The Death of Appearances

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write about two neighbors who cannot stand each other.... view prompt


Fiction Sad

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

“We have plenty of time,” Zelda said, reaching across the space betwixt her and her fiancé. She lovingly caressed his forearm in an attempt to assure that his despondency was due to nothing more than the gloomy weather that filled the streets of Paris this rainy day.

“We have plenty of time to go all the places and see all the things your heart desires, Jacques. In a month we’ll be married and living together right here in this lovely Parisian apartment. Life is young. We are on the precipice of so many possibilities, so why in heaven’s name are you talking like your world has suddenly screeched to an unexpected stop?” Zelda asked.

Jacques gave her a meek smile, but she could still see the sadness deep in his green eyes – sense the melancholy that had invaded his being for some unknown reason as if it were tangible, palpable.

“You are right, my sweet,” Jacques said in his thick, French-laced accent and patted Zelda’s hand. “We have plenty of time,” he repeated absentmindedly. He stood and walked across the room to the small tabletop bar. “Do you want a drink, Zel?” he asked, pouring himself a generous glass of rich, amber-colored whiskey.

Zelda eyed him dubiously and shook her head. It was not like Jacques to drink whiskey, especially so early in the afternoon. He usually preferred his French wine.

Zelda rose and walked over to place a kiss on his cheek. “None for me, Jacques. I will have my usual glass of wine,” she said, heading to the kitchen. Pausing and glancing back, she added, “Besides, wine helps me cook better. Would you put some music on?”

Jacques did not respond, but it wasn’t long before Beethoven filled the early evening air, albeit a bit louder than normal. Surprise filled her. Jacques must definitely be in mood if he was playing Beethoven. He normally was partial to the soft, lilting music of composers like Chopin. Beethoven, on the other hand, was loud and aggressive at times.

“Would you turn that down a bit, Jacques? Suzette will complain,” Zelda called from the kitchen as she poured a glass of wine, but the volume of the music did not change.

Suzette was the neighbor from hell that Zelda wished on no one, including her worst enemy. For whatever reason – maybe the age difference – they had never melded or been able to coexist in any fashion. If Suzette could find anything, no matter how trivial, to complain about, she would do so. And it was more than likely that this evening she would complain about the volume of the music.

“Jacques?” No response. Zelda sighed and gave up. The music was probably so loud Jacques could not hear her anyway. Suzette would just have to wear ear plugs.

Zelda busied herself in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and preparing the salmon for baking. As her long, lean fingers and the knife meticulously performed the tasks, her mind touched on Jacques. She was worried. What was going on with him? It had been months since he had last seemed to genuinely laugh. Sure, he would sometimes attempt such emotion as if to reassure her he was fine – or possibly, more to reassure himself - but she knew he didn’t really feel it. She had been so sure that he would snap out of it one day and return to himself – they were getting married soon after all - but now she was not so sure.

Jacques’ words this September afternoon had left her perplexed, worried, and unsure how best to proceed. The truth was that she was a bit stunned by his declaration that he felt incomplete and at a standstill, going nowhere and with nothing to offer. Were they making a mistake proceeding with the wedding? Maybe the pressure was too much for him. He’d said his heart longed for something beyond understanding and that he felt bereft, misplaced. The crushed look on her face at the realization that she was not enough must not have registered with him, so deep was his melancholy. Was Jacques not as fulfilled by her as she by him? He was her everything. It was inconceivable that he would not feel the same.

As if attempting to reassure her yet again, Jacques had suddenly looked at her with those penetratingly emerald green eyes before he softly spoke again. “It’s not you, Zel. You are wonderful and by far the best part of me.”

Zelda had internalized a huge sigh of relief with his words, thus replying, “Well then, don’t be silly. We have plenty of time, Jacques.” However, had that been the right thing to say? She wasn’t sure. From the look in his eyes, it had not helped to squelch the sadness. She could not shake the deep-seated doubt that resided within her.

