sides of the divide.”

 

Today is a school day and I make my way through streets flanked by dilapidated buildings and piles of rubble. My walk is interrupted by one of the We shouting from a roof.

“Take cover, kid! They have a sniper today!”

I duck into an abandoned storefront and wait, flinching and clasping my ears at the sound of a series of gunshots. After it falls silent for several minutes, I make my way out the backdoor and creep through the snaking alleyways until I arrive at a hollowed-out former coffee shop, where my teacher is in the middle of the day’s lesson.

Miss Abercrombie is like Great Aunt Alexa and doesn’t conform to the We and the They, and many of my classmates talk behind her back about how the We is going to come after her one of these days.

“It was after Ryder lost his reelection to the Democratic challenger, Tobias Preston, in 2020 that Texas petitioned for secession and became the independent Republic of Saxet. Saxet was nearly unanimous in its choice to elect President Aleshire. Now, back in the days when Saxet was still part of the US, a president was limited to two four-year terms but the state governor had no term limits, and the people of Saxet decided to extend this to the newly-created office of the President of the Republic. And as a result, Aleshire has been in power for nearly thirty years.”

“Jeez! They were such a bunch of idiots!” a boy named Micah pipes up from one side of the room. “They should have established term limits. Then We wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“How did this mess begin, Micah?” she asks.

“The They started shooting the We at the first demonstrations.”

“Not quite.”

“That’s what my dad says. He was there.”

“No, what happened was a group of people were unhappy with the choices made by another group of people and wanted to do something about it. So they protested. The government sent military forces to keep things under control, but the protestors lashed out and became violent, and the military responded with force. Both sides were wrong and both sides were responsible for killing a lot of people.”

“The We were not wrong. The They just wanted to keep the We from getting our rights back and the They shot everyone.”

“And then what happened, Micah?” she asks in voice that is patient, but also slightly patronizing.

“The We fought back. The We had to. The They would have killed everyone.”

“What if the protestors sent people to talk to the government instead of fighting back?”

“You can’t talk to the They. The They are bunch of backwards idiots.”

“How do you know that?”

“They just are.”

“Have you ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”

“Of course not.”

“Then how do you know they’re just a bunch backwards idiots?”

Micah shrugs. “My dad says so.”

“Has he ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”

He shrugs again. “Maybe before the revolution began.”

“Do you understand how that’s a problem?”

“It’s a problem because the They are too ignorant to reason with.”

“No, the problem is, and always has been, a lack of communication.”

I raise my hand.

“Yes, Omran?”

“Miss Abercrombie, how can the We communicate with the They if the They just want to kill us?”

“You have to be the first to bridge the divide. It was a lack of communication and willingness to bridge a divide a long time ago that sank this whole continent into chaos. Back in the early years of the twenty-first century, there was no They and We in the sense that you all use those words today. That happened because people were very angry about a lot of things, and instead of trying to compromise and communicate with people they were angry at, they only talked to people who agreed with them. That resulted in a culture and language of division. That division is the only thing your parents ever knew growing up because it’s all their parents could talk about, so it became the world your parents grew up in and the language they spoke. Once they were adults, they were fluent in divisiveness instead of compromise and when they became sick of the way things were, the only way they knew how to change anything was by fighting.”

“We can’t communicate with the They,” I protest. “The They are ignorant and violent.”

“No,” she says, “they’re just like you. And you’re all just angry.”

Out of nowhere, the guttural hum of a low-flying jet fills the air and she’s barely able to tell us to take cover under the tables before there is an earth-shaking explosion.

I am suddenly rendered deaf, but only momentarily before total silence is replaced by a high-pitched buzz in my ears. The buzzing is so loud that all the sounds of screaming and crying surrounding me are muffled and incoherent. I am in total darkness, save for light peeking through crevices between the pieces of brick and dry-wall that have buried the table I dove underneath. A girl named Leila huddles next to me and we cling to one another in our cave of rubble. After what feels like a lifetime, we hear the rescuers shouting orders at each other as they begin shoveling and digging.

A couple of hours later, Leila and I sit on the curb across the street from what used to be our school building, staring at three small bodies covered by white sheets. Micah, or what used to be Micah, is under one of them. Leila is hysterical, but I can’t feel anything enough to cry. Some of the rescuers are wailing and some are filming the scene with phones.

“This is the aftermath of the latest airstrike. Look at what They have done. Three innocent children dead.”

Some of the rescuers are yelling at Miss Abercrombie, who is white with dust and bleeding from her head. “You are responsible for this! You are an informant! You are on their side and look what They did!”

She tries to reason with the rescuers despite being confused and wobbly, but she is taken into custody and led away. I never see her again.

Two of the rescuers drive the rest of us to a makeshift hospital in a van that functions as a makeshift ambulance. While one drives, the other films us with his phone.

“Look at what They did! They are ignorant, violent scum and look at what They have done to our children!”

We are treated for various injuries and our parents are called. Mom and dad weep and cradle me while wailing, “How could They do this? They have no respect for innocent lives!”

