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A single photograph, 11x14, the only decoration on that side of the window. It wasn't too loud, not in terms of color. But in emotional and psychological terms, it screamed. Well, for one person, anyways.
The poignant snapshot showed a dingy, slightly cracked sidewalk, and a street more busted up, but not so bad that it had potholes or anything. People smattered the background, blurred and entirely unimportant.
And in the foreground, a single man clad in army fatigues, head turned to the left; one hand up to his mouth, he killed himself drag by drag.
The camera hung heavy around her neck, slamming into her chest like a heart out of oxygen, as she chose her steps and dodged the people on the crowded, almost choked sidewalk.
The sun beat down on the back of her head, burning, and to touch her hair would be like putting your hand to a heater coil.
Bright orange toenails peeked out from white, strappy wedge heels, shyly greeting the sun. The feed those toes were attached to were, in turn, attached to legs, pale, untouched by natural light. They ran up and disappeared into hot pink, tight fitting capris, accentuated by a white and studded faux leather belt. Her shirt was worn like a lemon-yellow second skin. Some pithy illustration beamed out from her chest, but she didn't know which one. It came straight off the floor and was worn only for its vibrant hue.
A neck stuck out from the collar, but not rudely, just a gently upward sloping curve adorned with a black plastic child's choker and a single silver chain, from which hung a small lock, a twist-tie ring, and half of a quarter-all representative of her new life.
She lifted a hand to her brow to wipe away the sweat that had coursed its way into stinging her teal eyes. Traces of lime eye shadow rubbed off and onto her palm in the process. This was the kind of weather that made one thankful they had forgotten eyeliner and mascara during their daily morning rituals.
A breeze came, cool and unexpected. Tousling the blonde on the back of her head and making the bright turquoise that hung over her face dance, it offered only a brief respite from the brutality of the relentless and unforgiving July weather. She turned to face it, and as soon as it went, turned back the other way. She was sure her sunscreen was gone by now, it was best not to chance it.
She wiped the salty liquid from her forehead again, light catching on each fluorescent orange fingernail. She stopped in mid-swipe, and was reduced to gaping.
After all these years'what are the chances that it is? I mean, yeah, that's the slim chance that gave birth to my trip to Fort Bragg, but still'
She tiptoed a few inches closer to the figure huddled over its knees while it sat on the sidewalk. She inhaled so deeply she felt she might vacuum the environment into her lungs, and marveled.
It is. How can he still smell the way I remembered?
Her heart was racing, now truly out of oxygen, and her hands fluttered by her side. They came up, shaking, fumbling with that huge, expensive camera around her neck. The first few times of pawing at it came up fruitless. As she continued to grope at the decidedly inconvenient electronic device, she also continued to stare at the figures back. Hoping against hope that he wouldn't stand up and desert her with but a memory once again.
Holding the viewfinder flush with her right eye, she saw everything the same, but noticed so much more. The way the light didn't just bounce off of his strawberry blonde curls, but rather infused them with a golden sheen. The shadows on the side of his face, not a true shadow because of his crooked, five times broken nose-maybe six, she had no idea how he had been since that August. How his lips curled around his cigarette, how his chest went convex and his stomach concave when he sucked the smoke into his lungs. The crinkles around his eyes as he squinted off into the distance, trying to see God knows what. That left hand finger that was devoid of any ring.
She did a double take on realizing that last one. Tremors still had a hold of her hands, but she was able to steady them just enough to light her own Marlboro Smooth before picking her camera back up and hastily capturing his lying, cheating, backstabbing, yet all-too-familiar frame forever in celluloid form.
Faking composure, she let the camera fall back to its original place, and stepped around him just as his head turned towards the sound of the shutter. Quickening her pace, she strode purposefully away from the sidewalk, leaving him to stare either after her, at the chalk art she'd done hours before, or both. Tears streaming down and mingling with the saltwater dripping from every pore, she didn't really care.
He walked away from the bathroom and made his way back to his seat on the transport jet that was used solely by the government. He was sweaty, dirty, and tired. One hand snaked its was up to his face, where it tried to adjust the glbuttes there before he realized they weren't. The hand then grasped his other on, going to twist the golden adornment on his ring finger. But it, too, was absent.
