The beat of the bass pulses through my body, making my nerves tingle and washing away the thoughts from my crowded mind. The trouble is, this is not my music, and those thoughts eddying out of my head are my livelihood. I gave myself six months to detach and focus, and the ending would come: I would finish my novel at last. But it’s been six weeks, and I am no closer to giving my heroine the resolution she deserves. I came to Mayfair for peace and quiet, and the last thing I had anticipated was my ignorant, boorish, tyrant of a neighbour with his perpetual revelries every night of the week. My vintage Woodstock typewriter vibrates violently on my desk as the volume intensifies. I storm out of my flat and pound my fist on the door to 317B. A picture of easy aloofness, a grin stretches over the face of Noah Corbyn as he leans lazily against the doorframe, dragging his eyes over my tank top, sleep shorts, and unmade-up face.
“I would invite you in, but it appears as if the party has come and gone for you.”
“I would rather throw myself in the Thames than attend one of your gatherings of debauchery. I am here to request for the last time that you keep your music within hearing levels of less than half the block and preferably to those contained within your own four walls!”
“Ah feisty…long gone is that bookish composure. You may well be in the making of a fun party guest yet.”
“I swear Noah, if you don’t start to show some consideration you will find the cops at your door every time I hear so much as hear a beer bottle open!”
“Right, well until that time darling, enjoy your…lounging.” Another sly grin as the door swings shut in my face.
“AGH!” As I return to my flat, I don’t know whether it’s the music pumping in my blood or the gritting arrogance in his voice, but I dial 111 and finally live up to my promise to make a noise complaint. I sigh a breath of relief thinking about the look on his smug face when he realizes I followed through. Half-past eleven I hear a pair of heavy footsteps in the hall, and nearly squeal with excitement when I see two uniformed officers striding past my door. I hear only a muffling of deep voices over the music still pulsing, but even imagining the conversation makes me giddy. Moments later, Noah’s unmistakable voice booms through the building: “Out! Everybody out! Now!” The music stops abruptly, and dozens of footsteps and murmurings fill the now relative silence. A hoard of people stride toward the lifts. I rush into the corridor: “I can’t thank you enough officers! I was afraid a noise complaint wouldn’t warrant your attention.”
Both turn their attention to me, puzzled: “Apologies miss, we aren’t here about a noise complaint.”
“We were here about…another matter.” The taller of the officers speaks grimly. “Perhaps you’d better ask the gentleman yourself. Goodnight miss,” and the pair set off down the hall.
Incredulous, I wonder what could possibly have made Noah end his merrymaking so early? Whatever the cause, the silence is bliss and I intend to enjoy every moment of it as I slip beneath my sheets and drift into a peaceful slumber.
I wake to the sound of glass shattering. I jolt up, the dark sky hinting dawn is still far off. Of course it is the wall on which my bed sits that I share with my nemesis, dooming me to never have a solitary night of undisturbed rest. The next thing I hear is the unmistakable sound of vomiting. Pleasant. Knowing sleep to be hopeless, I trapse to my small kitchen to boil the kettle, my anger dulling to fatigue whilst I wait. When the wailing has subsided, I realize so too has the gagging—the sound having given way to a soft sob, just audible above the silence. Shaking my head at my own ill-advised compassion, I pour two mugs of tea.
I tap on the door to 317B, still clutching a steaming mug in each hand. Noah opens the door, looking like a shell of the man I had seen just hours before. His black t-shirt and designer jeans are rumpled and creased, his hair dishevelled, and he smells of booze, vomit, and salt water. That grin is nowhere to be seen.
I force a small smile. “I heard, well, I always hear, but—you were crying.” An undeniable fact given the tears still streaming down his cheeks.
“And what business is that of yours?” The snarky comment carries no weight, betrayed by the crack in his voice and the despair in his eyes.
“Well generally you make it my business—” I calm my irritation. “It doesn’t matter. Tea?” It’s a stupid offering, but something my mum used to do that somehow made even the worst situations more bearable. To my surprise, he takes the mug I hold out and turns back into his flat, leaving the door open for me to follow. Even in the dim light, I can see the place is trashed. Beer cans and bottles cover every surface, discarded clothing items litter the floor, the air is heavy with smoke and sweat and other scents I don’t wish to identify. I follow him to where he leans against a wall and slumps onto the floor without saying a word. I slide down beside him and take a sip from my mug, savouring the taste of bergamot coating my tongue. He makes no attempt to speak, just stares into oblivion as if the darkness and silence will swallow him whole. The moments pass idly by and still he does not stir, so I sit in the once coveted silence I now find deafening, trying not to contemplate what event has rendered him thus. After a long while, Noah raises the mug to his lips and takes a sip before setting it aside. Without meeting my eyes, he shifts onto his side, curling into the floor, and rests his head in my lap.