That night in our home, we watch the President of Saxet sit in his office flanked by the flags of the Republic of Saxet, which are squares consisting of a white top half and a red bottom half. He issues a statement on the government-sponsored channel about the attack.

“They staged it. They are insistent upon perpetuating this war to the point that They manufacture propaganda to convince the world that They are right. We will not stand for this kind of manipulation of hearts and minds and We will not relent until We once again have a safe and united Saxet, and this includes the areas of Oppela They currently occupy.”

Later, WNN airs a statement from the leader of the We. “They once again take no responsibility for the murderous acts They insist upon carrying out against We who are liberated in Free Oppela. All of Saxet deserves freedom from They who seek to continue this oppression. In response to this atrocious act, We will make an example of this-”

The footage of the leader of the We is abruptly cut short and the anchorwoman begins discussing news from elsewhere in the world. There is commotion outside in the square and Great Aunt Alexa lifts the curtain. I approach her so I can peer out, but she stops me.

“Don’t watch this time.”

“Why not?”

She sighs and closes the curtain. “It’s your teacher.”

The word barely makes it past her lips when the sound of a single gunshot ringing out causes us both to jump.

 

The We begin the offensive later that week, launching multiple rocket-propelled grenades stolen from the They into Old Oppela. The state-sponsored broadcast says, “We will not stand for this. They will be met with force.” In only a matter of days, tanks bearing the white and red flag crawl through the barbed-wire boundary separating Old and Free Oppela and begin obliterating entire neighborhoods. Our house is destroyed on day four and it seems Great Aunt Alexa had every right to worry after all. But she didn’t say, “I told you so.” She didn’t live long enough to say anything.

A-Fiction

I do not expect to see him, but there he is. He looks older, of course. I do too. He also seems taller. I do not go out of my way to say hi, but he’s in my path to exit the wedding festivities and I have no reason or desire to avoid him. So I wave.
“Hey.”

Recognition comes after a beat and he smiles. “Hey! I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“I know, it’s been a while. Like, something like–”

“Like six or seven years or something,” he finishes for me.

“Something like that, yeah.”

He tries to conceal the smirk on his face. “Since that-”

“Yeah,” I cut in. I knew he would mention it. “That party. And that weekend.”

He suddenly appears guilty, so I smile. But it seems he feels the need to explain himself anyway.

“I didn’t mean to, like… I mean if that was…” he stammers, still smiling, but also rubbing the back of his neck. “I didn’t want to be… I don’t know. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but you were really cool about it. I expected you to go a little psycho afterward.”

I laugh lightly. “Why?”

He shrugs. “Because that’s what women do when guys do what I… you know… did.”

“Well,” I say, also shrugging. “I don’t really give that incident much thought.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Why not?”

“Because when I think of you, I don’t think of that weekend.” The words roll off my tongue before I can assess their true meaning.

“Really?” He appears marginally insulted, but he’s still smiling. “So what do you think of instead?”

I look past him to the dusky sky for a second as I think of everything. Then I look back at his green eyes, noticing the crow’s feet that haven’t always been there.

“I think of… seventh grade. First day of school. When you wouldn’t stop poking me in the back with your eraser, and I turned around to tell you to quit and you said, ‘if I quit, will you give me a kiss?’ and then I turned back around with my cheeks burning and wondering if some boy would actually want to kiss me.

I think of high school, when my best friend had such a huge crush on your brother and I had to go with her to a party you threw just so she could talk to him.

I think of my first night after moving back here and going to a bar with people from my new job that I barely knew, seeing you bartending and spending the whole evening talking to you instead of them.

I think of a year later at that same bar when I got into a scary fight with my boyfriend, which you defused by stepping in and casually engaging him in conversation about some video game.

I think of the first time I saw you after you came back from Iraq and noticing you finally looked like a man and not a boy.

I think of the day my best friend married your brother and us walking up the aisle.

I think of the day we stood in front of the glass at the hospital, looking at their newborn baby, talking about how crazy it was. How a baby could be such a perfect combination of two people.”

I stop talking and he’s wearing a wide grin.

“Oh yeah,” is all he says. But his eyes say more.

“Yeah,” I agree, taking a step back. “Anyway. It was nice seeing you.”

I start to leave again when I hear him speak.

“Katie.”

I glance back and see him holding out his hand toward me.

“What?”

He flips his fingertips slightly, gesturing toward the dancefloor. “Come on.”

“What, you want to go dance?”

“Yeah.” He’s still grinning. “Come on.”

“Why?”

He shrugs. “So you can have another thing to think of.”

I smile.

Sometimes it is not, nor should it be, love.
Sometimes it’s just a thread. One you don’t notice unless you go searching for it, skimming over the tapestry of your life. Maybe you can find the beginning, maybe you can’t. Maybe you can find the ending, maybe you can’t. But the thread is there, adding color and intricacies.

And even though you rarely think of this singular thread, it is part you, and you know that without it the whole thing would look a bit different. Like it was missing something.

May 27, 1997 | A Short (True) Story

We were just kids.

Our parents weren’t home. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

Our brother was fifteen, but he wasn’t there either. Not that he could or would have helped the situation. But still. He wasn’t there.

