"Sir? Personal affects of the deceased."
The nurse thrust a bag holding a black jacket, one coated in blood that stained the inside of the clear plastic, with a gold watch resting on the bottom. The face was covered in the same red, sticky blood. He blinked slowly, staring at the watch. It had stopped ticking, stopped moving, stopped telling time altogether. Perhaps time itself had stopped.
He reached for the bag, the plastic wrinkling in his thin fingers. "Thank you, nurse," he said, voice quiet, small, unsure of itself, as unsure as it had ever been. "May I," he asked, clutching the bag, "see the body one last time? Before it's shipped to the funeral home?"
"Certainly," the nurse said in her candy coated sugary voice. She put her arm around his shoulders, despite the fact that he was taller than her, and led him down the hall to the morgue. He was vaguely aware of the walking, of the people and the chatter of the hospital. It was like white noise, as if he were hearing it at the end of a tunnel, none of it real to him, the surroundings merely some sick twisted fantasy his mind had conjured up to shield him from the gnawing beast that was grief.
She left him at the door, the one that spelled "Morgue" in red, standard letters, just as red as the blood on the inside of the bag. He couldn't find it in himself to open the door, so he stared at the wire crisscrossed within the pane of glass that formed the upper half of the door. At last the coroner caught him staring, stepping over in his green scrubs and opening the door. "Can I help you, sir?"
He took off his beige latex gloves one by one, the squeak of them coming off his hands an unnatural, eerie sound. He tossed the bloodied things in the garbage, the young man's eyes following them. The coroner didn't ask who he was here to see; word had spread like wildfire, and the young man was now the talk of the hospital. "That poor boy…How tragic…Did you hear?"
Instead, the coroner walked over to the silver wall with the cubbyholes, sets of steel doors placed in a grid on it, behind each one a body, a person, a tale. The coroner strode easily over to 4C, one about chest height, and halfway down the wall, unlocking the door and turning the small handle.
The young man followed quickly, his shoes tapping the linoleum floor, the white, shiny tiles reflecting the sterile white light that came from the overhead lamps. He heard the grating noise as the coroner pulled open the locker door, reaching into the dark cavity to grasp the sliding shelf that supported her body.
He moved it out from the darkness, exposing her body, as frail and delicate as the young man had ever seen her. "I finished the autopsy on her. The body will be released to you tomorrow."
Out of respect, the coroner retreated to his office, leaving the young man with her body. He reached down, pulling at the pale blue sheet that covered her face, moving it back down to her collarbone, exposing the very top of the thick, ugly stitches that sealed the incision for autopsy, the y-shaped coroner's cut. He could make out the scars on her shoulders, the word branded across the left one, the old, faded bullet wounds, the sharp, angular scar from a knife.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered, gently touching her blonde hair. It was matted down with blood, the yellow strands gummed together with the drying reddish gunk. He swallowed the frog in his throat, but it was to no avail; a tear had slipped down his cheek and landed with a soft pat on the metal tray, an inch away from her head. He sniffled, wiping away the hoard of tears that were following in pursuit of their leader. He ran his hand again through her lifeless hair, touched the bit of vacant, cold skin on her cheek, the scar under her left eye. Her eyes were still open, lifeless green circles that had once held so much wisdom and patience she hardly seemed the same person as the one lying here on the table, just a corpse. "I'm so sorry. I never meant…"
He couldn't finish that sentence, because he knew it was already a fallacy.
Her condo didn't feel like home anymore. It felt blank and empty, missing the life that had turned it from a house into a home. He flipped on the lightswitch, the bare rooms lighting up, dead silence slinking in their halls. There were no conversations here anymore. There was just him, and his silence.
His jacket was shed, put away in the closet on a hanger, and his shoes were neatly put there as well. He kept the bag with him, heading into the kitchen and placing it on the marble countertop of the island. He liked the marble- it was black, with tiny scintillating pieces that reminded him of stars. She had liked the stars.
Oh, how she had loved the stars.
He reached over to the cabinet, finding the small wooden block with the slits cut in it, each one holding the bladed part of a knife. He grabbed one, not caring which, and returned his attentions to the counter. He took the plastic bag, finding the orange tape that held it shut, and slid the knife into it, the plastic making a satisfying noise of protest. He slit it through the bag and then set the knife on the counter, its blade reflecting his image.
He didn't like the way that he looked anymore. He tilted his head, holding up the knife to get a better image of himself. Auburn hair, hair that now seemed too red, too stained by her blood. Full lips, lips that had spoken so many lies to her, told her so many false things he could have written a book with all of them. Hazel eyes, eyes that had seen her for the past six years, seen her when she was beaten and bloody, and also proud and assured.
The knife was placed back on the table with care, and he gently pried open the bag. The stench of blood hit him, a coppery smell, one he was too familiar with. He reached his hand inside and took hold of the black jacket, pulling it free, the dried blood crusting to his hands. He turned it inside and out, reaching, feeling, until he stumbled upon a note. He set the small envelope on the island and focused on the jacket.