Pulling the grimy cell phone out of its place nestled deep inside his pocket, wiping it off, and scrolling through the contacts list gave him little to no comfort. He realized that most of the people listed there were just that-contacts. He also realized that there was only one thing that would give him the comfort he needed, but flipped the phone shut in denial as soon as he saw her name glaring at him, almost mockingly, in tiny black LCD display letters.
Breathe. In, out.
It didn't help.
He settled on just sending a text. With any luck, she would just dismiss it as a wrong number, as she had in the days when he simply doubted her to anger her.
It was simple, had a good fifteen million different meanings depending on the situation, and was completely anonymous.
Put it up. Don't wait. It's no good.
Which is what he should have done years ago.
He sighed deeply and fastened his seatbelt as the plane began descending, already feeling a sunken weight deep in the depths of his stomach.
When the vehicle had come to a complete halt, he tugged his duffle bag out from the compartment over his seat, slung it over his shoulder, and fairly ran off board.
Free. He turned the phrase over in his mind and ran it over his tongue.
Yes, free. But only from the one thing that had kept his mind off of the only thing he really needed to be freed from-the only thing he didn't really want to be free of.
The gates loomed ahead, dividing present from past, a thought he had struggled with for the past however long he had been on that flight. Iraq to North Carolina? Days, he knew that much, at least. And he hated that he couldn't take his mind off of it, couldn't stop the pain he had buttociated with moving on, but couldn't get rid of the hope he tied in with his ever-present dreamer mindset.
While he was thinking about all of these little corrections that needed to be made in his life, his steel-toe boot clad feet had been moving independently, dragging his body along like it was the incapacitated young woman to their burly, dark, and dangerous rapist. And really, they were. He couldn't count the number of times he had gone where he shouldn't mindlessly walked into situations that needed no more fuel to their fire than a diabetic needs a three-tier chocolate cake with double frosting and little candy decorations affixed to the top.
His autopilot was abruptly switched off when someone crashed into him and went flying. He glanced down. On the sidewalk in front of him was a girl of no more than eighteen. Dressed in blue jean cutoffs that ended a good nine or ten inches above her very tan knees, and a halter top that was more skin that cloth, she was laying there with a heck stuck in a crack in the concrete. She took the offered hand, immediately started in with the charm, and he immediately shut her out and walked off. It had taken him years to figure out what his biggest problem was-constantly succumbing to every pretty smile and inviting word tossed his way-and to realize his biggest mistake-constantly succumbing to everyone but her, especially when they were together.
And he absolutely hated that the realization had come too late, that he had only self-corrected after he'd lost her.
With a heavy sigh, he threw himself butt first onto the sidewalk he had stopped at. He then craned his neck to look at what flash of color had caught his eye. It was a drawing done in sidewalk chalk. Pictured was a square robot with a square head. He was yellow, and on the left side of his chest resided a red heart.
Left for feminine.
She had been fascinated with that fact, and had taken great care with all things left, nearly to the point of OCD.
He shook his head to clear out these sort of thoughts, and surveyed the background of the picture. There was a rainbow directly behind his antennae, just above his head. And at either end of the rainbow floated a cloud, with an anime-style look of smugness painted on their faces.
It was artsy.
It was cute.
Above all, it reminded him of her.
That's why he saw the small, unique symbol she used as her signature, and told himself he saw it wrong.
He lit a cigarette. After a drag, he turned back around so that he was facing the street again, tuning out the bustle and commotion that surrounded him.
The sound of a camera behind him caught his attention, and as he turned, a neon figure rushed past. A quick step, but he saw enough to know.
That haircut the blonde and blue-greenish in the hair, the figure of said figure, and the small, slightly upturned nose that gave the impression of a pixie when seen in profile. It could have been anyone, but he knew it was her.
The phone came back out of its hidey-hole pocket, and he hung up after the second ring. She would call back.
He knew it.
Her pocket was vibrating.