My sister, Asher, and I weren’t the only ones in this terrifying predicament. We lived in Cedar Park, a small town just north of Austin, Texas that was a family oriented community and there were lots of kids our age.

May 27, 1997 was a Tuesday. School had let out for summer the previous Friday, so all of our parents were at work. When you’re fourteen, being home alone is awesome. You have free reign of your time and can raid the refrigerator and watch as much TV as you want. And since it was only a few days into summer vacation, the novelty of being out of school hadn’t worn off yet. By the end of summer, I’d usually grow a bit bored, having nothing to do. Of course, there were chores required of my siblings and me, but those just had to be completed by the time our parents arrived home in the evening. We usually waited until the very last possible minute before we started on them.

So with my free time between waking up and when my parents got home, I got to do whatever I wanted.

On May 27, 1997, I slept in, as teenagers have a tendency to do. I drank a Coke for breakfast and I watched TV. When I was fourteen, I was obsessed with celebrity life and fashion, so I watched a Fashion Emergency marathon on E! Asher and I got into a stupid fight over something that didn’t matter and that I can’t remember, and she left the living room to go take a nap.

And shortly thereafter, it started.

Joan Rivers was running her mouth and out of nowhere, her Brooklyn accent was replaced by a loud, obnoxious series of blaring beeps.

A crawler appeared at the bottom of the screen.

The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Watch for the following counties: Bell, Frio, Hays, Hill, Kendall, McLennan, Navarro, Travis, Uvalde, Williamson…

Cedar Park is located in Williamson County, so I glanced out the large windows of the living room. The sky was blue and clear and it looked as hot as was typical for that time of year. It wouldn’t last. I knew that. But there probably wouldn’t be tornadoes. I knew that, too. At least, that’s what I believed at the time.

Growing up in Texas, you become accustomed to the warning, “conditions are favorable for tornadoes,” but for some reason, the worst case scenario always evaded us. A Tornado Watch just meant it was going to storm, and growing up in Texas, you live for those delicious spring and summer storms that give you a brief respite from the oppressive heat.

Nevertheless, because Texas is technically part of Tornado Alley, you also grow up knowing what to do in the event that a tornado actually shows up. My dad, being not quite a helicopter parent, but one who insisted that we were always prepared for the worst, drilled into us the safety precautions from a young age.

“Stay away from windows.”

“Go to a location in the center of the house.”

“Bring blankets and pillows.”

“Bring a battery-operated radio.”

“Bring a flashlight.”

But even at fourteen, I’d never experienced having to take cover in such a manner. Instead, severe thunderstorms were merely an exciting novelty. So I turned off Joan Rivers and switched to the weather radar, and there it was.

1997_Central_Texas_tornado_outbreak_radar_2048z
Radar from the KEWX WSR-88D radar station in New Braunfels, Texas.

A big blob of green, yellow, orange, and red slowly floating its way across the map of Texas, taking a diagonal, southwestern path and heading straight for us. I immediately ran to the kitchen to grab another Coke, jumped back on the couch, and patted the cushion, inviting our black labrador mix, Abby, to join me for the exciting show.

She and I sat on the couch for a while, anticipating when the glorious rain would arrive, looking forward to it squelching the stifling the heat and providing a nice, dark canopy to shield the neighborhood from the searing rays of the sun.

I should have been tipped off by the fact that the rain never arrived. This storm would be different.

Sometime later, the blaring series of beeps sounded again and the robotic warning came over the speakers.

“The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning for areas in Central Texas, including Bell County, Frio County, Hays County, Hill County, Kendall County, McLennan County, Navarro County, Travis County, Uvalde County, Williamson County. A tornado has been spotted in McLennan County west of Box Ranch Road and moving west-southwest to west of Mackey Ranch Road. Seek shelter…”

I glanced out the window. Still bright and sunny and McLennan County was a decent distance away from us. So I grew bored with the radar and lack of interesting weather and switched back to the E! channel.

I spent the next couple of hours using Abby as a pillow, only getting off the couch for a snack or another Coke, haphazardly checking the time to make sure I didn’t miss my window to start my chores. The warnings continued to randomly punctuate my shows, but I’d stopped paying attention to them for the most part.

It was not quite three p.m. when the sky finally turned ominously dark. There was still no rain, and I was still not tipped off by that.

And then, right around three p.m., maybe a bit after, the phone began to ring.

I wish I could say that one of my parents was the first to call, but they didn’t. The first person to call was my brother, Tim.

“I saw a tornado.”

Tim was perpetually full of shit.

I scoffed into the phone. “Yeah, right.”

“I did. It was in Buttercup.” Buttercup Creek was a nearby neighborhood where the vast majority of kids from our school lived, including Tim’s friend, Jay. They had spent the afternoon rollerblading. “You guys need to take cover.”

“Oka-ay…”

“I’m serious,” he insisted. “A bunch of people’s houses were blown away. Jay’s crying. His mom is freaking out.”

