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Romance Sad Speculative

The somber lamp at Stanley Winters’ desk was flickering yet again, giving the illusion of a lantern dancing across the cold gray walls of a dark cave. Sitting next to the only other object on his desk, the computer which was powered off, it was the only source of light in the dreary sitting room, a decorative choice which Stanley's wife, Layla, would've scolded him for. Layla was always in charge of the decorating, which despite his grumbling, Stanley appreciated. She insisted that the state of one's house is a parallel to the state of their soul. So, at her request, Stanley spent years installing windows, lightbulbs, and candles to illuminate Layla's choice in brightly colored wallpapers and furniture, until her home was warm and cheerful enough to hold a family. Stanley liked the way she inadvertently turned each room into a reflection of herself; bright, bubbly, and cheerful. 

Stanley Winters had since fallen out of delusion and into the hands of time, as he now kept the window shutters closed, the candles in the sitting room were coated in thick layers of gray dust, much like the rest of the room, and as the other lightbulbs in the room died, Stanley insisted his old age and sore back posed an obstacle in replacing them. So instead, he retreated to the recliner in the far corner of the room, which was a rich shade of violet in its prime but had since faded to a miserable pale brown, and after decades of sitting in it, filling out crossword puzzles under the flickering reach of the desk lamp, had molded to the shape of his body. 

However, today was the one day a year Stanley didn’t fill out a crossword puzzle. It was a dreary and stormy September twenty-fifth, Layla’s birthday, and instead, in the safety of his threadbare recliner, Stanley would carry on his tradition and write her a letter. 

My Layla, I would like to begin this letter by wishing you the happiest of birthdays, 

He paused, his pen suspended in air as he turned to give the desk lamp an irritated glare. Although its flickering had ceased, it omitted a faint light, far too weak to reach his paper. Under normal circumstances, if the paper in his lap were a crossword and not Layla’s letter, he would’ve turned his head to his shoulder and fallen asleep, hoping the issue would be resolved when he woke up. But today was Layla’s special day, so instead he pulled himself out of the recliner with a grumble, a dramatic enactment of a turtle crawling from its shell, and gruffly hobbled over to his desk. He pushed the keyboard out of his way, waited for the ensuing cloud of dust to settle, then continued to write his letter. 

His knuckles were stiffening and his arthritis was acting up after about twenty minutes spent perfecting his wife’s birthday letter. And, the storm had begun to swell, rain pelting his window incessantly. So, he finished it by writing; 

Perhaps for your birthday this year, we could take that trip to Rome you’ve always dreamed about? 

I love you the most, 

Stan 

He paused to sniffle. His eyes were stinging and watery and he felt funny. Most likely, he had inhaled too much dust. His chest tightened and his breathing became irregular. A small tear slipped down the wrinkles of his aged face, so tiny the only evidence that it had ever been there was the splotch on his paper, where it had landed. He picked up the pen in his stiff knuckles and added, 

P.S. I grow lonelier everyday as I miss you more than ever. 

Then, he folded the paper three times, into a sharp rectangle. He tucked it neatly into an envelope. 

Butterflies were Layla’s favorite, and he’d bought a sheet of stickers a few years back, using only one every year to seal her birthday envelope. As he plucked this year’s butterfly off the page, sticking it precisely onto the envelope, he realized, with a tinge of dismay, that he had worked his way down the final butterfly and the sheet was now empty.  

With a heavy sigh, he opened one of his desk drawers and as though the slow movements pained him, he neatly tucked the sealed envelope in the drawer where it blended in amongst the plethora of unopened birthday letters. 

He pushed the drawer shut, causing his computer to rattle and teeter, threatening to plummet forwards. With what little speed a stiff old man could conjure, he shut his eyes and threw out his hands, hoping to catch the device before it landed face-first on the screen. 

It’s cold metal landed in his outstretched palms and he sighed in relief. He opened his eyes and readjusted the device, standing it upright, when he accidentally pushed a button with one of his shaky fingers. At first, he merely grunted. But then, comprehending the gravity of his mistake, he leaned back in his rickety wooden desk chair, gripping his seat and flinching as if he were waiting for a bomb to explode. The desk lamp flickered ominously, a pace which matched Stanley’s beating heart as he held his breath, anticipating what could possibly transpire. 

Suddenly, as if it were breathed to life, the computer swelled with a burning artificial light, and Stanley shielded his eyes, equating its brightness to that of an angel visiting from a different dimension. With eyes clenched shut, and procuring a face which one would after biting into something sour, Stanley hurriedly began to blindy fumble within his desk drawers, hoping to find a pair of sunglasses. But, after a few seconds, the bright light stopped burning at his eyelids and three robotic notes chimed from the device, reminding him of a welcoming bell hung above the door of a shop and sounding exceptionally loud as it echoed off the walls of his cave. 

