“I don’t want this anymore,” she said pointedly, her hand held out to him. Her palm and fingers, curved like a soft, round seashell, held a weighty, vital object that did not quite fit into the bowl of her hand.
He looked at her in silence for an endless twelve seconds. She did not return the steady gaze that beat at her like fists. Only he would never beat her with his fists. He would only playfully punch her shoulder before tightening his arms around her and loosening them, swooping her down towards the floor, letting her drop with a feeling like throwing a precious object, before catching her again, locking her safely back against him.
“Just take it,” she said, still not meeting his eyes. “Please.”
The last word was what forced him into action. He could never turn down a polite request from her. He could never deny her anything. His eyes still pushed at her quietly as he extended a hot and pulsing hand. She turned her hand over and let its contents fall heavily into his palm. As soon as she had relinquished the beating object, she folded her arms tightly across her stomach and collapsed in a little, as though it was her own heart that she had just returned. She looked to the left of her left shoe, and then to the right of her right shoe, pretending to examine the cracks on the pavement with great interest.
“So, that’s it? You’re just going to give it back and stand here in front of me and expect me to forget about you and forget about everything?” As he spoke the words, exhaling them light and fast, he moved closer with his free hand poised, reaching to make warm contact. His own furious aching heart still clenched and unclenched, wet and red, in his other hand, with a sound similar to a dry sob.
“Don’t,” she said, recoiling back out of his reach. “Please don’t,” she hissed through gritted teeth, her eyes still cast down at the patch of ground that she stood on. He let his outstretched hand fall limply to his side.
“Why are you doing this?” Pain curled from his throat, seeping into every word like ink on paper. He craved the sight of her upturned face, the soft, shadowy line where her lips met, the freckle beside her eye. He begged her to look up, look at me.
“I’m doing this because I have to. I’m doing this for me. Do this for me.”
The now erratic beating of his heart drew his attention. It was troubled. It was straining. It was being torn apart, right down the middle, splitting ventricles and atriums, ripping the chambers one from the other. A soft wetness unfurled on his hand as the crimson liquid spread, and heat breathed from it. He felt it pooling in the lines of his palm. He felt it running, spilling slightly off the side, trickling like water between his fingers, only it was thicker than water and slower than water and warmer than water and richer than water. He strained to hear the tiny splashing sound it would make as it struck the ground, but his own voice interrupted his listening.
“I can’t,” he said. His voice sounded weak and high, like it had come from a mouth located a foot or two above his head. His heart continued to shred itself violently to hot bits of smooth flesh in his hand. It wept silently on the bed of his palm.
Look at me look at me please look up at me.
She shook her head very softly and seemed to clutch herself tighter, her fingers grabbing anxiously at her sides.
“I have to go. I’m working tonight.” Her voice sounded falsely casual and still she did not look at him. Her nervousness, or was it guilt, radiated from her in shimmering waves. He saw her in this state and again he wanted to touch her. He wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her and tell her that it would be all right.
Tiny specific events played rapidly before his eyes. He roved over moments, shared and significant, that stung him. The ragged fragments of his heart quivered and heaved in their death throes, half-drowning in the fresh liquid that had pooled in his hand. His mind reeled back to his house, to the bottom drawer of his desk, where he kept pictures of them together and notes that she had written to him and postcards that she had sent to him from when she took a vacation to Spain and mixed CDs she had burned for him and a sweatshirt that she had once forgotten at his house that still held the soft blooming scent of her and a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, her favorite book and–
A bus wheezed to a halt at the end of the street, shattering his long stream of thoughts and images. She looked quickly over her shoulder to confirm that it was her bus. He stared at her blankly, the swell of confusion diminishing to tiny, dull ripples. Her eyes then turned up at him, staring firmly back. For the first time that day she looked him straight in the eye. She held the hurt, empty forlornness of his gaze. He watched her searching eyes, as though she were digging deep for something lost, combing a beach for buried treasure. He watched the small, mechanical flicking movements of her eyes as they surveyed and probed him. “I guess I’ll see you around.”
She waited for him to respond but when he didn’t she bounced awkwardly on her toes several times before turning to walk toward her bus, which idled impatiently. She left him standing in the middle of the street, alone with his heart. He listened to the doors squeal open to allow her into the belly of the bus. He listened to the gas catch as the bus roared away. He could not bring himself to turn, but he imagined her sitting in the seat, twisting to look out the window at him, a hand pressed delicately against the glass.He listened as the grumblings of the bus faded away into the distance. He listened to the wind that made branches beat against the sides or roofs of houses. He listened to a child raucously laughing somewhere down the street.
His heart had fallen still and dead in his hand. It had put up a fair fight as she spoke the killing words. He tipped his hand slightly to drain the puddle of liquid. It was still warm, but cooling down now.
He turned to make the 14-step journey back to his house, where she had come to return what he had given her. To break the news to him. In his hand, the wetness receded, retrieved by the heart. The flesh in his palm contracted, rounding and compacting itself into a cool smooth, metal surface. As his feet carried him up his steps, as his free hand turned the knob of his front door without feeling it, he rubbed his other thumb across the face of the pocket watch he had given to her on her birthday last year. It had been his grandfather’s watch, and it was a beautiful antique, still fully functional and glimmering through its age. He felt that he had given a part of himself away to her then, happily sure that he would not have it back for a long while.
“Treasure it,” he had said to her in a mock-serious tone when she held it tenderly in her hands for the first time. She had looked at it as though it contained a secret, or a message that only she could decipher. When she held it she smiled.
He traced the edge and pressed the catch and the device sprung open jauntily in his palm. The watch ticked steadily away, the hands depicting an accurate time, according to the clock in his room. So it had not stopped, or even slowed in its time away from him. Tick-tick-tick-tick. He felt the smooth face of the glass on the watch and stared at it, watching seconds spin out minutes, which spun out a quarter of an hour or so. His eyes prickled and suddenly he could not recall if he had been blinking over the past block of time. His breathing ceased to be an automatic task. He forced himself to take in air and to let it out and to repeat and repeat and repeat. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.
He curled shut his hand around the watch, closing it with a louder-than-expected click. He opened the drawer that contained the collection of beautiful, tragic little things. He placed the watch with the utmost care gently upon her sweatshirt, half burying it beneath a fold of light blue cotton, a treasure concealed within a sea. His eyes took in the objects for a long moment and a distinct coldness began to bind his chest. He closed the drawer and crossed the room to his bed, upon which he laid himself heavily down. His limbs weighed more than they had ever weighed before and his head began to pound, riled into a furious aching pain by the twittering of birds outside and the soft gunning rumbles of cars on the street. The loudest noise of all was the sound that knocked from within his desk drawer. The clockwork was seamless and the noise was never-ending. Tick-tick-tick all night long and all day long. It was the only thing he heard.
By Jenna Bernstein