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A Conspiracy of Affection
I still think about her. Even now. Even after the five years it’s been since she disappeared off of the face of the planet. She haunts my dreams like an omniscient spectre. She preys upon my waking hours, whispering affectionate words into my ears. She ensures that I never forget her.
But I can’t. Despite her constant presence in the back of my mind, the memories are still dominant amongst everything else. I can still remember that first lingering kiss that she gave me. It still burns on my lips. There’s an empty space in my bed now. An empty space in my life. It’s gaping and sore, draining me of hope and filling me with despair.
I spend most of my days in bed, whiling away the hours. I’m pretty sure that the section of ceiling above my bed will wear down and crumble from the ferocity of the stares I’ve been giving it. My bedroom door, too, is also a victim of my depression. I glare at it more than I look at any other inanimate object.
My parents have noticed the change in my behaviour. They’ve organised afternoons with a therapist. They’ll be disappointed when they realize that they’ve been paying for a meeting I’ll never turn up to. I never liked discussing my problems with others, anyway. That’s the best aspect of being able to talk to myself; I’m a good listener, I won’t interrupt myself and I provide a hefty argument.
When I wake on the first morning of December I am greeted by a scene of wonder. Outside my bedroom window white flashes at me welcomingly. A thick blanket of snow had fallen overnight, creating what appears to be a heavy dusting of white icing across the land. Whoever had made this wonderful cake has overdone it on the topping.
My metaphor forces a smile to tug at the corners of my mouth. It is the first sign of happiness for many months now, and it fills my body with warmth.
I wander around my room, scraping up an arrangement of clothing. On top of the plain tee and jacket that I favour over the other selections in my wardrobe, I pull on a coat with a furred hood. A gift from my mother. I am only compelled to wear it on account of the weather.
As I step out of the front door two minutes later a chilling breeze swirls around my face and ruffles my hair. My feet feel like they are buzzing with energy and my heart is pumping like a marathon runner. Looking down, I notice that my boots have produced perfect prints in the snow.
Exhilarated, I take another few steps along the front garden, gazing at the vast field that faces my house. This is the first time that I have set foot outside for anything other than buying the essential food. I inhale, a cold tendril freezing my throat and seemingly solidifying my tongue.
Sighing, I cross the narrow road and make my way towards the field. It’s owned by a farmer who owns a residence nearby. He and I are friendly with one another, so I am permitted to stroll across his land as long as I stick to the path that halves it.
The whiteness is flawless, spreading out across the landscape and reaching up towards the sky. A veil of mist is hanging in the air, hazing my vision and making it impossible to see more than a couple of feet in front of my face. But still I continue.
I had decided before I left that I would reach the lone tree in the centre of the field and then turn back and return home. It was the single landmark of the pleasant village that I called home. The village was so minute that it hadn’t even earned a name other than Doe Street; the largest of the three streets that it was comprised of.
The outline of the grand oak comes into view, blurring slightly with its surroundings. Its branches span the width of the pathway and beyond and its bough is easily the width of ten of me. For the past five years it has acted like a silent sentinel, guarding the field and remaining within my view when the air was clear.
A gasp wedges itself in my windpipe when I catch sight of a silhouette beneath the embracing branches of the tree. She is a woman; this I can tell from the way she holds herself, the posture she enacts. Her hair is spilling out from the safety of a bobble hat, flowing down her back in a red cascade.
When I get closer, I can make out the features of her face. Bright blue eyes that are wide and smiling. A delicate nose without any indentations or crookedness. A full mouth with gentle lips. Skin that is smoother than a glossy table surface.
She looks up at me, catching my gaze and holding it there. My heart skips a beat or two and I am left in a state of paralysis.
“Knox? Is that you?” she says, her voice golden and sweet like honey.
I try to form words, but they are an incomprehensible mess between my teeth.
“Knox?” she repeats, removing the hat from her head and discarding it onto the floor.
“Tanner,” I whisper.
She starts running towards me, her arms flung wide open. She jumps into my grasp, squeezing herself against my body, sharing the undeniable warmth that her slender form contains.
“Knox, I never thought I’d see you again,” she says, tears biting at her words.
I manage to look into her eyes for a second, and I can see that they are glistening with a layer of wetness. Her cheeks are red. I can’t tell if it’s from the sharp wind or the sobs that are wracking her diaphragm.
Overcome by a tornado of warring emotions, I take her head between the palms of my hands and lean in towards her. Her hands find their way up to my own head, displacing the hair and gripping me for all she is worth. The initial kiss is fleeting, barely worth the effort. She seems nervous, unwillingly to make the entire leap.
