Unforgotten

John flashed another fake smile as he smothered the last flame with a gust of breath. The people in the room clapped and cheered. They looked ridiculous in their party hats, tight elastic bands dangerously close to strangling a number of the more rotund guests. John looked down at his cake. The words “Happy Birthday John!” shown in bright blue letters above a giant 27 made of similar frosting. ‘If only.’ John thought as he struggled to keep the lying mask of happiness on his face.

It seemed only a moment later that John was chatting uselessly with his ‘friends’, watching them devour his frosting covered abomination. But it wasn’t the cake that bothered him. He had seen bad cakes and good cakes, and this one fell somewhere in the middle. He closed his eyes and he drifted back to one he had in Spain. It seemed like only yesterday. Yellow frosting kissing brilliant red sugar roses, the heat of the Madrid night making him drip small beads of sweat on its surface.

“Come on!” Maria whispered in his ear, “Make a wish!”

            “But what if I already have what I want?” John whispered back, playfully rubbing his nose against her soft cheek.

            Maria giggled and ran her hands through his hair.

            “Then wish for something else.”

            But his wish didn’t come true, none of them ever did. No matter how many times he blew out those candles, he always opened his eyes to the same, joyless world. He had forgotten just exactly how many times that same thought passed through his head, pounding the inside of his skull like a demon wishing to be released. Yet, every time he soundlessly whispered it to the candles, he was only met with dark silence.

            The night passed before him like a lethargic movie, blurring before his eyes, unconsciously nodding at those who wished him well. One by one, they slammed the door shut behind them, jokes and laughter resonating all of the way down the hall until the elevator cut off their babble. As the final one hobbled out, slurring a drunken goodbye, John locked the bolt and slid down the back of the door, exhausted.

At long last his façade of happiness slid off him like a damp coat, shattering against the cold gray carpet. Tears began to roll from his eyes, staining their silver paths on his cheeks. He could feel the grief coming back, shivering hands attempting to wipe his eyes. With shaking breaths he tried to control the inevitable wave that would overwhelm him. His hands clutched each other tightly for relief from the tremors, draining them of blood. With a deep inhale, John stood up. Looking at the mass of dirty dishes in the sink he began to walk forward. He had to do something; he had to occupy his mind.

After the 50th or so icing-smeared plate had been cleaned, John turned around to grab another towel. His eyes passed over and were jerked to a stop by incredibly antique photo of a woman. Completely yellowed at the sides, the photograph was in a heavy steel frame, shielding it from the air. The woman in the photo had pitch black curls tumbling down her shoulders like water, reflecting some unknown source. John picked up the frame with the utmost care, gently caressing the sides of the engraved metal, hot to the touch. He gave a small smile as one more tear slid down his face.

A fierce whistling filled the air.

“Darling, would you take the teapot off the fire for me?” Maria said without turning from her book.

“Absolutely.” John said as he gingerly lifted the burned metal from the heat.  The shrilling instantly vanished and was replaced by the slow and tender hiss of steam out of the kettle. Slowly he slid up behind Maria and planted a soft kiss on her neck.

“How are you dear?” He smiled quietly into her ear.

“Just lovely, really.” She replied.

Maria paused for a moment, silence filling the lull like an unwelcome guest.

Suddenly, she said, “Do you love me?”

John was taken aback as he paused in his path around her neck. “Of course I love you.” He replied, slightly hurt. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” She started slowly, “In this book, the husband and wife treat each other so horribly, and they never tell each other they love each other.”

John walked around the chair Maria sat in and embraced her. “Until the day I die, I will always love you.” He said.

“And you mean it?”

“With every beat of my heart.” John softly replied, kissing her tenderly.

Without warning, there was a sharp knock on the door.

“Don’t get up.” John smiled, “I’ll get it.”

The clash of exploding china rang through the room. John snapped back to his apartment, staring at a destroyed plate–still wet with soap–laying splintered on the floor. He looked down and saw his hand clutching another plate, dripping warm water onto the tiled floor. Bellowing in a poisonous mixture of rage and grief he hurled the second plate at the wall, tears flowing freely down his face now. He stood for a moment, contemplating whether another dish deserved to meet its doom. Wiping his arm on his sleeve John took the picture, his coat, and slammed the door to the apartment behind him.

