by Empress L.B.
Both have been hurt in the past; now she's emotionless and he's desperate.
I eventually make my way back up the stairs, and back to my room. I look around at all the clothes and trash littering the floor. I almost consider cleaning.
I catch sight of my reflection in the full length mirror leaning against my wall. I’m standing in my underwear; my blond hair is unwashed and in a bun positioned awkwardly on the very top of my head. I slept with it like that. I run my hands down my body. My skin is cool, and beneath I can feel the tight contours of my muscles. I have long legs and a lean frame, but I’m not skinny. I guess sinewy is the best way to put it.
My name is Dawn. I’m 19 years old and living in my family’s summer house. It’s not really made to be comfortable during these colder months.
I sort through the laundry on my floor, and find a pair of running shorts and an old t-shirt to wear. I’m not sure when they were last washed, but they don’t smell too gross. I grab my sneakers too, they used to be white and gray, now they’re entirely brown and full of holes. I step outside; there’s snow and I should put on a jacket, but decide not to. I want to feel the cold.
I jog at first, feeling my feet land on the pavement, and the bite of cold air in my lungs. It’s raining too; the freezing rain drops sting as they hit my skin. It’s still early, and the houses are quiet and empty. I am alone on the street with the wind and the dancing trees.
I get to where the road meets the woods, and I turn onto my favorite path, a loop around the forest. This is when I start to run, my feet beating against the ground and my chest heaving with my breath. I run until the cold feels good. There are puddles of melting snow in the path, but I run straight through them, not caring when the water soaks into my socks and spashes onto my bare legs.
This is when I can feel my mind starting to clear. It’s like the cold can sharpen my consciousness, witling my focus down to a point.
I lied earlier when I said my name is Dawn, it’s really Clara. That’s the only truth I don’t like to risk telling.
I yank my shirt off over my head, letting the wind whip aginst my bare stomach and the rain hit my shoulders.
I’m glad I decided to get out. When I can’t choose between doing something and nothing, I lean toward something.
Soon my breath starts to catch, and my legs don’t hit the ground with the same force. I slow down to a jog, and then I’m walking. Then I’m sitting on the large, flat rock that’s on the side of the path.
I’ve run this way so many times, since I was a child. I realize now that the last time I sat here he was with me. I’ve come past this place many times since, but I haven’t bothered to sit here, not like this.
Maybe it’s time to work through this. The thought strikes out of nowhere, and for a second I think it might actually be serious. When we broke up I put all his stuff in a box, and hid it in the back of my closet. Maybe it’s finally time for me to deal with it.
The wind starts to pick up, howling in the canopy above my head. I watch a pine tree thrash about, and it occurs to me that it might not be safe for me to be in the woods right now. I look up. The branches above are easily big enough to kill me if they were to fall. I have to be careful, if I get hurt there’s nobody to help me. Im feeling somewhat reckless though, so I sit a little longer.
But I can’t afford to take risks, so I get back to my feet. My body is cold again, and my muscles are starting stiffen, so I pull my shirt back over my head. If I was going to shake off my mood it would’ve had to have been here, in this spot. I sigh. Today’s not the day I sort out that part of myself afterall. I keep walking, and the path curves to bring me back to the road.
That’s when I see it. A crushed bouquet of lilacs and white roses, lying in the path. I stop, and then kneel. The stems have been broken and scattered, the petals have begun to wilt, but I can tell that the flowers are fresh. The lilacs are still fragrant and the roses soft between my fingers.
Then I see the man in the bushes. He’s lying on the ground, facing me. He’s wrapped himself in a crisp tan trench coat, now streaked with mud. One foot in a leather loafer, soaked from the snow, falls onto the edge of the path. Our eyes meet.
He has dark, tormented, empty blue eyes. Eyes that have been crying. He holds my gaze, unblinking, and doesn’t move. Everything about his body screams utter defeat; he doesn’t shiver from the cold, his chest is barely rising and falling, and he stays quiet.
“Come out of the bushes,” I break the silence. He stirs, and lifts his head a little bit, but his face remains almost expressionless. He has broad, handsome features; dark, crafty eyebrows, defined cheekbones, and thick eyelashes. At least, I imagine he was handsome before his face collapsed like this.
Painfully, he drags himself from the bushes and crouches near me on the path, weak like a baby bird. He leans towards me as if he wants to rest his weight against me, but he doesn’t move closer.
“I’m Arlo,” He extends his hand. His voice comes as a broken cough, but I can see a trickle of life returning. His eyes focus and the slightest smile plays lightly across his lips.
I take his hand. “You can call me Amber.” I pause. “Nice to meet you, Arlo.”
