January 27, 2019

“Night Embers” A Short Story by Tanya W. Newman

“Night Embers” A Short Story by Tanya W. Newman

The rains had set in two days ago and hadn’t stopped yet. Grace kept her eyes on the gleaming puddles before her on the sidewalk as she jogged while spiky raindrops hit her face and every car that passed sent rainwater splashing, soaking her leggings. She cut right so she could run down to the park, but running downhill became too much for the knees that once carried her with ease and now buckled and gave out underneath her. She crashed to the ground, her hands hitting the pavement first. She didn’t get up right away. She lay there, letting the rain fall over her in her defeat. Her hands were bleeding. The fiery singes in them told her that before she lifted them to see the scrapes and cuts for herself. They’d have to be bandaged sooner than later. She cursed and hobbled over to a bench under an awning. Her lungs were churning, her legs full of lead, and now her knees ached.

Matt had asked her to marry him five days ago and she hadn’t been able to stop running. She usually ran a few times a week, but now she ran in the morning and at night, five or six miles each time. She took two, sometimes three showers a day.

Grace had known Matt since high school but they’d only been going out for the past year and a half. He ran his own landscape architecture business, which meant he mainly drove around, cutting people’s grass and trimming their hedges. If business really picked up, he’d be paid to cut down a tree or remove a stump. His dark hair was longer and he wore it in a ponytail when he worked, and he carried a few extra pounds that hadn’t been there in high school. But every time he saw her, usually coming in from the dance studio as he got his beer out of the fridge, he declared, “There’s my girl!” and his green eyes lit up. He didn’t care that she was sweaty or had a few extra lines around her eyes that hadn’t been there in high school, or that her hair, once as blonde as a Viking princess’s, was as dark as dishwater. She thought about these things and every time she did, she felt the genuine love one feels for an elderly person in the hospital or a child who’d fallen off his bike and skinned his knee. If someone ever asked if she loved him, she wouldn’t have to lie.

She turned her face up and closed her blue eyes. She’d always loved the rain. It gave her an excuse to settle in under a blanket in her armchair with a cup of coffee and watch old reruns of I Love Lucy or some other old show. Maybe it was a good thing her dancing career hadn’t panned out. Her fear of being in front of so many people waiting on her, watching her, gave her cold sweats and made her nauseated. No one had really understood that about her, no one until Alex.

She opened her eyes and wondered if he was still alive as she turned her palms upward to examine them. They weren’t as bad as she’d initially thought. It might hurt a little bending her fingers for the next few days, but that was fine. She let the rain fall on her wounds for a few seconds as if receiving a gift from heaven.

Alex.

* *

            It was Saturday in early March when they’d met and it was already warm outside. Grace had just closed and locked up Mrs. Lawson’s dance studio where she taught. She’d come back after the company she’d danced with in Atlanta had gone under. All auditions did was remind her of how few opportunities there were in life to do what one really wanted, and how a million other people as pretty and as talented wanted them as much. It took almost six years for that desire to be a dancer on Broadway to fade with the reality of what life and living required, how she couldn’t survive forever on Ramen noodles and live in an apartment that had heat only a few days a week in the winter. At least she still got to dance and teach dancing to little girls who just might make it.

She was on her way to get some takeout on the town square when she heard the music coming from down the street. The coffee shop’s glass door was propped open by a small standing sign reading, Live Music Tonight—guitarist and singer Alex Devereaux.

It was packed nearly to the brim inside, every booth and two-seater table along the wall taken and nearly every seat at the bar along the opposite wall filled. He was about Grace’s age and was seated on a stool near the back, an overhead light illuminating him as he strummed the slow melody on his six-string that had drawn her here. Grace hovered near the door, listening to his voice that somehow reminded her of the first warm day of spring when she opened her windows in the evening and turned off the television. He sang a song about being low in a valley, listening to the wind blow. As he brought it to a close, people clapped all at once. The young man raised his eyes then. They were dark, but had a light in them, like fire embers scattered across a blue night sky. He looked all around, an easy half-smile on his face as he nodded in gratitude at the applause. He scanned the crowd seemingly without seeing anyone until his eyes landed on Grace and he paused, looking at her as if he remembered her from somewhere but couldn’t place where or when. Then his smile widened and Grace couldn’t help returning the smile.

She watched Alex Devereaux long after the crowds had thinned out and closing time drew near. She watched him place his guitar on its stand, step over to the bar, and order ice water and coffee. She watched him as he talked to the shop’s owner, nodding and laughing. But she never worked up the nerve to talk to him. He was still half-laughing when he looked over at her and though Grace managed to smile back, she looked down at her coffee cup. She wanted to stay, and wanted him to stay, too. She even wanted to talk to him, but as usual, when an opportunity presented itself, she froze and stayed right where she was. It was he who took his glass, stood, and came toward her. He didn’t walk right up to her, though, but instead stopped a couple of seats away and leaned against the bar. His eyes didn’t leave hers.