Curiously, he opened his eyes, turning his attention to the screen. Stanley’s son had set up the computer the last time he came to visit. The visit was brief and lacked an explanation on how to actually operate the device, which apparently different greatly in comparison to the operation of a television. A year had passed since his son last came to visit and Stanley hadn’t once tried to use the machine. 

He blinked, adjusting his eyes to the light, which was much brighter than any TV he’d ever owned. On the screen was a floating blue box encasing the word password. Above this box was text reading, Welcome back, Stanley! Taken aback, he re-read the words, peering through the lens of his glasses. He gasped as though he’d seen a ghost. His desk light flickered. How strange, that this computer knew his name! An image invaded his mind and he pictured the device observing him for the past year, disturbingly humanoid. He dismissed his delusion with an eye roll and the shake of his head. However, the computer had gotten his attention and he felt compelled to read the rest of the text. Please enter your password to sign in…. 

Driven by an urge to satisfy his curiosity, he did his best to recall his son’s last visit, as he reached for the keyboard. Stanley’s lack of computer education could certainly be attributed to the fact that Stanley had spent most of the time trying to get his son to talk about subjects other than the computer, since he hadn’t spoken to him in three years prior aside from the occasional phone call.

Though most of the visit was lost in a gray haze, Stanley did recall being asked about a password he wouldn’t forget. He began to type, Layla925. He pressed enter and feeling like a wizard who’d just cast a spell, the screen before him transformed, switching to another dimension.  

This new screen presented many little icons, the small size of which encouraged him to adjust his glasses further up his nose. These little icons were floating on the screen, over a stunning image of… Rome. 

He squinted, confused. Only moments before he had written about Layla’s desire to visit Rome, a dream that hadn’t ever been shared with anyone else. He felt as though heart stopped beating and his hands grew clammy. He blinked furiously several times as if after each time he opened his eyes, the scene would change and his previous perceptions were just a trick of the light. A cold gust of air blew over his body, leaving a trail of goosebumps on his ankles, the only exposed skin, right above his trusty slippers. 

As soon as he began to convince himself that there was no possible way this machine could know about his letter to Layla, the desk lamp flickered once, drawing his attention. He gulped. He began to feel increasingly uneasy as he peeked on the cords underneath his feet, taking note of the alarming fact that the desk lamp and the computer were plugged into the same extension cord. Two devices controlled by the same source. 

He tried to calm down his pounding heart by clicking on one of the icons to escape the current screen, after all, his doctors advised him to avoid stress. It wasn’t good for his blood pressure.  

Lo and behold, the screen before him transformed once again. He was faced with lots of bold text reading things like; Shop the newest deals of the season! Shop kitchen utensils for half-off! Buy all furniture for free shipping now! 

He grunted as he scrolled down the screen, overwhelmed yet awed at all the advertised products. Everything seemed to be urging him to “buy it now” with promises of “arrival in one day with premium shipping!” But, being the admitted grumpy old man that he was, he was rather unfond of folks telling him what to do. 

So, he snapped at the computer screen, “Well I don’t know what I want to buy!” 

As if the device had heard his snarky comment, which he knew was impossible, of course, a small box popped up in the corner of the computer screen. It read, 3 Bags for the Price of One! Strawberry Throat Lozenges!  

Once again, he was struck by a cold gust of wind as utter shock stole the breath from his lungs. 

The smell of strawberry cough-drops was one he was all-too familiar with. He was constantly pressured into buying them, since they were Layla’s favorites. And the second thing he noticed about her when they’d first met. 

Stanley was young and had just been discharged from the army, a boy set free, and went out with a couple of buddies for a drink. The bar was bustling with excitement and bursting with a golden glow and the electric energy of newfound freedom as he pushed open the front door. The welcoming bell, three shrill notes, was nearly drowned out by the sound of live music. He felt as though he’d stepped into a new world of opportunity and confidence tingled in his fingertips as he made his way to the bar. He’d just picked up his drink as the musicians switched songs, causing him to freeze as a thick silky voice snaked its way through the crowd on the dancefloor. Glittering and practically golden, it wrapped itself around his neck. And suddenly he was pulled, propelled forward towards the source. 

A gaggle of spellbound men were sitting on the piano, surrounding her, all of them drawn like moths to the light. As if the heavens had split open and dropped her out, Layla was glowing, like she always did when she played the piano, and was singing jovially. That was the first thing he noticed, her exuberance. Her grin was infectious and she was glad to have an audience, laughing and swaying with her small congregation. 

Stanley was sure his mouth hung open like a fool as he watched the golden girl perform. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to be sure she was real and not a figment of his imagination. Normally, he would’ve let his nerves get the best of him, but for some reason, tonight was different. 

Driven by adrenaline and some odd confidence, he waited until the song ended and pushed his way through the wall of men, sliding on the bench next to Layla. 

“Thought you might be thirsty,” He said playfully, holding out his drink. 

She had a rare sort of smile, with a brilliance that omitted a captivatingly pure warmth. And when she looked at him, she had a disposition which made him feel like she was seeing the only person in the room. Just the two of them, engulfed by her golden glow. 