Stunned, I don’t dare move. My chest tightens to see him this way. He looks young and innocent: the lines of his face, once sharp and strong, are now soft and gentle. His dark hair falls into his eyes and his lips part ever so slightly. His breathing slows and evens, and I realize that perhaps he needed the silence just as much as I did. I rest one hand on the floor beside me and the other on his arm, letting my head fall back and closing my eyes.
When they open again, light is beginning to stream over the horizon. Noah has not moved, and his breathing is still even and deep. I reach to grab the television remote and turn the news on mute, watching with feigned attention. An MP discusses a proposed bill. The week’s weather forecast: rain. Then, an image of a burning car, steered off the motorway into a barricade only to burst into flames. My gaze turns to the subtitles: “A fatal motor accident resulted this evening after a 21 year-old male under the influence drove off the road. Identities of all the victims are still to be disclosed, but initial reports say Grace Corbyn, daughter of the business magnates who lost their lives just earlier this year in a similar incident, is among the deceased.” A familiar face flashes on the screen. The last time I’d seen her was walking through our lobby, hand in hand with her brother. The only time I’d seen him really smile. A small gasp escapes me. I feel a drop of moisture on my bare skin. I look down to find Noah’s eyes open and plastered to the screen. I fumble to switch off the TV. He presses himself up with his arms. He looks haunted—dark circles have formed under his empty gaze, his lips and skin pale, as though the life had left him, too.
“Noah, I’m so sorry.” I am suddenly plagued with guilt recalling my smug anticipation of his misery when the officers knocked on his door. Not about a noise complaint, but notifying him of his sister’s death.
“She’s gone. I have no one left.”
“You have me. If you want.” I don’t entirely know why I say it, but I mean every word. The vulnerability in his eyes is answer enough.
His phone starts vibrating in his pocket between our grazing thighs. He glances at the caller ID: “It’s the family lawyer.” He cringes when he says family, likely realizing he is all that is left of it. “I can’t, not yet.”
“I’ll call him back later, arrange for him to come tomorrow. For now, you should rest.” I stand and pull him to his feet, leading him to what I presume is his bedroom. Though I’ve never been inside, the layout of our flats is the same only flipped. The room is tidy, the most adornment being a frame on the nightstand with a picture of him smiling beside a beautiful young woman. His sister. My gaze falls to the floor. Broken glass. I turn to prevent him from entering the room: “Come to mine instead.” He doesn’t reply, but trails me down the hall where I motion to my bed. “You can crash here; I’ll be around if you need me.”
--- Noah ---
I climb mindlessly into her bed and pull the covers up to my neck. Her bedroom is a mirror image of mine, though its decorated to feel like a home, whereas mine is about as empty as I feel. I realize that our beds sit against the same wall, but hers is warm and smells of vanilla and spice. The last thing I think about before I fall asleep is why she’s being so kind, especially after I’ve been so awful to her.
When I wake, I stare into the darkness and relish the silence that’s been so infrequent in my life these past months. Through the wall—our wall—I hear slow, deep breathing. She must be in my bed since I have occupied hers.
“I’m here. You’re awake?”
“I seem to have slept through the day so—”
“You needed it.”
“Why are you being so kind to me?”
“I know what its like. To be alone.”
I release a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. “Who was it for you?”
“My mum. She was all I had. Cancer.”
“Too many funerals.”
I don’t sleep, just stare at the ceiling listening to her breath. Somehow it staves off the images of that burning car, the feeling of smoke filling my lungs as if I’m the one who can’t breathe. She reminds me that I can.
The next morning, I rise to the smell of coffee. I dolefully slip out of her warm sheets to find clothes laid out for me. I don the black suit with difficulty as a weight presses on my chest, threatening to pin me down. I emerge to see her in the kitchen, holding out a mug as she had done that first night, and the weight upon me lifts ever so slightly. She offers a small smile.
