Contest: The Second Season of Our Discontent Anonymous Angst Contest
Title: No Beginning and No End
Picture Prompt Number: 3 (Three)
Rating: T (angst)
Summary: The rope they tied together eleven years ago is slightly frayed near the top but otherwise unaffected by time and the elements, and she thinks that maybe wedding rings are made from the wrong raw material.
A/N: Oh, it's heavy. It hurt to write, so it might hurt to read. This is most certainly NOT my typical HEA fare. And if any part of this or anything like it has ever been your story, my heart goes out to you.
No Beginning and No End
There are twenty-four diamond chips around the circumference of her wedding band. She knows this because she has spent years tracing them with her thumb, twisting the band around the skin beneath her knuckle, absently ticking them off in her mind. On odd occasions over the course of their marriage, she has used the band of tiny shimmering stones like a rosary, touching the pad of her thumb to each one as she silently pleads for things beyond her grasp.
Now, as she gazes at the circle of diamonds sitting atop the polished wood of their kitchen table, glittering like a halo in the beam of early morning sunlight streaming through the window, she tries not to believe that each jewel represents one of her failures. So many mornings she had coffee in this exact place, watching as her ring scattered sparkles across the worn wood and the yellow kitchen walls.
"Yellow walls, babe?" he'd asked her when she brought the paint chips home from the hardware store, skepticism evident on his face.
"Yellow is a happy color," she told him, wrapping her arms around his neck. "I want our house to be happy."
He gazed down at her, adoring and indulgent as he dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose. "Yellow it is."
Now she supposes there are some things even yellow walls can't guarantee. So many mornings she watched the shimmers dance as she lifted her mug to her mouth and returned it to the tabletop. So many mornings he smiled knowingly at her from over the rim of his own mug, the platinum of his own simple band clinking against the porcelain. So many mornings she watched that ringed hand scoop baby food and then toddler food and then miniature servings of their own breakfast into a tiny mouth, its owner laughing when more mashed strawberry wound up on the floor, on the table, on him than in the mouth it was aiming for.
So many mornings, and yet not nearly enough.
Not nearly enough, she thinks as she sits alone, gazing at the glimmering band before her and wondering what has become of its partner. If it's still around a finger, if it's sitting in a drawer, if it's being slowly eroded by shifting sands at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. She looks out the window to the yard, and in a perfect parallel to the ring of metal that torments her from the tabletop, the ring of black rubber hanging from a tree branch beside the porch is a different kind of torture entirely, though no less painful. The tire swing sways gently on the mild breeze, and she tries valiantly not to lend mind to the fact that the wind is the only thing that will ever set it moving.
"I'm so sorry," the pediatric oncologist says for what must be the thousandth time, though she has yet to respond. It's such a small word to address the larger-than-life pain that is ripping her apart from the inside, and that pain is far too like the invisible blackness that is killing her daughter from inside her own body.
She remembers after Grace was born and she became a one-woman risk assessment expert, cataloging the myriad dangers that surrounded her daughter at any given time. Too-soft crib mattress. Sharp corners on the coffee table. Unblocked electrical outlets. Staircases. Busy streets. Large crowds. It never occurred to her to worry about the dangers she couldn't see, like the one growing inside the soft belly she liked to blow raspberries on to bring forth a gurgly laugh.
She tries to remember the last time she worried about a slippery floor, an errant pair of scissors, but she has been so determinedly focused on white cell counts and experimental treatments that she finds that the comparatively mundane worries of a mother have faded like an all-but forgotten dream.
"How long?" she hears Edward choke out from somewhere beside her, and she can feel the metal of his wedding ring digging into her own finger where their hands are intertwined in the space between them. His voice is strangled, anguished, like nothing she has ever heard before, and she wonders if it will ever sound like velvet again, or if a voice can scar the same way a body can. Her mind flies to the line that splits her daughter's torso like a zipper, as if it were possible to just reach inside her tiny body and pluck out what wasn't meant to be there. If only.