You had to take Tim’s words with a grain of salt. But sometimes there was a larger element of truth than others, and somehow the idea of Jay crying freaked me out. Jay was a year younger than me, but always seemed mature for his age. And when you’re fourteen, you think you’re basically a grown-up, so anyone your age also seems like a grown-up. Grown-ups and mature teens don’t usually cry or get scared.

I don’t remember what I said to Tim, or if I said anything.

“Just take cover,” he said. “Jay’s mom is going to bring me home when it’s safe to drive.”

I got off the phone and went to the formal living room where Asher was asleep on the sofa, trying to remain calm in spite of my steadily growing apprehensiveness.

“Wake up,” I told her. “There’s a tornado and we need to go in the bathroom.”

She stretched and yawned and was still annoyed at me over our earlier fight. “What are you talking about? The sun is shining.” She pointed at the windows and went quiet.

The sky was black—and still no rain.

We immediately began going through the motions of everything the we’d been told to do in this situation. I moved at a normal pace, not wanting to panic and upset my sister. I was the oldest right then and I couldn’t let her know I was scared.

Since we lived in a large, two-story house, gathering the necessities we’d need for such a situation took a few minutes. Our cat, Sophie, was usually hiding under one of the beds and Asher went looking for her. I went upstairs to my room to grab blankets and pillows. While I was up there, curiosity got the best of me and I needed to look out the windows.

The sky had changed. It wasn’t black anymore. At that moment, it had transformed into thick masses of light grey clouds, but there was that distinctive horizontal break. The clouds abruptly ended in a harsh, straight line and there was clear sky below it. I noticed the movement of the clouds. Slow. Strangely directionless.

There was otherwise no movement anywhere outside. No people. No birds. And the trees were eerily still.

house
Our childhood home. My window top right. My brother’s window top left.

My room faced the street in front of the house and my window was the largest. It was floor-to-ceiling, at least five feet wide, and topped with an elegant arch. Everything I needed to see was right out that window, but for some reason I was compelled to go look out Tim’s window, which also faced the street.

I dropped the blankets in the hall between our bedrooms, stood in front of his window, and I saw it.

The first thing I noticed was the trees were finally moving. But I quickly forgot the trees because I saw the debris in the air. Black pieces of unidentifiable debris. It looked like roof shingles and roof shingles shouldn’t be able to swirl around in the air like that.

I saw it in the top left quadrant of the window and it was right above our next door neighbor’s house. It appeared faint against the rest of the clouds, but it was distinguishable. Thin, narrow, wispy, but unmistakable. A funnel cloud drilling and spiraling in its descent from the sky.

And that was when I finally panicked.

“Touchdown!” I screamed, as if we were watching football. “Touchdown! Touchdown! Get in the bathroom!”

With blankets and pillows, Abby, Sophie, food and water for both of them, and a radio, we piled into the downstairs bathroom.

We climbed into the bathtub, covered ourselves with a blanket, and waited.

We didn’t turn on the radio. Not yet. We had to listen.

They say that a tornado sounds like a freight train, but we heard nothing like that. In fact, we heard nothing at all.

At some point Asher spoke up. “I’m sorry. I love you.”

We’d had a fight that afternoon and right then we were sitting in a bathtub waiting for our house to be blown away; possibly waiting to die, too.

We were just kids. I was fourteen. My sister was twelve. And we were alone.

“I love you, too.”

It was the single most anticlimactic moment of my life, because we continued to sit in total silence for a long time and nothing happened.

The silence lasted until the phone began ringing. The phone, which was not cordless and all the way across the house in the kitchen. The path from the bathroom to the kitchen was replete with large windows. There were so many windows in our house that we didn’t even have to turn the lights on during the day. I loved the windows and the natural light they provided, but right then all I could think of was the second I left the safety of the bathroom, I was vulnerable to a potential explosion of shattering glass.

But the phone was still ringing, so I had to go.

I left the bathroom first and Asher came with me.

In the windows, the sky was no longer black, but the same light grey it had been right before I saw the funnel cloud. There was still no rain.

I made it to the phone and my mom was on the other end.

“Are you girls okay?” Mom was a nurse, so she wasn’t the type to panic. She was always solid and calm, and right then was no different.

“We’re fine.” I was the type to stifle my feelings in situations that were too intense. “Nothing’s happening here.”

“I’m leaving the hospital. I’ll be there soon.”

Nineteen years later I would ask Mom about this particular phone call.

“It’s a wonder you all were not killed,” she told me. “This was before the time of cell phones, so I had to call before I left work. The hospital would not let the staff leave, but I managed to get out before they made that announcement. The traffic was crazy and I couldn’t get home fast enough.”

In my mind, all I could think of were my schoolmates and friends who lived in little Cedar Park; all of their parents, like mine, at work in Austin; all of those parents in their cars, clogging up the northbound lane of Highway 183 that lead from Austin into Cedar Park. Over the course of nineteen years, 183 was renovated into a big, wide highway with toll lanes. But in 1997 it was essentially just a three-lane suburban street, given to awful traffic jams during peak times. And late afternoon on May 27, 1997 was definitely a peak time.