“The pleasure is mine.” It’s clear he’s used to having control in conversation. He’s a bedraggled mess on the forest floor, looks near death, and yet his voice is quickly recovering a certain lilt, his eyes already beginning to suggest there’s some joke only he is understanding.
“Are you hurt?” I ask.
“I’ve been waiting since sunrise yesterday morning. I said I would wait until 7pm last night, and I told her to come meet me, but she never came.” Before his eyes were empty and his face slack, but now they’re brimming with so much pain.
“Elise.” He chokes on the name. “The night before she was moving to Chicago with Leo I snuck outside their room, and when she came to the window I begged her to stay, but she said no. I told her I would wait at the playground that’s down this road, you know, the one with the swings?” I nod. “I told her I would wait for her all day, until night when their flight was leaving. So that when she changed her mind she’d know where to find me. If she didn’t come, I promised I would let her go and move on, forever this time.”
“Her boyfriend.” He scowls. “Appearently he went to high school with us. It was a small private school, but I can’t remember who he was. Must’ve been a real nobody.”
“I had a friend of ours positioned at the airport, I knew that seeing him would make it harder for her to leave. He called me just before 6 and told me that Leo came to the airport alone, and visibly upset. I was convinced she was coming. But by 7:10 she still wasn’t there, and that’s when my friend Jason called me. Turns out Ash chose that night to leak the ransome note I forged, and it was all over the internet.” He takes a breath. “I forged a ransom note from Elise, a really nasty one, to make it look like she had kidnapped my cat. I left it out where I knew Ash would find it, because I knew he would take it to use against Elise. They used to date, he’s my friend now, but hates her.”
I’m not really sure why he’s telling me all this, I didn’t ask.
“The ransome note was stupid, I wrote it after this girl I used to go out with called the police on Elise, and she assumed it was me. It was a while ago, it’s been almost a month since then, and honestly I’d forgotten about it.”
“A month isn’t that long ago.”
“A lot has happened between now and then.”
“Seems like it.” I stand and offer him a hand. “Let’s get you out of the woods.” He reaches up and grips my hand, and I find myself supporting his weight as he tries to lift himself on wobbly legs. He sways dangerously once he’s standing, and I wrap an arm around his waist to steady him. His arm easily falls over my shoulders, and he runs his other hand through his springy brown hair, trying to tame it. I begin to direct him down the path toward the road, and he stumbles forward with me, but quickly gets steadier on his feet.
“We decided we couldn’t be happy together, and that if we were really meant to be together we’d eventually find each other again later. Then she assumed I told the police.”
“Arlo, your social life is ridiculous.” You’d think there are only so many different ways a group of five people can date each other.
“I thought she trusted me more than that.” His eyes are distant, and he doesn’t show any sign of having really heard me.
Soon we reach the road, and he doesn’t seem to notice. One of the tall pine trees on the edge of the woods has fallen over, a jagged crack through it’s trunk. The top half stretches across the ground, some of it’s long branches fall onto the pavement. I realize now just how strong the wind was.
I start for the playground he described. I know what he’s talking about, it’s just at the end of this road and around the corner. Why he planned a romantic reunion at an old playground is beyond me, but then again so is most of his story.
His eyes fix on the playground as soon as it comes into sight. I can tell he has memories here, and for a moment I can feel the weight of his past.
“That’s my car.” He nods toward a black Mercedes Benz, shining and sleek like a panther. I bring him over to where it’s parked on the side of the road. I can tell the car is taken care of; it’s spotless. He digs into the pockets of his coat and pulls out his keys.
His hand falls on the door, he pauses, then turns back to me. This time his eyes focus on me, and for once he’s in the moment, not lost in some past tragedy.
“Any chance I can get your number?” He says it with a smirk, but I hear the vulnerability in his voice.
“Why do you want it?”
“Incase I want to talk to you.” He was reaching for his phone but now he hesitates, unsure of how to react to my steady gaze and flat tone of voice.
“What would we have to talk about?” I know I can be blunt, but I find it’s the best way to figure out what people want and save everyone time.
“I don’t know, I’m not really thinking straight.” He doesn’t look at me now, his eyes dart restlessly, his face beginning to show his turmoil. “I probably wouldn’t call you anyway, no offense,” he continues. “I doubt I’ll be feeling social any time soon…” his expression darkens, and he trails off.
I study him for a moment longer. He’s confused, lost, and desperate. He’s asking for my support.
“Here,” I reach out, and he hands me his phone, surprised. “I help out when I can,” I explain as I enter my number. “Most people won’t do that.”
