This brings me back to my terribleminds flash fiction habit. This week, our prompt was to use a character someone had created last week and write up to 2000 words about them. By my count, I’ve got 1847 below the fold. The character I used is inspired by the post here, by Pleasant Street. I say inspired because, while I use features of the character Pleasant Street created, I largely do away with the setting that they made to go along with her… not because I didn’t like it (I did), but because my ideas took me in a different direction. I hope that you like it, and I especially hope that Pleasant Street is able to appreciate it. Enjoy.
“What does that mean?” He rolled over behind me, taking a closer look. I could feel his movements pull the sheets. I closed my eyes for a moment, biting my lips to keep from snapping the first thing that came to mind. Why the hell did I do that? His finger ran down my back, tracing the characters. I’d written them out for the tattoo artist, the shapes coming from childhood memory.
“What does that mean?” He whispered in my ear, leaning in closer, his hand running up my side to cup my breast. Why did he already repulse me? I shivered in disgust and he took it the wrong way.
“You like that?” His hand slid across my skin, reaching—
“It means fuck off.” I slapped his hand aside and got up out of bed. The floor was cool and hard under my feet. I rummaged through the clothes on the floor with my feet, kicking aside his jeans to pick up my underwear with my toes.
“Whoah, Jesus,” he shifted back, propped up on his elbow and staring at me. “What’s wrong?”
I didn’t know what to say. I had too many things to say. You’re a lousy and inconsiderate lover, and your morning breath is terrible, and I hate myself for having slept with you. And maybe the most honest, the one that I had known for years but struggled with every day, it means “I do not forgive you.” I buttoned up my shirt, flicked hair out of my eyes. Yesterday’s clothes, still smelling like yesterday’s mistakes; they rubbed in the stink of cigarettes, the sweat and spilled beer, held them against my skin, a reminder of my sins.
“Sorry, it’s a personal tattoo or something, no problem, I get it.” He prattled on, like he could fix that gaping rift with words. It was too bad that someone that cute was … trash.
I sniffed my pants and regretted it, putting them on anyway.
“Do you want breakfast?” He still didn’t get it. I wasn’t going to stick around.
I looked at him. Smile or no smile? Don’t encourage him, no smile. “I don’t really feel like it.” I bent down and picked up my shoulder bag. A few steps took me to the door, and I slipped into my shoes. My cane, the one I take with me everywhere, was propped up against the wall where I’d left it. Good. He probably hadn’t fiddled with it while I was asleep. It felt right resting in my hand again.
“I, uh,” he looks at me standing framed in the doorway, obviously not thinking fast enough, “I had a good time. Would you like to do that again some time?”
“No,” I opened the door and stepped out into the hall, “probably not.” The door swung shut, with him still lying in bed. He had a stupid look on his face. Appropriate.
Outside, the weather had settled into a misting drizzle, clouds lit from underneath by the rising sun. The morning sun was invisible behind the high-rises, where they clustered around the bend in the river to the east, but for a few minutes it left the clouds a gorgeous yellow before they faded into grey again. Not many people were out this morning, and I liked being alone on the street for a change. My cane resting comfortably on my shoulder, I walked slowly towards the little park outside my apartment building, where the bomb craters had been turned into fish ponds and water gardens. My neighborhood had it bad. His had had it good.
It was hard to forget the war. No one really could, even though nearly everyone tried. The building’s facade was like that writ large, all the pockmarks filled on the first two stories. Even the graffiti seemed like it was trying to help, masking the difference between the original stone and brick and the putty used to smooth over the building’s wounds. But any old bullet holes higher than you could easily reach on a ladder were still there, chunks of brick and stone torn away and never repaired. And deeper inside, the wounds were still just as real. My building’s elevator hasn’t worked since the top of the shaft was blown off during shelling, patched but never replaced.
My thigh was burning again by the time I reached my apartment on the third floor, the skin around that scar quivering from the strain, but I made it all the way without having to use the cane. That wasn’t why I kept it, and I wasn’t going to stoop to using it that way. My cavernous room felt empty despite the clutter, despite the broken furniture and shattered glass in the corners that I’d never quite gotten around to taking out. The floor’s familiar dark stains felt like home, reminders from when this was the building’s triage ward, my father’s triage ward. I thought I could still put faces to some of them.