After I hung up, Asher and I went outside expecting to see some kind of damage in our neighborhood. But there was nothing. Everything looked totally normal other than the gusts of wind.

The Tornado Warning wouldn’t expire until well into the evening, so we went back inside and moved the blankets to a large closet under the staircase. Abby and Sophie were growing agitated by being confined to a small space—especially being confined to a small space together—so we let them out.

The phone calls continued.

From Jay’s mom. “Are you girls okay? Make sure you stay inside. I’ll be there soon with Tim.”

From my best friend, Natasha. “Did you see a tornado? We didn’t see anything over here.”

Natasha lived in Leander, which was the next small town slightly north up 183 from Cedar Park.

“Oh yeah,” I said, feigning excitement over the whole thing; the only way to quell my fear and anxiety. “We’re having a party!”

“What? A party? Like a real party?”

“We built a clubhouse under the stairs. We’re having fun!”

She laughed. “Can I come over?”

For some crazy reason, her mom agreed to it.

From Tim. “I’m on my way. You won’t believe what Buttercup looks like right now.”

I felt a strange combination of horror and intrigue, and I decided I wanted to see it.

The rest of the evening is hazy in my memory. The weather morphed into something less strange and more normal. Natasha arrived at some point and so did Tim and my parents. We watched movies in the living room and managed to overhear Mom and Dad speaking in semi-hushed tones in the kitchen.

“The Albertson’s has a gaping hole right through the center of it,” Mom said. Albertson’s was our go-to grocery store. Like many things in Cedar Park—being the up-and-coming community that it was—it was brand new. The store managers had saved the lives of customers by pulling everyone into walk-in freezers. “Someone said it looks like a bomb went off.”

albertsons
Aftermath of tornado damage to Albertson’s grocery store in Cedar Park, Texas. Source: TEI Controls.

Nineteen years later, I look at the photos of the grocery store and am reminded of photos of the Pentagon on 9/11.

“The entire city of Jarrell was wiped away,” Dad said. “It was an F5.”

The movie Twister had come out almost exactly one year prior to this chaotic day, and we had all become well-versed in the Fujita scale as a result. An F5 tornado was classified as having wind speeds between 261 and 318 miles per hour. In the movie Twister, the F5 tornado is the one at the end that nearly kills Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.

jarrell-tor-horizontal-vortex-tubes
F5 Jarrell Tornado. Source: Shawn.

In real life, the Jarrell F5 tornado killed 27 people and 300 cattle and horses. The city itself hadn’t been wiped away as my dad said, rather a subdivision had. The tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide and tracked across the ground for more than seven miles. The subdivision, Double Creek Estates, consisted of 38 homes and several mobile homes, and it was obliterated.

 

“It was literally wiped off the face of the earth,” the reporters would later tell us. “Nothing is left.”

 

jarrellfoundation
Foundation of a former home in Double Creek Estates in Jarrell, Texas. Source: Shawn.

Aerial damage from the Jarrell tornado was reviewed by researchers and it was considered to be the most violent tornado they’d ever seen. The homes in Double Creek were well-constructed and bolted to their foundations, but the storm left only the concrete slabs. The houses were pummeled into finely granulated fragments and scattered for sweeping distances across the Central Texas countryside. Entire families were killed, including the Igo family, who were beloved by and active in the Jarrell Baptist Church. Those who weren’t killed were sandblasted by the loose soil of the region, resulting in dozens of traumatic injuries. Rescuers said they had difficulty distinguishing the human remains from that of the animals.

igo-familyx-large
The Igo family. From left to right: John, 15; Joan, 45; Paul, 15; Larry, 46; and Audrey, 17. Source: Shawn.

The night of the storm, none of us knew the extent of the damage and loss of life. We only knew that, in our little subdivision in Cedar Park, we’d dodged one hell of a bullet.

Tragically, many of my school friends who lived in Buttercup Creek couldn’t say the same thing.

 

****

 

The next day was hot. The temperature was in the mid-nineties with high humidity, as was typical for late May in Central Texas. In spite of this, Asher, Natasha, and I decided to walk the five miles to Buttercup Creek.

Buttercup Creek was an older, established neighborhood, full of large, nice, well-built homes. Meticulously manicured lawns and expensive cars. Cedar Park, at the time, was yuppie-central and nice homes and cars were seemingly important status symbols. But after May 27, 1997, every resident of Cedar Park got a harrowing reality check.

Sticky and sweating, Asher, Natasha, and I made our way into the parameters of the neighborhood and everything seemed totally normal. Then we rounded a corner.

 

It was like walking into a movie. There was a slight bend in the street, so we watched a slow reveal of the carnage.

Tornadoes are Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette, and this street in Buttercup Creek was a terrifying example of that.

Untouched house; untouched house; house with broken windows; untouched house; a car in a driveway flattened by a tree; largely untouched house, the lawn littered with branches and leaves; untouched house; house missing half of its second story.

I stared at that one.

I was a couple hundred yards away and I could see inside someone’s bedroom. I didn’t know whose house it was, but it looked like a typical teenager’s bedroom, so I knew it was someone from my school. It wasn’t even particularly mangled. It looked like someone had carefully and meticulously sliced it in half with a jig saw. Posters still hung on the wall and the bed sat neatly in one corner.

