I noticed her sadness right away, from across the room. My subconscious peaked; it had been searching for a reflection of my own grief as I walked. I had been looking for a book when I found her. She wasn’t facing me, I had no idea what she looked like, but something pulled me towards her. She sat perfectly still against the window centred between two endless bookshelves of fiction. Her legs curled delicately up to her chest with her arms wrapped tightly around them. Her cheek rested softly on the crest of her knees. I lowered myself down in the seat across the table from her, wondering if she felt the connection as much as I did. She was staring blankly out the window, looking past her own reflection into a darkening sky that was thick with snow. Even her reflection was beautiful.
Her eyes were black, and they frowned under the shadow of her slightly furrowed brow. A single, auburn curl was caught between her interlaced fingers. Her lips pursed as she reflected upon some thought evoked by the evening. Her coat and bag were forgotten on the desk in front of her, as if she wished to forget the responsibilities of her reality.
I put my bag on the floor. My fingers itched to touch her. She was so tragic in her small, unassuming way. She felt the intrusion of my devoted stare and her eyes flickered back to life. She snapped around toward me, as if startled to find herself still sitting where she was, and surrounded by people. I was stunned for an instant as the storm of her thought vanished. Her cloudy eyes cleared to reveal their true, deep blue and her lips unfolded into a frivolous grin. She had a playful air about her then, eyes twinkling at my returned smile.
“Hi.” She sighed. Her lips barely parted to let the syllable escape, but her eyes smiled a genuine greeting.
“What’s on your mind?” I was surprised at her asking the very same question I had wanted to ask, but probably wouldn’t have. She turned towards me and slid her delicate fingers under her thighs for warmth.
“Quickly now, I don’t have all day.” She was testing me, I could tell. She wanted to see if I could keep up with her. She tried to contain her grin.
“Well, I was thinking that tonight might be a good night for a walk.” Her eyes lit up in their quiet fashion. She couldn’t help the beaming expression that danced on her face.
“Oh! Would you care for some company?” She asked freely. She was childish in her excitement.
“Yeah, I could use some. You don’t mind walking in the cold?”
“Don’t you think it would be a bit silly for me to complain about the chill, considering what country we live in?”
“Yes, actually, it would.” I stood up, fully aware that she might not have been serious about joining me. “Shall we?” I dared. She tilted her head back, to meet my gaze. I found myself distracted by the alluring curve of her throat.
“I’m ready when you are!” She extended her right hand and I grabbed it, to help her up. We were standing very close then. Her head came only to the bottom of my chin. She reached for her coat and put it on slowly, enjoying the sound of the zipper as it travelled the length of her torso.
“Where shall we go?” I asked.
“Let’s just walk and see where we end up? Oh, and let me know if you get cold. I have a bad habit of forgetting that some people don’t like being outside as much as I do.” She looked at me from under her lashes, challenging me. I laughed as we walked to the door.
I was lucky, the air was warm though the snow still flew, threatening my sense of coherence. She laughed as the heavy flakes clung to every part of her, her eyelashes soon iced and sparkling. She bent over and grabbed a handful of snow, crunching it into a tight ball.
“Duck!” She giggled. I ducked, but not fast enough. The snowball caught me in the shoulder, and I whined in agony. She wasn’t buying it. She bent over her knees and gathered another pile of snow, this one bigger than the last. She hurled it in my direction, but I was able to escape her friendly fire. I bent down, and gathered some snow in my bare hands, my voice carrying a playful warning in the wind towards her. I threw the snowball in her direction and it caught her back as she retreated.
“Well, I believe that you’ve started something that you won’t be able to finish.” She said, brushing the snow from her shoulder.
“Is that a threat?” I fell into step beside her.
“Isn’t it obvious?” She teased.
“I suppose I’ll have to start watching my back.” I shook my hands free of the moisture left by the melting snow.
“Oh! You aren’t wearing gloves!” She grabbed my hands in between her mittened palms and breathed on my fingers to warm them. The sweet scent of her breath drifted in the air between us, and she let my left hand fall, instructing me to put it in my pocket while she held tightly to my right.
“I’ll switch sides later if you find that your pocket doesn’t keep your hand sufficiently warm.” I enjoyed her enthusiasm. She had a quick look about her, and every time I glanced down, she would grin mischievously in my direction. We turned onto one of the quiet side streets in the general direction of Grigori Park. She was still holding my hand when she asked me her next question.
“What’s your favourite suit in a deck of cards?”
“What? Don’t you have one?” Her eyelashes glittered as we passed under a low hanging streetlamp. I hesitated. I had never thought about it.
“Clubs.” I said, finally.
“Clubs? Really? Why?”