"A few weeks," the doctor says, and apologizes again.
She lets her mind drift: to the Santa gifts that won't get opened, to the too-big clothes that won't be grown into, to the first day of kindergarten that won't be attended. The doctor's voice talking about medicinally-afforded comfort fades to a background hum and she lets her eyes fall closed. She wonders why she isn't crying until she feels Edward's thumb wipe her cheek. It comes away glistening.
He arrives with nested cardboard boxes, an enormous military-issue duffel bag and a suitcase on wheels; when his key turns in the lock and the door swings open to reveal him standing on the threshold staring at her with his motley crew of luggage, her mind dances to the attic and their matching Samsonite luggage sets.
"Oh," he says, as if she is the surprise. His voice is still rough. "I thought—" He glances at his watch. "I thought you'd have left for work already."
She looks at the clock; it is only 7:50, but in the days before the world went pear-shaped she'd been leaving before eight, dropping a kiss on the crown of her daughter's downy head as she juggled keys and a laptop bag and a to-go breakfast. She realizes he doesn't know that she has nowhere to go these days, doesn't know that there are days when she looks up in surprise to realize that the day has grown dark, and her morning coffee has grown cold at her elbow. She wonders if he took note of the swing on the way in; she is too much of a coward to ask him to help her cut it down. Even if she weren't, to watch him cut another thread that they once tied together might break her. "I was just on my way out," she lies, tipping her nearly-full mug of hot coffee down the kitchen sink. She sneaks a quick glance at him and feels as though she is looking in a mirror, even though they share none of the same features beyond the under-eye circles, the downturned mouths, the anguished eyes. His frame is thinner, his posture hunched.
"Okay," he says, his eyes at once sad and relieved. She can feel his eyes track her movements as she crosses the kitchen to grab her keys from the opposite counter, and as she does so she realizes that while he gaze is nearly strong enough to feel like a touch, she can't recall the last time he voluntarily put a hand on her. She can't remember the last time he snagged her hand in the space between them to intertwine their fingers. Then again, these days the space is far too great to be bridged by a pair of arms. She hadn't realized, of course, that the last time he did, in fact, touch her was the last, and as a result she didn't think to commit it to memory. Even as they stand facing each other in a sunlit yellow kitchen, she wonders how many other things she will try in vain to remember: the last time he kissed her, the last time he laughed with her, the last time she slept with her body pressed up against his. The last time he looked at her with something besides anguish in his eyes. The last moment of ordinary before their world lurched violently and capsized.
Perhaps it is part of her penance that she can remember in vivid detail the last time his body claimed hers; neither of them could have known that it was the moment that would ultimately lead to her weakness, and to their ruin. That it would be the last straw the camel could bear before the burden caused it to falter.
She forcibly pulls herself from her reminiscing to see him studying her warily. "I'll, uh, see you later," she offers, stepping out onto the porch. She waits for his response, but the only sound she hears is the click of the door when it shuts behind her. She stands on the welcome mat for a moment but she isn't sure what she's waiting for, and finally she descends the porch stairs and heads to the café. It isn't until she steps inside the small coffee shop that she realizes that her parting words were a lie; she should have said good-bye.
The sky is angry like a bruise, and pregnant with foreboding. Storm clouds trip over each other, and while she always thought rain-soaked funerals were movie plot devices, she finds that the weather is a relief. She doesn't much care for the sun these days, and she wouldn't have wanted to spend an hour staring at petals of white daisies and pink roses gleaming in the sunlight, looking pretty and beautiful and alive.
The first few droplets splatter on the gleaming white wooden lid, and she is grateful for something to focus on as more drops fall and a pattern begins to emerge. The minister's words fade to the background, and the only things on which she can focus are the white wood box surrounded by flowers and her husband's hand in hers. His choppy, gasping breaths make her want to comfort him, to reach out, but she feels like marble and she fears that the slightest movement might make her crack.
