You asked me what happened, and you are impatient for my answer. There is an investigation to complete. Time is short, I understand.
Where can I start but from the beginning? It was the smoke orphan that first drew my eye. Drifting above Rose’s scarlet hair, it seemed to glisten as it dissolved into the foggy atmosphere of the bar. It was like witchcraft. She was the sorceress.
Something in me shattered eternally in that dim, sweaty bar. Blind date or not, I knew she was the only one who could hold my fragments together.
I should explain. Orphans were what Rose called the smoke creatures she released when trying to blow rings with the vapours of her cigarette. In those days, you could smoke in bars, and we both did. She was always terrible at blowing rings, but what she made instead were better: dancing, grey flame children. She used to joke there were thousands of her deformed offspring swirling about the city’s venues, clogging up lungs, breeding young of their own. What a beautiful image. I’d give anything to breathe that air just once.
Do you find that strange? It might be. That’s how much she consumed me. To the point I could no longer recall what the rest of the world expected of a man. From that first night, everything else—work, sleep, food—was of so little consequence. It had less substance than her orphans.
And now I have no way back.
The time we passed together was the best I’ve ever spent. She was so fierce and brave. Her passion animated me, and I realised how long I had been drifting. Dead until she breathed vitality into me. That sounds corny, but it is how I feel. Doesn’t the world persist in asking how you feel about everything? Well, there it is. She was my life.
We did all the things any couple would do. Days by the river; drinks with friends; cosy nights in front of the television; surprise anniversary gifts.
There were fights, of course. Rose had darkness in her. A rage she sometimes turned on me. Some people find me intense. It must have been all-consuming for her, too. The depth of her feelings unsettled her, perhaps. She was used to being in control. I had to navigate her soul, pick my way through past pain; reassure her she was everything to me and always would be.
I know that’s not her real name. Of course I do. Her name is Helen. Rose is what I called her, on account of her dazzling hair. She would smile sometimes when I used it. Other times, she would bare her thorns. Women are complicated. That is why we love them. What do they say, ‘can’t live with them…’?
Sorry, poor phrasing. I have crossed another line, haven’t I? Oh, how she has broken me.
My memory of events is hazy in parts. She came home from work early, just as I was waking from my afternoon nap. A car door slammed in the front and I sprang out of bed to the window. As she reached the gate, her shoulders slumped. Her eyes were red like she’d been crying. She was on her phone when she entered the flat. Talking to a friend, I assumed. From where I lingered in the hallway, I heard her say she had lost her job. They had ‘let her go,’ is how she put it. I remember that, because I thought it a travesty anyone would let her go.
She needed me. In seconds, I was with her in the spice-smelling kitchen.
Appearing so suddenly, I must have surprised her. She was in such a state, so confused. Kept asking how I had got inside her flat. She was sure she had demanded I return my key. Please believe I only wanted to comfort her. The knife in my jacket, then hand, was far from my mind. Until it swooped.
To begin with, I felt nothing. Saw only the terror in her eyes. The first thing was the warmth of the blood. Pain came at the same time she screamed. She must have pushed or kicked me because I fell as she ran away. My cheek slapped on the floor. I tried to press the wound down too to soothe it on the cool tiles, but my spine would not flex. With the effort, my vision dimmed.
The next thing I remember is waking up in this room feeling like smoke. It is the only way to describe this lightness, this lack of solidity. I have no idea how long I was here before you came. Days, perhaps years.
You are like vapour too, Archangel. The white walls shine right through you. You are exquisite. Can you see through me? Your eyes are piercing, indistinct as they are. Whoever’s hand plunged the blade, I know what your presence means for me.
It is your duty to judge me. But consider this: Rose—sorry, Helen—still lives, and I have done little harm but to myself. She loved me once. I will never again touch her or breathe in her fragrance. Is that not punishment enough? If you met her, you would think so. Let me pass into the peace of the afterlife.
The verdict comes. Your essence glows red with righteous fury as you shake your head. Celestial eyes, scarlet like her hair, burn me. My sentence is harsh. You do not speak it, but I comprehend. My body will dissolve, but not my mind. The shards she made of me will scatter wide. I am doomed never to enjoy her gaze upon me, an anchorless soul adrift on Earth. Condemned to remember her forever, and the awful thing I did.
Was it so terrible, Archangel? To love her though she did not love me in return?
In your eyes, yes. You believe I stole her liberty to live without fear, to make a new life beyond me. Well, she is free now, is she not?
I am fading. My head seems loose, lighter by the second. Still, I will not hand you victory.
Oh, Rose. The time is near for us to be together. When I come to you, you will breathe me in—all of me. And I will stay inside you. A smoke orphan for keeps, but one that will always love you back.
So close now.