Enjoy The Silence
He didn't have to speak for her to know who it was quietly breathing on the other end of the phone line. He didn't have to touch her to give her that little electrical buzz humming along the length of her spine. And, as funny as the notion seemed to her, he didn't have to be there for Irene to know that he was.
The diner was a picture of stillness in the wee morning hours where she shuffled a bus tub of dishes from her last table into the kitchen. One of the lights overhead flickered and crackled to temporarily betray the silence as the door swayed to a close behind her, a hinge lightly keening in protest from age and wear. Only one other soul occupied the place besides the short order cook that had stepped out back for a smoke; a haggard looking man of encroaching years with a grisly coat of coarse gray stubble over his jaw and a grease-stained trucker's hat pulled low over his weary eyes. He gave her a grateful nod when she wandered over to refill his coffee mug, she returning the gesture with her own shy smile in appreciation for the potent scent of the caffeine as the little waft of steam drifted up to her. As she took her wet rag to wipe down the tables, her shift slowly winding down to the end, that was when the sensation took possession of her imagination.
Irene never saw him. Not so much as a wisp of his shadow. She never heard him speak another word after the last left on her voicemail counter - which she would never admit to, but had secretly kept saved if for no other reason than for proof that he had existed at all outside of her own lonely mind. Occasionally on the particularly harsh night when she was left wide awake and painfully alone in her bed, she would listen to his simple words time and time again just to remember the genuine rumble of the voice in his throat. He never darkened her doorstep in the dead of night however many times she knew there was someone lingering just outside and whipped the door open to empty space. But as surely as he was absent, she knew there were eyes upon her and to whom they belonged.
A little smile slipped unbidden from her lips as she counted out how many jellies needed to be replaced in the condiment holder, wiping away the crust of dried ketchup from the bottle's nozzle, and doing her best not to look up when the light shining over the table's scratched shellac finish wavered with the motion of a stealthy body moving out of sight but never out of mind. On a whim she wondered if she could tempt him into showing himself. When her last customer of the night ambled outside, Irene faithfully cleaned up the pie plate of half-forgotten crumbs and the dollar-fifty in nickels and dimes left behind, but set a fresh cup of coffee out, simply black, exactly as she remembered him having taken it before. Having successfully greeted her relief for the next shift, counted up her tips for the night and folded her apron away, she punched out on the time clock and returned to find her coffee trap having gone undisturbed. So far as she could tell nothing had been touched, but another neatly stacked column of quarters mysteriously rested beside the plate upon which the unused beverage sat prompting another knowing smile.
Her walk to the bus stop down the block was blissfully uneventful in spite of the handful of cat calls thrown in her direction from a grouping of young hoodlums that were more likely to be returning from a long night of prowling rather than just leaving for whatever day jobs they may have held. Her car had once again given up the ghost without provocation, but as she caught the gleam of a white jacket from the glass of a store front window in the farthest corner of her eye, gone without a trace by the time she turned to look, Irene knew that she could put her financial fretting over how to afford repairs to rest for the meantime. By the dawning of the next morning the old beater would again be miraculously revived, and there would be no witnesses or evidence as to how the magic had been cast. Such prospects should have made her happy, or in the very least given her some semblance of peace of mind, but events like that were usually the harbinger of another lengthy disappearing act.
As suddenly as the feeling of being watched over could raise the fine hairs on the back of her neck, it would vanish just as quickly without any known reasoning behind the motivations. He would take a leave of absence for months at a time, moving along his own path at a pace of his own choosing, and she always knew better than to question the means by which that took place. After the day in elevator, Irene had done her best to repress some of the things that she had seen, and some of the things that she had become privy to. In a perfect reflection of how his presence managed to be so impossibly overwhelming and understated at the same time, his foreshadowed duality had also brought her to both the most blissfully passionate and horrendously traumatic moments of her life within the span of one solid minute.
Sometimes she wished that she could forget everything about him all together. Put the past away and move on to something more normal… and functional. But that always turned out to be a foolhardy goal. Every time she closed her eyes his face was there to greet her, each and every contour mapped flawlessly in her memories with the feel of his roughly calloused fingers as they held hers. The clarity with which she could recall the subtle mask of his body heat radiating outward to envelope her was downright sinful. As was the power to remember the oil-tainted scent that would hallucinogenically cling to her nose long after a dream had ended fooling her into believing that he was still there, morphing a tenuously pleasant moment into one of fragile sadness.
She knew why he had to leave, perhaps not the exact reasons, but Irene understood that it was in hers and Benicio's best interests to go their separate ways lest more undesirables enter their lives. That knowledge did little though to sway the longing that she still felt for the space at her side where he should have belonged remaining vacant. It didn't stop the expectations that she could turn around at any moment and find him waiting for her, or that she could open her door any day and see him reclined on the end of the sofa watching cartoons with her son as if he had been there all along. He had dug himself a hole deep in her heart that could never be filled by anyone else, and from that hiding place his haunting kept her alive. Even if it was only in her dreams when she doubted whether or not any of it was real.
