I stared at the letters until they blurred. His handwriting was terrible as always but the sentiments were sweet, so I guess that didn’t matter. The paper was crumpled though, which was the mail’s fault. Charlie would never be so careless.
I traced the line of one of the deeper crinkles. The paper was rough and I could feel the letters as I ran my fingers over them.
“Um, miss?” A man was standing in the doorway, looking extremely concerned. He was also holding out his hand, the hand that wasn’t worrying at his red cap.
I looked him over, he was bald and had blue work clothes, which were altogether quite raggedy. “What?” For the life of me I could not remember why he was standing there, holding out his hand palm up.
“Money, miss?” He looked more disturbed by the minute. I quirked my brow, he sighed. “For the letter, miss?”
I looked down at my hands where the wrinkled letter lay. “Oh.”
I handed over the cash quickly. These space-outs are happening a lot lately, I mused. I wonder why. It made me ill at ease how unbothered I was by this. Was something wrong with me? Maybe I really did need to get a therapist like Laney had suggested.
Or maybe, Said a voice in the back of my head, people need to let you live your life instead of they living it for you. You wouldn’t want to burden anyone after all.
No, I thought, you’re right.
I placed the letter on the pile of others which were much neater and crisper than this one. I made a mental note to iron it out later to fit with the others. My phone pinged and I fished it out of my purse.
‘Hey girl!’ It said, ‘Movie night tonight??? I’m totally beat from work! Let’s hang!’
I had a staring contest with the phone. My heart and head were arguing lazily. They had already been through this plenty of times. ‘To go out or not to go out, that is the question.’ My heart was barely making an effort this time, merely restating it’s previous arguments about the importance of social balance and the benefits of fresh air. My head didn’t even have to make a case. The virtues of staying inside were too tempting.
Like a wilting flower I gravitated towards the sun. The sun in my case being, my phone, the TV and ice cream.
‘Not tonight, sorry.’ I typed ‘I’m really busy.’
I clicked on the TV and prepared to let my brain shut off. Truth be told, I had done everything I needed to do for the day. The house was spotless, work was fine, I paid the rent last week, I hadn’t called my mom, but that was an issue for another day.
The phone buzzed again.
‘With what?’ It questioned.
Darn. I’d forgotten how observant Laney was. She saw right through any of my alibis and knew my work schedule by heart. There was no hope in escaping her unnecessary need to fix me. I wasn’t broken.
I dropped my phone on the floor. Maybe if I just ignored her she’d go away.
Billy Joel suddenly crooned through my phone. “Ah ah ah ah ah ah! Uptown girl!”
I stuffed my head into the couch cushions. Just because she was calling me did not mean I had to answer. But suddenly my heart was awakened from it’s previous stupor. It was running at illegal speeds in my chest. Screaming about how I was letting down my friend. My best friend. My only friend since my life turned sour. My brain tried to rationalize with me but it was no use. My heart was telling me I was selfish and rude. It sneered and told me my friend would stop trying if I didn’t pick up.
I sat up as the last few lines were delivered. The idea of Laney giving up on me made something stir in my chest, caused movement in the nothingness. I couldn’t breathe.
“You know I’m in love with an uptown girl” The song was almost over. I had one chance.
Gasping for air, I picked up.
“Bethany Colman,” Laney’s voice was stern over the line but I was too busy hyperventilating to care. “What on earth could possible be keeping you from hanging out with me tonight, huh?” A pause filled her angry speech. I would have replied if I could get enough oxygen in my lungs but they seemed to have forgotten how to expand and retract. “Beth I know you’re there.” She sounded frustrated. I hated myself for being such a nuisance but I couldn’t breathe. “No, really I wanna hear this. What excuse do you have for me this time?”
I flopped onto my back, trying in vain to lay myself out paper-thin to coax the air into my lungs. “Just!” I heaved, my chest was so heavy, it felt like crying without the tears. Why was I getting so worked up about this? “Give....me...a...moment...” I said, between pants.
Laney was quiet then, she had always been the patient one. Even when everything else sucked, she was there. After a few moments of futile and scurried breathing she did speak. “Beth? Listen to me, okay?” I was listening. “Breathe with me. I want to hear it. In.” She breathed in audibly. I did the same. “Out.” She let it all out in one gust.
I repeated the action over and over again. Sucking in deep breath after deep breath until the knot in my chest was relived. I laughed shakily.
“Ha....sorry.” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “I don’t know why that happens, usually I can get through it by myself.”
What I wanted to say was too complicated to admit. That without her I wouldn’t even be standing. That I had anchored myself to her and relied on her check-ups more than water. I was too selfish and pathetic to say it aloud.
