Ash Wednesday | Teen Ink

Ash Wednesday MAG

December 10, 2007
By Ellen Stuart, Londonderry, NH

(Belfast, 1973)

They don’t look at each other.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” he says at last.

She shrugs, and exhales quickly. She twists the thin brass ring he once won for her at a carnival.

“I won’t do this anymore.” She continues thrusting things into a trash bag.

He stands too close, smelling of dust and something melted, twisted, burned.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like that, you know that, it was just –”

He reaches to touch her, but she whirls on him, recoiling.

“They were kids, little kids!”

“We didn’t think they’d be there, it was … an accident.”

It is not yet noon. The remains of their breakfast – milky tea curdling, oatmeal congealing – is still on the table. Their bed is unmade, visible from the small kitchen. It was only hours ago that he kissed her and slipped out of bed, leaving quietly.

“It doesn’t matter – I’m done. They’ll make you a martyr, but leave me out of it. I don’t want any part of it.”

She snatches things out of the basket of clean laundry, stuffing them into the bag. She shakes his T-shirts and shorts violently from her blouses, jeans, and underwear.

He had hoped he might be able to tell her what had happened, in his own words, skipping the worst bits. But when he returned, sweaty and dusty, his jacket torn, she already knew what had happened. She had heard on the radio. She had thrown a shoe at him; a gesture so childish he almost laughed. Almost.

“Mary …”

“Just stop.”

He watches as she shoves some records into the bag, puts a pack of cigarettes into her coat pocket, and casts around the room for something else. Satisfied, she knots the bag.

“Where are you going?” His eyes widen.

“I told you, I’m leaving. Don’t follow me.”

He shuts the door and steps in front of her.

“Damn it, Danny!”

She can see blood pounding through his jugular, ­under his unshaven throat.

“You can leave if you want, but let me speak my piece. You owe me that much.”

He holds her by the shoulders, speaking slowly. She shakes the hair out of her eyes.

“I don’t owe you a bleedin’ thing,” she says, her gaze level. They have ­already taken everything, she thinks. There’s nothing left.

“Listen anyway. I never meant it. But Doyle – he said we could drop the thing in the bus station and leave the rest to him. We figured he knew what he was doing, and it all happened so fast. Before we knew it, it was over.”

He’s earnest, wearing the same face as when he first told her he loved her. They had been sitting in the car they’d borrowed from a friend, waiting at a toll, a year ago. They had drunk cheap pink wine on the beach and walked into the surf, feeling the velvety kelp snake around their ankles. It was high summer, but the water felt like pins piercing her feet and legs.

“They’re going to be after you, you know. They’ve a dozen witnesses.” She wants to be sick.

“I know.” It’s still a lie. Something salty, ­bitter, and viscous roughens his breathing. He remembers little ­except the rushing emptiness that filled his ears like water, the muddy red haze that clouded his eyes. On his shoes ­cement dust clings to dark blood and what looks like vomit, maybe his, maybe someone else’s. He stares at the linoleum instead. It is buckled at the edges, stamped to look like brickwork.

“I’m done with you. I’m done with the whole sorry lot of you. My father,” she makes the sign of the cross, “and Mike, and you. All of you,”

“Please – just – wait.”

“Stop it!” She wrenches away from him so hard that she feels something tear in her wrist. She holds it next to ­her, ­wincing.

“I don’t want anything to do with you. I won’t become my mother.”

She is fighting back tears. She hasn’t let anyone see her cry in nine years. Not since the year she buried her parents eight months apart. Not since the year that Mike … She pushes that thought away, swallowing her tears.

“We’ll get out of the city, disappear for a while until this blows over.”

“People died,” she howls. “If it helps you sleep to think that something like that just blows over, then –”

She wants to strike him, to scream sense into him.

“I told you it was –”

“Do what you want, have your goddamn honor or whatever the hell they’re calling it, but you’re not taking me with you.”

“Mary –”

She bursts, finally, into angry tears.

“Please just let me go.”

He lets her go. Before she has walked more than a few steps down the hall, he re-emerges.

“Mary?” Her name is a question. Is this milk spoiled? Sugar in your tea? “You wouldn’t … You’re not going for the police, are you?”

Some part of her, some reflex or memory as deeply ingrained as a smell or taste, is offended.

“I’m not a squealer.”

Though it goes unsaid, they both think of what happened to Jack Garrity – the badly repaired slash through his cheek, still a swollen burgundy two years later.

Outside it begins to rain. The slate-colored Belfast sky has been threatening all day, and now it comes, like the relieved release of a long-held breath.

He nods. She waits in the hallway a moment until she hears the heavy bolt slide closed behind her. It is Ash Wednesday, she thinks. She ought to be at church.

By the time she reaches the bus station, she is soaked. The bag with her belongings is cumbersome and slick with rainwater, and as she boards she wedges it under her feet, folding her knees to her chest. She takes her mother’s rosary from beneath her shirt, the mottled mother-of-pearl beads like fair, bruised flesh. She holds it for a moment, and then slips it back, the cold silver crucifix settling at the apex of her ribs.