“I don’t know, perhaps I’m violent?”
“Well, no, you couldn’t be violent with the suit that looks positively floral.”
“But it’s called a ‘club,’ I could easily beat someone down with a club.”
“But then it would be an adorable bludgeoning, which completely undermines the whole violence thing, by the way.”
“You’ve got me there.” She laughed at me. Her delight was contagious and I laughed alongside her, our mirth muffled by the falling snow. She looked about, taking in our surroundings. The remnants of a smile clung to her lips as she watched a crow land on a streetlamp opposite us. Another crow circled it from above, laughing at the perched one for not being able to keep to the air.
“So what’s yours then?”
“My what?” she asked, pulling herself away from the crows’ conversation.
“Your favourite suit in a deck of cards.”
“Oh! Right! Definitely spades, no problem.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, obviously the spade is the most badass suit. Even the card manufacturers can’t help themselves. They make the ace of spades the most spectacular looking card in the whole deck. You have to respect that, you know?”
“Well, obviously!” I agreed. She was peculiar. There was something untouchable about her, as if she understood some truth that eludes the rest of us. We walked along in silence for a while longer, comfortable in the fact that neither of us was bored. The snow fell gently as we entered the park, which was almost deserted save for the odd couple going for a moonlit stroll. She put my left hand in my pocket and switched to my right side – it’s only fair – she grinned. We left dark footprints in the snow as we walked. She looked toward the free flowing river, still unfrozen by the new winter’s frost. It looked almost calm, in the dark, though the splashing of the current could be heard from where we walked.
“So, are you going to tell me your name yet?” She looked up at me, her dark eyes bright as they reflected the snow.
“It’s Cecily,” she announced, obviously proud of its unique quality, “and you?”
“Evan.” She repeated my name slowly, her teeth softly gliding over her lower lip as she pronounced the ‘v.’
“Well, that’s not what I was expecting.” She admitted.
“What were you expecting?” I asked, a little defensive.
“I don’t know, something different. You’re just, different is all. I hope its okay that I say that.” She looked up at me, and I realized that she might have been just as nervous as I was. It made me giddy and over-confident.
“What if I didn’t quite care for that opinion of me?” I said.
“What if I didn’t care that you didn’t quite care for my opinion of you?” She smiled up at me, waiting for a reaction, “Well, are you going to answer me? Or are you too confused?” she taunted.
“I just feel like I know where this is going, and I am not too sure I have the mental fortitude to go there.”
“Oh alright,” she smirked, “well, shall I ask you another question then?”
“It’s my turn for a question, don’t you think? You did ask me two in a row just there.”
“I’ll only answer if it’s an interesting question.” We walked in silence while I decided what to ask.
“What’s your favourite superhero?”
“Oh my god, not that question! Come on, everyone asks that on-“ She was cut off by a sharp tone coming from her pocket. The screen of her cell phone shone through the thin fabric of her coat.
“If it’s important they’ll leave a message.” I liked that she wasn’t attached to her phone, like she wasn’t concerned with being reached at all times. Her phone stopped it’s ringing.
“Anyways, I was just lamenting about the fact that you asked-“ Again, the tone emanated from her hip, and she looked down at it, worried.
“Couldn’t just leave a voicemail, hey?” She said with a forced, jovial air. She apologized before walking ahead a few steps to answer the call. I dawdled behind her, giving her privacy, and her voice carried in the gentle wind towards me, though I could not make out anything she was saying. We were no longer in view of the river and the large, snow-covered pines flanked us on either side. The path where we walked would eventually lead us to the water, where we could stand and watch it as it passed. I amused myself with the thought of kissing her.
Ahead, Cecily had stopped walking. My heart quickened as I watched her phone fall from her hand. It shattered as it hit the ice below, but she did not react to the crash. She was still, and silent. All of the warmth of the night had vanished.
“Cecily?” I tried. I caught up and stood facing her. The change about her face was shocking. Her eyes, as before, reflected the darkness of the night around her. She looked straight through me. Her hand remained at her ear, as if the phone had never left it. Even her lips had lost all of their lustre.
“Cecily.” I tried again. I was waiting for any sign of life. Something that would help me understand what to say. I was scared. I couldn’t say anything besides her name.
“Cecily.” I shook her shoulders gently. She blinked once, twice and her eyes refocused. She looked up at me, though she could not speak. Her mouth was locked shut. Her eyes were wide as an ocean, and filled to the brim with tears that threatened both of us. She couldn’t hear me. She couldn’t seem to hear anything anymore.
After a moment, she mumbled incoherently, her eyes still staring, her gaze desperate.
