Joe never left

Submitted into Contest #51 in response to: Write a story about someone who's haunted by their past.... view prompt



Trigger warning: depictions of suicide

The long-haired girl with gigantic eyes and rosebud lips leans into me.

“I have a gift.” She whispers, revealing her teeth and the dimple in her cheek. “It came from my mother’s side. We see those who have passed.”

“Wow.” I grin. “Must be cool.”   

 She sips her vodka coke and moves in closer.

“You know those that take their own life don’t get to pass to the other side. They are still here on earth.”

I move my blouse over my wrist, clenching it tight in my fingers.

I leave the conversation before I learn anymore about her gift and retire home. The warmth of my flat wraps itself around my boney flesh and my heart returns to its relaxed beat.

She was pretty, that girl. Lucy must have told her, but not the whole story. She doesn’t know about you. Few do.

In the bottom draw of my bedside cabinet under a stash of tobacco, penny coins and birthday cards are pictures of you. Pictures of us. A photo booth and my father’s whiskey made for a good day. We were happy then and content with just us. There was no question of mortality.

I lie back on the sofa and rub my fingers through my hair. What if you are is still here, like the pretty girl said? Still existing.

I wait for the early morning and when the shift workers abandon their homes; I follow.

“The end of the line, please.” The man at the counter grumbles at my coin collection and I reply with a wave of my eyelashes. People stress about the smallest things. That’s what I liked about you, Joe. When thieves stole your car, you told your parents they need it more than you and when you received your certificate of U’s you pressed me against your beating heart and caressed my ear with your tongue.

“I have got you and that’s all that matters.”

The train throws me in different directions and the wheels hitting the track act as a swinging watch, pulling my eyelids together. It’s not quite a dream, not quite reality. It's a place where memories reappear. The sun is scorching our flesh, and we run to a tree for shelter. Half or your face struggles for cover but it’s the side without the marks of your fighting days. It’s only our lips that meet. The rims of your mouth rub against my flesh, and I inhale your breath. That was the first day you became mine. The first time we became an 'us.'  

The couple sat behind me had an interesting evening. There was lots of alcohol and bitchy comments. Susie wasn’t nice, and Martin’s body odor cast an unpleasant effect over the room, and it was a game of tig to escape him. You always smelled nice, even near the end. Aftershave combined with oil, smoke and a hint of sawdust. Some days I would bathe in your scent. The particles of your sweat left over from our dates would stay on my body for days.

I am getting closer. The stops are less frequent and when the doors open; I hear beheading of lawns, yapping of pets, and a father embracing his daughter. She is enjoying university and made lots of friends, but she misses home. Don’t we all. The familiar rooms that housed our tiny feet and the roller coaster of parental concerns. It was always my weight; do you remember my mother’s plea for me to eat more? You liked my toothpick limbs and invisible waist. I could fall asleep on your chest and when we woke from our afternoon naps; we were still intact. There was no dull ache in your arms, no strain on your body.

“We have reached our destination, could all passengers please depart here.”

As she has asked politely, I suppose I could. I will let the others leave first. The lady with her cane and the mother carrying her child. That’s what you preached. A please, a thank you, an open of the door. We can stand, our legs are in working order.

The streets from our days together are as we left them. Mr. Patel’s shop still selling reels of newspapers and rotten fruit, a splash of paint on the local pub. And the bench dedicated to Maureen, a war child who lived her life in this community. How depressing for her, we laughed. To experience nothing more than this area. But the joke is on her, according to the pretty girl you are still here and Maureen is enjoying eternal bliss in another galaxy.

I remove my scarf and replace it with my morning cigarette and take a seat on George’s chair. What a shame smoking causes so much pain, it’s an enjoyable activity, and sexy. Every time you sparked a match, lighting the paper of your own creation and placing it in between your lips, I wanted you.

The first time we made love was after a cigarette. I remember the spurting of saliva as I tried to move the smoke into my lungs.

“It will get easier. Practice makes perfect.” You said as you ignited your second roll up. You lied back on the grassy mound with the tobacco stick in your mouth and I knew it was time. I placed the cigarette in between my lips and, as you instructed, inhaled into the bottom of my lungs. Your chocolate irises defeated the white of eyes, your jaw opened and I pounced. By the time our lips engaged, the smoke was ready to leave, and it slipped into your mouth.

It was difficult to undo your belt; the zip was stiff, and I needed help.

