And it’s 3 a.m. on a Tuesday leaking tired bursts of rain from a mostly starless sky. And the room with the walls you know by heart is blacker than you ever thought it could be. And the booze and the songs and the memories you turned to for help have each in their own way failed you. And it’s quiet. And the one you love is gone. She’s gone. And because of the way in which this last fact conspires with the darkness and the sea-bottom silence and the bed beneath your back that might as well be made of thorns, sleep becomes a stranger who smirks behind a door that stays locked no matter how battered your knuckles get in their begging.
It’s 3 a.m. and this is it, the place you swore you’d never come back to. Only you did. Same black room, same bone-deep pain: you with all your knowledge of the past, all that dogged faith in the future, slipped as if scripted back into this old province of despair. Can people change? You told her they could. “Watch,” you said. You, who had cheated then lied then lied about the lies, looked a good girl in her green eyes and said, “Give me one chance to be better, and I will.”
“Okay,” said she. And if, then, she doubted your resolve, it did not show. Neither did it show in the days and weeks and months that followed that wretched night. She never mentioned what happened. You asked for a chance and got it. She loved you as if you were the man you claimed you could be.
Your response to that new life? Fall into bed with some girl from work and, same as the time before, bury it beneath so many lies. You, Mr. “Watch,” Mr. “Never Again,” Mr. “I Will Love You Forever,” managed to keep your promise for four months, two weeks, six days, and three stiff drinks at the end of a shit day, before you held in your mind’s eye for a moment that good girl with the green eyes and, whispering “Fuck it,” kissed the girl from work right on her perfect teeth. “I will be better,” you told your good girl, after the first time. You weren’t.
How? How else? In the predictable way. In the ancient, inexhaustible way. In what must have been the same way some primordial bastard clutching his club and stumbling through the darkness of a cave not his own bridged the distance between the harmless thing and the horrible one. This is how: that girl from work with the perfect teeth smiled and you returned it; certain conversations went in certain directions and you let them; feelings developed and you, the veritable king of spineless bastards, circled back to those old needs like a mutt slinks back through the grass to get at its puddle of puke. You compromised, is how, lying to a woman who loved you to sleep with one who barely knows you. You fell, is how.
But forget “How?” That’s not the question. When the house burns, does it matter if the spark that started the fire came from a cigarette or a stove? Either way, the thing you built and loved is gone. No, forget “How?” “How?” and its attendant insights won’t lift a finger to clear the rubble. “What now?” is the question. “Sting of smoke in your eyes, where now do you go and what could possibly be waiting there for you?” better still.
There in that dark room, your heart a blistered thing among the cinders, you draw the strength to face this question. “What now?” you ask. You ask; and yet, you know the answer. The answer comes in your father’s voice.
“Of all this world’s worthless currencies, apologies might be the worst,” the old man would say. “Learn the price of your mistakes. Learn it and pay it.”
That, then, is your beginning and your end: to find and pay your good girl’s price. If she should say, “I want to know the truth,” then you will give it to her. If she should say, “Fling yourself headlong from a bridge,” you will reply, “Which bridge?” And if she should say, “I never want to see you again,” you will, with neither hesitation nor condition, up and vanish from her world. This is it, all that is left to a bastard as sorry as you: some feeble grasp at atonement, now that you’ve taken the good, real thing and smashed it all to pieces. This is all that’s left: to find the price and pay it fully.
You call her– no answer. Call again, the same. The third time– a miracle; her voice.
“What do you want?” she says.
“I want to make things right.”
You say this because you mean it, because you are ready to make good on it; but, from the receiver, comes the saddest laugh you’ve ever heard, a laughter like the slow breaking of something precious. You are aware, suddenly but deeply, that it doesn’t matter what you mean. What matters is what you can make her believe. Make her, then, believe it. Make her believe that on a night like this even a liar can want and seek a decent thing.
And so, dumbly, you say, “I mean it.”
“I’m sure you do,” she replies and seems on the verge of saying more before, for some reason, stopping.
You say, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Tell me the price and I’ll pay it.”
She says, “I’m sure you would.”
“Then tell me. I’ll do anything you ask, I swear it.”
“Why not?” you say and, squeezing the phone so hard the plastic casing groans, wait for the answer. After several seconds, it comes.
“What makes you think that you can do what you did and now, after feeling guilty for a single night, become some kind of savior?”
Before you reply, before you even begin to formulate the words that would have composed the reply, she hangs up. Her voice gone, it’s back to your fugue, back to the hellish rebuke of that black and lonely room. Back, you realize, to the pain. Then: something unexpected.