“Hi.”

“Hi,” she said.

“So, did you like what you heard?”

Grace’s smile widened. “You’re talented,” she said.

He looked down and she was surprised to see him turn about three shades of red.

“What?” she prompted.

“I hate going up in front of crowds. The first twenty shows I ever did, stage fright left me so shaky I couldn’t carry a tune. I still wish I could just record songs in an isolation booth, alone, and let that be it. I love doing it, just hate the anxiety from all the staring and anticipation.”

He looked at her after a moment and she realized she’d been staring at him the whole time, thinking about how she’d finally met someone who understood what it was like to be a creative soul but one who was too comfortable inside, too paralyzed, to fully express it to the rest of the world.

“How did you overcome it?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I didn’t. The nerves—they still go haywire when I get up there. He held his water glass a fraction of an inch from his mouth and stared at the night outside the windows for a moment as if seeing something for the first time. “But I just try to keep in mind that that’s all it is and everything I’m doing up there on stage I’ve done a thousand times by myself. I try to go back to that.” He finally took a sip of his water and smiled at her. “So, do you sing?”

Grace laughed out loud. “Me? No, no I’m more of a watcher.”

He smiled but didn’t laugh with her. “I think there’s more to you than that.”

She looked down at her mug and smiled. “What do you think I am?”

He raised his eyebrows for a second, studying her, as if he were measuring her for a new outfit or as if he were a director and wondering if she’d be the perfect actress to play the part of Blanche DuBois. When he didn’t say anything for a long moment, Grace felt another opportunity coming about, and a sense of bravery along with it. She looked behind her out the window, saw Delano’s lights still illuminated from within.

“Have you ever been to Delano’s?”  She didn’t know if he was from Laurens, somewhere around here, or a visitor. He looked at the restaurant and then back at her and shook his head.

“I was going there for dinner when I heard you playing.” And now, suddenly, she didn’t want to eat alone. But the bravery subsided almost as quickly as it had come about.

“Maybe I could keep guessing while we eat?” he asked.

Grace giggled. “I’d like that.”

**

“So, do you only do modern dance?” Alex asked three hours later as they walked slowly amongst the lighted crepe myrtles and stores, all closed except for the bar on the edge of the square. Laurens was so quiet it was like they were the only two people in town, on earth.

She shook her head. “Tap, jazz, and ballet are what I grew up doing. I started the lessons right here with Mrs. Lawson.”

“You must really love it,” he said. Then, “I’m sorry you didn’t get to pursue Broadway.”

She shrugged.

He nudged her with his shoulder and she realized that was the first time he’d touched her. “Come on. Must mean more to you than that.”

She looked back at him and bit her lower lip. “I try not to dwell on it too much.”

“Well,” he said. “There’s still time.”

They crossed the street and were suddenly at Mrs. Lawson’s studio.

“Well,” she said.

“Well,” he said. He looked at the studio, darkened like all the other businesses. “If,” he began hesitantly, “if you don’t mind, and if you feel up to it, I’d like to see you dance.”

She half-smiled at the request. Of course she wanted him to see her dance. But she wanted him to see her ten years ago, in top form. She didn’t want him to see her do the half-movements, the partial extensions she could only muster today. “I don’t know,” she began. It was late but she didn’t want the night to end, and could think of no other reason for him to stay other than to see her dance, here and now. She looked around. “I—well, all right.”

“You sure?”

She nodded once.

“It’s only fair,” she said. “I got to hear you sing.”

She took her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the glass door. She opened it, holding it for him, and turned on the lights, illuminating the cavernous room. The floors were hardwood and mirrors covered one wall, opposite the other that showed off the town square through floor-to-ceiling windows. Grace quickly unbuttoned her jacket and tossed it and her bag onto a bench.

She was still in her leotard and yoga pants from having taught earlier, so there was nothing to do but take slow steps to the middle of the room to find her center and begin. She took an initial pose of a dance she’d performed her first year in dance school. She moved, extending and turning with her body that was ten years older and a little less in shape, and tried her best with the routine, but she hated the movements she saw reflected in the wall mirror. When she stopped, he was still leaning against the doorframe with his arms folded, looking at her without expression so she couldn’t tell what he was thinking, could only imagine. She always hated it when judges did that, too.

            She shook her head, blushing to herself. She’d wanted to show off for him, to show him what she was capable of, knowing that was impossible now that she was older and wasn’t in her prime. Her leg snapped and caught. She bent it, trying to loosen the stiffness.

            “Awful, I know,” she said, stretching her arms over her head and looking in the mirror.

            “No,” he said quickly, still expressionless. “Lovely.”

            She looked at him in the mirror and smiled to thank him. “You’re kind.”