Untouched house; tree branches in a yard; a stripped roof; a large tree on its side between two houses; a concrete slab with groupings of pipes sticking up out of the ground.

We all stopped.

I don’t remember any of us saying anything. We were probably all thinking the same thing.

A house used to be right there. That was where someone lived, and now it’s gone. How is that possible?

We were just kids. A lot of the people who lived on this street were just kids. And right then, staring at a street replete with varying degrees of destruction spliced with total normalcy, it seemed none of us could process what we were looking at.

Construction crews and electricians and other workers were milling about. I don’t remember seeing any of the families. I guessed that many of them had gone to relatives’ houses in the wake of damaged or destroyed homes.

And since we were just kids who couldn’t process the gravity of the sights, and since it was so hot, the three of us merely left in search of a nearby neighborhood swimming pool.

The Cedar Park tornado varied in intensity between F1 and F3, had traveled a total of nine miles and reached a maximum width of two-hundred fifty yards. One-hundred thirty-six homes in the neighborhood were damaged and there was one indirect fatality. The man had died of a heart attack while trying to wait out the storm in his truck. He was a family friend of my friend, Kelly. About a year after all of this, I spent the night at Kelly’s house and she showed me a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, crying quietly over the man she’d known since toddlerhood. The first person she’d ever known to die.

We were just kids, most of us without our parents that day.  And on that day, we stared into the face of our own mortality. We saw firsthand how flippantly destructive Mother Nature can be. We came to grips with the idea that, sometimes, nobody can protect you. Because sometimes, it’s just you and your little sister sitting in a bathtub, in the dark, saying I love you and believing it’s the last thing you’ll ever say to anyone.

We were just kids, but on May 27, 1997, it seemed that we were forced to grow up.

 

After the Fight | a short story

AFTERTHEFIGHTRINGIt was seven-thirty AM and Sean O’Connor stood in front of the bathroom mirror, dragging the razor up and over his chin. He didn’t need to watch what he was doing, but he kept his eyes intentionally trained on his reflection anyway. Despite his intention, his gaze occasionally betrayed him and flicked to the glass dish next to the other sink in the master bathroom.

Lizzie’s ring sat in the dish where she left it after the fight.

It had been such a stupid, childish fight; one that smacked of adolescence, in spite of the fact that they were too old to be acting that way. She was thirty-two; he was thirty-three. Thirty-something-year-olds don’t act that way, but Sean and Lizzie had always been kind of young at heart. At least, Lizzie used to be kind of young at heart. Over the course of the seven years they’d been married it seemed she grew up and he didn’t. And that was ultimately the cause of the fight.

He’d misplaced the cable bill and forgot to tell her. Lizzie was good with finances, so she made sure the bills were paid on time. His job was simply to set the mail out where she could find it. On Monday she went through the small stack and saw the late notice.

“I never got the first one!” she’d said in protest to the letter before turning her hazel eyes up toward him. “Did we get the first one?”

He’d drawn a blank and shrugged, which caused her eyes to flash with exasperation. After sifting through a large stack of junk mail in a far corner of the kitchen counter, she found the previous bill and waved it at him.

“Twenty-five bucks down the drain, babe.”

He’d rolled his eyes and combed his fingers through his shoulder length hair as he went back to the master bedroom. “Right.”

What’s twenty-five bucks when you’re expecting yet another fat commission check? he wanted to ask. Lizzie was the Director of High Grade Sales at one of the largest brokerage firms in New York, so she brought home the bacon. A single one of her commission checks was usually what he managed to make in an entire month of bartending. It was a little emasculating, and being berated every time he dropped the ball on something so mundane didn’t help.

After the fight, he’d heard her leave for work, so he picked up his guitar, sat on the couch, and began strumming to distract himself. He remained distracted for the rest of the day until she arrived home from work and she brought it up again.

“Put all the mail in this,” she’d said, setting down a shallow plastic letter tray she’d brought home from her office. “That way we won’t waste anymore money on late fees.”

Her tone had seemed condescending and it grated on him, so he crossed the apartment and flippantly tossed all the mail in the tray without saying a word.

She cocked her head to one side. “What’s your problem? I’m trying to create a system. It’ll help.”

Before he could respond, his cell phone rang from in his pocket. The caller ID said it was Elena, one of the other bartenders.

He made a big show of answering casually. “Hey Elena, how’s it going?”

Lizzie pursed her lips as she eyeballed him while sifting through the letters.

“Can you cover my shift tonight?” Elena asked. “Jade’s got a stomach flu or something.”

Ohhh… yeah, of course,” he said oh-so-smoothly, sensing that Lizzie was still eyeballing him. Elena was gay and Jade was her partner–but Lizzie didn’t know that. As far as Lizzie knew, Elena was yet another one of the flirtatious cocktail waitresses. Lizzie hated the cocktail waitresses, because all the cocktail waitresses loved Sean. Everyone has their insecurities. His was the money situation; hers was the fact that seemingly every woman wanted to jump her husband’s bones.