The sketch I’d done yesterday was sitting on my easel, right where I’d left it, but in the cool gray light filtering through the windows it looked all wrong. The windows, and that whole wall, were the only new part of the room, rebuilt after the explosion that blew through here. The sketch showed the same view, from my memory, from before the repairs had been made. From before they’d come in and removed the bodies. As I looked at it again today I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d drawn dolls instead of broken humans. It felt ugly and profane, like I was playing at memorializing them instead of sanctifying them the way I’d meant to. I couldn’t put paint to this, I couldn’t even stand to look at it. I turned away and staggered to the stool next to my electric kettle, and struggled to think of something other than the way my father had looked when they found him.
Tea was what I needed. I focused on that until I had my hands wrapped around the warm mug, shivering as the cold seeped in through my damp clothes. I sipped the hot drink, scalding my tongue and cursing until I finally gave up and stripped off my clothes, trying to find something fresh and warm instead. The old sweater was good enough, even if I didn’t like the memories. It still smelled a little bit like him.
I stared at the room while I went back to my tea, trying to imagine what could have driven him to do what he did. Why did he stay? Why didn’t he take me somewhere else?
We knew that there were farms outside the city; I’d heard stories from people who’d made it through the whole war at one of them. They thought they’d had it hard. They told big stories about making do, about watching the bombers overhead or watching the troops and tanks when they finally came. They’d hid, they said, and it was a miracle they’d made it out alive.
Fuck them. My eyes caught on the far wall, on the set of scratches I knew best. Georgie, my best friend since forever, had made those with me while he lay on a cot there, among all the others. His name and mine were there, and that heart, one of ours. That was his stain underneath it. My easel seemed so uncaring, so insufficient. The job was too much to ask, wasn’t it? Why had I ever set it for myself?
When had I become so bitter? The question only lingered for an instant; drinking tea while wrapped in his warm sweater, his cane smooth in my hand, the answer seemed obvious.
I had thought my father was the bravest man. The best. He and I were going to save everyone we could. Mom had died years before and the people in our building were all we had left, but they were a good family, a strong and big one. We’d stayed to help. We had been naive. My father had been naive. We should have left while we still could, and taken as many people with us as possible. He might still be alive. They might still be alive. But now they weren’t, they never would be, and no one would know them, or hear them talk or laugh again. If only my father had been as smart as everyone thought he was.
But that was when it hit me.
I’d been trying to memorialize them, all of them, trying to make some way for people to know them and to care. Nobody cared, really. They knew the pain because they’d felt it too, or they’d seen the pain in too many others not to feel it, but everyone was too closed off. They were too wrapped up in their own pain, and they couldn’t take any more from someone else. I’d been doing it all wrong.
I started the long work of erasing my sketch, enough so that I could lay my new one over it. It was a view of the park, the park as it was now, as they’d never lived to see it. It was the view from my window, one of the rebuilt ones.
Georgie was sitting by the edge of a crater, tossing bits of bread to the koi, his bare feet dangling in the pond. Ms. Kayashi was serving steamed buns to that man she’d liked, the one whose name I’d forgotten but whose face I remembered. He’d lived on the eighth floor, and he’d added to the stain two spaces in to the left of the door. He’d had a nice smile. He was playing chess with Arkany, the old man from the first floor who’d been buried underneath his mattress and who’d lived.
The park was full of them. That couple, the Gellers, with their baby stroller. Their dog, the one that had started eating body parts after we ran out of food, the one my father had finally had shot, was trotting alongside them. In the benches to their left I could see Ramona Miranda Alcarón, kneeling, staring over the back of the bench at Josiah Utgerman. He’d been a heartthrob, the prettiest boy of the tower until he caught a piece of shell, and Ramona had known it. She’d preached it to anyone who’d listen, except Josiah himself. I still didn’t know what had happened to her. She’d just disappeared.
They were all so happy. No, not happy, alive. They started to blur, until I rubbed my eyes and felt them hot and wet. I wasn’t done yet. There were so many more to add. People I’d seen, faces I remembered pale and dead, dying, screaming or crying. But here they were, laughing, eating, napping or talking or reading. And there, over in the corner with his cane and his sweater and his stethoscope, listening gravely to the young girl with a bloody skinned knee, was my father.
I do not forgive you.
But maybe I don’t have to.