Irene paused in the hall to trail her fingertips over the doorway of his old apartment as she always did in passing. She was never sure if he had come to retrieve his things like the ghost that he seemed to be, tangible only in her musings, or if the complex's manager had thrown everything away, but she had been surprised into a brief state of catatonia one afternoon when passing by to see the door wide open and the area beyond completely barren being shown to another potential renter. Of course there was the possibility that it had always been empty, but she liked to think that he had kept at least a few ties to the world there. A toothbrush, a place to sleep, hopefully some clothes that weren't marred by grease on the sleeves or knees. Maybe even a book or two. He would never need much.
Someone else had moved in since then. She sometimes ran into them on the elevator, or crossed paths in the garage, always polite but never really bothering to learn the new name. It was only an unwelcome reminder of what had gone before, and almost like a betrayal of his memory should she forget that for one second.
A small brown box was waiting by the door of her apartment when she got there. She knew that she should have been surprised but she never was. Not really. There was never a return address or clue as to whom the sender may have been, but she already knew where the parcel had come from. Her nails tapped over the surface of the six scorpion stamps lined up in a neat row across the top, the perfect amount for the cost of shipping, never one less or more. They were always from a different state so that there wasn't a real way to pinpoint their owner's origin, and the place from which the package had been shipped long abandoned before anyone of interest could reach it.
Inside there would be money. Bills of various values, some crisp and clean like they were fresh from the mint, others worn and slightly crumpled from the exchange of numerous hands, always orderly but never sequential or marked. Sometimes it would be more. Sometimes it would be less. A thousand here, or a few hundred there would always tell her when he was on the move again. The boxes would never arrive on any particular day or time, the only predictable thing about the event being that one would show up once a month like a belated gift or guilt-driven reparation. She would sigh when she opened it wondering if that would be the time that some of the bills would come with drops of blood on them. There never was, but as much as she wanted to believe that the money had been earned from him being elbows deep in somebody's car engine, the thought that it was equally possible for having come from criminal enterprises clawed at the dark recesses of her mind. Was it something that she could spend freely on a pair of shoes for her son? Or was it blood money that would lurk around her conscience for years to come? With another sigh she would shove the box into the alcove beneath her bed with all the others, not a single dollar having been spent as the only thing she could be sure of was that when the packages stopped coming he would really be gone for good.
She stopped to nudge the sitter awake from where she had fallen asleep on the couch with the television on. After fishing out a stack of dollar bills to pay her with, Irene saw her out with a smile and checked to see that Benicio was still soundly sleeping in his bed. She had about an hour before he would wake with the rising of the sun to start another day. On time with her closing his bedroom door and padding towards her own the phone gave a single trilling call that startled her heart into a burst action. The unwavering sensation of being watched over stole away her focus for the second time that night.
Irene swallowed hard over the tightening of her throat as she took a seat on the edge of her bed to wait. Her pulse hammered away behind her ribs, threatening to break free as her heart was arrested by a fit of tachycardia, and her hands trembled ever so slightly with the surge of adrenaline flowing through her veins. Her blood pressure climbed towards climax until it became a whistle in her ears to punctuate the silence at a pitch that only dogs should have been able to hear. There was only one person that was capable of making time stop and the whole of the world come to a standstill before them. The first ring hovered above her in mental echoes almost like another lucid fantasy harkening to the next so that she could answer without having to worry about the boy dreaming away in the next room waking.
"Hello?" A long moment went by without her caller saying a solitary word and she knew exactly who it was on the other side of the line. A gentle shine twinkled in her eye as another smile lit her up from within to a golden glow. She knew that she didn't have long with him. Their calls were always measured down to the minute so that they couldn't traced, but she couldn't help but enjoy the silence and the comfort of simply being that could only be felt in his presence. He had always understood her without the need for verbal explanation; something that no one else had ever been able to, not even Standard. Something that she missed more than she was supposed to.
"Benicio started the first grade yesterday," she spoke to the stillness. "He already made a friend." Irene could practically feel the serene smile spread across his lips, so reminiscent of the Mona Lisa in all of its mystery as though the world around him were somehow amusing to him in its lunacy. "I, um, I'm trading shifts next week. Susan wants to go on vacation so I won't be home until late…" They shared another drawn pause of peaceful silence listening to one another's tempered breathing in the background. As she was opening her mouth, about to say what she really wanted to aloud, there was a click of the line disconnecting. The droning of the dial tone accented the words that died on her lips.
Irene replaced the phone on its stand, absent-mindedly touching her fingers to her lips as she did so remembering what they had felt like when pressed against his. How he had tasted the way that she had imagined. "You were the best thing that ever happened to me too."
She didn't have to speak for him to know who it was quietly breathing on the other end of the phone line. She didn't have to touch him to give him that little electrical buzz humming along the length of his spine. And he didn't have to be there for him to know where he belonged.
Outside, in the street below, he stood up from where he had been leaning against the building's shadow. His features were a carefully composed mask of unshakable stoicism, but there a desperate sadness haunting the depths of the eyes that rolled upwards to the window that he knew was hers. Perhaps there would come a day when his job was done and they were finally safe to where he could return to that sense of comfortable normalcy that Irene and little Benic had afforded him, but it would be a long wait should it ever come. Nino should have known what kind of storm his actions would bring down on all of them, but while he had been stopped the clouds still gathered on the horizon. And then there was always the question that strangled his heart the most. Could it ever be the same?
The phone vibrated in his hand, punctuating the silence and alerting him to the next step of the task at hand. "I'll give you a five minute window," he answered calmly, marching ever onward into the darkness before the dawn.