The timer sounded, distracting Zelda from her thoughts. She hurriedly removed the salmon from the oven. Delicious aromas of lemon, sage, and other spices filled the room. She fixed two plates with the fish and vegetables before placing them on the tiny table. As she poured the wine, she looked out the large window. Living on the twenty-fourth floor provided a stunning view of the Southern side of Paris. The distant sunset this evening was beautiful, boldly hinting at hues of blue, pink, and yellow. She mused it was definitely worthy of the finest artist’s brush. What a beautiful evening.

Finished in the kitchen, Zelda headed back to the den and immediately went to the stereo, turning down the music’s volume. As she did so, she could clearly hear the subtle noises of the city below, including resounding sirens. Looking to her left, she realized Jacques had left the balcony doors open again. The curtains swayed in the soft breeze that flowed across the balcony.

“Jacques, dinner is ready,” she called, assuming he was in the bedroom.

Before she could venture across the room to close the balcony doors, the doorbell rang. A bit surprised, her attention diverted by the impending visitor, she made her way to the door where she found her neighbor, Suzette. Zelda noted that, as usual, there was no hint of a smile on Suzette’s. Zelda was unsure as to why, maybe it was due to her older age, but Suzette was not the most pleasant of people. Assuredly, she had found the music far too loud this evening and was here to complain. If she had a breath left in her body, Zelda was sure Suzette would find something about something.

Zelda grimaced inwardly and rushed in with an apology. “I’m sorry about the music, Suzette. You know how much Jacques enjoys his Beethoven.” She fully expected a sarcastic retort, but instead, something in Suzette’s face gave her pause. What was it she saw in Suzette’s brown eyes? Was it pity? They were talking about the music, for heavens’ sake. Why in the world was Suzette looking at her like she felt sorry for her?

Suzette seemed extremely nervous as she looked down at her feet. After a few moments, she hesitantly stepped aside and allowed a tall, lean police officer to fill Zelda’s doorway. Zelda’s mind raced – it all made sense now. Was Suzette so angry about the loud music that she had used the opportunity to call the police? The ultimate payback. Seriously? This was unbelievable! Zelda cleared her throat as she attempted to think of something to say, but the officer spoke first.

“Mme. Dubois?”

Oui,” Zelda replied, keenly aware of her silent neighbor. “I’m so sorry about the loud music. It won’t happen again.”

Jacques was never going to hear the end of this! What would the other neighbors think now that Suzette had involved the authorities? This was no joke. Where was Jacques anyway? She looked over her shoulder anxiously, hoping to see him emerging from the bedroom, but there was no sign of him.

“Mme. I apologize, but it is not the music. I am here with some very unfortunate news. We have asked your neighbor, Mme. Lyon, to come and sit with you while we speak – to offer support,” he nodded at Suzette. The officer’s English, though stilted, was fluent enough that Zelda had no difficulty understanding him.

Surprise flickered across Zelda’s face before she quickly stepped aside. “Please come inside. I’ll get my fiancé.” She turned to call Jacques, but Suzette had quickly taken her by the arm and was steering her toward the sofa.

“Zelda, please sit,” she said somewhat hesitantly, pity now fully recognizable in her eyes.

Dread began to spread in Zelda’s chest, permeating her entire body. What had happened? Why would Suzette not let her get Jacques from the bedroom? What unfortunate news did the officer have? Her eyes darted across the room and spied the open balcony doors as she lowered herself on the sofa next to Suzette. Sirens filled the silence, echoing from the busy streets below. Fear and a fervent denial took firm root in her mind as a horrible thought crept forward to taunt her like an insidious snake silently slithering into a beautiful garden.

The officer removed his hat and took a seat directly across from her. His brow creased and his lips pursed, as he seemed to grapple with the necessary words that were all too obviously not easily forthcoming.

“Mme. Dubois, is this your fiancé’s wallet?” He handed her a brown leather wallet that she quickly recognized, although it appeared slightly more worn than when she had last seen it. Jacques was never without his wallet.

Zelda hesitated and then nodded, words refusing to leave her lips as she took ahold of the wallet, her fingers clutching the worn leather with a sense of dread.