Unexpectedly, the flowers are even more beautiful when they're dotted with moisture, and this small realization makes her inexplicably angry. How delicate blooms can survive a downpour when a living, breathing child who jumped on trampolines and played soccer and learned to walk at ten months couldn't survive her first five years makes her want to scream and fight and damn the world. But she sits silent, her husband's hand in hers, pretending to listen as tears mix with raindrops on her cheeks and broken sobs shake in the space beside her.
The plain, bone-colored porcelain of the mug between her hands reminds her of the china at the cafeteria hospital, and she idly wonders why nowhere ever chooses color. When they registered for wedding china, Edward wanted to pick something colorful and fun and different; when she finally acquiesced and agreed not to scan the traditional Lenox place settings, he grinned at her with such unbridled joy that she decided in that moment that she would register for a punching bag to see that smile again. As it turned out, he didn't need a punching bag: a brown-haired girl dressed all in white did the trick, and just about nine months later, another brown-haired girl swaddled in pink did the same.
At the thought of those multi-colored dishes stacked carefully in the cupboard above the fridge, she wonders what will be missing from the house when she gets home. Which DVDs will be gone from their collection? Will she go to the bookshelf in the guest room to search for a book on a lonely evening only to find he's taken it with him? Things that started as his that have since become her favorites – the burgundy knit blanket she likes to curl up under on the couch, the wash-worn Dartmouth sweatshirt she sleeps in during the winter, the memory foam pillow he let her sleep on when she was pregnant and never took back – will all of these be gone, leaving her without their inherent comfort to endure long nights alone?
Will he take the framed wedding photo in the silver frame his mother bought them that she placed reverently on the mantelpiece when they moved in? She wonders what happens to wedding photos when couples get divorced. Does one party keep them to remember the good times? Split them down the middle so that each half can keep a record of this time in their history? Burn them in a bonfire of good riddance? Her mind floats to the photo beside their bed – her looking at the camera, him looking at her, a sea of white tulle floating all around them – and her heart aches. She hopes he takes it nearly as much as she hopes it's still there, still next to her bedside, like a memory of a good dream that lingers upon waking. Then there is the photo on his side of the bed, the photo of a brand new pink swaddled bundle cradled between them. She selfishly hopes that some mornings she will wake up and look at it and, for a brief moment, feel happy until she fully awakens to the reality of what life has become. What she has become without them.
She still can't bring herself to picture Grace's room, the space behind the door directly across the hall that had only just begun to turn into a little girl's bedroom instead of a nursery. The lilac-colored walls, the glider in one corner, the white wicker basket overflowing with toys in another. She doesn't think about it, but she knows she would be able to catalog anything he chose to take with just a glance.
Similarly, she knows she'd let him have anything he wanted. Lord knows she's taken all he has to give.
"How could you do this to me?" he whispers, and though the words should be angry, he sounds like he's begging. Begging for her to tell him it's not true, that it's a clerical error, that it's a misunderstanding. Begging for her to lie.
"I couldn't," she says softly, and wonders why they're not shouting at each other. Maybe there are parts of them that have died, too. He is still waiting, and she realizes that she owes him more. There is so much she couldn't give him, but she can give him this. She can give him words. "I couldn't bring one child into the world when I was losing another one."
He shakes his head as if he's confused, even as he holds the black and white evidence in his white-knuckled fist. She can see the far-too-familiar logo of their health insurance company on the masthead of the invoice; that it hadn't occurred to her to worry about that is a testament to her single-minded focus and suffocating desperation. He shakes his head again.
"It was my child, too," he breathes, and for the first time since a rain-soaked service three weeks ago, he doesn't try to hide the tears that slip over his cheekbones. "They were both my children, too."
