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The International Writers Magazine: Life Moments in Dreamscapes

Running to Yesterday
• Chris Castle
“It’s a good place,” Jack said, looking at the high beams, the empty walls. The ceiling reached at an impossible height. It felt as if he was living inside an old black and white movie.
“It’s what we need,” Ellen replied, setting down the battered suitcase. He looked over to her and saw her following the same places. For a moment he saw how young she could look. He almost began to smile, until he realised how tired she must have felt up until now.

old house

“So we’re really doing this, huh?” he said, wanting to push it through, needing something …confirmation. Aware that his heart was beating a little too quickly, his body already starting to feel a little washed out.
“We need to do this,” she said, looking back to him, unblinking. Not his lover then, nothing like it, but something else. Something like a friend.
“Yeah, I guess we do,” Jack answered and like that, it began.

The drinking had been high times; there was no question of that. Not just at the parties, the social gatherings, but even something as simple as splitting a bottle of wine on a quiet night. They worked hard, so what the hell? Time past and it was simply a relief, a get-out; letting any petty arguments bloom and explode, to be followed by love making and a bridge back to their lives together. Jack remembered a night when he had drank scotch off her belly and had felt something like a king. They had laughed about it afterwards, but she was flushed just the same, the feeling that they could live forever.
So when had that changed?

Pick a day, pick a number, Jack had said, more than once. The subtle shift on the collection of bottles lined up on the sideboard? The uneasy feeling that a few glass soldiers were now a whole battalion? The unspoken times when there was too much silence hanging in the room until that first bottle popped? Those things and others too. Jokes that became comments, comments that became full blown fired rows. Their lives seemed encased in sweat, whether it was the morning after or those edgy last few daylight hours before the first glass.

There were none of the Hollywood moments; no-one woke up on a beach naked, there were no trashed hotels rooms. But there were long slivers of time, an hour, two, where blackouts had slipped into their nights. Jack had sat stunned, more than once; listening to stories he had no recollection of. He had turned and seen Ellen’s face pale, her smile lock a little just at the corners, and had known she had felt the same thing. Not terror or outright embarrassment. Instead there was the edginess of panic, creasing into both of them, realising how bad it had gotten.

The decision, again, had no gravitas to it, no last chance saloon ultimatums. Ellen had called a friend, the offer of the cabin came up and it seemed too good a chance. Over the dinner they had not even addressed what it was they were doing, not quite, treating it instead almost like a holiday. They had lifted their cups-both black coffee-and agreed to it, the promise unspoken, the situation still hanging in the silence between them.

The cabin was a dry, cool place. Instructions were pinned to the walls, all written in heavy capitals and built into short sentences. Logs rested by the fire and trees swayed outside for when they turned to ash. It was a simple life, if they wanted it to be that way. But did he want that? Jack looked over; watching her unpack and saw her face was as unreadable as what sat inside his own head. For a long, eerie moment, he felt as if they were two strangers, simply sharing a single house key.

The day passed in the uneasy mess of getting to know the lay of the land. Jack threw out a lame joke about getting addicted to coffee and watched as her face tightened ever so slightly. He knew the jokes were wearing thin and bit the inside of his lip to keep himself in check. As he had put away the clothes she had asked him if he was feeling okay and he nodded. He asked her back and watched as she shrugged. The ends of her fingers shook as if it was cold, even though the place was nowhere close freezing. It was the first admission. Instead of offering up some half assed platitude he simply stepped forward and drew her in. Until he felt her fingers on his back he wasn’t sure if she would hold him back. The longer it went on, the more her body seemed to slow. Jack smiled and kissed her forehead, glad he was helping and terrified at how scared he felt when she finally broke away from him.

The first night was a jangle of short conversations and half-felt laughter. They unearthed board games and made small jokes about the gallery of rules seemingly written on every second wall. Jack made a crude gag about the bathroom instructions and watched as she almost doubled up with the only real laugh of the night; a high pitched explosion of giggles that was one of the reasons he had fallen in love with her. But amongst those moments there were pauses, a first date awkwardness that neither of them could quite throw off. Jack had found himself standing in the bathroom wanting to smash the mirror at his own frustrated actions. Instead, he punched his thigh twice, knowing it would leave a bruise and taking nothing from it.

After the games were folded away they speculated about the other people who had been before them. There were initials everywhere on the living room floor and they unnerved her as much as it encouraged him. Both of them held mugs of arm milk and joked about being twelve again. Eventually they talked about sleeping, even though it was clear neither of them was tired. Jack realised that going to bed before midnight meant something to her, something that fitted in with what they were trying to do here.
“Don’t you think it feels like a haunted house, or something?” she said as they walked upstairs to the bedroom. The stairs were stark and steep and he patted her thigh to make her jump. “I mean with it being empty but with all those initials carved in. I wish we hadn’t seen them.”
“It’s just people’s way of being remembered, I guess,” he said, meeting her on the top step. He was aware how unnerved she was now, how this day, this good day, now hung in the balance. All because of someone’s name. “Its good people want to leave their mark. I don’t know, maybe it means they were proud of something.”
“You could be…that’s a good way to look at it, maybe.” She smiled at him again and reached out, took hold of his jaw in her hand. But instead of saying anything more, they stood still, just looking to each other in the half light of the corridor.