“Calm down. It will happen.” Your fingers stroked my hair, and you snuck into me. I wasn’t expecting it, and I had to bite my tongue from screaming.

“Enjoy it.” You shrieked as your eyes melted into their sockets.

The pain dispersed in a matter of minutes. You fell out of me and we separated.  

“It will get easier. Practice makes perfect.” You repeated, flashing your teeth and wiping away my tears. Our limbs reconnected and wrapped in a blanket of own sweat, we listened to our breath.

I flick my Marlborough light in front of a pair of white trainers. The owner of these shoes presses his rubber soul on the butt end.    

“You live here?” He asks, peering over me as his silvery eyes do an examination.

I shake my head.

“Shame.” The owner of the trainers turns a one-eighty, but before his feet swing south, he stops. “You used to live here. I recognize you.”

“A long time ago.”

“You visiting family?”

“No, I’m looking for someone who might still be here.”

“Hope you find him.” He shouts as he strolls away.

I hope I find you, Joe. I hope I get to say goodbye.

I did not go to your funeral. I was sent away to a place where I drank herbal tea and learned how to garden. There was no music, no T.V. and the others were not chatty. It was only the birdsong. Feathered beaks adorning the sky before sunrise. It drove the others to insanity, but for me it was different. All I wanted to do was sleep, but these winged creatures wanted me alive, away from the illusions of my dreams and the danger of my thoughts. It was the start of mourning, the journey of coming to terms of a world without you.

I move my jacket so the ends crumble into the crook of my elbow and unveil the scars on my wrist. Fresh blood is a work of art. Escaping from the wound, it is thick and scarlet. Its liquid form contrasts with the texture of skin and stains the hardiest of surfaces. It was a failed pursuit to join you. The inserts of the blade were not deep enough and the wrong direction. I thought about trying again. I have held a razor in my hand. But when I place the blade over my scars, I hear the birdsong and it paralyses me.

It is a quick walk to our hometown’s famous export. I can see him from George's seat. It is not the real him. He is with you, wandering the earth as invisible guests.

His color has faded and the intricacies of his image, once bold and dramatic, no longer grabs you. Meeting him was when it changed. I had to compete, and he was always with us. Singing to us in the car, smiling at us from your t-shirt, speaking to us in conversations. You were obsessed, and I tolerated it. I kept my feelings hidden. I knew I was losing you. Your cuddles were not as tight and your kisses were not for as long.       

When he poisoned his body, I was happy. You were once again mine. I didn’t expect the relationship to continue and your love for him to change into love for death.

It was his suicide note. His poetic attempt at explaining why. ‘My death is the only thing I can control.’ That phrase ripped us apart. I saw the forums Joe, online discussions romanticizing suicide. According to d-endtimes10 the easiest way is with a gun, and you agreed, and in your car were the books. Information on death and beyond, research providing evidence there is something else. Graffitied over the pages were the conversations of your thoughts. ‘The only way to stop pain is to stop yourself.’ ‘What if everything is perfect in death?’  

The 38 bus leads me to the cul de sacs. I keep a few strides behind, observing clouds of smoke leave its exhaust. Four stops in, and the bus takes a left, disappearing out of sight. I stay on the pavement and it leads me into the maze. Pruned roses, oversized garages and varnished fences. You detested the cloned existence of our youth. That’s why you liked his music. It described the frustration of growing up in a predictable, ordered community. A world where our goals are tidy gardens, new cars and an invitation to the Smith’s barbecue. An insular life, you said, a life I need to escape. But you might still be here, trapped in a place you hate.    

Your home is one of the first houses built in this area. You can tell by the grey brick and squashed rooms. I know you are not in there, Joe. Your childhood home meant nothing to you. It was off limits in our relationship, a place you barely frequented.

The conservatory is still intact; the pond has fish in it, but there is no water feature and the outside furniture has weathered some storms. This will be the last time I see your home, Joe. I am not coming looking for you again. Not here in the land that destroyed us. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been different. If you had grown up in the city to parents who were musicians and attended a high school where you choose your uniform. If that was your fate would your darkness have flickers of light inside?

It’s the gate I am looking for, the opening that leads us to the place we were free. The new owners have disguised it, covering the fence with ivy. It’s still there, Joe. An aggressive plant cannot destroy the genius of your father's handy work.

I snap off a branch and hack away until I uncover a handle clinging to a timber post. With one push, the hinges click back into place, and the escape from your home swings open.

“Joe are you there?”