“Cecily, what has happened?” I finally managed to say. I had never witnessed such tragic pain, nor seen such a paralysis of the body. She mumbled again and her gaze fell to the ice below. I followed her eyes and watched as her knees began to buckle. I caught her before she fell, but my own feet slipped and we found ourselves sitting on the ground. Her body was lifeless. Her eyes were closed, but tears streamed down her face and silent sobs sent shivers through her. I held her tighter, rubbing her arms, trying to keep her warm. Not understanding. I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t know if she was sick. I didn’t know anything but her name. She mumbled again.
“What?” I was afraid to speak. I didn’t want to startle her. She looked as if the smallest of whispers could have cracked her in half. She stared up at me again. I understood that if she were to articulate whatever was tormenting her, that it would only affirm it as a fact. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I could not leave her. She was so helpless. Her fingers clung to my coat, arms close to her chest, protecting her from whatever phantom she wrestled.
Very suddenly, she became still. Shock had settled in. She closed her eyes and regulated her breathing. It took a moment for her to regain control. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but there was no sound. Only a soft gasp as she breathed inward.
“My mom was very sick.” She said quietly. My curiosity overwhelmed me. Was her mother better now? Was she paralyzed with joy? Or was it the other alternative? I didn’t want to think of the latter. I remembered her sitting on the bench, so forlorn in her solitude, so lost in her thoughts. Had she been waiting for this news? Had I been her escape from what was overwhelming her? She pushed herself away from me, as if my touch stung her. As if any warmth of affection was revolting. She couldn’t meet my inquiring eyes. She stood up and stepped away from me. I could hear the gurgling of the river ahead.
“She . . . was . . .” She looked like she was going to faint. She was shivering. I knew that since the night was mild, she wasn’t shivering from the cold. The chill she felt was deeper than that. More real, for it was inside of her, tearing her apart, freezing her lungs.
“Was . . .” Her eyes drifted lazily toward me, as I moved to get up. We stood together as strangers. There were no platitudes I could offer, no condolences for me to give. I had brought her here, far from anyone she knew, far from anyone else she could lean on. Her hands crept up to her face, palms covering her pallid cheeks. I hated myself for noticing how fair she was. For trying to find the boundaries of her bare ankles that blended with the fallen snow. One of her ankles followed her foot as she stepped farther away from me. She looked at me warily.
“I’m sorry.” She said. I could have laughed at her. This girl with the troubled eyes and pale lips was apologizing to me for her loss.
“That isn’t what you should be saying to me,” I said gently, “You have nothing to be sorry about.” I wasn’t sure if she heard me. Her eyes flickered to meet mine before she turned away and walked further down the path. I jogged to her side, knowing that she shouldn’t be alone.
“We don’t have to talk about it.” I tried. She didn’t react. I walked beside her, the silence almost unbearable. Her footsteps quickened. I heard the charging current ahead of us and something awful occurred to me. I kept pace with her as she rushed around the corner, into the full view of the boiling river. During the day, the river careens past the rough array of boulders that make its shore. The blue and grey water sparkles in the winter sun, and at dawn the stream is green and silent, waiting for the birds to finish their daily symphony. At that moment, though, the river was black and dangerous, and the sharp rocks below glowed with anticipation.
She marched, determined, toward the edge of the bank where, earlier, I had imagined happier circumstances. She wasn’t going to stop. For a moment, I couldn’t stop her. I felt a sudden detachment, as if I were no longer responsible for this girl’s life. For a second, I forgot that she may not be thinking straight. I assumed that she would stop herself. She still moved forward, but now every footfall was slow and determined. She was resolving herself to her decision, accepting her fate. It was then that I realized that she was serious, that she would really throw herself into the boiling waters below.
I grabbed her by the shoulders, stopping her in her tracks. She did not resist my grip. She stopped moving forward, but still looked toward the waters as if they were calling her home. The river had become the friend that would comfort her in her lonely desolation. She put her hands on mine, on the hands that had just saved her life. She still watched the water.
“She was my best friend.” She turned towards me, fear burning in her eyes.
“What will I do without her?” She cried. Once again she collapsed into my arms, the only things around that could offer her any sense of humanity. She buried her head into my chest, but no tears stained my jacket. Something in me responded to her desperation. I wanted her to be okay. I wanted to be strong for her. Right then, I was the only one that could. But words felt heavy and unfamiliar in my mouth. My tongue turned to lead whenever I tried to utter a single comforting sound. I was not able to share in her pain; both of my parents were alive.
“Who was it that called?” I managed.
“He told me to take a break,” I felt her shoulders tense, “I’ve been there . . . for weeks.”
