“I can’t do it anymore.” She whispered, her voice carrying vestiges of ancient wounds and fresh tears. Her eyes were closed as she spoke. Visions of pain and loss swam within the darkness; horror films playing endlessly on the insides of her eyelids. Her hands shook where they lay wrapped around her body, hugging herself as though she could ward away the ever-present chill. Yet she couldn’t. For the cold was inside her. A freezing remnant of the heart that used to beat within, burning and throbbing with life. Now it was nothing more than a lonely drum, beating slowly; pulsing only because it was forced to; trapped within the broken shell that encased it.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice broke my heart. Words swam on my tongue, pleas, words of comfort, words of love. Yet nothing fell from my mouth, for they were all empty. Simply hollow attempts to solve a problem that only existed in her mind. A problem only she could solve. And that killed me. It hurt more than anything I’ve felt before, more than anything I’ve dreamt of. There was no balm or salve to heal a heart that no longer wanted to heal.
“Please.” I choked out at last, fear closing my throat. She smiled at me, her eyes fluttering open for a moment as all her unshed tears and unexpressed love shimmered through the beautiful curve of her lips. I turned my face from the camera, unable to bear seeing that smile through the screen of my phone. That smile is what drew me to her in the first place. The reason I couldn’t stay away no matter how many times I was warned that she would break me.
The first time I saw her was across the room of a sea of moving bodies, pulsing to the beat of some popular song; I don’t even remember which one, so completely did she fill my memory. In the small town I grew up in, it was rare to see someone new, rarer still for a homeschooler to show up to a school dance. Yet there she was, studiously ignoring the gyrating teens swirling around her. I had taken two steps towards her before I realized I was doing it. Two steps before I realized that she had noticed me. Two steps before I saw that smile. That gorgeous smile. At once a promise and a question, it drew me forward. I talked to her that night. We didn’t dance, though she had no date. We simply talked. Discussing everything I could think, saying anything I could to keep her in front of me; drinking in the sound of her voice as though it were cleansing water in a desert of sand.
It felt as though everything I had longed for, she offered. And so we talked. That night, and the next, and the next, and the next; each night growing closer together, two people against the world. It took me weeks to work up the courage to ask her on a date. We drove to my favorite spot in the city. Cliche, yet no less beautiful because of it, the hill overlooking the city offered peace, solitude, and a view that made you feel free. She loved it, just as I knew she would. And I loved her. I don’t think I knew it yet, but I loved her. That was the night I kissed her. The night I tasted the promise on her lips, offering one of my own in return.
“Do you remember the night we kissed?” She asked quietly, as though reading my mind.
A small half smile raced across my lips. “Yeah, I do.”
“That was good, right?” She murmured sleepily.
A wistful longing seized me. A longing to have that moment back. To hold it and carry it with me forever. “Yeah, it was,” I whispered sadly.
Her eyes fluttered closed, even as she fought to keep them open, straining to keep her eyes on me. We sat for a moment in a silence filled with nostalgia. As we lay there, her on her bed and I on mine, 700 miles away, my mind flooded with things to say, things that I longed to voice. “Grace-” I began.
“I’m sorry.” She said, cutting me off. She was so close to sleep she didn't even realize it.
“For what?” I asked softly.
She tilted her head back, her face lost in shadows as the camera caught the glint of tears spilling from the corners of her eyes. “For everything. For ruining your life. For dragging you back down when you were almost to the top of the mountain of pain you had to work through.”
I chuckled softly. “There’s nothing to apologize for, beautiful. How many times do I have to tell you that you’ve done nothing but make my life better before you start to believe it?”
“At least… at least one more time.” Her voice caught on the familiar response, choked with emotion. She turned the camera away, its gaze aimed towards the shelf holding all her favorite books. It held everything from The Scarlet Letter and Of Mice and Men, to the New Jerusalem Bible. Yet I couldn’t focus on anything but the sound of her broken gasps as she struggled to force tears down; failing miserably.
“Grace?” I called softly, praying she would pick up her phone and show me her face. After what seemed an eternity, she lifted the phone, pointing the screen back towards herself. She still sniffled, and tracks from shed tears streaked her face made her no less lovely. Exhaustion lined her face, aging her far beyond her years.“You should get some sleep, babe,” I said gently.
She nodded slowly. “Okay, but… stay with me until I fall asleep? I don't want to fall asleep alone.” There was something hidden in her voice that I couldn’t decipher. Some hidden meaning that was lost to me, yet I knew was vitally important.
I hesitated, “Of course. I’ll always be here for you.” I paused, knowing what the answer would be yet needing to ask it anyway. “Are you okay?”
Her lips curved in that beautiful smile. “Yeah, I am. Better than I’ve been in a long time.”
Her eyelids lay heavy, pressing down with a seemingly unbearable weight. “Goodnight, Grace,” I whispered, trying to imbue my words with all the love and memories I possessed.
It could have been the haze of sleep pressing around my mind, but I swear I heard her whisper “goodbye.” Then sleep took me, carrying me away to a place where pain didn’t exist, and there were no such things as goodbyes. Grace never woke up. The bottles of prescription sleeping pills she had taken had taken her. Taken her to a place where pain didn’t exist, and there were no such things as goodbyes.
My gaze centered on the rising sun, its rays turning the fog shrouding the mountains to clouds of gold. Sadness gripped my heart at the thought of the girl I loved; the girl I lost. Though years ago, it still hurt. I still had yet to forgive myself for not seeing it, but I had hope that one day I could. A light hand on my shoulder eased the strictures banding my heart, warmth loosening my chest. I drew in a breath, the clean mountain air cooling my lungs, softening my pain.
“Grace would have loved this.” My wife’s voice was small and quiet, streaked with knowledge of the pain I felt. She knew because she understood. She understood because she had lost someone as well. Her brother had taken his life years before. Yet out of the darkness of grief, something good had bloomed. The love I felt for her… I could never describe it. It was the product of shared pain and self-loathing, of sympathy and understanding. She saved me from myself, from my demons. Pulled me from the dark when all I wanted to do was drown in it. She loved me, leaned on me, just as I leaned on her. Two broken pieces not making one whole, but two shattered people helping each other mend themselves together; picking broken pieces off the ground and dusting them off, putting them back in place.
“She would have.” A wistful smile slid to my lips. “She would have loved you.” I turned, facing the woman I loved more than anything, my eyes drinking the sight. Her hair lay in raven curls down her back, mussed by sleep yet still perfect. The stark darkness of her hair made the green and gold of her eyes blaze in contrast, worry shining through them. She shivered as the chill morning seeped through the thin jacket she wore. I stepped closer, wrapping my arms around her, willing my warmth into her slim figure. I pressed my lips to her forehead pulling back to see her smile. To see her lips curl in her simple, precious, impossible smile. It made my heart ache; it was so similar to her’s. To Grace’s. To the girl who saved my life and took her own. I kissed her lips, offering the taste of a promise, not asking for one in return, simply giving everything I could and holding nothing back. For she deserved all of it and more; she loved me, when not even I loved myself. That’s how I knew. She was all I needed. For when I was with her, I could believe that there was hope. Hope that one day I would find myself a place where pain didn’t exist, and there were no such things as goodbyes.