Biting his lip, he decided what to do with it. The jacket was placed in the washing machine, along with a half-capful of detergent, just the way she had used to wash it.
He shut the lid, hearing the water slosh inside, the motor start up, finding a familiar rhythm. It was like a heartbeat, but cold, and mechanical, not the warm, dull beat he was used to. And so he returned to the letter.
Old, wrinkled, bloodstained, with a bullet denting the paper on one side. He blinked, turning it over in his hands, and finding his name written on one side. Thomas.
He opened it, the paper crackling with delight, and tugged out the card. It was plain white, except for the burgundy bloodsmatter on the bottom left corner. He worked his thumb under the cover, flipping it open, to reveal a few lines of writing in black, slanted penmanship, with spidery letters.
What did you know? he asks himself. He took the note and the envelope, as well as the watch in the bag, and brought them to the bedroom. The watch he washed off in the sink of the bathroom, drying it on one of the white towels before he placed it near the clock on her nightstand. He put the note there as well, resting it underneath the watch.
He opened the closet in the bedroom, intending to put his clothes away as he changed for bed, but instead he found himself taking down one of her old jackets, the very same kind that was in the bag. He gently removed it from the hangar, draping it in his arms. A tear fell, again, especially now when he didn't mean to cry. He pressed the jacket in to his face, feeling the tears wet the fabric as they dripped down his face. The jacket still carried her scent, a scent of lilies with a touch of something else, something he couldn't place.
The back of his mind knew what it was, his subconscious recognized it, but it held back, he suppressed it, because it would only serve to shatter her image in his mind.
They picked a pretty spot to put her.
It was on a little hill in the cemetery, one with a willow tree that swayed slowly in the drifting autumn breeze. He liked the willow tree. It reminded him of her- strong, proud, and yet sincere, kind, with a calm demeanor always about it.
He remembered how hard it had been to carry her coffin up here, even with six other men. It wasn't the casket that was heavy; no, it had been his heart, beating slowly, wounded and hurt, never quite the same since he had met her. Hers had already been broken by the time she crossed paths with him, but she had bound it together and attempted to give life and love a second shot.
Grass was growing on the plot now, fresh, green spikes poking their way eagerly up from the moist dirt. He put his fingers in the earth, remembering her garden, the garden at her house with the pond and the willow tree and the bleeding hearts, pink and white in delicately crafted shapes. They hung on little vines, in rows, forming neat lines, just one heart to be broken after another.
He sighed, blinking slowly, and then placed a lily, bright orange with dark green leaves, into the brass vase in front of her headstone. He missed her more than he thought he would. It hurts more than he had anticipated, like a poisoned wound, slowly killing him as the cut healed. He stood back up, biting his lip the way she used to do, her nervous habit, one quizzical and rather harmless.
"She said I need a reason," he said, cognoscente of the fact that he was talking to thin air. "She said because you're gone and so is she that I need a reason to keep going." He inhaled sharply. "I know what my reason is, what my reason should be. The question is, should that be my reason?"
The wind rustled through the willow, blowing his hair slightly and shifting the lily in the bronze vase. The flower turned so that its head was pointing directly at him, almost staring at him, challenging him. He knew he had a reason now. He gazed with silent admiration at her name in the chiseled lettering: Samantha.
"I miss you, Sam."
The last few rays of the fading sunlight were breaking through the window when he woke up, in an unfamiliar room cast in pink light with deep indigo shadows, tangled in the sheets of a foreign bed with a woman lying next to him, on her side facing away from his body. The only thing he knew was the woman, she was the only recognizable sight to him. The rest was an alien milieu he had never seen before.
He kissed her gently on the neck, exposing her bare shoulders from the sheets, knowing that this is the last time he'll see her like this. She smiled, laughing slightly at his flirtatious action, and she reached around and touched his bare thigh. He grinned in return, wondering briefly what life would have been like if he had spent it with this woman.
He had loved her since he had known her. Black hair, ivory skin, emerald eyes, with lips that formed a perfect pout and colored crimson red, she was the apple of his eye now for six years. He kissed her shoulder, brushing his lips along it, wishing they had more time together, but knowing that the reality wouldn't allow it.
"Do you have to go already?" she asked, turning over onto her back to face him, reaching her thin arms up toward his face. He put his hands over her forearms, holding them gently and miring at her flawless skin.
He nodded, grimly, knowing that they both didn't want it to end, but that they both realized that it had to. "You're married now. I shouldn't even be here, Erica."
She laughed, smiling again. What a pretty sight she is, he thought. Why didn't she smile more often? Slowly, she reached for her wedding band on her left hand, pulling the gold ring off with an easy gesture. "For just one day, I won't be Mrs. Stuart. I'll just be Erica. And you'll just be Thomas." She twists a lock of his hair around her fingers and drags him down again, for another kiss.
He didn't want it to cease. He wanted to stay there, kiss her, talk with her, make love to her, to just lie there with her head on his chest, listening to the rhythm of her breathing, until the sun came back up again after losing the battle to night for those long hours. But it wasn't meant to be.
