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Even The Clocks Stopped
By
Sherzahd

Even The Clocks Stopped

Honoring a promise is harder than we realise, but it is a necessary tool in the healing process.

The rickety old porch swing creaks under my weight as I rock myself gently to and fro. The sound comforts me as it rips harshly into the painful silence of the night. A nerve-numbing tingle spreading through me from the hard wooden slats reminds me of just how long the drive up here was. I shift uneasily, my hand wrapped protectively around the brass key that will unlock the door to a place that used to feel like home. I continue to rock, my feet never leaving the ground, the swing never being allowed to do what it is meant to do. The creaking comforts me; the rocking soothes me. No crickets chirping here tonight. No frogs croaking. Only silence. And the sound of a creaking old porch swing.

I look out over the darkened field that stretches endlessly before me, watching the trees sway gently in the autumn breeze, their branches pointing like outstretched arms in glorious praise of an unseen deity. All but the weeping willow, her shoulders slumped in woe, always mourning the loss of love. Her once-erect form now bowed in sorrow as the moon casts a slivery glow across the vast expanse of undulating land. It feels wrong. It feels impure. No light should enter here tonight. Cursed fickle orb of light! Do you not know that you are not welcome here tonight?

My mind rewinds half a lifetime of frames, as old festering memories resurface. Strange how the ones you think you have buried are always the ones that come back and haunt you for a lifetime. I lean back on the swing, eyes half shut. Your anxious words echo in my head as clearly as they did nine years ago. “Jess, please come get me; I am at Brad’s place…” Then stark silence on the line.



I had just seen the last of the kids off for the day and was looking forward to getting home so I could come online to chat to you. Find out how your day had been. Try to convince you to reconsider the new cancer treatment your doctor was offering. Rag on your new boyfriend. You know, the usual after-work chatter we always managed to find time for at the end of each day. Memory fails me when trying to remember the exact sequence of events that followed hearing the blind panic in your voice.

I remember grabbing my bag, asking my assistant to tally up the fees for the day and to lock up, running out to my car and then remembering that I had left my keys on my desk. Logic dictates that I must have gone back inside to retrieve them, but I have to confess that it was all just one big blur of unnecessary things to do that were keeping me from getting to you as fast as I wanted to. 

In all my years of driving, I had never committed as many moving violations as I did that summer’s afternoon. My mind kept racing to all the things that could possibly be wrong, to all the things I did not want to consider, so, with the sun in my eyes and a twisting knife in my heart, I fought my way through peak hour traffic to get to the other side of town. Your softly spoken, yet anxious words playing themselves over and over in my head as I got closer to the unfamiliar suburb Brad lived in. I had never been to his home, so I was silently praying that the apartment building you had once pointed out to me would be easy to find. It was. 

My eyes scanned the building parking lot for your car, but all I saw were mystery cars that probably belonged to mystery faces that lived inside that four-storey slab of concrete and steel; and Brad’s brand new flashy orange Honda Civic. After parking in one of the few unreserved spots, I grabbed my bag and raced at a half trot toward the glass front doors. I honestly doubt I even locked the doors on my yellow VW bug in my haste to get to you. Everything seemed to be moving about five notches slower than I needed it to, my heart hammering in my chest as I leant on the elevator button. You know that I am usually a patient woman, but, after what felt like hours standing in that lavishly decorated foyer, yet what could only have been less than a minute, I ran for the stairs. Flying up three flights was no joke, but with pure adrenaline pumping through my veins and fuelling me forward, I soon burst from the third floor stairwell, panting and trying to catch my breath as I scanned the apartment numbers.

“Fuck!” I paused for a second, trying to remember the number. Was I on the right floor? I was sure that you had said Apartment 24. I searched my bag for my phone; I had to call you to be certain…. Wallet… Make-up…. Why the hell do I keep carrying this shit with me? I never wear make-up… Old bills and receipts… Pens… Notepad…. I should’ve written the damn address in the notepad…. A comb I never use on my unruly locks…. No phone. “Shit!” I must have left it in the car.

There was no time to turn back, so I boldly walked over to Apartment 24 and knocked tentatively. I was about to turn back when the door swung open and I looked into your face. Your vacant stare still haunts me to this day. Without a word, you turned and walked over to the sofa and sat down, your shoulders slumped. I did not have to ask you what had happened; your tear-streaked face and ripped panties on the lush white carpet told me all I needed to know. I knelt before you, taking a deep slow breath to calm the storm raging inside me.