“No!” you say aloud, the blast of that one word rending in two the heart of the night while lining every last vein with adrenaline. It is not just a “No!” to the pain; it is a “No!” to her conclusion, justified though it is. You can be, and even are, some kind of savior. Consider the wretched reality of your past, all the lies and deceit and dealing out of pain– it is no matter. You are willing to pay her price, and that makes you, flaws and all, some kind of savior.
So, you permit yourself the few seconds required to draw a breath. Then, on cue with the exhale, you fling yourself out of bed, slip into the first clothes you can find, and leave. Talk off the table, some grand and reckless gesture seems the last viable option. Saviors, if nothing else, save.
And, half-drunk and still shot through with the dull ache of an insomniac, you get in your car and drive towards her house. And you roll the windows down, the cold air collecting in your cupped palm like snow filling up a bucket. And though the black road writhes like a death-racked snake beneath you, you stay on it. And though your eyes feel hemmed in by darkness you hit your high-beams and watch the world become as white as you need it to be. And in that moment, in that light, the tangled mystery of atonement reduces itself to a clear, quantifiable thing. The idea that you could show up at her house and learn and even pay her price becomes as simple as it sounds, as simple as steering in rhythm with a swervy road or hitting your high beams when it gets too dark to see.
You arrive. All the windows of her house are dark, but there in the driveway, gleaming like a gem in the glow of a nearby streetlamp, is her car. For reasons you can’t explain, the sight of her little car fills you with an inexplicable sense of hope for what comes next, so much so that your scalp breaks out in gooseflesh and your fingertips take on the same tingling quality that you experienced when you were a kid and something big was about to happen. This feeling follows you to her door, where you form a fist and knock.
The first one gets her out of bed. The second compels the cutting on of lights and, eventually, the appearance of her face in the slim pane of glass beside the door. It is through this glass, infused as it is with so much light, that the two of you meet eyes and without saying a word, stare at each other for what feels much longer than several seconds. Though it was hardly two days ago when the two of you stood together on this very porch and held each other, her eyes now look– what?– different.
“Let me in,” you say and continue to study those now-strange but still-familiar eyes.
So different do they seem, that for a moment you feel as if you are looking into the face of a stranger. At first you chalk it up to the crying and the fatigue. You can see from your reflection that your own eyes are swollen and red-rimmed. And yet, as she stares back at you from behind the glass, you realize it’s more than that. Though subtle, it is clear that some kind of transformation has taken place. A substance, maybe even a color, that previously resided in her eyes is now missing, and you realize with great sadness that it is you who is responsible for this loss.
“No,” she says.
“Please,” you say. “I just want to–”
“No,” she says. “There is nothing left to do. Go away.”
You press your outstretched palm against the glass. She looks from your face to your hand and then back to your face. For a moment, something like the old light flicks on in her eyes and the feeling you got when you saw her car, that vague auspicious surge, spreads through your body like the first sip of a strong drink. It’s true that there is something between you, something asserting itself like a wall between where you are and where you need to be, but for a moment it feels as frail as the glass beneath your hand. For a moment, all things seem possible.
“Five minutes,” you say. “Give me that and I’ll never bother you again.”
“No,” she says, no longer looking at your hand or your face or anything else except for the floor.
“Please,” you say. “Please.”
The next time she looks into your face, she has the phone against her ear and is speaking something into it. Hand still pressed against the glass, you listen as she tells the 911 operator that a man is on her porch, that she is scared for her safety, and that she needs immediate help. The last thing you hear before she turns and walks away is the operator asking, “Ma’am do you recognize the intruder?”
Her answer: “No, I don’t.”
Is that how it ends? No climax, no resolution? Is that, then, the way one thing becomes another? Like the hand of a clock sweeping effortlessly in its indifference over all those thin, black nicks? Okay then. It is finished.
There is, however, this: driving away from her house for what you know to be the last time, it occurs to you that in a way you received exactly what you asked for. You received her price. “There is nothing left to do.” In a way that was it. To carry, for as long as your sense of shame allows, the knowledge that things can move beyond your ability to fix them and that when they do you are no longer necessary. To drag a cross that nobody wants back to a room where nobody goes.
It’s 6 a.m. on a Tuesday and back you go to that old room.
Dan Leach’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Greensboro Review, Deep South Magazine, and The New Madrid Review. A Greenville native, he graduated from Clemson University in 2008 and has since taught in various high-schools across South Carolina. Floods and Fires, his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press in 2017.