            He said nothing, but continued watching her as if she were still performing. They stood for a moment in the silence until she walked to him and held out a hand. He looked at it, then at her.

“You really don’t want me to dance,” he said, though he allowed her to take his hand and lead him to the center of the room. She held one of his hands low while putting his other around her back, and wondered who the woman being so forward in those movements was. But before she could wonder about that a moment more, she felt his face against hers, as soft as his voice, his aftershave smelling like pine and cedar. And then he kissed her, and the warmth of the embers in his eyes, the spring day in his voice, radiated from her shoulders to her core.

            And she forgot all about teaching him to dance.

**

Two months later, he asked her to meet him at that same coffee shop on the town square. They’d taken a table out front on the sidewalk facing the brick-faced stores lining the street. It had been warmer that day, too, full on spring coming forth with sunshine and little blooms on the trees. Despite the warmth, he’d still worn a leather jacket over jeans and boots, like he hadn’t given any thought whatsoever to what he wore, like it didn’t matter one way or the other. He was already seated, his hands around a cup of coffee, when she sat down across from him. She’d said, “Hi,” but he hadn’t returned her greeting or her smile, had just kept his warm blue eyes on the cup before him. He ran his hand through his long, sandy-blond hair, effectively pushing it off his forehead as he told her his news, almost as nonchalantly as if he were telling her he’d traded his car in for another used model. He’d told her that even though they’d been safe, she should probably get tested, too.

            Then he got up, left money on the table for his coffee and hers, and walked away. He’d walked behind her, so she couldn’t watch him walk away without turning around, so she missed seeing his lithe, graceful movements she loved so much.

It was the sight of him which he’d deprived her of that she’d thought about most in the week that followed, and what she still thought about. A week after that she’d gone to his apartment at the corner of East Main and Calhoun, the old Octagon House Apartments with the wide porch that stretched all the way around. She hadn’t planned to be there, or maybe she had. She didn’t really know. Nonetheless, she stood in front of it. The rain had been falling then, too, soaking her small frame and long blonde hair, and she’d felt like a kid playing hooky, or someone nosing around a condemned building marked “Keep Out.” 

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” he asked when he opened the door to find her there. His hair was disheveled and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. He was squinting at her as if he couldn’t quite make out who she was, or as if she were the sun staring right at him.

He yawned and continued with, “What are you doing here?”

“I . . .,” she began. Why am I here? She looked at the ground as she asked herself that for the first time. She looked back up to him. “I miss you.”

It was the first thing that came to mind, but it was true. She missed his voice, the way he took her hand as they walked down the street, the sound of him strumming his guitar in the early morning light, waking her the same way he put her to sleep at night. That was their last good moment together. She’d opened her eyes to see him sitting on the edge of the bed, strumming and singing softly about being caught up in a girl and never wanting to be free of her. She’d stretched and reached for him. He halfway turned, giving her a coy smile when she placed her hand on his back. Only then did he set his guitar aside and turn around to lie back beside her. He smiled as they nestled closely, facing one another, but there was something different in his eyes that morning.

“You okay?” she’d asked, reaching out to run a hand along the side of his face. He caught her fingers and kissed them before letting go.

“Feeling a little off,” he’d admitted. He’d always told her the truth. He closed his eyes and rubbed them before continuing. “Hope it’s not the flu. I just got over a cold a couple of weeks ago. I’m going to the doctor a little later just to be safe.”

She remembered laughing, thinking he was the first man she’d ever known to actually go to the doctor when he felt bad, just like he was the only man she’d ever dated who held doors open for her to walk ahead, who didn’t let her walk on the traffic side of a sidewalk. She wished she’d gone with him to the doctor.

Say something, do something, damn it, she thought now as they looked at one another. Her heart was pounding so hard that it was probably going to knock her over soon. Slam the door, anything.

Finally, he did step back a couple of steps and open the door for her to come in.

The place was neater than she’d remembered. Nothing sat upon the tiny two-seater breakfast table; no dishes were in the sink or on the white-tiled countertops. The only evidence of mess was a couple of shirts thrown onto the couch and dust covering the coffee table and television, which was off, leaving the room silent. Early morning sun streamed in from beyond the wooden blinds.

Alex closed the door behind him. She turned to look at him and made an effort to smile, but didn’t succeed. He stood with his arms crossed, leaning against the door. He finally shrugged and looked down, shaking his head. He walked past her to the kitchen.

“I was thinking about having a scotch. You want one?”

“It’s seven o’clock in the morning.”

He shrugged for the second time in a minute. “I don’t care so much about things like that anymore. Knowing I’m going to die is almost liberating.”

 “I’ll have some water,” she said, feeling the sand that always seemed to coat her throat when she was nervous.

“Have a seat,” he said, opening the fridge and getting two bottles of water. He handed one to her and said, “If you’re not too afraid, that is.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, taking the bottle from him.