And while Sean would never even entertain the idea of so much as looking at another woman, sometimes it was an ego-booster to remind Lizzie that maybe other women out there might not care where the fuck he left the mail. Or that he didn’t make anywhere close to six figures and that he never would.

Then again, Lizzie didn’t care that he’d never make the kind of money she did. She just seemed to want him to grow up the way she did. Stop messing around with the guitar. Stop wasting time playing late night shows at AJ’s club. Try to find a respectable job. Blah, blah, blah.

“Are you sure?” Elena asked.

“It’s absolutely my pleasure, Elena,” he said with an air of faux flirtation and a smile.

“You’re a lifesaver,” she said. “Thanks again.”

“You got it. See you later.” He shoved the phone in his pocket before putting on his shoes.

Lizzie shot him a look. “Who is Elena and where are you going?”

“One of the bartenders,” he answered, still oh-so-casual. “And I’m headed to work.”

“You’re not on the schedule tonight,” she protested.

He shrugged as he headed for the door. “I am now. I’ll see you later.”

He could feel her burning holes in the back of his head with her eyes, but he left anyway. He’d successfully made her jealous, which was stupid and childish and he knew it. It was just another one of their stupid, petty fights. They always made up. In spite of these stupid, petty fights, things were good–or so he believed until he found her ring in the dish next to her sink on Tuesday morning.

He focused more intently on shaving; perhaps dragging the razor a bit too aggressively, because he nicked his chin. It caused the rims of his eyes to prickle and a lump to rise in his throat, but it wasn’t the cut on his chin that hurt.

As he dabbed the blood with a towel, he thought of the day he gave her the ring. Just a thin gold band with a little half-carat diamond. It had taken him seven months to save up for it, but all the scraping together of his meager earnings from waiting tables was totally worth it when her eyes welled up as he held it out toward her while they sat on a bench in Central Park on her twenty-fourth birthday.

“Hope it fits,” he’d said, casual as always. He remembered the way she crinkled up her nose in delight as he slipped it on her finger and she gasped in delight.

“Look, babe! Perfect!” She pressed her nose against the side of his neck and sighed happily. “Just perfect.”

Sean abruptly shook his head and looked back at his reflection while combing his fingers through his close-cropped hair. He still wasn’t used to this stupid haircut. But that didn’t matter. She wanted him to finally grow up, so he did.

 

*

 

At the office, Sean was greeted by a notice that he was expected for a review.

Seeaaannn…” Mark drawled in his obnoxious voice with an equally obnoxious chuckle. “What’s going on, man? Your numbers are down again this quarter.”

Sean nodded and wore a pleasant but humble expression. “Yeah, I know. Lots of hang-ups. People just aren’t interested. They hate getting the calls. A lot of people are asking to be added to the Do Not Call registry.”

“Well, we just need to figure out how to get around that, huh?” Mark was so patronizing.

“We sure do.”

Mark picked up a pen and started making notes on a sheet of paper. “I’m going to have you shadow Jenny for a while. Maybe pick up some tips.”

Sean sighed quietly. Shadowing Jenny meant he was on informal probation for three months. If things didn’t improve after that it would be formal probation. It things still didn’t improve, he’d be shit-canned.

After signing off on the paper, Sean made his way to his desk to grab his head set and a notepad and pen. He let himself sulk for a moment in his chair before going to join Jenny, while he absently spun his wedding band and glanced at the photo on his desk.

Lizzie wearing a veil and him wearing a tux; her crinkled nose pressed against the side of his neck while they both grinned happily.

“Get your shit together,” he told himself under his breath. The job sucked. But that didn’t matter. She wanted him to finally grow up, so he did.

A minute or so later, he sat down next to Jenny’s desk and she gave him a sweet smile.

“Are you doing okay today?” she asked in that sympathetic tone everyone seemed to use on this particular day. “I’m surprised you came in at all.”

He shrugged. “Gotta work. Even today.”

 

*

 

After work, Sean swung by the apartment long enough to change into running clothes and was out the door again. He jogged through Tompkins Square Park, ignoring the flags at half-mast. Instead, he focused on one of the basketball courts. He and Lizzie played at that one. They’d played that Saturday. They’d been playing one on one since high school. It was how they’d met.

He had been a sophomore and she was a freshman and they happened to be on this court at the same time one day after school. He’d never seen a girl play basketball before and she was pretty damn good. He had intended to go easy on her, this cute, curly-haired brunette, but early in the game, she stole the ball from him and shot it over his head.

Swish.

He’d glanced back at her in disbelief and saw her crinkle her nose at him for the first time ever. The first of a million times she’d do that. Not quite love at first sight, but pretty close.

He rounded the corner toward East Tenth Street and headed back toward the apartment, staring at the ground to avoid seeing the flags.

 

*

After the long run, Sean was famished, so he pulled open the refrigerator door in search of any kind of sustenance. There was some leftover pizza and he scarfed three slices, only noticing mid-way through the third that it tasted a little funny. He grimaced, wondering if he would end up with food poisoning later, but decided it would make a convenient excuse to miss work.

