This story, along with many others, can be found in Issue Five of Tincture Journal. You can buy a copy here.
The silence of the car trip followed them inside with the chill of night air. She paused in the doorway then backed away, staring at the queen-sized bed. “I’ll sleep in one of the other rooms.”
A single bed had less lonely space to fill.
“I wasn’t suggesting,” he said, and she forced a smile to stop him finishing the sentence.
“Are you okay?” The car trip haunted her. How the conversation had petered out with the suburbs, becoming polite inquiries about the next CD and the best rest stops once they hit the highway. If she’d known it would be like this, the melancholy clinging to them like the damp sea air, she’d have never suggested it.
“We should eat,” he said. “Something proper.”
She nodded and watched him put his bag down on the far side of the bed.
Thunder heaved and the first iron pings of rain began to fall. An overhanging tree branch clawed the guttering. The window lit up.
“A storm?” he said, looking surprised.
“Of course a storm,” she said and placed her bags carefully on the other side of the bed.
She watched the muted television through the lens of vodka-streaked tumblers on the coffee table. Music fed the room from an iPod dock in the kitchen. The burn of the alcohol washed through and melted the tension that had seized her the moment she’d seen him in Arrivals.
He moved and she went to lift her head from his lap.
“Don’t,” he said, redistributing his weight beneath her. “It’s fine.”
He clicked off the television, the afterglow holding the darkness at bay for a moment. She felt him put the remote down on the arm of the couch and wondered if he would touch her.
“Did you think it would be like this?” she asked.
His attempt to lighten the mood only tightened the knot in her stomach. “I knew from the start it would end this way.” The words were quiet, but filled the room. “I wish it didn’t.”
“You don’t regret coming?” he said.
“I couldn’t have done this alone.”
“Me either,” she said, and turned to face him, her hand tucked between her cheek and the warm velvet of the cushion resting in his lap. “Thank you.”
She closed her eyes and let the metronome of his breath lull her to sleep.
The tea went cold beside the laptop. The collar of her flannelette shirt, soaked by her damp hair, became ice-cold lips pressed to the nape of her neck. She tried to ignore the hollow tap of her fingers by putting in earphones, but music didn’t stop her from feeling the rhythm or the message it rendered. Possessed by the notion that it had to be done before he woke, she typed faster, and once the final sentence had been committed, she left it; she didn’t fix the errors underlined in green and red, just turned the modem on and uploaded the document as the printer converted it to black and white.
The plumbing rattled and she squared the pages, left them beside the laptop and went to the bedroom. It smelt stale. Leached. She stripped off her clothes, climbed into the warm indent left by his body and tried not to think about what came next.
She woke to find him knelt beside the bed and knew it was over before he said, “It’s done.”
Despair poured in.
“Are you okay?” he whispered.
She buried her face in the pillow. The tears, caught for so long in the base of her throat, moved upward and dissolved her.
“How long did you sit out there?” she finally croaked, looking up to see him red-eyed, but still kneeling beside her.
She remembered the bleak dawn and waking on the couch with the crushing realisation of what day it was. She remembered how she had forced herself to get up, shower, brew tea. How she had made herself write, knowing each word brought her closer to the end. But closure fell to him and she ached, thinking of him sitting out there alone, having let her go.
He turned and rested his back against the bed, stared at the window outlined in a golden halo. “Did you know you sleep with your hand under your cheek?” he asked. “Just like her.”
“She was little bits of me. And little bits of you too.”
He sighed and bowed his head.
Outside, the overhanging branch battered the guttering in defiance of the sunlight and its suggestion of a warm, untroubled day.
“We need to say goodbye,” he said and stood up.
“Can you find a glass jar and some matches?” she said and sat, wiping away the tears.
The mountains rose in the distance, the ridgelines dark against the tangerine sky and the purple bruise of clouds; the honey glow of late afternoon fading into twilight.
The wind tore at her, trying to pry the pages from her hands. The thought of losing a single one made her frantic and she turned her back to the gale, gripping the manuscript to her chest. Behind the sand dunes he dug a hole and broke up the firelighters.
“We need some wood,” he said and disappeared.
She’d collapsed into a keening position without thinking. Hunched over, the paper pressed into her chest, knees buried in the frigid sand, she rocked back and forth. Her cheeks were icy when he returned with driftwood.
They watched the tiny orange dance eat the fire lighters, growing into hungry tongues that devoured the driftwood.
“It’s green,” she said.
“It’s the salt,” he said.
They watched it burn, the manuscript heavy, like the night air, between them.
“You saved it, didn’t you?” she asked, when the blustering gale shrank to a thin cutting wind and the fire burned hot.
“In three separate places. And burnt it onto a disc.”
She turned the ream over, flicked through the final pages, took three, and passed him the rest. His words, brave and beautiful, picked up where hers left off. The text blurred in the changeable firelight, through the sting of tears. At the final line of text, her chest seized and sobs drowned out the crash of the surf.
The character that had arrived in their lives eight months earlier was gone. The woman who brought them together, delighted and divided them, who they’d hated and loved in equal measures, was now dead by their hand.
The fire curled the corners of the first page, turning it sepia before eating through the middle. She fed it the second and then the third page, mouthing a silent goodbye. Together they fed the roaring flames, reducing the novel to hot ashes.
“I don’t think they’ll all fit in the jar,” he said, brushing the hair out of her face and leaning in to her.
“The sea will take it eventually,” she said, allowing herself to finally know the feel of his skin beneath her fingers.
“We came for an ending. Isn’t that enough, for now?” she asked, her hand pressed against his cold cheek, the salt and smoke between them.
Jodi Cleghorn is an author, editor, publisher and occasional poet with a penchant for the dark vein of humanity. Her short fiction has been published in Australia and abroad. She is the author of River of Bones, an Australian gothic novella and co-author, with Adam Byatt, of the epistolary serial Post Marked: Piper’s Reach. Her story “555” appeared in Issue Three of Tincture Journal.