by Catherine Pugh
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)

Her footfalls echo off the tunnel walls in the quiet, every scuff of her sneakers on the rock rasping hollowly. Somewhere, water is dripping, that plop…plop…plop setting a rhythm to which she unconsciously matches her steps. Her breathing is a whisper wet with tears, her red-rimmed eyes seeking, staring blindly into the darkness. Her fingers are alive as they skip along the wall, fingernails snagging in the crevices; she grits her teeth as a rough patch in the rock scrapes away the delicate skin of her fingertips. She follows the convolutions of the passage as it turns inward and down, boring into the heart of the caverns.

She smiled as she walked into the restaurant. She knew her happiness sparkled like a beacon in the dim lighting, but that was fine. She wanted everyone to look at her radiance, to see the reason she shone so brightly. As she reached out one thin hand to Tobias, she turned her light-filled gaze on him. He smiled that sure, confident smile she knew so well… but did not reach for her hand in return. Her light flickered. She fluttered her fingers where they were, outstretched at her side, asking him. “Tobias?”

“I dunno. Isn’t this place kind of… public?” For a second, the light goes dark, and she tastes heartbreak. But then he grins at her again. The flame roars up inside her, and everything is right. She laughs as he doffs an imaginary hat, pulling out her chair for her.

She knows where this tunnel ends in the same way she knows the cadence of her own breathing, familiar as an oft-repeated story. A cool wind caresses her face, the breeze sending wisps of hair to tickle her nose and cheeks. She licks her lips; the air tastes wet, and cold. There is a sense of waiting here, she can feel it in the blue fingers of cold that spiderweb across her tongue. She closes her mouth, preserving that precious breath of chilled air, and moves forward, toes inching ahead for the gaps in the rocks she knows are there. She steps carefully over them, as if she can sense the dark fissures gaping downward into the warm center of the earth. When her heel settles on the ground, she skids, but she reaches downwards for balance, the slick stone rising to her touch, greeting her as an old friend. Her feet know the way as she steals down to the lowest place in the cavern.

He asked her where she had been. She bit her lip, thinking. Of course he would understand, wasn’t she supposed to trust him with her secrets? So she told him about the caverns, the labyrinth of caves and passages that was hers and hers alone, though she did not speak of the safety that lay in that darkness. Even so, his face was blank. Perfectly blank.

She kneels there at the bottom of the incline, reaching down and letting the cold water flood around her fingers. The rushing, gurgling sound of the river echoes back to her, creating a film of gray noise at the edge of her hearing. She withdraws her hand and wipes it on her jeans, breathing in deeply, smelling the freshness of the river, its neverending journey towards lower ground. It smells of darkness and life, and colors bloom in her head as she recalls moments past.

The day he gave her the ring was the best day of her life. The air was crisp, the colors in the autumn air sharp and vivid. He knelt under the old apple tree and offered up the velvet box, and she felt the light swell inside her, filling her with a brilliance so tangible the rest of the world was thrown in shadow. All she saw was his face, illuminated. He opened his mouth.

“Yes,” she said.

She submerges her hands again, cupping them and bringing a handful of freezing liquid up from the river. As always, she can almost taste its sweetness, and has to resist the temptation to drink, though she wants so badly to lift the water to her lips, feel its cleansing cold run down her throat. She has the sudden thought that the water is humming, so subtly she cannot sense its vibration, and yet it is there, in her hands, waiting. It wants her to drink, and she wants to do it. This simple desire creates a small burning flame inside her, and it is so simple compared to the swirling complexity of her other emotions that she smiles through her tears. It feels shaky, unfamiliar, but her lips still remember how to curve. And she grins in the darkness, even as a single salty teardrop traces down her face. It falls without a sound.

She leaned forward and took a bite of his cotton candy, grinning at him as they hung poised at the top of the Ferris wheel. For a moment she feels a flicker of darkness inside. All the other couples she had seen were sitting next to each other. Was it odd, that he—Tobias leaned forward, speaking to her in a low voice. She laughed with him as the wheel lurched downward again, and watched the shadows of the wheel struts flicker over his face.

The memory makes the world around her seem unreal and she is, suddenly, dizzy. One hand finds the stone behind her as the cave holds its breath. She is perfectly still there for a long moment, the rock’s mossy surface grounding her in this place. This is her place, she reminds herself, and she is safe here.Swallowing against the sharp anguish in her chest, she reaches for her jacket pocket, her breathing choked and hoarse. The zipper at her fingertips grinds, and then the object is in her hands. She holds it on her palm, looking down as if she can make out its shape in the blackness. In a way she can.

The design is simple: tiny rubies set in a gentle spiral of gold. It has always looked natural on her slender hand – she had cried when he first slipped it onto her finger, overwhelmed by Tobias’ care and thoughtfulness in choosing such a beautiful piece of jewelry. He just hugged her to him, arms warm and comforting as they wrapped around her. In that moment she felt safe, guarded from everything in the world. She was safe in his arms.

She clenches her fingers around the ring and lifts her arm, holding her fist above the water, the band cold even in her icy hand. The breeze stirs up again, a wind blowing from nowhere to nowhere, the eddies of air swirling around her like she belongs here. She feels the cold inching in, from a coolness on her skin to ice winding its way towards her heart. It dissolves something inside her, something that has been there for months, and with every tear that flows down her face, she is lighter somehow. Released.

She entered the theater with her head held high, the ring cool and light as a wisp of air on her finger. She glanced at him with eyes full of love. And maybe… maybe the slightest bit of doubt? It was always there, that doubt, no matter how many times he reassured her of his commitment.

She reached for his hand, feeling a sudden chill. “Tobias?”

He looked back, smiling, but the smile faded ever so slightly as he saw her extended hand. “Are you sure? It’s so… public here.”

Her heart froze over and shattered. As the tears welled up for the thousandth time, she looked away. Tobias didn’t like it when she cried. But the taste of heartbreak was there in her mouth, bittersweet and cutting as broken glass.

The uncurling of her hand is like letting go of a dream. There is hardly a sound to mark the moment, just a slight change in the sound of water gushing, and then it is gone. She kneels there by the river for a long, long time, staring into the darkness, watching things that only she can see.

But what if—”

Tobias holds a finger to her lips, his face intent. “Don’t say anything. I promise I’ll come back. I’ll be there when you need me. I promise.”

So she nods and their fingers untwine and he walks away.

And she stands there under the old apple tree, waiting.