She reached in and dug out a silver Razr just as it stopped vibrating.
Missed call from 910'
She didn't recognize the number, but knew without the phone's help that it was a North Carolina number. She was slightly suspicious, but called the number back anyways.
It went to voicemail after four rings. Out of curiosity, she listened to the recording.
Hey, this is'
Her breath left her temporarily. Then she found herself breathing the words out in utter disbelief.
She realized that her phone was recording a voicemail and snapped it shut.
Not thirty seconds later, it began vibrating again, and she ignored it until it vibrating one last time signifying that she now had a voicemail.
A full minute pbutted before she hesitantly pushed one, then talk.
One new voicemail, received today, Saturday, July 14, at two forty-three P.M.
'H-hey, it's me''
Of course it is.
'I know this is kind of weird'alright, really weird''
At least his voice doesn't break like a thirteen-year-old's anymore.
''but I was wondering if I saw you? What color is your hair now? If not, then I guess I'm sorry for bothering you, and good luck with your life. If so, please call me back.'
This went entirely against every instinct she possessed, everything she'd told herself, anything anybody else had ever told her.
Half a ring.
'hecko?!' The anxiety in his voice had an edge nearly tangible enough to slit a throat with.
'Uh'yeah. So'why are you in Fort Bragg?'
'I do photography for a magazine. Amanda's, incidentally.'
And you. Of course.
She left this last bit unspoken, and heard the clearly defined disappointment lacing the words that came after he'd cleared his throat.
'Oh. So, meeting somewhere to talk or something is out of the question''
'I'wow. Uh. Where'd you have in mind?'
'You're the artsy type. And from past experience'Starbucks' a safe bet?'
Despite herself, she grinned.
'Only if you can order for me.'
'If I fail, you can leave me to devour the mistake. All alone.'
'Deal. Oh. One more condition. I just got here and don't particularly feel like waiting. Ten minutes, you're not here, I order for myself and leave.'
'Did my face crack your camera?'
Do I need to start planning the funeral now?
She growled and yanked the coffee establishment's door open.
She first went to the restroom. Looking in the mirror just revealed her ugly soul, so she painted on a happy face and exited as quickly as she could without slipping or tripping.
However, while checking the time, she slammed into something. Well, it slammed into her. It was someone else's fault.
As soon as the men's room door hit her, a full-body blow, she was airborne. She didn't realize that, though. She went directly from in front of the water fountains to three inches from the far wall.
And she wasn't so sure she wanted to take the hand that was thrusted at her. Not when she saw the face again.
He watched her, astounded, as she clumsily got up and wiped herself clean of all dirt. Marveled at her walking back towards the caf' area with a painfully ungainly step. Ran up to catch her when she lost her balance just before she reached the counter. And tried his darnedest to hold back the giggles that tried to explode from within his chest when she smacked him and asked exactly what in the heck his problem was.
'You know I don't need your help.'
'Yeah. Sorry. I should have remembered that you dislike feeling dependent like that. It's only been four years.'
He still hadn't forgotten that. He just thought she was adorable when she was mad. To quote an excellent song, 'She makes the cutest faces when she screams obscenities.'
He didn't realize how much had changed until that very moment. He no longer got upset of and yelled back when yelled at. It was really funny, really terrible, and felt darn good.
Finally in control. For now.
She was blocking his way. He poked her in the side until she moved, yelling, and stepped up to the register himself.
'Two venti mocha frappes, and two slices of banana nut loaf.'
The cashier gave him a distinctly annoyed glare and punched a few buttons on the register.
'That'll be twelve-eighty.' After receiving the money, the kid turned around and handed cups to someone else, muttering to himself.
'jerk.' Said softly, but he heard her.
'Why? Me or him?'
'Him. He's telling you to'forcibly insert your order into your anus.'
She turned to the kid, snapping to get his attention.
'You. Crater face. Firstly, I don't think that cup would fit up there. He's kind of a stickler. Second'well'that would cause some sort of burns, and I think we could sue. Keep your comments to yourself, IQ 29. Thanks.'