She rubs her face with both hands, smearing her makeup even more than the rain did, then she catches sight of herself in the window. A smile passes across her lips, so quick that only she knows. Her hands left a dark smudge of mascara across her forehead.

Not ashes, but close enough.

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This article has 21 comments.

on Aug. 8 2010 at 6:00 pm
OffTopic SILVER, Livingston, New Jersey
5 articles 0 photos 16 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." -- Anton Chekhov

This is reminiscent of what everybody else has been saying, but your story is amazing.  I loved the way the man kept trying to explain himself to the protagonist, and the way she kept cutting him off -- it was all very realistic.  I just got a little confused because I'm not really sure what happened in Belfast in 1973.  Am I right in saying there was a murder?  Can anyone explain?  Thanks!

on Jul. 1 2010 at 12:05 pm
Imaginedangerous PLATINUM, Riverton, Utah
31 articles 0 photos 404 comments
I loved your descriptions. It was a brilliant story...although any kids who don't know what was happening in Belfast in '73 are going to be very lost.

CLC93 said...
on Apr. 26 2010 at 7:23 pm
This was really, really, good! Is there more? I'm almost speechless it was that good.

on Feb. 10 2010 at 6:37 pm
goddess_of_the_moon_123 SILVER, Beaverdam, Virginia
5 articles 0 photos 71 comments

Favorite Quote:
'To unpath'd waters, undream'd shores' ~ William Shakespeare, A Winter's Tale

This was truly beautiful; You have a gift that is more than worthy of publishing. I LOVED this, and am marking it as a favorite.

I was hoping that you might take a look at some of my stuff, particularly 'Strong' ? I would very much value your opinion!

jmc.13 said...
on Nov. 12 2009 at 10:09 am
jmc.13, Dobbs Ferry, New York
0 articles 0 photos 58 comments

Favorite Quote:
"I'd rather regret what I did than what I didn't do."

I love this piece. The piercing anger was made eminent wonderfully at the beginning, and the last line was so powerful.

Great job!

bookaddict said...
on Jun. 17 2009 at 10:22 pm
I really like this, but to me it seems almost like an excerpt, i am really curious about the bigger picture surrounding this confrontation. None-the-less, you have talent! Keep writing! :)

mcBut3r SILVER said...
on Apr. 16 2009 at 12:55 am
mcBut3r SILVER, South Yarmouth, Massachusetts
6 articles 0 photos 7 comments
Wowwww, that was great imagry!sorting through the laundry,her running out the door and her talking to her, her seeing her reflection....i could picture it all!!! :) it was so suspensful! and i loved the "ash" at the end! wow.. beautiful!

on Mar. 27 2009 at 1:57 am
Serenity_Thomas, Burlington, Other
0 articles 0 photos 5 comments
wow.with this i feel the pain of the main character. very strong.I can totally see this as a book, or movie, like other commenters. If this ever shall happen, which someday i hope it does for you, then I would add a little mre detail on the bombing because i can see alot of people have been confused as to what this couple is fighting about. beautiful work:)

Zero_Kun said...
on Feb. 8 2009 at 11:21 pm
Wow, this is powerful. I can see it as if it's a movie, nice description. I can't wait to hear more!

shipwreck said...
on Feb. 8 2009 at 2:23 am
hi um well i totally get it but what the comment a bouts a book

MIKEY123 said...
on Jan. 26 2009 at 2:48 pm

on Jan. 22 2009 at 11:22 pm
I loved the believability. It was a wonderful story, though I really wish the bombing/Republican thing was clearer! I had to read comments to get it. I LOVED THE ENDING. I am a total sap for good endings, and I liked the reference to Ash Wednesday, though there is a bit of random-ness about it.

Very nice-keep writing!

shinealone13 said...
on Jan. 19 2009 at 5:28 pm
wow. that's really powerful writing. you did a great job. at first i didnt understand what it was about, but after i read some other comments, i did. good job. :)

iloveme said...
on Nov. 8 2008 at 9:21 pm
It was good although I don't get most of it

sally4th said...
on Nov. 7 2008 at 12:50 am
this is so good like im watching it, wish i could write like this!!

u should do a sequal!!!!!!!!

Allice* said...
on Oct. 23 2008 at 3:43 am
I absolutely adore this piece of yours!!!! I feel like I'm there, like I'm watching the whole thing happen. It's amazing!

on Oct. 22 2008 at 6:35 pm
the story is of a couple living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, they are Catholics, and apparently this girls boy friend has just been involved in a bombing for the Republicans. Her parents were probably killed among the sectarian violence. Great writing. This idea would make a great novel I think.

Sara said...
on Oct. 16 2008 at 9:48 pm
That was great. Six stars! Oh yeah, you can't go past best. Well, you sure did.

stargal77 said...
on Oct. 16 2008 at 8:23 pm
it was awesome but i didn't get a lot of it though...but i thought it was amazing!!!!!!!!!!

Faith said...
on Oct. 12 2008 at 7:06 pm
It's pretty awesome, but I don't get a lot of it.