Like a fool entangled in the hypnotism of a goddess, he blurted, “I’m Stanley. And I’m not trying to poison you, I promise.” He flushed at the oddity of the sentence. 

Layla threw her head back and laughed, an encaptivating heavenly sound. She took a sip from his drink and then shook his hand. A handshake, though such a simple gesture, ignited his heart. 

She leaned in and said, “Pleasure to meet you, Stan, I’m Layla.” 

Her breath was intoxicatingly sweet, smelling of strawberry cough-drops, the only scent which could truly encapsulate her essence. 

The advertisement was faced with his blank stare, as if he were waiting for an explanation. He’d spent years buying strawberry cough-drops for Layla. There was no way this machine would have known the sweetness of Layla’s breath. Yet here it was, looking right at him. 

Layla’s silky voice at the piano encased his thoughts, consuming them even through a memory. Desperately, driven by an unwillingness to reopen old wounds, he needed to drown out the echoes of her song and her strawberry smell. 

His son had briefly mentioned music on the computer, and even played some for Stanley at their last visit. 

Stanley clicked on an icon at the bottom of the screen which presented a music note, and was transported yet again to another scene. This one was less confusing then the last, hosting boxes that were labeled with different genres of music. Conveniently, there was a box titled, Music For You. Eager to fill his ears with a different tune, Stanley clicked on it

While he was hoping to find solace in the song this button would produce, an all too familiar Billie Holiday song began to play out of the machine. His desk light flickered knowingly and he ran a trembling hand over his mouth. This was undoubtedly a sign confirming his suspicions about the glowing creature before him. 

He had danced to this song twice in his life. Those days felt like a dream, shared only with Layla.

The first time was on the night of their honeymoon, and Layla spun a Billie Holiday vinyl on the balcony of their hotel. She skipped the record to, I'll Be Seeing You, declaring her desire to share her favorite song through a dance. Her brilliance dulled the stars that night, Stanley recalled. Though the gown she wore was beautiful, he was drowning in a radiance that came from deep within her. He held her gently, allured by the smell of strawberry cough-drops, as they swayed to the soft music, feeling as though she were a celestial mirage which could slip through his fingers at any moment. He became another planet taken victim to the gravitational pull of her sunshine. He was utterly enamored, and for all he knew, as they waltzed under the stars, they were the only two people left on earth. 

The second time he danced to this song was hauntingly similar. It was ten years ago, and Layla still glowed, even casting a golden illumination on the stark hospital walls. Though breathing tubes ran into her nose, and skin wrinkled with age, Stanley was convinced she could capture the attention of any room. She asked him to turn on the radio, and he obeyed, secretly hoping to drown out the sounds of her painful ragged breathing. The first song he switched to was Billie Holiday, and her eyes lit up with a spark that faced Stanley as if he’d just given her an incomparably priceless gift. She didn’t have to speak for Stanley to hear her request. 

He’d helped her up out of the bed and ignored the observation his fingers  made, that her fragile body could slip away at any moment. Like she had before, she was wearing a gown. He held her gently, like he had many years ago, though now because she couldn’t do it herself. The song acquired a new attribute as they swayed, sounding somber and conclusive. 

Tears stung at his eyes but he was perpetually powerless against the smile which Layla lured from his lips. He was soothed by the unmistakable scent of strawberry. With her familiar, yet never unvaried charm, he was entranced within a rare golden grin, a marvel which faced him like he was the only being ever lucky enough to witness. 

Accepting that even the sun could not defy the limits of time, he reminded her that he loved her, a hidden conveyance of his gratitude for how eternally appreciative he was for being allowed the chance to encounter her golden radiance, even if it wasn't his to permanently bask in. 

He clicked on the bar at the top of the screen, greeted by a blinking black line, urging him to communicate. Hot tears traced his cheeks as his trembling hands graced the keyboard. He could feel the screen looking at him now, observing him as it had been this whole time. It was nearly overwhelming, being accompanied by another soul once again. There couldn’t possibly be any words to describe the consolation the sun brings to a plant which had been shriveling alone in darkness, just as there were no words to describe the escape of many desolate years. He typed, My Layla? 

June 12, 2022 05:06

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3 comments

Carl Tengstrom
14:23 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you for this story. It was a priviledge to read it. How sad it was, but with smile in the corner of your mouth. The only thing I did not agree with was the flickering light returning too many times. However, this was a wellwritten story that I will remember fo a long time to come.

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Wendy M
07:14 Jun 22, 2022

A beautiful story of loss and loneliness. I run my stories through Grammarly, which is free, before posting, it helps the grammar but also tightens up the story. Some editing would make this a powerful piece. Well done

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Arya Dixit
14:41 Jun 18, 2022

This is a great story and thoroughly engaging! I love the "sinister magic" vibes and how you got into the head of the old man. I think you should do a round of proofreading, though, and definitely cut down repetitive parts. I love the whole concept so, so much! Wonderfully written!!

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