*                                  *                                  *

            The cold, New York winter wind ripped through John as he stormed away from his apartment. He thought it would be different this year, but it turned out the same as always. Every year the memories took him over; every year he was left broken. Too long had passed since he had truly been happy. Too many women, too many friends, too many lives. He was sick of always repeating the same cycle: Love, life, death, acceptance. In the end it was all about what he remembered and what he chose to forget. Maria however, was something that his mind refused to release its bitter hold on. They always talked about how they had the same birthday, how they were destined to grow old together. But now, every year that John had to live through was another year he had to live without Maria.

            Escaping from the gnashing cold, John found shelter in a dimly lit alley behind a bar. As he warmed his hands with steaming breath he looked at the hundreds of posters and papers plastered to the wall. Missing people stared back with their cheerful eyes, pictures of happier times masking the grief of their relatives. A poster of the earth in flames shone brightest on the wall, the red fire reflected brilliantly by the street lights, casting a ruby hue down the alley. Above the picture stood the black ominous letters of GLOBAL WARMING. John could only shake his head and scoff at the ignorance of the world. Times had changed, that was for sure. But one thing never changed. . .

            John snapped his head away from the thought, refusing once again to be overtaken by it. But the memory was not to be denied, snaking its tendrils back to the recesses of his mind, worming its way through his subconscious.

            ‘What if I could have saved her?’ He thought for the millionth time, ‘I could have saved her…I should have saved her.’

            ‘No.’ John snapped at himself, ‘She’d still be gone. You can’t save anyone. The only thing you have the power to do, is sit quietly alongside them while their life is slowly siphoned away. No matter how many times you look into their eyes and they say that they love you, it can never be the same.’

            As he argued with himself, John began to slip away from the present, eyes drifting downwards, exhausted. The memories had complete control of him now, writhing like malicious serpents within his mind. As he slumped down to the side of the cold alleyway, he began to drift away to a time when grief was so rare, and love was so common.

            John kissed Maria once more on the forehead before moving towards the door, new wooden floors groaning underfoot. John swung the door open with a smile on his face that vanished instantly. Nine soldiers with the crest of France sowed onto their gray uniforms stood before him. John’s eyes widened in terror.

            “MARIA! RUN!” John roared back. Instantly the soldier in the front unsheathed his saber and pierced it through John’s chest. John screamed in pain as the metal sword plunged past his ribs and severed something inside him. Crimson liquid poured forth as he staggered back, gasping for breath. The soldier withdrew his sword from its bloody, newfound sheath and kicked John to the ground, leading the rest of the men into the next room.

            John cried in horror as he lay on the ground bleeding and saw them advance upon Maria. They grabbed her inches from the back window, pulling her back by her hair. Whirling her around, she choked as the same man plunged his blade into her chest, her scream instantly cut off. Words deserted John as he watched his wife fall to the floor, slowly becoming pale. His eyes drenched forth with tears, unable to grasp the scene before him. His watering eyes were completely fixated on his love, lying on the floor, barely out of reach of his grasping fingers. Maria smiled the faintest smile, and as her eyes grew white, she mouthed, ‘I love you.’

            She was gone, it was all gone, everything. His love was gone. What was left inside him was nothing.

Empty and hopeless…he stood up.

            He looked down at his chest, and saw his bloody wound heal itself of its own accord. The skin around the gash melted together like a flowing liquid, and moments later, the wound was gone. John had no emotion left to admire the miracle, no emotion to think clearly. All he saw was Maria, her radiant black hair sticking to the ground, tainted with her own crimson.

            Primal fury rushing through his veins he looked at his feet and picked up a poker from the fire, still glowing red. All sense of reason abandoned him as he lifted his head, tears mixing with the blood on his face. The room grew silent as the men turned their heads back to him, eyes wide with horror. Slowly, John lifted a hand and locked the door beside him.