“Of course.” Then I’m off, jogging steadily back down the road, ready to get back home. Arlo starts, surprised to see me leave so suddenly, then he watches me go, making no move to get into his car. I hope he’s in good enough condition to drive.
A couple minutes later I’m back on my doorstep, pushing the door open and letting myself in. I’m cold and sweaty. I sit on the edge of the bathtub and peel soaked socks off my feet, and let down my hair, tangled and greasy. Finally I have all the motivation needed to turn on the hot water and get in the shower, to scrub the mud from my legs and properly lather shampoo into my hair.
I find a clean t shirt and some sweatpants, and I feel a little more alive. I even collect the dirty clothes from the various corners of my room and start the washing machine.
I start to lose my direction again after that. I wander into the kitchen, wondering if I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten all day, but I can’t find anything that particularly interests me. Eventually I close the fridge to avoid letting more cold air escape and I stand there, infront of the white surface of the closed door. I’ve been alone for so long, nobody cares whether or not I do anything except for me, and today I can’t seem to care either. I like it this way, having other people is a risk. Sometimes the risk is worth it, I suppose. But usually it’s not, and you can’t know how it’s going to turn out until it’s too late. Nobody is here to help me, but they can’t hurt me either, and this way at least I’m in control.
With nothing better to do, I slowly make my way up the stairs, crawl into bed, and fall asleep. When you sleep you don’t mess anything up, and at least it’s productive on some level.
I guess I was tired, because when I wake it’s late afternoon, starting to get dark, and now I’m hungry. I lie there, pondering what I should eat, and then letting my mind drift aimlessly to other topics. I’m wondering how being at absolute zero must feel when my thoughts are interupted by the ringing of my phone.
I lazily grope my bedside table for my phone, wondering what my parents could possibly have to say to me. I don’t particularly feel like talking to them right now.
It’s an unknown number. I wonder if it’s a solicitation. I pick up. “Olive speaking.”
“Amber? Hi... It’s Arlo, you found me in the woods today.”
“Oh, that’s right. I remember. What can I do for you, Arlo?”
“I just want to talk.” He laughs nervously, and I can picture the way he’s restlessly running his hand through his overgrown hair. “As embarrasing as it is, you’re the only person who might listen.”
“Please tell me you’re not going to tell any other complete strangers your life story.”
“You’re lucky I happen to be trustworthy. Other people might try to take advantage of you.”
“Oh. Ok, I guess I won’t then.” I can tell he doesn’t really understand. Maybe he doesn’t mind being taken advantage of. I decide not to press him further on the issue.
“Good. I’ll listen to you.”
“I haven’t gotten out of bed since I got home this morning.” He falls silent suddenly, unsure of how to continue. I can hear him breathing heavily through the phone. “I don’t think I can do it.” His voice is raw.
“That’s ok, some days need to be spent in bed.” I spent a decent amount of time today in bed myself.
“Have you ever been heart broken?”
This time it’s my turn to fall silent, and I guess now he’s listening to my breath, and the way it catches at his question. “Yes, once, if you must know.”
“It hurts, Amber,” he gushes, his voice like broken glass. “Jason told me it would get easier, I hope he’s right. I feel like I’ll never be happy again. I don’t know what to do and I can’t do anything anyway, I can’t sleep or eat or anything. I think I’m going to die.”
Going to die? I keep the amusement out of my voice. “Tell me about Elise.”
“We’ve know each other for a long time, ever since the Larsons adopted her when we were thirteen. I’ve always wondered why the Larsons got married, they don’t seem to like each other very much. They’re some of the most manipulative people I know, I guess maybe they bond over that. Anyway, it really seemed like they took Elise as a way of keeping their mariage together. Before that she was in foster care; she doesn’t talk much about that though.
“I imagine you two were close.”
“We understand each other, but we can’t get along. I’ve always been too scared to commit, but I’m also not strong enough to lose her. And I know that Elise thought a family like the Larsons was what she wanted, but then realized that their love is superficial, meant to look good for social gatherings. She once told me that I make her believe that happiness can be real, that there is meaning in life.”
“That makes sense.” Two damaged people seeking a misguided salvation in each other. How tragically romantic.
“She gave my life meaning too, without her I don’t feel like I even know who I am. I feel like I’m missing half of myself. I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again.”
“Sounds like you both were very invested in the relationship. That’s wonderful, but you need to find yourself before you can hope to find and keep your other half.” I talk slowly, like I might with a child. I’m being kind and sympathetic, but serious too. Arlo needs to get a grip.
“I’m nothing without her. I think that’s why eventually I keep coming back, no matter what happens. No matter how angry she makes me or how upset I am. Even if I’m just coming back to get revenge. I can’t move on.”