They did not make love. She reached for him and he drew her to him, but there was enough of the moonlight to make them aware of themselves, their uneasiness. In a crazy way, after so much time, he felt almost shy of his nakedness and knew she felt the same way. Instead they lay side by side and he gripped her hand, dimly aware his could have started to shake by now. She squeezed his just as tightly and the two of them lay looking at the high beams, almost taking turns at breathing and neither of them saying a word.

Jack went out to chop wood, even though there was no need. He gripped the axe and walked a little into the woods, but city-nervous enough to still keep the cabin in sight. After a while he felt himself sweat, but it was something else, a good thing and he pumped his legs harder, enjoying the rush of his body, the mechanics of it as it propelled him forward. There was a low hum and he dimly braced himself for a slew of insect bites, but nothing came of it. Instead there was just the low sting of the branches crunching under his feet and brushing against his arms. Then something more, a feeling he could not quite place. It was only as he moved deeper into the woods, away from the shadows of the cabin, that he could place it. The feeling of total silence. The insects had skittered away and there was no rumble of traffic, just…stillness. He ran his hand across his brow and felt the sweat absorb into his skin. In another time, another life, it would have been beautiful to have experienced all this peace and quiet. But not now. Now, he felt only loneliness; loneliness for all the damage he had done, all the poor decisions he had made. And even then, the pity rescinded and something else came into him, making the tears fall heavier and cut deeper; the fear of what had to happen next. Jack stood there, in the darkness of the woods and kept crying, a part of him knowing he should have shared the moment with her, and another part of him relieved that he had fallen to pieces so privately.

Jack set the longs down at the foot of the steps and was pleased to see her come out to welcome him back. She had a tea towel in her hands and her clothes were scuffed with dirt. He made his way up the steps even as she made her way down and they met in the middle. Jack realised immediately she had been crying and knew she must have known the same. They drew close and hugged and the sense of them being strangers, heightened by their unfamiliar scents, their dirty clothes, was heightened. But it didn’t scare him as much this time; instead there was something in it, as if they understood something about each other for the first time, which made him feel hopeful. When they drew apart, she took his hand and led him inside and he couldn’t help but start to think that having secrets from one another might be a good thing.

“I was thinking,” she said, as the two of them sat by the fire. Between them was a pot of coffee, a tray of fruit. Ellen had made a kind of peace with the carved letters now and for a while they had spent a time guessing the names of each of them, then creating a back story for the phantoms. It had started as a joke, but then they had both started to come up with real ideas for them.
“Maybe we should put everything away, make a real clean break of it.” She looked back round to him and took a small batch of grapes from the plate. He waited, not wanting to interrupt her, knowing she had somehow mapped this out in her mind.
“I mean, the mobile phones, unplugging the TV. Be completely removed, you know?” Her face curved against the flames and he saw the tension in it, that small fear she always carried about being thought of as silly, or crazy. Removed by drink and now returned, tenfold.
“I think that’s a good idea. Going back to old times, maybe.” He fished into his pocket and put the phone onto the coffee tray. She did the same. Without a word he stood and padded over to the TV set and unplugged it. There were stacks of books littered along the shelves and he had wondered about them.
“Like running to yesterday,” she said quietly as he sat by her side.
“Running to yesterday,” he repeated, trying the words on for size and liking them. They closed around each other, the fire illuminating only parts of them, while keeping others hidden. Then they were kissing, as the fire rose higher before them, both of them knowing it would go no further. It was making out and somehow, it was fine. There was an innocence to it that made it even more sexual. Jack was aware without the drink, how sensitive his fingertips were, how alert his eyes were becoming. In times like these, just seeing the strap of her bra reveal itself drove him crazy, like how they were in the beginning. But then his eye would catch something else, the tired ring under her eye or the small scar on his own forearm that would remind him of the other, recent times, and the sensation would taper off. That feeling of time colliding, the good and the bad, remembering how to be young again and dealing with old scars within the same few moments.

That night, while she slept, Jack cried. It wasn’t just how his body felt, though the aches were no longer dim pains but full blown pangs and cramps. It was all the things in his mind and how little sense he could make of them all. He drew his hands up and did it quietly, squeezing the tears out carefully, as if each one was one of those thoughts escaping his newly overcrowded mind, until the jag was over. When he was done he looked over and was glad she was still sleeping. It was only in the morning, while she washed, when he had gone back to the bed to look for her lost earring that he felt the soft damp patch on her pillow. He left his palm there for a long time, until she called his name, and wondered what time in the night she had cried the same jag as him.

