The clock spun counterclockwise. A steady tick, tick, tick, counting back from 10. 9. 8-.
It made more sense to be counting down than to be counting forward. After all, time, Amber thought, always seemed to be running out.
It was 6 am when Amber got the text.
It took her a minute to convince herself to look at her phone screen, another to recognize the unsaved number staring back at her, and one more after that to respond.
“I’m coming home.”
Is what the message said. It was hard to answer because Amber wasn’t sure this place could still be called home. It was hard to answer because it was from Abigail Hart.
“It’s 6 in the morning. Leave me alone.”
Is what Amber replied but she stared at the screen for what felt like hours after she hit send waiting for Abigail’s response. She thought maybe for once she had actually listened to what she said but then her response appeared.
“Let’s get breakfast.”
Abigail had been gone long enough for Amber to convince herself that she never even existed at all. She was a ghost of a memory, a name lost in the whistle of the wind. Hearing it now was like finally being able to tune into a frequency that had been nothing but static.
One thing Amber knew for sure; while Abigail Hart was awake somewhere in this little town, there was no way in hell she was going to fall back asleep.
Tick. Tick. Tick. 7. 6-.
Amber left her house just as the clock spun back to 5 am. Walking through the park, she shoved her hands in her pockets and stared at the flower-covered ground beneath her feet.
It hadn’t ever made sense that the pathways to be flower beds, and Amber wasn’t able to muster up any feelings of guilt as she stepped through them, leaving wilted lilies in her passing.
She felt the chill of a cold breeze against her cheek as it swept through the street, rustling the trees around her. She peeled her eyes from the ground and looked up into the tree rooted sky. She didn’t remember the trees like that but then again, when was the last time she had left her house? Any easier question would’ve been what day did Abigail Hart leave town? Amber figured the answer was the same.
The Blue Moon Café was the only place open at this hour. It was home to the world’s best cup of coffee according to the sign hanging in the window, a $4.99 breakfast special, and the ghosts of all the people who had left town and never looked back. Amber had stepped foot inside the diner hundreds of times before but it had never felt like walking back through time.
Seeing Abigail Hart sitting in their usual booth next to the window was harrowing. It pulled at something in Amber’s chest until it was so tight that it snapped, and Amber felt like she couldn’t breathe.
It was at once obvious that this was Abigail but also that it wasn’t. A year had added a few inches to her curled brown hair, and her face seemed thinner. The scar on her face only made her look older but no less beautiful and Amber’s first thought was that it was entirely unfair.
Who was Abigail to still have this effect on her? Who was she to be sitting there like she hadn’t walked away? Who was she to have stolen Amber’s heart only now to bring it back a year later? Amber didn’t even want it anymore, she’d grown used to living without it, her hollow days spent haunting her own house in comfortable silence.
Abigail’s eyes snapped over to meet hers. It was like someone had flipped a switch because Amber couldn’t hear anything anymore but she could’ve sworn it was her name Abigail had just said.
“It’s good to see you,” Amber forced herself to say. If Abigail heard the tremble to her words, she was nice enough to pretend she didn’t.
Abigail smiled at her, her head quirked a bit as she studied Amber. Something passed over her face and she blinked, once, twice. Then shook her head.
“Sorry,” She said, “It’s just been a while, I wasn’t expecting…” Her voice trailed off.
“I know,” Amber said because she thought she did, “Me too,”
A coffee appeared next to Amber that she didn’t remember ordering. But then again, you didn’t usually have to order at the Blue Moon Cafe. Somehow, what you most desired just showed up at your table. Maybe that’s what brought Abigail back, wishful thinking.
“So, how have you been?” Amber heard herself ask, launching Abigail into a long speech about what she’d been up to all those miles away.
Amber tried to pay attention but there was something about recounting everything that she’d done, every milestone passed without her that reminded Amber exactly how alone she’d been, and how much she hated every part of it.