Oddly, her mind flashes to Grace's first sonogram photo, as if her subconscious is trying to meld her two losses into one. She never had a sonogram photo of the child who is now nothing more than a procedure listed on an insurance claim; she never let it get far enough for that.
"Please. Please try to understand," she begs, and takes a step toward where he stands, coiled and yet defeated beside the kitchen table. The mail sits atop the table surface, divided into two piles: opened and unopened. The step backward that he takes to stall her approach is the first one he's ever taken in the opposite direction from her, and he stares at her for a moment as if she is a stranger. If they were still in the habit of being honest with each other, she'd tell him that she looks at herself in the mirror like that each morning and each night. The eyes her daughter inherited fall closed and he turns away from her; she is expecting the slam of the bedroom door, but the soft click of the front door is so soft she almost misses it. The tick of the clock above the paper-littered kitchen table echoes in the yellow kitchen, and she thinks that maybe she hates the color of the walls.
Once upon a time, four solid hours of coffee would have made her jittery. Now, all it does is give her a headache. Oddly, it's the same type of headache she'd wake up with in the weeks after, when she would fall asleep sobbing and wake up with a still-damp pillow, her head pounding in time with her the steady beat of her broken heart. She has a headache and a desperate need to pee, and she wants to go home and see if there is enough left in their – her – silent house to rebuild a life in the debris of his departure.
She pays for her coffee and steps out onto the sidewalk and steadfastly refuses to look at the cupcake bakery across the street where she would meet Edward and Grace every Saturday morning after they were done practicing soccer skills at the park. She hustles along the cold gray concrete and tells herself that the tears slipping over her cheekbones are the result of the wind.
When she reaches their house-no-longer-a-home, she steps up to the door and hesitates, as if she is a visitor. The welcome mat on the front porch has become a lie; she doesn't want anyone knocking these days. Perhaps ever again. She makes a mental note to get rid of it. Stepping inside, it only takes the space between two heartbeats to realize that it is worse than she could have imagined. What was theirs is left, but everything that was his – everything that was him – is gone. The first thing she notices is the absence of the ratty running shoes that were always discarded inside the back door and which she would always trip over on her way in or out of the house. Gone from the entryway table is the pile of spare change he always deposited in the small glass dish beside the answering machine. The only photos missing from the mantelpiece are the one of his parents and the one of his best friends from college; the rest, including their silver-framed wedding photo, remain untouched.
As she picks her way through the house, other absences fragment her composure and tears pool in her eyes as she catalogs each loss: the chipped San Francisco coffee mug that he drank from each morning; the stack of literary journals he kept neatly piled on the coffee table; the fridge magnet with his niece's photo on it. The black and white photo of the Chicago skyline from the upstairs hallway.
Steeling herself, she pushes the bedroom door open. The first thing she notes is the presence of the wedding photo at her bedside. His nightstand is clear except for the lamp: he has taken with him his reading light, his glasses, and the photo of the three of them. She finds that it's surprisingly easy to spot what isn't there: the green toothbrush that stood beside her orange one in the mug next to the sink, the Dartmouth sweatshirt, his down-filled pillow.
Grace's framed newborn footprints.
Edward's first photo with the baby.
Further exploration confirms what she knew almost instantly: all of the reminders of their life together are intact – the wedding photos, the joint purchases – but all of his things are gone, and it leaves her feeling as if she loves a ghost. Three of them, in fact. And she has already discovered that ghosts can't love her back.
She hears gasping coming from the bedroom and she pushes the door open to see him sitting on his side of the bed, his heaving back to the door as he curls forward. Before she realizes it she is standing beside him, watching him curl in on himself as he sobs, the family photo from their bedside cradled in his lap and the crumpled insurance invoice on the bed beside his hip.
"Edward," she whimpers, wanting so desperately to reach out, to touch him. She aches to soothe him, but she has no peace to give.
"God, I can't," he gasps, and she sees a tear splatter against the glass frame.