I push towards her, encouraging her, letting my lips brush hers in an action of temptation. I can feel her soften, leaning into me almost completely. She’s not a heavy load, but bearing her weight is quite strenuous given the circumstances. I ignore the fact, however, and lock lips with her again.
Her mouth is searching, reaching for the passion that was once ours, clutching at the love we once shared. Happiness ripples through me. Happiness at having Tanner back in my arms. Happiness at having my tortuous half a decade over in a simple kiss.
“Just like old times,” I say, pulling away long enough to talk.
“Same tree, same man,” Tanner replies, still gazing into my eyes. A flicker of worry passes across her pupils and her eyebrows tighten ever so slightly. I ignore the momentary expression, unhooking my arms from around her and pulling away.
“What’s up?” she asks.
“I don’t get it. You disappear for five years, leave me devastated, and then just turn up and expect me to kiss and make up,” I say, rubbing the back of my neck. I can still feel her fingers there.
“There’s a lot I need to tell you. You deserve answers. But first, let me make the most of being back with you,” she says, and moves towards me again.
“No,” I say as I dodge out of her way. “Five years is a long time. I didn’t know where you were. I didn’t know if you were alive or dead. I didn’t know if you’d found someone else.”
“You’re the only one for me,” she says.
She presses her face up to mine again, relishing in the kiss that I manage to return. Joy fills me with the consistency of water, and I convince myself to wait for the answers that she can provide. Five years is a long time, but I can wait a few hours more.
When she finally retreats, I link my hand in with hers, lacing my fingers around hers and holding on for dear life. Together, side by side, we stroll back along the path and leave the field far behind us. I open the front door and gesture for her lead the way.
She gracefully weaves around me. Familiar with the layout of my humble abode, she heads straight for the stairs that will lead to my room and the bathroom. I know which room she is planning to enter. There is space in my thoughts for nothing else but Tanner’s face and her impossible return.
In a way, I have proved everyone wrong. I’ve proved my parents wrong. My therapist. Everyone who believed that Tanner had left me forever. For that, I want to completely submit to her, to trust in her without thinking. But a part of me still warns me about what she did.
When I make it upstairs, I shake myself from my thoughts and find Tanner perched on the end of my bed, her arms propping her head up. A coy smile is contorting her mouth and her eyes are slightly narrowed, playing a creative game of cat and mouse with my thumping heart. I don’t think about the consequences as I advance upon her. I only consider the joy at being in her presence, at having her back. I lock my lips to hers, placing my hands at her neck and running them down the length of her back.
“Knox,” she says, her voice muffled from being pressed up against me.
“Don’t talk,” I say.
I push into her, sending her falling backwards so that she is lying across the bed. I still can’t believe my luck.
An hour later finds me and Tanner sitting up in bed. She’s propped her head up by folding her pillows in half; a tactical manoeuvre that I’ve seen her do many times before in the past. She’s also snuggling up against me, one hand draped over my chest. Every now and again I hear her inhale heavily. I like to think that she is inhaling my scent, memorizing it so that she never loses me again.
I don’t want to remind her about the explanation that she owes me, but I can’t help myself. “So why did you leave?”
She removes her arm, leaving a strip of coldness there, and fidgets around a bit until she is comfortable. Turning, she focuses on my eyes as she delivers her answers.
“For your safety. If I was found here, you would be killed as well.”
“As well? You mean that someone was trying to kill you? Why?” I ask, alarmed.
The primal instinct that commands me to protect her suddenly becomes active again, and I find myself moving towards her. It had remained dormant during her absence, and to have it alive again is a foreign feeling to me. It’s almost like losing a dog that you cared for; you still feel like you should be protecting something, but it’s not there anymore. And, when you purchase a new dog, the instinct is already there to be revived again.
“Yes. It’s my job. I quit it when I left. I told you I worked for the government, right?”
“Yeah. I was always asking for James Bond’s signature, but you’d say-¬¬¬¬--“ I begin.
“James bond only provides autographs for fellow celebrities,” Tanner interjects, a giggle causing her voice to heighten.
I allow the joke to hang in the air between us for a moment, relishing in the happiness that it brings me.
“So why was someone trying to kill you?” I say finally.
“Is. Someone is trying to kill me. My job with the government was to ‘dispatch’ of those who opposed them,” Tanner says, using quotation fingers. “I messed up on one of my missions. He was a terrorist, this man I was trying to assassinate. Someone in the depths of Saudi Arabia. It was botched from the start. I ended up killing the man’s son. It was an accident, of course, but the man didn’t take my actions so kindly.”
As if to soften her words, she places her hand on my bare chest, heat emanating from her.
