“Hello,” she growled. Her gaze was distant and hardened, her eyes unwavering and fixed on mine. The hello was brutal. The hello stained the memories and made them tattered, unrecognizable fragments.
“Hello,” I said. I sighed and whiffed the air. Urine, and the harsh, unforgiving smell of decay stung my nose.
She remained stiff, sitting, and we gazed at each other, through each other, and backwards. There was nothing left to look back at. I mourned the loss of my friend for the first time.
“You never came to see me.” It was a plain statement. Her agony didn’t come through, but you could read it in her worn face and her hunched, frail body. I looked anywhere except her face.
“I know. I'm sorry,” I apologized, providing a weak substitute for my presence all those years. “Are you?”
“Yes,” I hesitated, “and I’m here now, so I must be. I'm guilty.”
“Me too,” she said.
“How is it here?” I inquired.
“It’s okay here. The food isn’t very good. I’ve met some people who are surprisingly nice and others who you have to avoid,” she informed me.
Then we sat in silence.
She adjusted her body, and I marvelled at the discomfort our stools caused. We didn't look each other in the eyes until she began to pull something out of her denim jeans with her free hand. The guard stood alert, attentive to my friend’s hands.
She placed it in front of her, the light yellow contrasting with the dull gray of the table. It was a glossy square of fabric that frayed at the edges. Silk. I saw her in it. She was laughing. I peeled back her worn frown and wrinkles from her face, and she cackled and snorted. Then I forgot her again, as if it was only amnesia that twisted her into a shell. I pressed my hand against the glass, reaching out to her. I hoped, blindly, that she would press her hand against mine and we would share a moment of contrition and forgiveness. I pulled my hand away.
“I didn’t know you were here,” I lied. I couldn’t face her knowing I landed her there, and my mouth couldn’t shape the words to tell her why I was sorry.
“It’s been years. You didn’t think to check on me?” she asked. She wrung her hands.
“Sometimes, but I assumed you were happy,” I told her.
“You know I love you, even now. After everything,” she admitted. I didn’t see how she could. I suppose I didn’t need to know how. I’m married now, to a good man. I’m content.
The silk twirled in her fingers and blinded me. It brought me to a time where she twirled and her eyes glinted. When life was okay.
On a chilly night in December my Eliza danced and smoothed down the edge of her dress. My family threw a quaint party celebrating my eighteenth birthday, and I invited Eliza to join us. We wore our fluffy coats and jumped around the fire in the backyard. Eliza threw about her arms and kicked her legs without much rhythm, but it was dancing nonetheless. She grabbed onto my arms, and I spun her around. Her eyes twinkled, and her hair waved ferociously with the wind. She was my friend for years then, but it was only then that my heart started to pound when I saw her. She stopped dancing.
I wanted to reach out and take her hand, out of concern. I couldn’t bear the thought of her hurting or upset, as I would with any friend. Against impulse, I shoved my hands in my pockets.
“Is something wrong?” I asked her.
“Nothing. It’s just everyone left ‘cause it’s freezing outside, and I’m wearing a dress because I thought it was a good idea. I’m just cold,” she sighed. I laughed a bit,
“The dress looks nice,” I told her. It did. It was white and adorned with little squares of yellow silk that reflected the same fire I glimpsed in her eyes. Despite myself, I felt the same fire in my heart. The fire crackled behind us.
My dad pulled open the porch door, “Hey hon’, it’s about time to come inside!” I smiled back at him,
“Of course dad!” He hurried off into the kitchen to finish cooking the rice and to take the chicken out of the oven.
I pulled Eliza close to me to conduct heat, and her hands hovered above my back for a moment until resting there. My clammy hands rested on hers. Her nose, which stood in front of my face, was shiny and pink from the biting cold.
“I got the dress from some thrift shop,” she admitted.
“Well, it’s still nice,” I paused, “I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever.”
She chuckled, “You saw me two days ago.”
“And? I missed you.”
“Now why would you ever do that?” she teased.
“For fun,” I told her.
As I pulled away from the embrace she said my name, soft and meek.
“Yes?” I looked straight into her eyes.
She held up a piece of fabric, a patch of silk from the dress.
“We can sew it back on,” I told her. She smiled a little and pressed her hand into mine,
“It’s fine, I want to remember this.”
In a swift motion she kissed me. It was sweet and fresh, unlike the boys I’d known before. We exchanged no words, and my head seemed to spin. The fire was burning it’s last embers, and I could spot each spark in her eyes. She was my best friend. I always loved her, but I never loved her more than then.
For months we carried on a relationship, behind the backs of our parents. Until it was our time, and we began to drift apart. We talked less and less, checking up on each other every now and then, until she didn’t respond anymore. I didn’t think anything of it for a couple years. One fact remained consistent though: she carried the fabric everywhere with her, even now.
The silk sat between us, farther from me than from her. She ran it through her fingers until she stopped and placed it closer to me. I could almost smell it, flowery and perfumed.
I moved my focus from the silk to her haunting gray eyes.
“I’m married to a good man,” I told her.
“He loves you?”
“Do you love me?”
“Somewhere in me, yes. Very much,” I told her. Her eyes brightened, and it was almost enough to see her again, but the cube and never-ending hallway entrapped her. She held onto the bulky phone with an eager grip.
“But I have a life now,” I told her, and her clutch on the phone softened. Regardless, she wouldn’t love me at all knowing it was my errors that drove her there. I had to hold onto the lasting warmth she radiated. It was the only remnant of before, childlike and hopeful. My admission of fault would destroy that warmth. I wondered if she had a clue.
Years ago a man messaged me over social media inviting me over for tea. His words were,
‘Hey, would you like to come over for tea or something? Eliza talks about you sometimes, and I thought it would be cool if we could reunite.’