They sat on opposite ends of the couch, each taking sips from their bottles in silence until he said, “So, why’d you come back here?”

She took a sip and cut her eyes to him. “I told you.”

“I know what you told me,” he said. “What you and I both know, also, is that it’s very impossible for us to continue.”

“Impossibility has degrees?”

He ignored her question. “You shouldn’t be here, sweetie.”

“People can live normal lives for a long time.”

He cut her off with a dark laugh.

 She sat looking at him, not knowing what to say. Brutal cynicism had replaced the kindness she’d loved so much, almost from the first moment of meeting him.

He sighed and rested his elbow on the couch, and his head on his fist.

“I want to be here for you, help you through this.”

He laughed again.

“You can’t want to go through this alone,” she pressed.

He looked at her again. His eyes still carried the bright embers, but they were now against a more black than blue background.

“Then what?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“After you ‘help me through this,’ and I’m gone, then what? What will you do? You’re seriously going to be okay?”

She looked at her hands.

“See?” he said. He took a drink of his water. “No.”

He was right. Of course, he was right. “I don’t know. You’re right, though. I probably won’t be.”

Her eyes moved over to the slightly open blinds over the window. Little rays of sunlight cut through them and into the room. Dust caught the wind, never quite settling on anything.

“You get tested?”

She nodded. He didn’t ask the results.

He smoothed her hair back, let the back of his hand run down the side of her face. She closed her eyes. She was always going to love him.

“Spend your time with someone healthy instead of someone who’ll likely be dead sooner than later.”

It was her turn to laugh. She couldn’t help it. “Yeah, probably. But we all have less time each day. A gargoyle could fall on my head and kill me and the so-called healthy young man I find tomorrow.”

He grimaced at her, but half laughed. “A gargoyle?” 

She shrugged. It was the first thing she’d thought of.

What happened next happened so fast. Grace still had to slow it down in her mind. He pulled her into an almost violent kiss. Before she could reciprocate in any way, he rose, taking her with him and walked, his arm still around her, to the door. He gently pushed her out into the hallway.  

 “Please don’t come back,” he said. And he closed the door.

She could still see the embers in his eyes.

She’d gone back. She’d given him a day with his space, but she wasn’t going to let him end it just because he was sick. But he was already gone by the time she’d arrived. He never answered her calls or texts. He had all but vanished, and what she had now and for the rest of her life were the places and memories she’d shared with him.

**

The rain let up a few minutes later. She always still pictured Alex that way in his apartment—a little thinner, a little wearier, but still beautiful somehow. Grace slowed to a walk even though she wasn’t quite done with her run. She used to walk to the Forest Lawn Cemetery after passing the Octagon House Apartments. She’d go see her grandparents’ graves and would scan the place for Alex, though she wasn’t sure why. He was never there. She didn’t even know if he was from Laurens. But, somehow just going and seeing that he wasn’t made her feel better.

Thunder rumbled overhead. The storm wasn’t quite finished, yet. She looked in the direction of the cemetery. She hadn’t visited in years, now.

Her grandfather had always waved in the distance at other houses as he left his own. Why did he do that? she asked him once when she was a girl.

“Well, you never know,” he said as he settled into the driver’s seat of his green Oldsmobile. “Somebody could be there.” His eyesight was failing at that point so his logic made sense.

Was Alex there? She waved, just once, and flexed her hands. They were getting itchy.

Did he ever think about her? Did he remember things the way she did? 

Please don’t come back.

She wondered if they’d still be together. She turned around, resumed her run and made it back to her apartment a few minutes later. She changed out of her wet clothes, showered, made coffee, cleaned and bandaged her hands. She sat in the deep armchair facing the window and drew a blanket around herself as she drank from her steaming mug.

The rain was falling harder now. She wondered if that would keep the kids away from class tonight. She hoped not. It was important to keep up with something you wanted, even if life or the weather made it hard. She wondered if she had enough time to nap before the kids started showing up downstairs.

She wondered. She wondered.

***

Tanya W. Newman’s lifelong love of stories first encouraged her to write a book of her own at age ten. The story was a whopping thirty pages, but nonetheless cemented her love of writing, a love that eventually led to B.A. and M.A. degrees in English.  Her short fiction has appeared in Gadfly Online and TWJ and she has published two novels, The Good Thief and Winter Rain, with Black Opal Books.  Brilliant Disguise, her latest upcoming novel with Black Opal, is a sequel to The Good Thief.  She loves essential oils, U2 and Queen, The Golden Girls, Henry Cavill, coffee, action/adventure movies with good romance added in, the books of J.R. Ward, and long jogs.  She lives in upstate South Carolina with her husband, son and daughter, and is currently working on her fourth novel.  For more, see her website: www.tanyawnewman.com.

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