The wind pauses its breath, the leaves fall asleep on their beds, and the whimper of wildlife stops. Is that a sign you are with me? A sign I am getting closer to seeing you again.

The bunker you made was incredible. In between trees and on top of a ditch you hammered together stolen wood, and inside decorated with posters of him. I remember the first time you showed it to me. Your fingers were clammy and your words made no sense.

It’s no longer here. After your death, it became evidence. Once they removed the yellow tape, they destroyed it. Probably for the best. Those pieces of wood knew your secrets. They spied on our lovemaking and the hours we spent attached to each other’s lips. They witnessed my pleas for you to seek help.

It was over there by those mossy pines but you are not there Joe. If you are anywhere, it would be where I found your lifeless body swinging in the breeze.

Your mother called my mother. She was concerned; you were acting strange.

“Is he smoking pot? Is he sleeping?” My mother questioned.

“Does your daughter know anything? The relationship is intense. They are too young.”

A pact was made. Keep Emily away from Joe, and he will be okay. The stupidity of our parents, Joe.

The acoustics in here are brilliant and I hear others around. The day I found you, a man walking his dog heard my cries. He climbed up the tree and cut you down. I wanted to do it, but my limbs were too wobbly. When you hit the ground, I fell on top of you. I kissed your mottled blue skin, hugged icy body and observed your eyes staring up at the skies.  

I shift my gaze to the ground and allow my hands and feet to guide me. Prickly branches obstruct my path, but I am too numb to register.

“1,2,3.” With a gritty exhale, I peel my head away from the muddy floor.

Nature has a way of staying the same. Your tree has not decayed nor reversed its youth. Its crooked arms still begging for a storm to snap its fingers.        

It was Tom, your neighbor. He texted me ‘U seen Joe. U shud check he’s arite. He woz talking to himself. I tried to speak to him but he didn’t reconize me.’ 

I had not seen you for over two weeks. I was warned if I made contact, I would be sent away. The first few days we will still texting. You would send me love messages ‘my lips are missing their companion.’ After a week the messages became sporadic and at unsociable times. Sometimes it would be one word ‘longing’ ‘pain’ sometimes an angry two ‘screw everything.’

I knew it was coming, what could I do? My every move was being watched, whispered about. Tom’s message was the push I needed. I had to get to you, even if it meant pushing my mother into the sofa.

I don’t know what led me to your house. It was like a magnetic pull, dragging me to your mother’s garden. As soon as I entered, I knew you weren’t there. No one was. Your father’s gate creaked in the wind and there was a smear of red over the fence. I ignored it; I was there to find you and not what you left behind.

Heaving my body up to the first set of branches, I nestle into the trunk. The view differs from up here. It is where you spy on birds fleeting between trees. The place to observe squirrels scrambling for acorns. But there is no sight of you, Joe.

Perhaps the pretty girl got it wrong, but you are not just a suicide victim, are you? The police broke the news. In a windowless room I was shown the images. The bloody mess I would have discovered if I had gone inside your childhood home.   

They called you a monster, a boy with the devil inside. I was told to erase the memories of us together and never mention your name. In daylight, I blanked you out of my thoughts. As soon as the night came, I closed my eyes, and you called my name.

“I am here with you.”

My senses search for a breeze of air, a figure behind a tree, but all that appears in front of me is an oil painting.

“I am going to leave now, Joe. You are not here, are you?”

I move my legs into a standing position and bending my knees hurl myself from the tree. My body smashes into the ground, the earth sinks into my flesh, and everything is as cold as you were that day.

A tuft of black feathers copies my jump. Its winged feet land on my stomach. Our eyes interlock and the airwaves resonate with song.

The pretty girl is right isn’t she Joe, we stay here after death. Not as a ghost or shadow. We come back as something far more beautiful.

The feathered creature opens its beak and tilting its head to the skies lets out an operatic hawk. On its last note, it flaps its wings and returns to the highest branch on your tree.  

July 23, 2020 09:04

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Daniel R. Hayes
07:43 Jan 27, 2021

Hi Emma, just finished this story and I thought it was really good. It was moving and sad, and I thought you did a great job writing it. The essence of this story really shines through and I know that depictions of suicide are quite real and relevant in today's world. Great job, talk to you soon :)


Emma Taylor
21:10 Jan 27, 2021

Thank you I am actually attempting at making this into a novel.


Daniel R. Hayes
22:46 Jan 27, 2021

That's fantastic :) I think it will translate very well into a novel. I wish you the best of luck, and hope I might get to read it one day.


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