“Where is he?” I asked through gritted teeth, my hand softly stroking your trembling arm. “Lei, look at me…”

But you just stared blankly ahead at the trophy case. His trophy case; with all his polished soccer trophies that were the core source of his smugness.

Then I heard it, heard the shower running, and I moved toward the sound, not being carried there consciously, but being carried there nonetheless. I stepped into his bedroom; it was exactly the way I imagined it would be, white walls tastefully adorned with expensive-looking artwork, king-sized bed neatly made in bold black and red printed throws and plush pillows, handcrafted closet doors. On any other day, I would be admiring his good taste, but not that day.

The en-suite was to my left and I hesitated for just a second before brazenly walking inside. Then I saw him…



As if awakening from a deep slumber, one in which Queen Mab has not drawn her carriage across my sky, I remember what has brought me here tonight. Arising slowly, my bones heavy with the weight of the task that lies before me, I make my way toward the heavy mahogany front door. My hand trembles as I fit the key into its slot, taking a deep burdened breath as I turn the key once, then once more before hearing the familiar click of the mechanism that grants me entry into a place that no longer holds any joy for me. I have to do this now, before my courage fails me.

Silence rises up to meet me as I step across the threshold of what used to be your home, wrapping its arms around me like a long lost lover. No sound of a radio, no infectious laughter, and no longer any out of tune singing coming from the kitchen. Not even the ticking of a clock. Even the clocks have stopped now that you are no longer here. My rapidly beating heart drowns out the sound of all that is amiss here as I make my way across the foyer, my soles squeaking on the pine floor. As much as the annoying sound grates on every nerve in my body, I do not remove my shoes; instead, I welcome the break in the silence.

As I make my way down the corridor to your bedroom, I pass the kitchen with its cheery yellow walls and blue stencilling, smiling wanly as I remember the day we argued about whether to stencil butterflies or cows…. “You ever seen a blue and yellow cow, Jess?” So you won, just as you always did. It looks so empty now; I wonder if their blue and yellow fluttering wings echo in the same way my thumping heart does in this emptied out hollow space.

A flood of emotion takes hold of me and shakes me to my core as I step into your room; the last place I saw you, spoke to you, touched you… said goodbye to you. My eyes sweep the once quaintly decorated room, empty now, just like the rest of the house, except for the lone cardboard box in the centre of the room with ‘JESSE’ neatly printed on the side. I run a finger slowly along the edge of the box as I pass it on my way to the window; this box is the reason I am here tonight, my final tribute to you. With a sigh, I turn back from the window – the dying garden you so lovingly tended mere months ago filling my heart with sorrow – and avert my attention to the box instead. The cleaning company did a wonderful job; everything seems to be removed from the house, hopefully sent to a charity of their choice as per my instruction. Everything but the box you filled with bits and pieces you painstakingly selected; items I am to take care of personally.

That was just one of the many things we fought about during those last weeks, one of the many times your charm helped you triumph over my logic. “Jess, I need you to do this one last thing for me, please…” you asked in that pleading tone I had come to expect, your eyes beseeching me for my understanding. I did not understand. I did not agree. How did you know that I would be here doing this against every grain of resistance in my soul?



He looked so helpless lying there on that oversized shower floor, blood oozing from a gash on his head, blood-spattered trophy lying beside him and the water pouring down onto his belly. Every humane instinct inside me told me that I should call for an ambulance, try to get him out of the shower, check to see if he was breathing… Every humane instinct inside me died that day. So, I stood there watching as the water pelted his pathetic naked bleeding form.

I turned and made my way back to you, tears welling in my eyes as I watched you rocking gently, clutching your knees to your chest as if it was your last lifeline and my decision was made. You were my priority; I was there to help you, not him. So if there was a God watching me that day, he would not have been pleased with me, but it did not matter; it still does not matter; it never will.

Fighting back the urge to hold you and break down with you, I reached beside you for your phone and dialled the first number I could think of. After the second ring, he answered. 

“Hello.” His one softly spoken word calmed me instantly.

“I need your help.” The words gushed from me, no pleasantries, no formalities, just what needed to be said before emotion robbed me of my speech.