The officer cleared his throat, uneasily looked at the floor, and then at Suzette before his somber gaze returned to Zelda. “Mme., I regret to inform you that we believe your fiancé leapt from your balcony to his death only a little while ago. We are in the process transporting the body to the morgue for further inquiries. We will require you, unfortunately, to identify him at some point. I am truly sorry, Mme.”

There was a loud, overwhelming buzzing in Zelda’s ears as her breath caught in her throat. This could not be right; the officer must be mistaken. Jacques had just been here, in the apartment, with her, listening to Beethoven.

Zelda shook her head in fervent denial and rose to go to the bedroom, tears streaming down her cheeks as she repeatedly called Jacques’ name. Suzette followed her every step, words of comfort softly issuing forth as she walked with Zelda about the rooms of the small apartment. A chill invaded Zelda. Jacques was not there. This was a nightmare, and she wished to awaken.

Riddled with unspoken shock, Zelda reluctantly took a seat on the sofa again. Lowering her head into both hands, she wept, not caring who else was there. Suzette’s palm touched her back as she sought to comfort Zelda. Unbeknownst to Zelda, the officer rose and walked about the apartment, taking note of the dinner table set for two, the half-drunk glass of whiskey on the bar, and the note that lay atop the desk with Zelda’s name boldly scribbled on it. Picking it up, he read the hand inscribed note and quickly confirmed his suspicion that the body below belonged to Jacques Lyon. Walking out on the balcony, he peered over the wall to view the chaos below before he returned and resumed his seat across from Zelda. Nothing looked suspicious or out of order. It was all too apparent this was a most unfortunate incident and an obvious suicide. Such a horrible thing, he thought to himself.

“Do you have someone you can call, Mme. Dubois? Any family?” he quietly asked. “You should not be alone, Mme.”

Zelda looked up through tear-filled eyes and nodded. She would have to call both of their families. She was not sure how she would tell them, but she must. Suzette handed her a pretty, little lace-trimmed handkerchief. Distracted for a moment, Zelda took note of the irony in the handkerchief’s unblemished beauty. How could something appear so delicate and lovely amidst this horrific and unbelievable set of circumstances? It was oxymoron: a beautiful rose in an otherwise prickly, weed infested garden. Looking up, Zelda thanked her through tear stained eyes and accepted the handkerchief.

“Very well, Mme. Dubois. We will need you to come down to the morgue in the morning, s'il te plaît, and to the station for further inquiries into your Mr. Lyon’s death, but for tonight, you should call your family and attempt to rest. Again, I am truly sorry for your loss.”

Zelda watched the officer rise, don his hat, and leave. Suzette followed behind him and quietly closed the door. Zelda’s senses had gone into overdrive, and she became innately attuned to every fleck of dust on the side table, every precise noise that rose from the streets below and every attempt at drawing breath that her body made.

“I’m going to make you a pot of very some strong coffee, Zelda,” Suzette said as she appeared to make herself at home, heading for the kitchen.

Zelda marveled that Suzette, her sworn enemy up until now, seemed very much at ease with her newly assigned caretaker, friend role. She had thought Suzette would be the last person on earth who she wanted to be with her, but she was thankful for the neighbor’s presence now. She would never look at the woman in the same harsh light again. Yes, it was definitely odd that she was finding comfort in the hands of someone she had never previously befriended or trusted. Then again, tonight was proving to be a night of many surprises. Life was not as it had so seemed only a mere hour before. Indeed, life now seemed like a carousel that went round and round, no matter how anxious Zelda was to disembark and escape its repeated cycle.

As Suzette busied herself with the coffee, Zelda picked up the wallet on the coffee table. She gazed at it as if seeing it for the first time before lifting it to inhale of its musky smell. It smelled like Jacques. Tears stung her eyes anew. Overwhelmed with the essence of the man she loved, she was unable to fathom he was gone. How utterly and undeniably sad. What immense pain had filled him so that he must do this final thing? Her heart was broken, and guilt filled her as she remembered her inability to make him feel better a short while earlier. She should have done more, said more, helped more; and she should have loved him more. She should have known what to say and been there for him even when he had pushed her away. Doubt, grief, and guilt consumed her in one fell swoop, and she wept again with greater intensity as she realized her life had changed inexplicably beyond repair.