On the third day he suffered; on the fourth it was her turn. There were fractured hours when they helped each other and then refused it, begging to be left alone. They began to scar in different ways; her skin broke into acne, while his nails were torn close to shreds. Both of them seemed to hold small pockets of dried blood on themselves from the impatient, shuffling movement of their bodies. She hurled a coffee cup; he smashed the small table set out the back. The accusations that flown during that time; eventually the two of them asked the questions they had been dying to ask. The silent crying, the unanswered questions, the other, deeper things that had built up with the time. Some of the time the questions were answered, other times they screamed, or beat the ground, or simply looked at each other for long enough to read the answer in each other’s eyes. In the night time they walked to separate beds, bruised and aching and wanting to be together but knowing they had to stay apart. In the mornings they met by the bathroom door, both pale and battered. Both of them clutched their toothbrushes and each day they dissolved into a fit of helpless, childish giggles. And when it was over, they held each other’s hand, still clutching their brushes in the other and began to map out the oncoming day together.   

On those days when they slept apart from each other, though they did not realise it, both of them chose to count the stars; later, on the fifth day, sitting together on the porch at dawn, they both confessed this secret and they laughed for a long time. And, as before, they sought each other’s hand for strength, as if that act, rather than anything else, kissing, speaking, was somehow vital.

On that fifth day they decided to walk to the lake. It seemed a good time to leave the cabin and the two of them carefully packed a picnic as if they were going on some distant trek. The previous two days had left them damaged and careful, weary of each other and the chance of the wrong word being spoken. They walked slowly, following the map, grateful for something to speak of, until they reached the mouth of the lake. It was so beautiful that he dropped the map without thinking and it slowly pulled away into the trees without either of them paying it the slightest moment’s attention.

They set out the blanket and ate. There was a huge echoing sound that came from an unseen bird, but apart from that it was simply the sounds of the water lapping not too far from their feet. After the meal, they sat and watched the water. It was a standing joke between them; she was a powerful swimmer, he did little more than not drown. By the time she stood and began to kick off her shoes, he smiled, re-telling the same line he had used on countless holidays;
“I’ve forgotten to pack my trunks.” She looked over to him and rolled her eyes and within seconds slipped out of her dress, the underwear.
“I guess I have too,” she said and winked, not looking back to him and stepping gingerly into the water. He watched her as she slowly drifted into the water and stood up, as awkwardly freeing himself from his clothes as she had gracefully. Jack winced as he stepped into the water, wondering how she did not flinch at the chill and began to swim after her. By the time he reached her, her eyes were clear and bright; he guessed his were too. They trod water, circling each other and without a word they linked hands once more. Later, when they made love on the blanket, the fingers linked once more and he wondered how he had managed to get so far through his life without always searching and depending on another’s hand to survive.

They made love a second time before they left the lake and as before it was awkward and quick and perfect. He picked a leaf from her hair and she brushed stones from his elbow; they left a rash of indents that looked like a rash. He kissed the tattoo that sat on the curve of shoulder and rested his head against it. It was a phoenix and he sometimes imagined that he could hear the wings of it flutter along her skin. Almost immediately she began to circle the band tattoo on his bicep that he had inked clumsily on his eighteenth birthday and never quite fallen out of love with. Then, at dusk they began to pull their clothes back on, looking away to the lake and back to the cabin, accepting the day was finally over.  

The night was their last. They began to re pack things, tidy away all traces of themselves from the wood; the footsteps, the coffee rings. By the time they had finished, all signs of them had vanished; much as it must have been for whoever went before. The suitcase sat by the front door, the coffee tray with the phones by the side of it. Almost as an afterthought he plugged the TV set back in at the wall, but resisted the urge to turn it on; in truth it was not a strong need, hardly one at all. They cooked their last meal on paper plates and added them to the black bin bag that sat by the porch steps. By the time it was all over and they lay in bed the moon was high in the sky and surrounded by stars.

“I wish we didn’t have to leave,” she said, as she rolled onto her side to face him. He looked back to her and saw the left side of her face glow in the moonlight.
“Tomorrow, I guess. We’ll have tomorrow,” was all he could think of to say. He didn’t want to end it like this, with some sort of confessional. They had come a way, further than either of them could have hoped, and he felt that was enough. But if she wanted to say more, then he would listen.
“It’s good to not want to leave, I suppose. That’s a good thing.” She moved back a little and her whole face was bathed in the silver light. It almost stopped his heart to look at her. They had gone through this together and now she was lying next to him, making him draw breath at the sight of her, all over again. He could not put it into words, he knew this; the same way he knew the drink was gone now, a thing of the past. What happened next would be different and that would have to be enough. The stars flickered out of sight for a moment and there was nothing but darkness. He drew his breath, but he did not speak. Instead, he reached for her hand and when he found it he gripped it hard. It was enough. It would have to be, from now on.

© Chris Castle May 2012

Chris Castle

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