Laney was quiet, although I could hear the words she didn’t say. ‘I do. I know why it happens.’ “....Sure.” She said instead. “Don’t worry about it.”
“So...” I said, rather reluctant. As much as I didn’t want to move, now that Laney was here I couldn’t stand the idea of being alone. “The movies...”
I could hear her smile through the phone. “I’ll pick you up in 30 minutes.”
She talked to me on the phone the whole 30 minutes as we got dressed. She told me about Todd, her new boyfriend, the struggles of working at a daycare and trying to finish college at the same time, her overbearing and yet always traveling parents who were in Amsterdam and other passing moments that caught her fancy. I responded appropriately to each story she told, and butted in when I needed to. It was the first time in a while that I had talked to someone without guilt and without having to shut myself off from painful memories.
I still felt detached and lifeless, but having her there with me helped. I felt a little more engaged than I had in a long time.
When she got to my apartment I was beginning to think that maybe the movies wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I had forgotten how easy it was with Laney. Even in the car, she let me listen in on her life, and pretend mine didn’t exist.
“...and then he told me that if I didn’t like that one I should help him pick out a dog, since I have such good taste.”
I gaped, trying to please my friend with my reactions, Laney always loved her dramatic stories, the juicier the better. “That is too cute, don’t tell me—“
“Yup!” She giggled “That was our first date.”
“Wow” I breathed. I leaned back in my seat. Easy. This was easy. I could handle this. I listened as she then launched into her next story, this one about her second date with Todd, the perfect boyfriend. I watched the world through the window. Apparently, not only had I forgotten how easy it was with my friend, but the beauty of our town had escaped me, too. The world was green, and blue and orange and yellow. Everything was colorful, from the shops to the spotted patches of country in between.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had appreciated the majesty of the Earth. It made me feel small.
“Beth, you listening?” Laney’s eyes were no longer on the road but flicked to me.
“What? Yes.” I said, embarrassed. “Sorry. I just...don’t remember there being all these trees everywhere. There must be a service project or something going on.”
Laney didn’t speak but the sadness in her gaze spoke for her. “Yeah...” She was quiet. “That was actually last year for Earth day. We planted them for the people who... anyway, I helped plant one.”
I suddenly couldn’t move again. It took everything I had left in me to keep my breathing even. To stay calm, to not ruin the first happy day in a year. Remembering last April would mean remembering everything else and I couldn’t risk destroying my chances of indifference. Even the idea of it being a year was too much to handle.
So I breathed and continued to stare out the window, decidedly not looking at the trees. “Oh.” I said. “That’s cool.” And closed the topic on discussion.
Laney didn’t talk about it anymore. Instead she prattled about her job again.
It took the whole car ride and Laney’s chattering for me to cool down. Even then, an uneasiness was pounding at the walls in my head. No, I thought. Please, I can’t think about that. I don’t want to think about that anymore.
Eventually, without anymore hitches we reached the movie theater. A blue and white, 80s themed cinema with the title displayed on the front: Sold Out. I tilted my head and opened Laney’s door for her. “That’s a weird movie title, what’s it about?” I asked.
She hadn’t actually seen the theater yet. “Shoot!” She stamped her foot on the ground and I dodged her rage. I had learned over the years that one did not mess with an angry ginger. It was a good thing I did too because she marched right up to the teenager manning the doors and chewed him out.
“Your website said only a couple people registered their tickets!” Laney yelled.
“Did it?” The boy said, pulling out his phone to check, he laughed “Oops! My mistake, it was supposed to say ‘a few dozen’. Stupid autocorrect am I right?”
This only worked Laney up even more. “What? You’re an employee here! You can’t seriously say ‘oops’ and expect me to be okay!”
He held up his hands in defense. Personally, I would have run. “Look man, I just work here okay.”
The conversation continued like this for a little longer than necessary. Laney was very heated when it came to things going her way. I felt bad for the kid but once the lioness had her prey there was certainly no dissuading her. Eventually—though, I thought she might have been forcefully removed from the premises—Laney gave up and returned to the car, sighing.
I slid in and we continued back home.
“I’m sorry, Beth, this was a bad idea.” She was gnawing on her lower lip angrily, eyes solely focused on the road.
I shrugged, fiddling with my purse. “It’s fine. This was nice, actually....”
Watching Laney’s expression shift made me look away. It was like watching something straight out of a movie. It was too real. But I caught the smile before I stared outside. “Thanks.” She sniffed.
Something warm filled me and my hollow days were shoved under the rug as it started to pour outside. The rain pounded the car in heavy sheets. It was so loud that it drowned out our silence. I shivered.
