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Romance Speculative

“Can you hear that?" Esmerelda asks her new husband as they pass the kitchen door.

Peter looks at her curiously. He reminds her of his fifteen-year-old self, sharing headphones in the back of the bus, trying not to judge her taste in music.

In all the years they’ve known each other, Esmerelda has never shown any signs of hearing things, and yet here she is, on the first day of their honeymoon, signaling for her husband to listen in on an empty kitchen. 

The rented cabin is charming despite its old — advertised as vintage on the renting website — interior. Genuine oak logs used as the foundation are covered by much-needed insulation and drywall. Then over that, yellowing walls and a gaudy taxidermy theme. It’s stone fireplace and handwoven rugs set a more romantic mood to the otherwise rugged cabin.

Trusting his wife, Peter presses his palms to the splintering oak wood. As he struggles to hear a single sound, Esmerelda can hear the voice of an elderly man. His shaky timbre is almost mute through the swinging doors, but she can make out his words, “I’ll get some daffodils from the road for the vase.”

Some footsteps. Another unfamiliar voice, female this time: “And I’ll put the kettle on.”

Esmerelda steps back when it sounds like someone is coming their way. 

The room turns cold. She can see Peter’s sun spotted face watching her in confusion.

The apparition of two people walk through the door — an elderly couple, arms looped together. The man is hunched over, wearing a newsboy cap and suspenders. The woman leans against him for support. Her dress is red, with puffed sleeves and a golden brooch attached to her collar. Their visages fade when they pass through the streams of sunlight coming through the window.

Once they reach the end of the dining room, they disappear.

Peter grabs Esmerelda’s hand. His grip is tight, but it doesn’t hurt. “Are you alright? What did you see?”

Esmerelda feels juvenile for being too frozen to speak, like maybe she’s fifteen again, too, afraid to move a muscle lest her earbuds fall from Peter's ear. Too nervous to share her thoughts, in case he never listens to a song with her again.

The memory jerks her into the present, and she smiles as surely as she can, drawing energy from the sweet man in front of her. "It's nothing."

-

Peter kicks a loose chunk of gravel across the road and watches it drop into a grassy ditch. “Oh, look, Es! Daffodils.”

Esmerelda finds herself crossing the road to be closer to her new husband. Somehow, she never thinks she’ll get enough of him. Her spine still carries a chill from her discovery last night. “They would look nice on the kitchen table," she finds herself saying.

They walk down the trail that winds back behind the cabin, into the woods and towards a small pond. Peter has a fishing pole over one shoulder, hoping to catch a few, while Esmerelda wears a swimsuit beneath her overalls.

The sun follows them while they walk, and Peter peels off his socks and shoes as soon as they arrive on the dock. He sits and lets his feet fall into the cool water, ignoring the turtles and water striders milling around, shyly checking on their new visitors.

Esmerelda drops her overalls, and climbs down the ladder as swiftly as one can in the chilly autumn. “The water is sure to wake ya up, Pete.”

“It’s too cold!” A voice answers, but it’s not Peter’s.

Peter doesn’t seem to notice. Esmerelda looks over his shoulder. Behind Peter, the elderly man from yesterday is standing on the bank, watching as his wife dips her painted toes in the water. Their faces are red from the heat, but the rest of their skin remains gaunt and pale. When the sun passes over them, what remains is barely dust particles. “We used to jump in here naked, Addy!” The old man calls after her, laughing. “Don’t back out now!”

“We were young then, James,” The woman — Addy — says. “Our bodies aren’t what they used to be.”

“Very well,” James bends to sit. Perhaps there used to be a bench there, or a lawn chair, because he stops in midair, sitting on some invisible furniture now lost in time. Addy follows, pressing against him as she sits. They hold each other’s hands. “We can watch the turtles swim.”

“When did we get so old?” Addy asks, and the melancholic question reaches Esmerelda like an arrow to the chest.

-

“Did we wait too long?” Esmerelda asks. It's almost jarring, the way her voice cuts through the silence of the night.

The bedside light flicks on, and Peter flips himself over to meet her gaze. His gray eyes are full of warmth, even in the chill of the night. Even despite the doubt in her voice. “To do what?”

“To marry, Pete.” Esmerelda holds his gaze and tries to convey all the things she is too tired to bring up. We spent so many years apart, when we could have been together all this time. “We wasted so much time.”

Peter chuckles good-naturedly. He moves onto his back and reaches for her hand in the dark. The coldness of his ring still makes her shiver. She isn’t used to any of this. Not with Peter.

“Is there some expiration date I don’t know about?” His eyes twinkle like they always have. He seems to be nineteen years old again, grabbing at her hands and pulling her across a frozen pond. She trusted him fully then. She trusts him fully now.

He squeezes her hand. “We have all the time in the world.”

