Left Behind

Warning: This story contains content which may be emotionally triggering to some readers.
This will take roughly 4 minutes to read.

“I want you to stay.”

His jaw quivered.

“I need you to stay.”

“I can’t.” She placed the words gently into the evening breeze. They drifted to him like puffs of smoke from a graying ember – feeble, slender, defiant. For a moment he remembered when her words were sweet. But the memory was stolen with haste by the echoes of laughter, singing, and playful screams rushing past them from behind. His favorite song interrupted.

“I…” he started with a sigh, the man’s sharp chin whispering into to the collar of his black jacket. Her small, fragile hand landed atop his own, much larger one; gentle as a bird on a branch. His jaw resumed its tremble. A hard swallow forced his damp eyes from the white sand at their feet to the horizon. The wooden bench beneath him felt stiffer somehow. He felt stiffer somehow.

“I-I need you,” he stammered, nodding, and with a slouch of his burly shoulders.

“You don’t.” He heard her smile. “The last thing you’ve ever needed was- ”

“But, I chose you.” His green eyes fell to the sands, away from the orange glow of the setting sun as it dipped behind the ocean’s choppy, black-blue surface. Like the small waves fighting to crest beyond their meager fate, every word he yearned to speak billowed and collapsed beneath his lips. In their absence, the uncomfortable fog of unspoken truth settled around them.

The jovial sounds of laughter, music, and playful screams interjected from behind once more. His lips wrestled themselves beneath a white, neatly shaped moustache while his mind wandered. The aroma of fresh popcorn, cotton candy, and baked goods drifted from the carnival stands at their backs. His broad jaw clenched itself still. It was all music from another time.

Her head found his shoulder. His eyes closed. He came to remember the scent of her hair. Cinnamon. Lavender. Happiness. His thick brows furrowed against the knot in his throat. The man’s soul scoured his mind – each mistake of his life under inspection – begging for a reason to have been broken again, yearning for a cause to his pain, desperate for a wrong to right. She drew a slow, satisfying breath. He raged in silence. Darkness fell.

“Was it there?”

He felt her motion a shivering arm forward. Peeling his eyes open the man glanced past her hospital bracelet and down towards the end of her wrinkled fingertip. In the growing darkness of night – painted at the edges by the faint glow of neon shadows cast from the boardwalk – rested a modest pier. At its tip a lone flood lamp bathed a single wooden bench in unnatural whiteness.

“It was there.” The man spoke with the resignation of a steam engine coming to halt. He rose to stand. The softest of pulls against the pocket of his wool slacks threatened to draw his gaze to her. But he refused to look.

Her request became curt: “Take me. I want to go back to where it began. One last time.”

Chills rushed up the man’s arms as his palms found the handles of her chair. Each of his measured, limping steps into the blackness took them farther from the tourists petulant cries. Groans emerged from the boardwalk beneath. The knot in his throat tightened. The scent of salt on the evening wind coaxed tears from behind his weary eyes. Waves lapping against the support beams pricked his ears. A memory of walking beside her along that very path, decades earlier – nervous, well-groomed, and hungry for her embrace – flooded his mind:

He saw her fair skin. The straight, golden hair. Her blue eyes shimmering in the moonlight. His hand on the small of her back. Hers on his shoulder. His head, leaning forwards. Her subtle smirk. The bliss of her lips against his own. A taste he knew he couldn’t live without.

“What do you think happens?”

Her words ripped the vision from him.

“I’m not sure,” the back of his hand dried the man’s wrinkled, liver-spotted cheeks. “I figure it’s like falling asleep. But don’t – ”

“Think we dream?” Child-like hope laced her voice for only a moment, until her tone rescinded to doubt as he placed her just before the white railing which lined the edge of the pier. “I hope we dream.”

Before slumping into the bench at her side, he took great care to adjust the floral blanket swaddled around her boney chest. Then made sure the scarf around her naked scalp was secure. But all the while ensured their eyes never met.

“Why?” He gasped. Rhetorically.

“Maybe I’ll see him again. Maybe cradle him again. Maybe I can kiss him one last time, even if just in a dream.” She threw her words with great desperation. “Think he’ll be there? Think I’ll see him again?”

He felt her stare. His hand found hers. The waves lapped on.

“I hope so.”