Laney squinted through the storm, her windshield wipers were doing nothing against it. “Wow, it’s really coming down.” Her voice was tense and her shoulders hunched as she gripped the steering wheel. I began looking through them nervously as well. Who knew when we would get home through this?
“Maybe we should pull over.” I suggested.
Laney drove on for a few more minutes before sighing and relaxing her posture. “Yeah, you’re right.” She parked the car next to a moderately sized tree and cranked her chair back. “Might as well get comfortable, weather app says we’ll be stuck here for a while.”
We watched the rain slide down our windows and talked about nonsense.
“Favorite food?” Laney asked.
“Ice cream.” I said without hesitation.
She laughed. “That’s not a food!”
“You put it in your mouth and swallow it!” I retorted “That’s food enough for me!”
It must have been at least an hour of this before I started getting a weird feeling. I had a strange urge to start the car up again and drive out of our little rain-haven but it was still storming. And the warning had come too late, my eyes had already made contact with his. And again the breath was stolen right out of my lips. He looked like he was straight from one of my dreams, or my nightmares really, dripping in the downpour.
I could feel the tears welling in my eyes before they fell. He was just as beautiful as I remembered. And he was staring right at me, almost bidding me to follow him.
“Charlie...” I breathed, my hand brushing my lip in horror.
“Beth?” Said a distant voice. “Beth! What the—!”
I hadn’t realized I was in the rain until it came splashing on my cheeks. It was so hard I was instantly soaked. But I didn’t care because he was there and he was reaching for me and he loved me.
“Charlie!” I sobbed. I was running through the mud trying to reach him. He was so close.
“BETH!” I didn’t bother myself to turn around. He was there.
But suddenly someone was holding me, pinning my arms to my sides, keeping me from reaching him. I was too weak to fight against them but I tried anyway. “Get...away...!” My voice hiccuped over sobs. “Charlie!”
“It’s not him, Beth!” Said the voice. “Beth, it’s not him. He’s gone!”
I didn’t care, I squirmed against the arms. There was a sigh and I was being carried away. I screamed his name. I fought against whatever was holding me, couldn’t they see, didn’t they understand he was there and I had to see him. But no, after a while of the touch even I came to an understanding.
Laney held me still and carried me into the car where it was warm. My crying worsened but she kept holding me, tighter than necessary but not unwanted. Her arms secured me and tethered me to earth. When I looked for him again he wasn’t there, all that remained was the storm. Conscious and alert now, I wrapped my arms around Laney. “I’m so sorry.” She murmured, brushing my hair with her fingers. “I didn’t know it was this bad. I’m so sorry.”
I listened to her as she hummed something and my breathing evened out. “I-it’s never been this bad. But honestly I’m okay I’ll just—“
“Excuse me!” Laney gaped at me. “You are very clearly not okay Beth.”
“NO.” Laney gripped my arms. “You don’t have to go through this alone, you know that right?“
I paused as tears slipped down my face. But I was alone. Ever since the plane crash I was completely alone. I was a stone in the river of my life, stopping all progression as everyone else rushed on ahead of me. How could she say I ‘wasn’t alone’?
She read between the lines of my silence. “Bethany. I’ve watched you since April and have felt so helpless, Charlie was my friend too but it broke my heart to see you suffering from it more than everyone else. You blocked yourself off from me and anyone else. I didn’t know how to help, heck I still don’t know how to help! But please,” she squeezed my fingers “please, I can’t watch you do it alone anymore. Please, Beth, let me help you.”
I stared at her, my lower lip trembling. My whole life I was told to get over it, to be strong despite my struggles. But I was so tired of bearing my grief alone, having it all hoarded into the back of my head.
I nodded solemnly.
The car was quiet as we sat in the dread of the moment and I tried to collect myself. Accepting it was a lot. I had been denying it too much to completely accept he was gone for good, but I could at least agree that what I saw was most certainly not Charlie. It was just a mirage. I squeezed my eyes shut. Even that was a lot. I could feel Laney smile softly against my shoulder, undoubtedly understanding my need for time. Slowly, she untangled herself from me and for a little while we sat in silence.
We sat until the rain settled to a light pattering on the roof. Laney sat in the drivers seat and turned on my favorite playlist, letting me sit there and reflect on the day I didn’t know I would have. It was a calm ride and I felt at peace. The future seemed not only brighter than before but actually possible now. I had been holding out on my own since last April. The thought of getting help, of seeing a therapist was terrifying but also relieving.
I wasn’t okay. Not by a long shot. Everything felt shaky and uncertain. But breathing was a little easier and that was what mattered.