"Then don't," she begs, falling to her knees on the navy blue carpet beside him. "Please, Edward, don't go."
He meets her eyes for the first time since he opened the mail a week ago, and she is struck by the familiar realization that when he cries, his eyes look even greener. He holds her gaze for a moment before looking away, his jaw setting even as it trembles. "I can't...God, Bella, I can't even look at you the same way."
Tears are tracking down her cheeks unchecked now, and she reaches out a shaking hand to cup his knee. He flinches. "Please, Edward. Please. I'm so, so sorry, but I'll do anything. Anything you want."
"I want to be able to look at you the same way," he says, glancing back down at the photo in his lap. "I want to believe you wouldn't do this to me." He pauses before returning the photo to the wooden bedside table and pressing his palms into his eyes. "But you did."
"I had to," she whispers, but her voice is pleading and carries none of the conviction that was once in her heart.
"We could have saved at least one child!" he explodes, and the fury she has been awaiting for hours is here. "I couldn't save Gracie, even though I would have given her any and every organ in my body if I could have. I couldn't save her, I couldn't buy her more time, I couldn't kiss it and make it better." Tears are rolling unchecked down his beautiful face, and his voice is high-pitched with grief. "I couldn't keep her here with us; that wasn't up to me. But this…you chose this."
"I couldn't just replace her," she whispers, and the fury that was in his voice has spread to his eyes.
"Replace her? Do you really think I think that? We always wanted a big family; we still could have had one. We'd never replace her, but that doesn't mean we couldn't still have been a family."
Past tense. He's talking about them in the past tense, and it isn't until this moment that she realizes how desperately she needs it to be present. "Edward," she pleads, but her voice is nothing more than breath.
"We lost one child. You gave up the other." His words are hard and like a coward, she flinches. "I would have wanted that baby. We would have argued. Maybe you would have won. But I deserved the conversation, at the very least. I can't forgive you for stealing that from me." He casts around the room as if he's looking for his keys before he gives up searching for what isn't there and meets her eyes once again. "And I can't stay here."
The mistakes she has made are too numerous to count, but the one that leaves her broken and sobbing on the floor is one she didn't realize she was making. Stupidly, as she sat unmoving in a café up the street, letting a steaming mug of coffee slowly grow cold, she thought that realizing what he took with him when he left was what would hurt. She didn't think to consider that what he chose to leave behind might be far more dangerous. As with so many things, what didn't occur to her was what hurt the most; what she didn't stop to consider wound up being what wrecked her.
When she finds a shoebox of love letters from their early relationship on the top shelf of their closet, she opens it before she realizes what it is. The first letter on top was the last one he wrote her, a hastily-scribbled message on a piece of sky-blue stationery that she doesn't place as being torn from a hospital pad until she reads it.
Bella, my beautiful Bella,
I thought you made my day when you married me, but tonight you made my life. Seeing you hold our daughter will forever be the memory I come back to when I need to feel pure, unmitigated joy.
I love you beyond the constraints of forever. You and Grace. My beautiful life.
My heart is brimming to bursting – for you, always for you, and now for two –
What she grabs blindly from the shelf beside the shoebox to wipe her tears turns out to be a sweatshirt that smells like sandalwood soap and peppermint gum and him. And she sobs.
At first, the calls come regularly. The shrill ringing bounces off walls and through the empty house, and she hears the voices of friends through answering machine speakers. The voices of family – his, because a family of her own was one more thing she never brought to the table – are even more urgent, tinged with something near desperation, but she doesn't answer. In her mind, she packs their friends and his family into another cardboard box that she sends with him, and if her life is a little more solitary than she might have once chosen she reminds herself that in solitude there is a degree of peace to be found in her inherent invulnerability.
In time, the phone stops ringing. She thinks she should feel sad.
She thinks she should feel something.
In truth, she's grateful she doesn't.