The exact words are stamped into my mind. My intuition told me to stay away, but I decided to go. Curiosity flooded my mind. I didn’t know where Eliza was, and I missed her. In some corner of my mind I longed to see her again, knowing full well I probably wouldn’t.
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon when the sun was still bright in the sky. The man who opened the door was burly and bearded. White flecks in his beard hinted at wisdom I doubted was there, as his outfit choice of cargo shorts and a graphic tee suggested otherwise. He extended his hand and introduced himself as Stephen. He shook my hand without breaking eye contact and maintained a blank face. Uneasiness settled into my stomach.
Stephen’s house was spacious and modern. He told me to make myself comfortable, and we sat in the living room. It was white, with yellow circles scattered on the carpet. I traced the circles with my eyes. They had a quality that was reminiscent of something I couldn’t put my finger on. The couch was a bit worn as if people had lived there for a while, and the fireplace mantel had scattered photos of cats placed on it.
“Oh that’s Mosley, Rosie and Finch,” he told me as I looked at the photos then added, “they’re somewhere in the basement I think.”
I wondered if he lived there alone. The house was remote, with no neighborhood. It was nice but modest. It seemed peculiar for him to live alone. Could cats be enough to keep someone company? The house didn’t seem to hold any photos other than the cats. It looked like a house from a catalogue. Empty.
“I was wondering what Eliza was like when she was younger. Nowadays she’s unhappy. She doesn’t want to talk to me much,” he admitted.
“You know her well?” Suspicion tinted my voice.
“She’s been one of my best friends since college,” he said. Stephen avoided my gaze. His words remained melancholy, and a yearning anguish filled his eyes when he looked up at me. In retrospect, it may not have been anguish but a flash of disgust. He fiddled with a book on the coffee table. It was a self-help book, I believe.
“She was sweet,” I began, “and very happy. I think she was almost always happy. She loved to laugh, and she loved to sing. She had the most angelic voice. She wasn’t talkative though. She wasn’t studious exactly, but she was smart. Many of my memories of her are fuzzy; it was so long ago.” I looked down at my feet. Stephen’s demeanor changed. He clenched his fists. In a moment he relaxed again. He turned his body to me,
“Would you like tea?”
I shrugged and replied with a sure. I could already smell the chamomile in the kettle.
“There’s some in the kitchen,” he said, “I’m not really in the mood.”
I walked into the kitchen alone and poured the steaming tea into a cup placed on the counter for me. It smelled both earthy and sugary. I lost myself in it’s warmth and closed my eyes. My hands fumbled, and I spilled tea on the counter. I grabbed the dry wash rag lying by the sink and wiped it up. The black counter appeared polished afterwards, and I could almost glimpse my reflection. I leaned my head forward, then back up.
My heart raced. I could sense a presence behind me. They breathed hot breath down my neck, and I stood paralyzed. I knew it was him. He could overpower me in a second. I didn’t turn around.
He whispered into my ear, sending shivers down my spine,
“You and Eliza are filthy disgusting whores that deserve to die.” I could hear his teeth gritting. His arm hovered above my neck with a glinting, sharp object in his hand. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. My head spun trying to get out of the situation. I was in front of a counter with a man holding a knife to my neck behind me. His free hand forced my head down.
My right hand sought out the kettle. I took it in my hand with all my strength and poured behind me onto his hand. My arm trembled with the effort. He shouted as the scalding water soaked his right hand, and he dropped the knife. He clasped his hand for a moment. I kneed him between the legs, twice for good measure, and he keeled over. I grabbed the knife from the ground, and his face flushed with panic. I kneeled over him on his stomach, my hand grasping the knife poised above his neck. Fear, anguish, pain and intense sadness flickered through his eyes. Despite his words, despite his fury, I had the urge to cry in pity. Yet, I knew what I had to do.
I punctured the top of his neck over and over until it spurted blood. Thick red liquid coated the floor as it continued to ooze out of his neck. The room appeared inky red. As I watched the scene unfurl around me my heartbeat slowed. In a futile effort I tried to wipe the blood from my face with my arm, smearing more across my face. The festering, raw smell filled my nose. I didn’t savor the light going out of his eyes, but relief flooded my chest when the blood drained from his body and the light flickered off. I was safe.
I spent the rest of the time at the house cleaning the floor and burning the body in the backyard. I wiped the kettle and set fire to the rag. Any evidence of my being there was removed. It was self defense, but I didn’t want to risk getting caught.
I can still recall the flames under my nose, waving in the air and blistering Stephen’s skin. The smoke spat at me. It caught in my throat, and I began to cry. I waited until the fire died down and the body turned into nothing but charred ashes on the grass.
If I conjure up the image I swear I can still smell it.
Eliza looked at me. Her meekness and frailty churned my stomach while the guilt built inside me. It overpowered me to the point where I was about to let a flood of words rush out of my mouth. My face and ears flushed. I opened my mouth with slight tears in my eyes,
“I know,” she cut me off. Then she mouthed through the glass, ‘I took the blame,’ and finished, aloud,
“And I would do it again.”
“Why?” I inquired.
“Violence, terrible, terrible violence”, she told me. She took her fist to her hand repeatedly, and I winced. She nodded and picked up the phone again.
She said anything short of ‘Thank you for killing my husband.’ Her eyes sought no forgiveness, no apology for her being there and me being on the outside.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” she said.
“I missed you, “ I confessed.
“I would think so. I missed you too,” she stopped, “I have to go. Goodbye.”
In that goodbye my heart filled with tenderness. It restored the tattering and repaired the fragments, making them a solved puzzle.
“Goodbye,” I said, and I left the Silver Bay women’s prison with a warmer heart than before.