“The hospital. My mother was sick. My brother, he told me to take a break. . .” It wasn’t until then that I noticed the dishevelled state of her hair, the bags under her eyes. I sensed her guilt. She had left after diligently standing guard over her mother for weeks. I wondered if she had been able to give her a proper goodbye.
“She’s been sick, for so long. And I left her. I left her. Why did I leave her?” she wasn’t asking me. I wasn’t real to her anymore. She was isolated, swallowed up by the sorrow of her loss.
“My Dad,” she lamented, “he doesn’t know.”
“That she is sick?” I turned her around, away from the water.
“Was . . .” She wandered, until some odd thought reminded her that she would never see her mother again. The pain returned, and her spine arched as if she had received a blow to the stomach.
“He is away. He doesn’t know that she’s . . . that she’s . . .” she couldn’t articulate the word through clenched teeth. She didn’t want to believe it. Hope rattled around in her brain, her imagination working to try and figure out a way around it. We walked back slowly, past where she had gotten the news, where the remnants of her phone lay, forgotten, never to be rescued.
“My car is parked three blocks from here,” I offered, “I can take you . . . wherever you need to go.”
“Yes . . .” She was dazed, incoherent in the face of her life’s alteration.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“No,” she said, “I need to go home. I need to go . . . home. Where she was.”
“I can take you. Cecily, I wish that this didn’t happen.”
“Me too, Evan, me too.”
I led her to my car in silence, and once there, she quietly told me her address. Her house was dark when we arrived, and I pulled into the driveway, unsure of how to part from her. We sat in the car together a long while. What does one do in the face of such a predicament? We were practically strangers, but this had bound us in a way that nothing else could have. I had seen her in her darkest moment. Had saved her life, had prevented her from drifting off, forgotten, on the current of her most vulnerable thoughts. I wondered if she hated me for being there. I wondered if she wished I had let her fall.
“Will . . . will you come in with me?” She pleaded nervously, afraid that I would accept, afraid that I would decline. I nodded my head and got out of the car. She stayed in the passenger seat for a minute longer, working up the strength to go into her own house. Her hands shook. She dropped her keys. It took two tries before she got the key into the lock of the front door, and she gratefully accepted my offer of help when she couldn’t find the strength in her fingers to turn it.
Cecily pushed the door open harder than I thought her capable of at that moment. She took off her shoes in the doorway, and shook with fresh sobs. I supposed her mother hadn’t liked when she walked around the house with muddy shoes. She dragged her feet over the threshold and up the seven steps to the second floor. The door to what I assumed to be her parent’s room stood ajar at the end of the hall. She put her hands on the wall for balance, and forced herself toward her mother’s room. The clatter of an unseen blind on the windowsill made her pause for a moment.
“Mom?” She said hopefully. Her voice was light and inquiring. She hurried to the bedroom before stopping dead in the doorway, realization dawning upon her. She buried her head in her hands, disappointment piercing her already mutilated heart. I stayed where I was at the end of the hall. I couldn’t go any further. I was no longer a part of her grief. She disappeared into her mother’s old room and I heard the bedsprings creak as she lay down. Her sobs were unbearable. They shook the entire bed, and her cries echoed down the hall.
I waited for a minute to see if she would call me in, but when her cries did not cease and she began to ask the world her questions, I wondered if she needed me to stay. As I backed away from the hall toward the door, though, a soft “Evan” broke the mournful air.
“Yes?” I said, from my position in the hall.
“Can I see you again?”
“Yes.” I replied. I left my number on the whiteboard hanging on her bedroom door, the same door that was covered in photos of the girl I barely knew. She was smiling in every one of them. As I paused, I found a simple photograph of her as a child, on the lap of a singing woman, whose eyes were raised toward to photographer happily, perfectly joyful in her contentment. I descended into the entryway and took notice of the key hook beside the door that held one, solitary keychain, inscribed with the word “Chance.” Perhaps it was the name of her brother; perhaps it was simply irony at work.
When I got home I noticed that our kitchen light was on. The kitchen light was always on. I stayed in the car for a couple of minutes until the cold infiltrated the interior. The kitchen light was on. Mom was home.
I remembered that morning. I remembered how angry I had been at her for something that was not her fault. I remembered yelling at her. I remembered walking out the door. I remembered not saying goodbye. I ran into the house.
“Evan?” I heard her call. I walked toward her voice, to where she was preparing supper for me, my brother and younger sister. Her back was turned, but she smiled over her shoulder and I knew everything from that morning had been forgotten.
“I made you your favourite.” I crossed the room in three, swift strides and hugged her tighter than I ever had before. I whispered my thanks to her, for being my mother, for loving me, for caring about me when no one else would.
“It’s only lasagna,” she laughed before turning around, “Evan, what have I told you about wearing your shoes through the house?”