There was a brief hesitation, I am assuming because he was surprised to hear my voice on the line instead of yours. 

“Of course, anything for you, Jesse.” His usual jovial manner returned, but there was a hint of trepidation in his tone that I did not miss. “What do you need?” 

“I need you to come get Lei.” 

I gave him the address and, without question or pause, he hung up with a simple ‘I will be there in 10’. I think something in my strained voice must have relayed the seriousness of the matter.

I sat beside you, my arm wrapped protectively around your shoulder as I rocked with you. Protectively? What a fucking joke! I should have been there to protect you. I should have been, but I was not. I am so sorry, Lei; did I ever tell you how sorry I am? 

David’s knock was soft, which did not surprise me, so I kissed your temple gently before letting you go and answering the door. He stood there, hair windblown, eyes a mixture of concern and confusion. Just one exchanged look as he stepped into the apartment was all we needed; he did not ask any more than that. He walked inside and took you by the hand, kneeling beside you. 

“You ready to go, Lei?” He did not wait for your reply, simply gathered you into his capable arms and helped you unsteadily to your feet before escorting you out of the apartment. With one last searching look at me, he turned and took you home.

I felt relieved with you gone; finally, I could allow the tears to spill. I stood there on shaky legs scanning the apartment; I knew what I needed to do, but my legs were not obeying my brain’s commands, so I sat down on the plush carpet and cried. I do not remember how long I sat there, but I do remember eventually tethering the flow of emotions as my mind and pure instinct took over. I went around the apartment tidying things – two glasses became one; I put your phone in my pocket, grabbed your handbag and, with trembling hands, picked up your torn panties and shoved them inside.

I knew what else I had to do, but I could not bring myself to go back into that chamber of horror. Not for a while anyway. When I finally found the courage, I marched boldly back in there like I had every right to be leaning over his naked form to retrieve the blood-spattered award that was his pride and joy, yet ultimately the object of his demise. I was mentally prepared to look at his naked bleeding form again, prepared to step in there, grab the offensive object, and get the heck out of the place that had started to feel like the setting for any person’s own private Hell. However, I was not prepared for what met me in that elegantly decorated black and chrome bathroom.



The sweet scent of pine hangs in the air as I step out into the backyard and lower the trolley down the two stone steps. Freshly fallen leaves scrunch softly under my feet as I make my way to the storage shed to gather a few bundles of wood and some lamp oil before pulling the trolley out along the cobblestone walk outside your house and down to the beach. Bittersweet memories toy with my emotions as I remember all the time we spent on this beach, watching sunsets, building fires, along with other memories that tease an involuntary smile from me.

The soft sea breeze blows its salty spray against my skin as I kneel to untie the bundles of wood I brought with me, slowly stacking them on the fire-pit and interlacing them with wads of newspaper before liberally sprinkling it with citronella oil. The soft crashing of the waves against the shore, combined with the briny scent of the sea, brings an unexpected calm to my drumming heart. The sound of seagulls all around me on the shore, the flapping of their wings, their cries and cawing as they wrestle for scraps left behind by beachgoers all fades into the background as I rise and open the matchbook. The pungent smell of sulphur invades my nostrils as I strike the first match and lean in to touch it to the pile of wood, but the salty breeze blows it out even before I get half the way and continues to smother strike after strike. Just as I start to curse at the hopelessness of the situation, I manage to touch one tiny flame to the paper and watch as, within seconds, it engulfs the pit in a sea of flame. The tangy scent of citronella wafts up into the air as I take a few steps back from the pit, noticing ironically how much it resembles a freshly lighted funeral pyre.

I sigh softly as I turn to fetch the box, acknowledging to myself as I drag it across the damp sand that the box’s weight has little to do with how long it takes me to bring it closer to the ring of fire. Kneeling on the sand, I open the box gingerly, lifting a large manila envelope to sift through its contents; all of your personal effects are in here, along with a letter penned with a shaky hand; your shaky hand.

Jess,

If you are reading this, the worst of our nightmares must have already become your reality. Know that I am in a place I need to be. A place I am ready to be in. Know this and be at peace. 

I had my doubts about packing this box; something inside me kept telling me that you would not go through with it, but you always managed to surprise me in the past. You will again. Your strength is what I count on most, which is probably unfair, but unfair is something you expect from me by now. True? 