“That’s the problem with love. It turns to hate so quickly.”
“I can’t beleive she was going to move away with him!” His voice is rising angrily. “If she can find someone new that easily then so can I! I can find someone better than stupid Leo and she’ll see that I can be perfectly fine without her! Better off, even!”
What a confused guy. I glance at the digital clock on my nightstand, blinking in the gathering dark. Seven o’clock. I’ve spent a lot of time on Arlo today. “Arlo,” I try not to sound too patronizing, “you’re contradicting yourself.”
“I know Amber!” he wails in dispair. “My brain is telling me to move on and stay away from her like she clearly wants me to, but my heart is telling me to follow her no matter what. I don’t know what to do.”
“A word of advice, follow your mind. Your heart is an organ whose sold purpose is to circulate blood. If you try to use it to think, you’re taking a risk.” I take a breath, and sit up in bed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to eat dinner.”
“Oh! Of course! Sorry to take your time.”
“Don’t be sorry. I wouldn’t have spoken to you at all if I didn’t want to. But now I’d rather eat, so goodbye.”
“Bye. And again, thank you.”
I end the call and throw my phone somewhere into my sheets. Now I’m actually hungry. I guess I could’ve kept talking to him if I cared, but I don’t. I spend the rest of my night waiting for water to boil, trying not to catch my knuckles as I grate cheese, eating pasta, and wondering what to do with myself.
That’s more or less how the rest of my week goes. I spend time looking for a summer job once school ends, and think of ways to spend the rest of my spring break. I decide to repaint some of the walls in the house, just shades that are subtly more exciting than the ones that are already there. Hopefully my parents won’t notice.
Arlo calls often too, and I entertain him. He’s barely left his bed since I found him the forest, and definately not his house. His only contact with the outside world is his friend Jason, who’s been bringing him food, doing his laundry, and making sure Arlo doesn’t smash windows in a fit of rage, or flicker out of existence. Jason and I are the only people Arlo has been talking to; from what I gather Jason has been policing Arlo’s social media and incoming texts.
I’m not really sure why Arlo cares to talk to me. I don’t have very much to say to him, and when I do he sometimes considers my advice, but usually not. Besides, it’s not my job. We aren’t friends. I don’t know, I guess there’s something appealing about confiding in a complete stranger.
Friday night he calls me again, and this time I can hear some of his characteristic mischief in his voice. He invites me to brunch on Sunday, appearently Jason has decided it’s time for him to start attending social events again. It’s at a fancy country club in the posh neighborhood in the area, which means free food, so I agree to join him.
That’s how I find myself in a floral dress, sitting at a round table with a pristine white table cloth. It’s a warm day, and the party is outside on the patio. Arlo sits in the folding chair next to mine, a hand resting on my knee. It seems like a casual gesture, but I can tell from his smirk and the way people’s eyes flick over to me that it’s a calculated move on his part. So many people drift past us as they circulate around the venue, and it seems that Arlo is an important stop along the way, for some a destination even. Everyone makes small conversation in light tones carefully kept pleasant, but they each have their own agendas, running like a current under their words.
I mostly stay silent; these aren’t the sort of people who are going to add any real value to my life. They curiously observe from a distance and tentively approach me, but I ignore them. The only ones who care what other people think are the ones who need other people. Arlo, on the other hand, is the most alive I’ve seen him yet. He loves the way people come up to him first, loves to make his witty and sarcastic comments in that same pleasant manner, toying with people. I wonder what his agenda is.
He leans over to me. “Don’t be obvious, but Elise is right next to the fountain, she’s the one in the prada gown,” he says in a hushed wisper, his eyes averted. I scan the crowd, confused.
“In the pink,” he clarifies, and I find her. It’s a long, elegant dress in a shade of dusty rose. Her warm chestnut hair falls in loose curls down her back. She smiles and laughs conservatively, but her matching brown eyes flash mischeviously. She too appears to get satisfaction from the attention. She has a man with her, he has dark hair, tattoos, and wears some variation of a leather blaiser, strikingly different from the sort of people here. She doesn’t seem to notice when he wordlessly breaks away and heads for the bar.
“Jason told me she would be here.” Arlo looks off into the golf course, his expression stormy and unreadable.
A few moments later Elise happens to look in our direction, and her eyes land on Arlo. Without hesitation she walks purposefully in our direction, leaving the person she was with talking into empty space.