It is startling when she lifts her gaze to see familiar green eyes boring into hers over a pile of strawberries. Startling for three reasons: one, it isn't even strawberry season yet, not really. Two, she never buys strawberries these days, because they remind her of too many things she is still trying to make herself forget. And three, she has spent nine years going out of her way not to see those eyes at all.
Her heart stutters in her chest and his eyes widen as they stand staring at each other over a small mountain of red, heart-shaped fruit. As ever, she is the coward, breaking his penetrating gaze to lower her eyes to the berries; her stuttering heart stops altogether when she notices his left hand hovering over a small basket, and something sharp knocks her in the ribs when she sees the gleaming band around his third finger, slightly thinner than the one he used to wear.
Twenty-four stones, she can't stop her mind from thinking, and the thumb of her left hand goes instinctively to her naked ring finger for the first time in years. Not nearly enough.
She pulls her eyes from his hand and meets his face again, and she can't quite believe it's been nearly a decade since she looked into it. Familiar eyes in the face of a stranger, and while five minutes ago she would have sworn she'd healed, in this moment she realizes yet another mistake: the wound is gaping, and painful, and nearly enough to bring her to her knees.
"Hello, Bella," he says, and she closes her eyes. Her name on those lips, and she has to force herself to breathe.
"Who's that?" she hears, and when his voice speaks again, she opens her eyes.
"This is an old friend of Daddy's." Two sets of matching green eyes find hers and it takes everything in her not to take a step backward. "Bella," he says, and his voice is sad. "This is my daughter, Katie. Katie, this is my friend, Bella."
"Hi," the little girl says, eyes wide and curious, small hand enveloped in her father's large one.
"Hi," she forces herself to answer, even as her eyes are glued to their joined hands, peeks of glittering, tiny fingernails visible between Edward's knuckles.
"Please, Mommy? Please paint mine, too?"
"Gracie, baby, you're too young for nail polish."
"But I want pink nails like yours!"
"Daddy, can we get ice cream?" The voice is different, the face is different, but the eyes – those eyes – and pink fingernails and "Daddy" and she needs to run before she breaks.
"Take care," she whispers, and two words are all she has air for before she turns.
But she can't, she won't, she runs and sobs and reminds herself once again that every penance must be paid. The price of hers is a heart, but only one, and she doesn't realize until she steps into her yellow kitchen that she didn't pay for her basket of strawberries. She stands beside the kitchen table staring down at the basket, and as she does so she can't remember what it was that sent her to the market for fruit in the first place. Her mind flashes to green eyes and shining platinum bands before she throws the thieved produce against the bright wall. On impact, the fruit scatters; a handful of red smears appear against the yellow, and at least one is shaped like a bleeding heart.
It is windier and cooler out than she thought it would be, and she pulls her cardigan sweater tighter around her as her bare toes drag through the dirt beneath her. She gazes upward, marveling at the rays of white-yellow sunlight that filter through the leaves, shifting like prism beams as she slowly spins.
The rope they tied together eleven years ago is slightly frayed near the top but otherwise unaffected by time and the elements, and she thinks that maybe wedding rings are made from the wrong raw material. She pushes at the earth with her big toe just enough to set herself swaying and closes her eyes, feeling the breeze push her hair off her face.
She allows her mistakes to keep her company, and when she imagines this swing being used there are two tiny sets of hands, two belly laughs, two shrieks of joy in the picture; she wonders what that says about her.
As she slowly sways with the tempo of the breeze she thinks she hears a gurgly laugh in the distance, but she shakes it off: no one has laughed here in years.
This story was my entry in the 2012 Season of Our Discontent Anonymous Angst Contest. It won First Place in the Popular Vote and Second Place in the Judges' Vote. Thanks for reading, and thanks to all who voted. If you haven't read the entries, I encourage you to check them out; there were some truly amazing and heartbreaking stories. They can all be found under the pen name "Season of our Discontent" here on ffnet. xo