The sheets came untangled again, and he slid out of the bed, finding his clothes and redressing, back in the suit he wore, the black suit, just like Sam's, black with a white shirt and a red tie. She giggled as he got dressed, taking a good look at the curves of his body before he covered them up again. When he finished, he kissed her one last time on the mouth, hoping it would be the last thing she remembered about him.
He left her house, stepping back on to the rainy city streets just as night fell. Cabs and cars ran through the streets, illuminated by electric candles and neon lights, a city bathed in false glow. He hailed a taxi, folding up his umbrella as he opened the gold door, and easing himself seamlessly into the back seat, the cold leather still dry despite the rain.
The cab dropped him off at his destination, and he slipped inside the building, working his way to the visiting rooms of the prison. The guard tapped a metal door, and he could see via a small window that the man was, indeed, inside of the room.
"You have five minutes," he said.
"More than enough time." A pause. "Thank you." He opened the door and let himself in, taking two easy steps across the floor. He moved with a certain air of grace, the briefcase in his hand gliding along as he covered his ground. The man was sitting in a chair, a cheap, folding chair, at a plastic table, his arm resting on it, holding a cigarette, still in some regal posture even though he had been stripped of his title years ago.
There was a thin-lipped grin. "I knew you'd come." He brought the cigarette to his mouth and took one final drag on it before stubbing it out in a small ashtray on the table. "I knew the guilt would get you."
The young man remained mute.
"I got a note, actually. Do you want to know what it said?" He tilted his head, almost comically, the black, greasy hair falling into his face despite the fact he had put most of it in a ponytail. "It said, 'Ha ha, I win.' I wonder what she meant by that."
He leaned back in his chair. "What did your note say, praytell?"
"'The reason? I knew.'"
The man broke into a large smile. "She knew everything, didn't she? Always so smart. Always the enigma. But she outsmarted us all in the end." He twirled the stub of the cigarette he had been holding, twisting it back and forth in his fingers. "What do you think she knew? That you didn't love her? That I was coming to kill her?"
The young man narrowed his eyes.
"Oh, yes, I knew you never loved her. Never felt a damn thing for her, even though she would have cut her own heart out and nailed it to the wall just to prove herself for you. And I know she knew I was coming for her. She just didn't tell you and your sorry lot of fools. Probably because she didn't want any of you to get hurt."
Still silence from the young man.
"But I have great respect for her. She did things no one ever thought possible. She was a great woman. And my only regret is that she died for such an ungrateful ingrate as yourself."
The young man placed his briefcase on the table, unsnapping the fasteners on the black attaché case. He reached inside, finding the cold metal of his gun.
"Goodbye, Mr. Satton," he said at long last.
"Goodbye, Mr. Markell," the man returned. And then the trigger was pulled, and three silent shots were fired, the bullets entering the body of the man, and the life went out of him, while the young, auburn-haired fellow slipped out unnoticed.
Months later he sat at a bar, playing pool and overhearing conversations. "Did you hear about that new fellow? The one who took Sam's place?"
"Yeah…the red-haired guy. Supposed to be pretty good."
"Not just pretty good," returned the first. "They say he's one of the best. Ever. Maybe even better than she was."
His heart hurt again, just the way it always did when someone spoke of her. Carefully, he took a step toward the two young men, and they both straightened up and looked at him, recognizing him at once. "I'm not better than her," he said. "She was the bravest woman I ever knew. Even in the face of death, she did not blink, she did not flinch, she did not back down. She carried on, stronger than ever."
He paused a minute, searching for the right words. "She was the bravest woman I ever knew because she knew that I didn't love her, but she was still willing to die for me. And I will never be able to make that sacrifice."
The reason? I knew.
He snagged his coat, leaving the bar and its smoky atmosphere behind. The street was cold, refreshing, a light drizzle coming down on the gray pavement. He headed toward the corner, walking absentmindedly, step after step, one foot after another.
And then he looked up.
And he saw the woman.
Normally, she would have gone unnoticed, just another woman in the world. She had open the door to a black Cadillac, and was about to step inside when she made eye contact with him.
His hazel eyes met her green eyes. They were the same green eyes he had seen on the morgue tray; he knew it. She smiled at him, and he felt his body go numb, his feet freeze to their spot in the ground.
"Miss," he called, yelling really, trying to work his way through the car. "Miss, hold the door please, just a moment."
She shook her head, the hair, once blonde but now dyed striking black, falling in her face. For a second he thought he caught the glimpse of the scar under her left eye. "I'm sorry. I can't, kiddo."
Kiddo. How many times had she called him that? Hundreds? Thousands? It was so familiar, all of it, the voice, the mannerism, the look.
She grinned at him, and he glimpsed her suit, punctuated by the red tie, one that matched his, and his blood ran cold. There she was, standing before him.
"Wait, please, miss," he pleaded, struggling to get to the curb.
"I'm going to be late, kiddo." She slid into the cab, one long, black, lanky leg hanging out. A second later, she pulled that into the Cadillac, and she shut the door, but not before she rolled down the window and grinned at him.
And now he knew.