He looks at her, finally, and feigns surprise, quite convincingly. “Elise, fancy seeing you here,” he starts pleasantly. “This is Amber,” he gestures in my direction, one hand still on my knee. Everything about his demeanor is casual, but for a moment I catch a flash of satisfaction in his eyes, and I realize that this was his agenda. Jason told him Elise was coming; he brought me to make her jealous.
She doesn’t even look at me. “I’m sorry I didn’t come to the playground the other night. I broke up with Leo and meant to come, I really did. The only reason I didn’t was because of that ransome note everyone was talking about.”
Arlo’s eyes darken, and he scowls almost imperceptively. “You thought I was planning to stand you up, that’s why you didn’t come. You thought the whole thing was a trick to get you to leave Leo only to humiliate you. You couldn’t trust me.” I can hear the hurt in his voice. So can the people around us; they’ve stopped talking and are pretending not to listen.
Elise is caught off guard momentarily. “I was told you released it! Ash told me!” she protests, saying whatever she can to hide the fact that she didn’t trust Arlo enough to meet him. “Besides,” she continues, “I’ve seen your forgery, and the note looked a lot like what you normally do.”
This time Arlo is caught off guard. His eyes flick back and forth nervously. “Ash must’ve really improved his forgery skills.” He laughs, a little uncomfortably.
Elise starts to smile with him, tentively. “I guess so.”
“Who’s the guy?” Arlo nods to the leather clad man, sitting at the bar with a woman on either side of him, downing mimosas.
Elise looks over, as if remembering him for the first time. She’s not happy with what she sees, but she hides it well. “Oh, that’s Draven. I met his sister at the airport, we’re friends.”
Arlo looks back to Elise, satisfied with her explanation, his blue eyes shining. “We should get out of here.”
“I agree. Let me get my stuff and deal with Draven.”
“Maybe my friend Amber would get along with him,” Arlo jokes, but with an emphasis on the word friend. Elise finally looks at me, a quick, critical scan, up and down. It takes her an instant to form a caluculated judgment of me before she moves on, unperturbed.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she gives Arlo the most genuine smile I’ve seen all afternoon, then she turns and strides away across the lawn toward Draven, and Arlo watches her go.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” Arlo says, beaming and bewildered. “I did not expect that at all.”
“Arlo, you’re making a mistake.”
“Why?” he demands, almost defensively. “All our problems happened weeks ago, we moved on, what’s the point of holding a grudge?”
“There’s a difference between holding a grudge and learning from your mistakes.”
“What? I can learn from my mistakes.” he’s indignant now. I keep my voice level, my gaze steady.
“But you haven’t learned. You lied to her about forging the note, and believed her when she pinned everything on Ash.”
“If I had told her the truth she would’ve been upset.”
“That’s the thing Arlo, the second you start to lie, you’re doomed. Only in very certain situations does that not apply, and this isn’t one of them.”
“If I tell her she might leave!”
“If you don’t tell her she’ll stay for now, then leave later after you’ve wasted more time.”
Arlo doesn’t look at me directly, he’s uncomfortable, and his mind is already elsewhere. “I don’t know Amber, just forgive and forget, you know?”
“Sure, forgive. But don’t forget. Then you won’t learn.”
“Well, this way I get what I want.” He says it a little triumphantly.
“Selfishness is not as gratifying as you might think.”
“Hey, look, Ash is right over there,” he nods, but I don’t bother looking. “Why don’t I introduce you guys, I bet you’d get along. I know he’d like you.” He looks to me hopefully. He’s trying to change the subject, but more importantly he’s trying to set me up with his friends, to include me in the inner circle of his social life.
“No thanks, I’m not interested.”
“Oh.” He falls quiet for a moment. Then Elise emerges from the other side of the bar, bag in hand, waving him over. Arlo lights up. “I have to go Amber. Thanks for coming with me, I appreciate it.”
“No problem. Goodbye Arlo.” It’s a goodbye for good, Arlo and I won’t really be crossing paths.
“Bye Amber, thanks for everything.” he lingers on my face for a moment, then he’s turning away. “Oh, yeah. You don’t need a ride home, do you?”
“Don’t worry about me.” I’ll just take the bus.
“Right. Take care, Amber.” He swiftly makes his way over to Elise, takes her arm, and then he’s gone.
As I watch him go I see Ash in my peripheral vision put down his glass and begin sauntering in my direction. I grab my bag, then stand and walk away from the table, not bothering to push in my chair. I make a stop at the buffet, use the length of my arm to sweep all the food within my reach into my bag, and then I walk out.
It’s 4pm when I get home, late enough to be awkward but not early enough for dinner. I change back into my sneakers and t shirt, and go for a run along my normal loop, wondering if I should babysit this summer to make money, what to make for dinner, and how my spring break is already almost over.