As, by now, you must have discovered, I have packed all my personal papers; old letters, identity documents, medical reports, everything I hope will never exist without me by their side. I have also packed all my photographs; you know how I feel about those, so please do not be tempted to keep any of them. My favourite CDs and books are in here as well; please feel free to keep them if you like. You finally get to have my Miss Sixty t-shirt; how cool is that? I have packed your manuscripts, as well as your anthology of poems – I hope that you will take my advice and send it off to a publisher; your work has always been a step above the rest. Trust me on that; I would not be saying this if I did not believe in you. There are other personal items in here as well, as you have undoubtedly seen by now; please destroy all of them – they aren’t things I would pass on to anyone else.

I know that your life is full and I have no right to ask this, but I will anyway. Please make sure that David is okay. I know that he is strong, but he has had too much loss and pain in his life. Do not allow him to shut himself off from living. Be gentle with Alex; he is so much stronger than you or he realise. Help him find that strength. Nick will take care of himself; he always has – chances are he will be there to take care of all of you. And Mum. She will be stubborn. She will tell you that she is fine; she is not. If you work together, I am sure that the lot of you can convince her to go back home to Ireland. That will be best for her, to be around her family.

My affairs are all in order; the lawyers have their instructions on how to proceed with everything else.

If I never said this often enough, I love you. You have been my strength through the dark days, my inspiration when everything seemed hopeless, my friend, my sister, my voice of reason. I am sorry for the pain I have caused you. You always said that sorry comes too late, see… you were right yet again. You have always been right. 

Eternally yours,

Leila

With trembling hands, I clutch the letter, re-reading it through blurry eyes. An unexpected calm settles over me like a worn-out, tatty old blanket as I read it for the fourth time. Determination and renewed strength found in the unlikeliest of places; your last words to me. I hear your voice clearly, feel your presence strongly as I get up and throw the first of the items onto the fire. One by one, each item finds its way into the incandescent pit, the fire flickering and glowing against the fast-darkening sky. I watch as every tangible trace of your existence disintegrates before my eyes, the heat-seared edges curling inward before falling away and becoming one with the fiery coals fuelling this pity party of ours. I watch as a breeze lifts the tattered remains of charred paper and scatters it to corners unknown as the fire crackles and sizzles excitedly, its hunger growing with every new morsel it is fed.

I peer down into the near-empty box; your Miss Sixty t-shirt, an Evanescence CD and my pile of manuscripts stares back at me as if in relief that they have been spared the fate of their fellow box dwellers. I come close to being weighed down by the heaviness of my sigh as I lift the heavy stack of haphazardly bound papers to leaf through them briefly before tossing them onto the hungry flames as they hiss at me to be fed. You had always believed in me, inspired me. Everything I had ever written was because of you, for you. They were always for you. I watch as years of work go up in flames that lick out at me in seeming gratitude for having its newly found appetite sated. I close my eyes as a gentle breeze caresses my face, feeling the untamed heat warm me to the core as I listen to the sounds of the shore, as every sound, every scent, every delicate nuance invades my heightened senses and strokes my soul like the hand of a consoling lover.

I watch the dancing flames, my mind awash with thoughts of you, of how easy it always was to be around you, be a part of you. I curse the disease that has taken you from us, but I fear that you would chastise me for my abhorrent thoughts. Through my tears, I see your smile; I hear your softly spoken words. “This life is fleeting, my friend. It is the one that lies ahead we should be living for.” How did you get to be so young, yet so wise?

I am hit by the realisation that no one who ever loved you would ever be the same again, not with you taken from this world too soon. Not Nick, your trusted friend and companion, the one who illuminated your dark moments with his sense of humour, drama and flair. Not my brother, Alex, who loves you with an intensity that most people only read of in novels of passionately undying adoration. Not your husband, David, who has loved you for a lifetime, only to have you ripped away two seconds after your lives together had begun. Not your mother, for whom life was always about you, about living just long enough to see you fulfilled. Not me.

*

As I leant in and touched the wooden base of the trophy, his eyes snapped open and I had to struggle to keep my balance as surprise knocked me back, damn near making me take a tumble right on top of him. Would it not have been poetic if I had cracked my head and we were found in some horrific deathly embrace? I can almost see you smiling, Lei. As ghastly as that image may be, you have to admit, it would have been rather comic.