 

            John slid back to the present, all of the emotions of that day rushing back to him. He pulled the picture out of his coat, staring at its beauty. Maria stared back at him through the photograph’s yellowed and decomposing paper, still as beautiful as the day he first laid eyes on her. They had taken her away from him in body only, and his love for her was unbroken. However, with every year that passed, his heart bled more and more. This healing, this power, this curse he had; that was all that separated him from his love. All he wanted was to be at peace, to be together with her again; but God denied him his wish. He was unable to be injured, unable to die, and as time had taught him, unable to age. He had seen wars begin, and he had seen wars end. He had seen the same people be born and then die of old age. The world was utterly unable to offer him anything more that he had not already witnessed.

            Suddenly John heard a woman scream from down the alley. Getting to his feet, he picked himself off the wall and quickly stuffed the picture in his coat pocket. He jumped forward, out of the safety of the streetlight, and bounding into the shadows beyond. Knocking aside metal cans and wet cardboard, John ran down the alley, searching for the source of the outcry. Slipping on an invisible puddle, John caught a glimpse of a young woman in a bright yellow dress running away from a man clad in black. Quickly changing direction John sprinted down the alley, watching as the woman hit a dead end and backed up against it, crying in fear. Slowly, the man lifted a gun just as John threw himself in front of the woman.

            A shot rang out, then a second. John felt two stinging, digging pains drill into him; one in his shoulder and the other through his lung. A sharp chime of shattering glass sounded as John closed his eyes, his mouth forming into a smile. Could this be it? Could he at last be free of his torture? He stood for a moment, waiting for some signal that he was dying…but it never came.

            Cursing in anger he watched as the two lead bullets were pushed out of his chest by the healing of his wounds. They fell to the ground, clinking softly as they bounced against the cement. John looked up, the man’s face carved with jagged horror. Without waiting for him to act, John lunged forward and snapped the man’s neck. It was like breaking a twig, all the fresh anger stored up inside being released at once. Immediately, the man’s body went limp, crumpling to the ground in a tattered heap.

            John turned around to the woman, trying to cover the bullet holes in his coat. Her face was contorted in a strange conglomeration of fear and admiration.

            She reached out to John, moving his hands away from the holes in his coat. Wordlessly she prodded her finger through one of them and felt through his layers of clothing to rest on his warm skin.

            “You…you…” She struggled to say.

            He looked at her, marveling at her perfect eyes, her flowing black hair, her soft lips.

            Without warning she jumped forward and embraced him in a tight hug. John stood there awkward for a moment before returning the embrace.

            “You saved my life.” She muffled into his shoulder.

            Somewhere between them glass cracked and they both jumped in surprise. Releasing their hold on each other, John reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the picture of Maria. The glass had been shattered and the bullet had ripped a hole through the corner of the photograph. Tears began to fall from John as he took a step back. He could think of no words to say to the woman, no words to comfort her. How could he make her happy when he couldn’t even do that for himself?

            Silently John turned around, delicately fingering the yellowed photograph. He began to walk forward, leaving the woman behind him stunned, a tear rolling down her cheek.

            “I have no love to give you.” John whispered, footsteps resonating through the silent alley. “I already belong to someone else.”

            John stepped once, twice, three times away, until his footsteps became a slow walk. With every footstep he placed onto the unforgiving earth his heart beat in tune. Step-thump…step-thump…step-thump. His life had already seen billions of footsteps, and billions more heartbeats lay before him. John took one final step around a corner, and was gone.

“Until the day I die, I will always love you.” John whispered into her ear.

“And you mean it?” Maria asked.

“With every beat of my heart.”


Comments:
 
rafaelluna   rafaelluna wrote
on 11/20/2009 5:57:00 AM
Very well done ending, you took a step away from the story and dived into the core of it right after. It gave a vision of what has and what is going to happen. Such a dramatic end to an innocent beginning (this, i think, is such an achievement). Congratulations :)

Rob5679   Rob5679 wrote
on 9/19/2009 9:31:23 AM
I was completely engrosed and I agree, a deserved winner. Connor McCloud with emotion and a brain. Excellent!

Michele   Michele wrote
on 9/9/2009 5:58:47 PM
Well-deserved winner---gave me chills! I hoped for a second the woman he saved was Maria--ah me!!

Mantar008
Short Story
Romance
writing Mantar008
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Synopsis
This was the winning piece I submitted to the July 2009 Short Story contest. Enjoy!
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