Finally, she steadied herself and reached down to smooth the delicate, lace handkerchief in her lap. Again, she pondered the stark contrast of it and the devastating truth. Lightly, she traced its edges, feeling the softness of the Belgium lace. Her life would never be like the soft, pretty lace again, and she would never look at things in the same light ever again.

It would take a great deal to overcome Jacques’ death. She realized belatedly that she had created a life of illusion where everything appeared easy and beautiful, but in actuality, it had been anything but. With a deep-seated, profound regret, Zelda knew appearances were nothing more than a façade created for the weak. Instead, she now would choose strength. Jacques’ death filled her with a fierce determination not to hide behind weak, false appearances for it had been far too costly to do so. The illusion of appearances had been no friend. Life as she had known it was now tarnished by a surreal turn of events, and she only wished to view it from this point forward through new eyes to ensure this sort of thing never happened again. She would confront life’s situations, including those riddled with pain and doubt, with a strong dose of reality and a renewed force. She would never fall short of the mark again for those whom she loved.

Slowly, Zelda opened the balcony doors and made her way to the railing. She knew she was retracing Jacques’ final steps, and it nearly shook her resolve. Determined, she peered over the edge and looked down at the street below with no remaining evidence of Jacques’ final action. Her heart ached as she thought of Jacques in his final moments of desperation and despair. He must have felt so alone, so sad, so hopeless. Resolutely, Zelda clutched the delicate handkerchief within her grasp for a moment as her eyes filled with tears. She had been so foolish, so utterly wrong.

With every breath, she was keenly aware of the wind that seemed to whisper, echoing her regret, and it spurred her on. Lifting her slender arm and draping it across the balcony’s ledge, she dangled the delicate handkerchief from her fingertips; it danced in the wind. With determination borne of pain, she released it and watched as the wind lifted it across the Parisian skyline. She eventually lost sight of it, and only then did she allow a huge breath to escape her lips.

Today had been a day of awakening and reckoning, but somehow she knew she would to persevere and live, to move beyond the guilt and regret she felt so profoundly. Life was no longer an illusion, and just like the handkerchief, all of its fantasies had been carried away with the wind. Life’s false bravado was as dead this night as Jacques, disappearing into the moonlight along with the lace-trimmed handkerchief.

June 02, 2022 18:17

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Kira Carver
15:59 May 11, 2023

"Life's false bravado was as dead this night as Jacques, disappearing into the moonlight along with the lace-trimmed handkerchief." Turns of phrase like this have me coming back to this story for the fourth time. You've got some very poetic little gems in here.


Cindy Calder
18:12 May 11, 2023

Thank you so much for the compliment - it's really needed right now as I am going through a writing slump. You've let me know that someone, somewhere values my writing. Thank you from the bottom of my empty ink pen. Maybe I'll find the courage to refill it today.....


Kira Carver
20:48 May 11, 2023

Sometimes when I'm in a slump I'll try out a stream-of-consciousness drabble or two. It helps flex the muscle, keeps me from getting frustrated with myself. But no worries, I appreciate having this story to come back to when I need it.


Cindy Calder
10:07 May 12, 2023

Thank you….I’ll give the stream of consciousness a go.


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Kira Carver
02:59 Jun 09, 2022

Good grief this made me tear up! I've had experience with a loved one going down this same dark road. Your portrayal of emotions stirred by such a loss was very poignant, very accurate. The only real note I have is this: you may want to tone down on adverbs, just a smidge. "-ing" or "-ly" words can make sentences redundant when they're packed close together. Other than that, beautiful story. I truly enjoyed it.


Cindy Calder
11:35 Jun 09, 2022

Thank you so much. I’m glad you liked my story. Thank you also for your suggestion.


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