So I stood there in horror, his flat eyes staring up at me, pleading with me. He opened his mouth a few times, but that moment has such a blurry quality in my memory that I cannot be sure how many times he tried to speak with no sound forming. I was thankful for that one blessing. As much as my heart was filled with hate in that moment of dread and conflicting emotions, I cannot be sure that I could have ignored the pleas of a dying man. So I stood there, Lord forgive me, I just stood there and watched him take his last breath.

I cannot tell you how many seconds passed, but it felt like an eternity. An infinity of anguished thoughts and fucked up emotions. I refuse to dwell on the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘should haves’; it served no purpose at that time, so I doubt that it would now. I eventually lifted the trophy from its resting place beside his now lifeless form, cleaned off every trace of the role it played in a very unfortunate series of events and placed it back in its empty space upon the shelf. Then I left the apartment, your bag tucked under my arm. 

*

I reach into my jacket pocket, the neatly rolled sheet of paper rough against my fingertips. I am not sure if it is the cool May winds or if the angst-filled day has finally caught up with me, but my hands tremble visibly as I undo the silk ribbon tied around the scroll. Neatly penned words reveal themselves as I unroll the handmade parchment paper. My last words for you. It took me eight tries to get the paper to be exactly the way I needed it to be, just the right texture, colour and scent. As the breeze whips the parchment, my senses are treated to the delicate aroma of patchouli and cedar, yet one more thing that reminds me of you. Unshed tears blur my vision, causing the dark words to dance before my eyes, like ever-elusive nymphs dancing circles around a star-struck child, always appearing to be within reach, but never close enough to touch. The paper floats softly on the light wind, lifted by the currents of the fire beneath it before wafting gently as it loses its fight with gravity. Dark spots appear on the page, spreading outward as the fire starts to consume it from the centre out. My gaze lifts to the ocean, to a ship on the horizon, its blazing lights making it appear like a star lost and alone in a serene black velvet sky. The sea craft becomes a grounding beacon for me to focus on as the words dance their way off the page and into my heart. As the vessel starts to disappear from my view, the words to the poem I had rendered to memory on the very night it was written rush out toward it.

Hands warm mine with a gentle touch,
I lift them, touching my lips to each palm in turn. 
A wistful smile playing at the corner of my mouth 
As I remember… 

Your perfume lingers in the room,
Modest, yet exotic; it suits you well. 
The fragrance subtle, still it overwhelms me 
As I remember… 

A wisp of your jet-black hair
Had fallen across your beautiful face. 
I brush it back with trembling fingers 
As I remember… 

Leaning in, I touch my lips to yours. 
They are warm and soft, 
My breath catches in my chest 
As I remember… 

I stroke your cheek adoringly, 
You look so peaceful, so serene. 
Tears threatening to spill 
As I remember… 

I know that I should leave,
You need your rest… You need your peace, 
But I find it hard to let go 
As I remember… 

Hand clutching yours one last time
Before I reluctantly let go. 
I rise from your side, 
As I remember… 

Tears flowing freely now
As I turn to leave. 
I cannot take that first step 
As I remember… 

I turn to gaze upon your still form,
Desperately needing to burn your image into my mind 
Like a tattoo branding my consciousness for all eternity, 
So I can remember… 

One last slow deep burdened breath 
As I wipe my tears and step through the door. 
I have to be strong for them, 
But I will remember… 

As the last of the flames dies, I stand and lift the box back onto the trolley, along with the remaining oil. The walk back up to the house is an easy one, the almost weightless trolley now moving effortlessly up the cobblestone path. My heart feels a thousand times lighter as I return to lock the doors and make my way back to the car with the t-shirt and CD tucked under my arm. One last time, I look in the rear-view mirror at the house you used to call your home, before popping in the CD and setting off on the long drive home.

We never spoke about that day again. David never asked about what had happened on that fateful day, not even years later, after you two got married. It was the one thing none of us ever spoke of again. For that, I am eternally sorry, my friend. The guilt of that one irreversible action haunted you for the rest of your days; I should have helped you through it, and I know that now. Sorry always comes too late.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © All works published by Sherzahd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 South Africa License .

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