-

Moonlight beams shine through the windows of the kitchen. Esmerelda wipes down the counter, a thoughtful expression on her face. “It's sweet that you picked the dandelions.”

Peter is wiping down their dishes. He places a plate on the drying rack. “You said they'd look nice. Besides, you deserve flowers."

Esmerelda, skeptical, folds the towel and places it over the rung of the stove. Peter has always been so open with his affections. She wants to bundle him up and press him close to her chest, where he can feel her heartbeat. Would he know then how much she loves him? How much she always has?

She looks through the swinging doors held open by half-sealed boxes of wine. Addy and James have been sitting at the table since before dinner, and no words have passed between them, even while Peter and Esmerelda ate.

Addy looks tired. She's holding James’ withered hand across the table, and her head is drooped, like she’s not entirely committed to being awake. However, she doesn't look unhappy. Whatever thoughts are passing through them, they must be peaceful.

Esmerelda looks at Peter. "You deserve flowers, too."

Peter leans his hips against the counter, cocks his head to the side and looks at her like he’s figuring out a puzzle. He used to solve equations in math class the same way, with a cocked head and a crooked grin. “Mean it, Es?"

He hugs her, and chin on his shoulder, Esmerelda can see the spirits clearly.

James kisses Addy’s forehead. The dandelions wither when he leans over the table. 

-

Esmerelda grips the edge of the bathroom sink. Her vision is blurring again. It always does when she has too much salt. Still, the faint reminder that she’s not as young as she used to be lingers in the back of her head. She wonders what would’ve happened if she had married Peter when she was younger, and not fifty-three years old like she is now.

It’s not like she’s dying, and anyone would tell her she’s aging gracefully, but there’s a younger Esmerelda somewhere inside of her, mourning what was lost. 

Peter, who she’s known since they were both twelve, all braces and acne and awkward laughter. Peter, who backed every opinion she ever had, just to gain her friendship. Peter, who stayed in town while she went off to California. Peter, who declined an invitation to her first wedding, not out of malice, but out of hurt. Peter, who she didn’t see again until twenty years later, when her divorce finally went through. Peter, who never once said I told you so, even though he had every right to.

Now here they are, at a rented cabin with dandelions growing along the road, and Esmerelda is left wondering why she didn’t stay all those years back. She can’t help but wonder if those years would’ve been filled with laughter and playful bickering, rather than sleepless nights and awful, unforgettable yelling. 

Behind her, James is lowering Addy into the empty bathtub. “There you are, dear,” he whispers. “Take as long as you need.”

-

Once brown, Peter’s hair is now silver, but his lips stay a rosy pink. He smiles at her, and sometimes she can still see that twelve-year-old boy who used to chase her around the schoolyard, frog in hand. He had put the frog down as soon as she asked him to. Ten years later, he had dropped the subject of her marrying too quickly as soon as she asked him to.

He weaves his fingers through her hair and kisses her temple. “Every day is my favorite with you.”

“I’m too old to fall for lines like that, Pete.” But Esmerelda still feels love blanket her when he says such things, an over-and-over again reassurance.

“Oh, yeah? Says who?” And he sounds like that twenty-two year old man at her graduation party, challenging her then-fiancé when he told Esmerelda to loosen up. She had caught him dancing with another woman. It had been Peter who told Esmerelda to think long and hard before she decided to marry that man.

She had yelled for him to mind his own business. The memory burns in the back of her throat, and she wonders if an apology would make up for all the years they lost together. Due to what? Her stubbornness? Her pride? Peter was always too good to point out the obvious: that he was always too good for her.

Low murmurs of a Frank Sinatra song bleed through the speakers of the radio. On the other side of the coffee table, Addy and James are slow dancing on the patterned rug. They move slowly, stilted, and the stale smell of loss permeates the air so violently that Esmerelda has to hide her face in Peter’s chest. She breathes him in, and he's here physically, holding her like it's the only thing he's meant to do.

“I don’t want this to end,” Esmerelda admits. She wonders if Peter can understand everything she isn’t saying. If he remembers the music on the bus, and the math equations, and the fight at her graduation. Does he think about the end of things during the beginning? Do the memories haunt him too?

“We have forever,” is all he says, but he says it with surety, in the same way sixteen-year-old Peter assured her he would pass his driving test. She had been there with him after the fact, sitting in the passenger seat, stealing glances at the prideful smile on his face. 

She hadn’t been brave enough to steal a kiss, but she was younger then. She’s older now, more wise, so she takes her chance, and she can feel his smile lines against her lips. Around his eyes are fluttering lashes and crow’s feet that she can touch, and kiss, and love. She can feel the want in every breath he takes.

Addy and James are still dancing, still taking their time in the afterlife. 

And Esmerelda is here, kissing her lover until his laughter fills up the room. With forever to look foreword to, time doesn’t feel so wasted.

November 19, 2021 04:37

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