Shari rolls off of me, wipes a drop of sweat from my forehead and says, “Sometimes I feel like I could melt right through you.”
I nod, breathe deep and close my eyes.
“Really,” she says. “Don’t you feel that right now? I feel like we’re almost the same person.”
She leans across and kisses me. Her hair on my shoulder is sticky and damp. Outside the window the snow’s really coming down now, piling up on the flower box and pattering against the glass. Shari lays her head on my chest. I can feel myself drifting. I dream a sound like an animal scratching at the windowpane. Shari’s weight presses down on my heart.
Shari’s gone when I wake up in the morning. Out in the kitchen there are dishes in the sink, and a note taped to the refrigerator that says she’ll be working late. Shari’s a lawyer with the Public Defender’s Office. She works late a lot. I take out a bowl and milk and Fruit Loops, and settle down in my arm chair for the morning cartoons. Boomerang is showing a Roadrunner marathon. I watch as the coyote tries to crush the roadrunner with a giant boulder, then gets hit by a train coming out of a painted black hole.
I know how he feels. I have a dream where I’m down on my knees in a long, black tunnel, hands behind my head, hearing the whistle and watching that huge white light come on.
Shari thinks dreams like that mean I’m creative. She thinks I’m writing a novel.
Early evening: I walk into the bedroom to find Shari sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes on the floor, a yellowed scrap of paper in her hand. She palms it when she sees me, gets to her feet and tries to walk out.
“What is that?” I say. “What are you reading?”
“Nothing,” she says.
“Come on, Shari. I saw you.”
She hesitates, then scowls and hands me a torn-out square of newsprint.
“GUARANTEED PRAYER,” it says. “Repeat this prayer nine times each day for nine days. On the ninth day, you will see results.”
“What were you praying for?”
“What do I always pray for?”
She snatches back the paper and pushes me aside.
Shari prays nightly for her mother to outlive her.
There’s a park across the street from our apartment — a nice park, with swings and a river and rental canoes, not the kind that turns into a crack bazaar at sunset. I spend hours there, wandering through knee-deep snow, sitting on half-buried benches, watching people with children and people with dogs. In the course of a week I build a half-dozen snowmen, but none of them comes out quite right.
Shari comes home early to find me just sitting down at my desk. My cheeks are still flushed with cold, and my fingers on the keyboard are too stiff to type.
Our fourth anniversary: I take eighty-five dollars from our checking account. I buy her a sweater, and take her to a Vietnamese restaurant called Dr. No’s.
“This is beautiful,” she says when I give her the sweater, but I can see she’s disappointed.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing. I just… I had this idea that maybe you might give me the manuscript tonight.”
“It’s not ready,” I say. “I never show anyone my first drafts.”
She looks away.
“I’m not just anyone.”
I scoot my chair around the table until we’re side-by-side. Her eyes are distant, focused somewhere behind me. I wrap my arms around her, pull her head down to my shoulder and say, “I want it to be perfect.” She stiffens. I pull her closer, clinging like a drowning man, until she lets go of the sweater and hugs me back.
“It’s all right,” she says finally. “Whenever you’re ready.”
A letter comes from Shari’s mother. It’s three and a half pages long, but the gist of it is, “Come home to me. I’m dying.”
Shari goes. Her phone calls trail off after a month or so. After two unanswered emails, I copy my manuscript onto a thumb drive. I walk to the Kinko’s by the park, print it and bind it, and send it to Shari. It comes back a week later with a two word note: Too late.
A season passes, six months, a year, until finally she mails me the divorce papers. I sign them.
That summer, she sends me one last message before dropping off the edge of my life.
“Thomas,” it says. “Believe it or not, I find myself missing you. Mother is gone. At the end she’d forgotten the years since the wedding, and she asked constantly why I was here and not home with you. It took me a while to come up with an answer, but in the end I told her that our marriage just never felt real to me. You pretended to be an artist and I pretended to believe you, and we both pretended we were in love with each other, because that’s what we thought we were supposed to do.
“Last night I woke up shivering, my window wide open to a cold, clear sky. I’d been dreaming about the first time we shared a bed, how the moonlight gleamed in the frost on the window and your arm fell across my shoulder, and we both lay there with our eyes closed and tried to fall asleep. I really thought I loved you then. If you want to remember something, remember that.”
The trees in the park are nearly bare again now, and the pathways are covered in red and brown leaves. I see a woman there sometimes who looks a bit like Shari, lying on her back on a rock by the river, staring up into the clouds.
Maybe today I’ll talk to her. I’ll ask her what she’s looking for. I’ll offer her my hand.
Edward Ashton is the author of more than a dozen short stories, as well as numerous technical articles and medical texts. His fiction has appeared most recently in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion, and Escape Pod. You can find his work online at smart-as-a-bee.tumblr.com.
This story is sponsored by
Odyssey Writing Workshops — Dedicated to helping writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror improve their work, we offer one of the top workshops in the world each summer; live, interactive online classes each winter; and many free resources.