He eyed her as she was watching the kid. Apparently, she was making sure no one spat or worse into their cups. That was good; he finally had a chance to see how she'd changed.
She was still as thin, short, happy, and bright as he remembered. She still had that smile, too. He found that out when she caught him checking her out.
'You know'you had your chance, babe. Several, in fact.' She sat down in one of the comfy chairs, setting the cups on top of some magazines that were strewn across the obnoxious square coffee table that was the center for said comfy chairs.
'Yeah, I know. I'm not sure what I was expecting to come of this meeting. I guess I was hoping for some sort of closure, something that would help make it a little easier to really let you go.' He looked down at his lap, saw the dirt in every crease of his pants. 'I look like crap, don't I.'
'You didn't look too great to begin with, to be honest.'
'At least you've got that, sweetheart. That honesty'll never leave, will it?'
'God. I hope not.'
They sat in silence for a moment, being interrupted by a very loud and pocket sized Taylor Swift. She picked the phone up and smiled when she saw the name that appeared on-screen.
He winced. She gave his name for her to some other guy?
'Yeah, I'm fine. It's hotter than balls out here, though.' She laughed, a pure, sweet sound that sent shivers up and down his spine.
'I'm just going to stay for a few more hours, until dark. Or maybe a little longer, some night scene photography would be good.'
He thought about all the photographs they had taken. Him of her, her of him, her of them. Sunsets and flowers and their hands locked and their lips locked.
'She did what? Oh my god. You were right. She's exactly like me. Well, he shouldn't have taken her paper. I'd have kicked him if I were her.'
Oh. She has a kid or kids plural now. They're not with me'I wonder if she used the same names we planned on using.
'Let Phoe have the phone, then give it to Zane. Hey baby girl. I heard you hurt a boy. No, I'm not mad, baby. I would have done it too. Well, if he messes with you again, you can. No, none of Daddy's knives. Okay. I love you too. Can you let your brother have the phone? I asked her to give the phone to Zane. Oh, I see. Yeah, I'll let you get back to them. Of course. I love you, honey. Yes, I'll text you. I love you too. Bye.'
The phone quickly rabbit-holed back into her pocket.
'You still with him?'
'You call him Angel? And let me guess. Your children are named Phoenix Ashlyn and Zane Aiden. Right?'
'Yes. Except, this time'I actually found someone who deserves it. We came here to talk. Not sling allegations. So don't start any of the same old crap with me. I finally turned a new page, new clover, new whatever. Don't screw this up.'
'You know what. Yeah. I won't. Enjoy your life.'
He stopped only for a second, and only because he knew a cigarette would calm him. He fiddled with his phone, and started walking, adamant about not stopping until his feet blistered and bled. Getting so far away from her that she would never cross his mind, or vice versa.
His phone rang.
New multimedia message, sent today, Saturday'
When the voice stopped, a song began playing.
'You talk yourself up, then tear yourself down''
And as he listened to the song, a silent stream coursed from each tear duct, burning his eyeballs and leaving him unable to breathe.
'I put my faith in you, so much faith and then you just threw it away''
She sat sipping her frappe after he left.
Her phone broke the silence, as always.
She opened it to find a multimedia message waiting.
She played it.
'Taking steps back through the words I should have said to you, they all got lost; you went away''
And, frankly, she didn't give a darn.
She whispered goodbye, took a few more pictures, and headed back home.
She stood in the gallery, high off the New York energy. The world vibrated around her, a world she now knew she was on top of.
Gazing up, she didn't notice the woman walk up beside her to admire her work.
'You really loved him, didn't you?'
She snapped out of her reverie and glanced curiously at the woman. It must have been written all over her face. Yes, this is my work, Yes, I knew him. No, I don't know him anymore. And the sad, sickening story was there behind her eyes. Did people see it every day?
'There is no past tense to love. You either always have, or you don't. So no, I didn't love him. I don't love him. He was just an unfortunate eventuality.'
And with that, she grabbed the photograph from the wall and walked back to her new apartment, where she hung it on the wall. It was the only decoration on that side of the window.
She whispered goodbye again, and shut the door on the past.