“Why didn’t you just tell me about this five years ago? We could have sorted it out. I’m practically an old man now,” I say.
“Knox.” Tanner regards me with an amused smile. “You’re twenty six.”
“So you remembered?” I ask.
“Of course. I never stopped thinking about you.”
The sound of wood cracking erupts from downstairs. I sit up abruptly, the joints in my back cracking from the suddenness of my movements. Tanner tenses, her eyes wide and focused on the door. She turns to me. I can see the fear that pollutes her perfect eyes. Anger bubbles up in the pit of my stomach. How dare someone ruin my day with the woman I haven’t seen for years.
I leap out of bed, balling my hands into fists and bringing them up to my face. Tanner remains in the bed, quivering.
“Who are they?” I ask.
“Probably the terrorists I angered,” Tanner answers honestly.
“Wait here,” I order gently.
“What are you going to do?” she says.
I don’t give her an answer, and instead open the bedroom door and make my way out into the hallway beyond. Light footsteps alert me to Tanner’s presence, and I turn around to find her standing behind me.
“We’re both in danger. That’s my fault. I want to help,” she whispers.
I can’t argue with her; any unnecessary noise and we would be discovered.
Something smashes against tiled floor in the kitchen. One of my plates. Another follows. I can hear my table being kicked. A gunshot rings out and shatters the silence.
“We know you’re here, you little b****. Come here and no one else will get hurt.”
The voice is rumbling, resembling a lion growling at an opponent. I picture the man who has spoken to be a mountain with a wide mouth and glaring eyes. A colonel figure. With a gun.
“Found ourselves a boyfriend, have we?”
There is a twang of Irish to his accent, but it is diluted. No your typical terrorist, then.
“Handsome fella. Shame we’ll have to run him through and slice his head off. Might keep it as a trophy.”
My breath catches in my throat and seemingly solidifies. I stifle a cough. A vein in my neck pulses at the thought of being severed. A slice of light pierces the parting of the curtains ahead of me. I step through it, feeling a slight warmth run through me. Tanner follows.
The voice has become a background noise to our plight, but I still shiver.
“Tanner,” I begin.
I pause, unsure of what to say. Words cannot express how much I want to survive the ordeal, to make it through with Tanner. There is no way to tell her how much I love her in the short space of time I have left. Instead, I settle with blowing a kiss in her direction and giving her a soft smile. A smile of her own appears on her lips, making her seem even more beautiful.
I realise that I am only wearing a pair of jeans. I do a double take, tempted to return to my room and retrieve a dressing gown, but Tanner’s worried stare makes me continue to the stairs. Dressing gown or no dressing gown, I am going to make sure that Tanner survives.
The top stair creaks wildly beneath my foot. I clench my teeth and remain absolutely motionless.
“I can hear you.”
The voice is far too close for comfort, and I take my chance. Leaping down the stairs, I push my hands out in front of me and brace myself for landing. At the same time my target arrives at the bottom of the stairs to meet me. I land heavily atop him, both of us crashing to the ground in a mess of flailing limbs. The impact sends waves of pain up my legs, rattling my bones and searing my muscles.
My opponent struggles beneath me, reaching out with talon-like hands. His clawed fingers find my throat and latch on. He squeezes for all he is worth, blocking off my windpipe and leaving me gasping for breath. Thirty seconds pass in complete and unnerving silence. Black stars glisten at the edge of my vision as I fight for breath. I search desperately for Tanner, only to find her gone. Has she really left me to die?
Something cracks behind me. It deafens me, resembling the sound of shattering bone. The hand around my throat loosens, and then become limb against my neck. My hand is gripped by another and then tugged. As I am pulled to my feet, I suck in as much oxygen as my weakened lungs can manage.
“We need to go,” says Tanner, who is struggling to hold my weight.
I look down, confusion clouding my judgement. My would-be-killer lies by my feet, a dark liquid pooling under his head. His eyes are wide open and his mouth is contorted in an expression of frustration. In the partial darkness, I can just make out the outline of the crack in his skull. Tanner has killed him.
“Where?” I slur, still weak.
“Anywhere but here. There are three more in the kitchen. I only just managed to get that saucepan. Good job you left it lying on the side,” Tanner says, and then leads me towards the front door. She pushes it open and I am struck by a chilling breeze. My bare chest seemed to freeze.
Tanner doesn’t hesitate. She begins running along the pathway in the garden, beckoning me forwards. I follow her.
I don’t know where we will go. I don’t know if we will survive. All I knew is that Tanner is back. She has saved my life in more ways than one. As long as I have her, I don’t care what happens to me.
As we plunge into the oncoming snowstorm, I reach for her hand and smile.