He made his way back to the master bedroom, peeled off his sweaty running clothes, and collapsed on the bed, intending to rest for a few brief moments before getting in the shower. He stared at the ceiling for a while and then rubbed his eyes.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he heard the bedroom door open and felt the well-manicured nails stroking back his sweaty hair.

His eyes shot open as he jerked upward to sitting, and she was seated on the edge of the bed next to him. “Lizzie!”

She smiled at him. “Hey babe.”

He sighed loudly. “I missed you.”

“I know. I miss you too.” She continued to smile and stroke her nails through his hair. “How was work?”

He groaned. “I hate that place. I’m not making my quotas. I’m just not cut out for the corporate bullshit.”

She shrugged. “So quit. Don’t work somewhere that’s going to make you miserable.”

He gave her a mildly exasperated look. “I can’t quit. This is the kind of job you said I should have. It’s sensible and stable.”

She smirked. “That doesn’t matter. It’s obviously not what makes you happy. You should do what makes you happy.”

He shook his head and looked at her, noticing her outfit. White blouse; gray skirt. She looked like she just came from the office. “You look beautiful.”

She gave him a playful smile. “I think you just have a thing for my work clothes.”

“No, I just think you’re beautiful. I always have.” He paused as he noticed his chest starting to ache. “After the fight… when I came home, you were already asleep. You were beautiful then too. I wanted to wake you up just so I could kiss you goodnight, but I was still mad.”

“Well…” she said with a sigh. “I was mad, too. It is what it is.”

He noticed a surge of anger pulsed through his veins and he clenched his jaw. “And then you left in the morning.”

“I know.”

He huffed. “Why didn’t you at least wake me up before you left?”

She chuckled. “I never woke you up before I left. I always let you sleep in. That morning was no different.”

He raised an eyebrow. “That morning was completely different.”

“Yeah, but nobody knew that at the time.”

He sighed, but said nothing, so she smiled at him tenderly and touched his cheek. The feeling of her fingertips on his face caused his heart to burn. “I wish you’d called me. Or I wish I’d called you.”

“I didn’t have time. And you didn’t know. You probably weren’t even awake yet.”

He knew she was teasing him and it caused him to chuckle in spite of himself. “No, I wasn’t actually. I didn’t wake up until AJ called me at around nine-thirty.”

Out of nowhere, his mind materialized a mental picture of that particular phone call.

“Don’t turn on the TV,” AJ had said. But Sean turned on the TV anyway. Then he called her. Or at least, he tried to.

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten times he called, dropping the phone multiple times because his hands had been shaking uncontrollably. With every call, the same result: straight to voicemail.

He scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed.

“Have you been to his club lately?” Lizzie asked, shaking him out of the memory.

He cocked his head as he gave her a look. “I can’t do that anymore, sweetheart.”

“Why not?”

“You know why.”

“Playing is what makes you happy, Sean. You should swing by sometime.”

“But that’s not what you want me to do.”

“I think you would feel better if you did.” She paused. “I want you to be happy. You know that.”

The rims of his eyes began to prickle so he rubbed them with his fist before looking at her again. “I’m sorry about that phone call, Lizzie. It wasn’t at all what I was making it sound like. I was just so fed up right then.”

“I know.”

“I’d never do that to you,” he went on. “I was really frustrated and I was acting stupid.”

“I know.”

He paused for a long time while his chest began aching. “So why’d you take your ring off?”

She laughed. “I was acting stupid, too,” she said, stroking his hair back again. “I’d never do that to you either. I love you. You know that.”

The sound of her saying those three little words caused the ache in his chest to intensify to the point that it felt like his rib cage would split apart at his sternum and he rubbed his eyes again. When he peeled his eyelids open, he saw the ceiling again and he couldn’t help covering his face.

“I miss you so much.”

The words crossing his lips seemed to be a catalyst of sorts that caused his shoulders to heave once as he uttered guttural sob. He sat up and allowed himself about a minute or two to feel the full weight of his grief. After all, nobody else was there to see him cry like a little girl.

After getting himself under control, he took a quick shower with the intention of going straight back to bed, but found that sleep was now evading him. Having nothing else to do, he made his way to the living room and sat on the couch before flipping on the TV.

With this being the third anniversary, he was now used to the scenes on the local access station. The cheesy graphic of the American flag waving; the infamous date; the obligatory words in a banner across the top of the screen.

Never Forget.

Cheesy indeed, but he always watched. He had to. It usually took a couple of minutes before the scrolling words arrived at the point when he’d allow himself to turn it off.

And, eventually–for the third time–there were the words.

Elizabeth O’Connor – WTC 1 – 92nd Floor

Once her name and the name he’d given her disappeared passed the top edge of the screen, he turned off the TV as he always did and sat in silence.

Silence.

Just like the stupid haircut, he still wasn’t used to the silence. And today, the silence seemed that much more deafening. So he stood from the couch and made his way to the closet. He hadn’t opened the closet in three years, so the guitar needed a little dusting off and a bit of tuning. But after he’d done that, he sat back on the couch and began to play.