“The lawyer comes at 10, so, in a few minutes,” she says. I nod and accept the mug before following her down the hall. I halt abruptly upon entering my flat. The place is spotless—no traces of the carousing nights before. She must have been cleaning all day. I turn to thank her, but there is a knock on the door. My most recent memory of the man who enters, Grace and I had sat in his office, my sister sobbing as I listened with dazed attention. I don’t hear most of what he says now, the only thing steadying me being Mia’s leg brushing against mine.
“The funeral is at three, then you can put all of this behind you.”
I snap out of my trance and face the lawyer: “Wait, the funeral is today?”
“After your parents’ death, Grace came to me and made her wishes clear. If anything were to happen, she didn’t want any responsibility to fall to you.”
Mia cringes and takes my hand in hers. I hear nothing else over the roaring in my ears. I don’t let go of that hand until after the funeral. Until after we have stood side by side in the rain and watched as my little sister, the brightest spark in my life, is lowered into the ground. Until after the prayers and the farewells and the “I’m sorry’s”, and after the intrusive flashes have stopped and the media vans driven away. I release her hand and walk out from under the cover of our umbrella to the disturbed ground from which my sister will never depart. I fall to my knees and cry until I can’t tell the rain from my tears, drenching my face and clothes and saturating my soul with sorrow.
Days later, after stretches of silence so long I have forgotten all sounds say for her sweet, gentle voice, she is about to leave me in her bed—I still have not returned to mine for fear of that photo beside it. As she turns to walk away, I catch her hand, pleading in my eyes: “I don’t want there to be a wall between us anymore.”
“Okay,” is all she says as she crawls in beside me and rests her head in the crook of my shoulder, curling into my body and closing her eyes. I sleep peacefully for the first time in months.
The next morning, the sun finally makes an appearance, and we walk along the river for hours. She asks me about Grace and my parents, and I recount many fond memories. I ask about her mother, and hear about her life too, greedy for every detail that allows me to picture her growing up: soft, sweet, and innocent before having her heart broken. I tell her about the parties—my feeble attempt at surrounding myself with joy in order to feel some. Always at my flat because of my vow after my parents’ deaths to never drink and drive—one that my sister made with me. Then again, it hadn’t been her driving. Mia tells me about her novel, about how she can’t seem to give her heroine a happy ending because she doesn’t know what one looks like. I make a new vow to change that.
Tonight, she doesn’t attempt to leave, just sits on her bed beside me, hesitation in her eyes. She is so beautiful, the kind of beautiful that might bring me to tears if I had any left. Her big brown eyes that shine under the shadow of long, dark lashes, her full heart-shaped lips, her delicate nose dusted with freckles like paint splattered on the canvas of her soft, pale skin. Her auburn hair cascades over her shoulder in soft waves to her waist, bringing my eyes to roam over the curves of her body.
At first, I kiss her to make sure she is real: a hard, still press to her lips, gripping her jaw in my hand, because I am afraid I will wake up one day and she will have slipped away. When I pull back, our noses still touching and breathing one another’s air, I look into her eyes and see love and kindness, and all that is good in this cruel world. I don’t deserve her, but I realize in this moment that I will spend the rest of my life trying. So when I kiss her again, I tell her with my lips, with my tongue, with my hands, all the words I can’t say. I tell her that I see her—see the pain and sorrow of her past and how she has spent her life running from it, unable to save herself from her own grief, only to meet someone she couldn’t help but save instead. I tell her that in the moments when she can’t imagine happiness, that I will love her and hold her, and go to the ends of the earth to make her smile. She tells me, too, that she will let me. So tonight, it is not just lovers’ lips and bodies that intertwine, but two hearts, once battered and broken, that have found one another, and will spend the rest of the time they beat making the other whole.
10 months later…
Mia smiles up at me with joy, love, and pride. As she departs on her book tour, I am travelling with her, but before we go, I walk up to a podium to announce my plans for the future—the future I have because of her. “It’s rare that we get the ending we deserve. More often life kicks us down again and again—so many times that we wonder if its worth getting to our feet. For a lucky few, someone comes into your life and picks you up. They breathe the air back into your lungs and remind you what it is to be alive. Mia was that for me, and my hope is that our new non-profit, ‘When You’ve Lost It All,’ can be that for countless others.”
I look out into the audience and find her, my salvation. Her eyes are filled with silent tears, but a smile brightens her beautiful face. I think about how I wish Grace and my parents could have met her—could have known the woman who saved me. The truth is though, that I feel their love in her smile, hear Grace’s joy in her laugh. Because of her, they’re never really gone, and I’ll get to keep loving her—and them—for the rest of my life.