“So,” Abigail said, “What did I miss?” Amber blinked and suddenly the meal she didn’t remember eating was finished. How long had she been there? Amber looked at the clock on the wall. Tick. Tick. Tick. 6. 5. 4-.
“Let’s go for a walk.” She said instead of a response.
The sky was navy against the shine of golden stars as Amber and Abigail walked back down the street. It seemed that each time they walked past a street lamp the light inside flickered brighter just to dim as they moved on to the next one.
“I missed this,” Abigail said, more to herself than to Amber, “I hated being so far away,” An ugly part of Amber’s mind immediately thought Then why did you go? She forced it away, swallowing the bitterness down with a grimace.
Abigail stumbled closer, knocking her hand against Amber’s. She tried to ignore the touch, something so small shouldn’t have felt so big, but the warmth around her lingered.
“How long are you staying?” Amber asked.
“I’m not sure yet. Maybe a week,” Abigail said. It almost was cruel, the way Amber’s long-repressed emotions returned to her all at once. A week wasn’t forever, just like forever didn’t exist and no matter what she wanted, she refused to go through what she did when Abigail walked away last time. She turned back to the sky and closed his eyes against the stars.
When she opened her eyes they were back in the park, stepping through flower beds of wilted roses, their colour seeming to melt away each time they were stepped on.
“What are you doing here, Abi?”
“Well, I was in town and I thought-” Abigail began,
“No,” Amber said, “What are you doing here.”
Abigail blinked at her and Amber watched the ends of her smile disappear. Maybe it was the glint in her eyes or the way her lips came to rest in a pout but Amber thought she looked like the kid that had run away all those years ago. Her eyes averted from Amber, she followed her gaze to a clock tower, just off in the distance.
Tick. Tick. Tick. 3. 2. 1-.
“I don’t know.” Abigail said finally “I just…” She took a breath and ran a hand through her hair. “I wanted to see you. I was terrified that I never would again, and I tried to ignore this… pull in my chest for as long as I could, but I can’t anymore. I can’t.” She looked at Amber, big eyes glistening in the starlight with unfalling tears. All the anger Amber felt disintegrated. Hadn’t she thought the exact same thing? Hadn’t she shared those exact same fears?
“Abi,” Amber whispered,
“And don’t I get to want this? Don’t I get to be selfish? Just this once?” Abigail asked frantically.
“It’s not selfish to want to be happy,” Amber pointed out.
“It is when your happiness relies on another person,”
A silence stretched between them.
“Do you believe in fate?” Abigail asked finally reaching out and grabbing Amber’s hands. Before Amber could remember who she was talking to, she replied,
“Come back with me,” Abigail said softly, reaching out and twirling Amber’s hair.
“And then what?” Amber asked with a laugh. She shook her head as the image of their entire lives flashed by her eyes leaving a cold bittersweet emptiness in her heart. “I can’t come with you any more than you can stay here.”
“So this is it then?” Abigail asked, and there was nothing cynical in the question, just a fact. This was it. This was all they were ever going to get. “Only in our dreams…”
Tick. Tick. Tick. 0.
The clock spun clockwise. A steady tick, tick, tick, counting forward 1, 2, 3-.
It didn’t make much sense to be counting forward. After all, time, Amber thought, always seemed to be running out.
The ghost on Abigail Hart was gone before Amber had even really seen her. In the soft haze of morning light, her bedroom light up and Amber at once realized how stupid she had been.
This hadn’t been the first time she’d dreamt up a version of Abigail Hart that missed her, and she was certain it wouldn’t be the last. Yet, there was this warm familiar pull to seeing her face. The version that lived inside Amber’s chest, the one she didn’t want to resist against, the one she didn’t want to let go of.
After all, waking up was the most mundane of it all, but to say goodbye to tree rooted skies was to say goodbye to Abigail Hart, and Amber wasn’t quite ready to do that yet.