This story was written to and inspired by the following piece of music. Please feel free to listen before, after, or while you read. It may take a moment to load.
“Bittersweet Romance” – Nobuo Uematsu (from Final Fantasy IX)
“Hey! She’s over here!”
I covered my mouth to stifle the laughter. I couldn’t believe it still worked after all these years. They never were very bright.
“Wait… False alarm, I guess. It’s just a pile of clothes and a backpack. Maybe a clumsy thief or something?”
Footsteps grew closer from my left. “Wait, let me see those?” There was a ruffling of material followed by a long silence. Then, at last: “Call the others, tell them to guard every entrance. This is no petty thief.”
“What? You know the guy?”
A sigh, presumably accompanied by the shake of the head, followed. He hadn’t changed one bit. “It’s a she. And yes, I do.” As the newbie made his way off to call his friends, Tom peered over the hedge and shouted: “Okay, Abigail. You’ve had your fun. Would you come with me just once? Your parents would like to see you.”
A pause, then another sigh. His feet turned away and plodded off, old and slow. “Abigail! Abigail!”
His voice trailed off as I snuck silently out of the leaves and away into the courtyard. I couldn’t help but cackle once I reached the old fountain, out of earshot. What had gotten into me?
I had a life now — a loving husband, a wonderful baby girl, a job I loved… I didn’t need anything here. And yet here I was, a 29-year-old child, giggling in the bushes like the good old days. Or, perhaps, just the old days. I suppose I could have done it without all the hype, too — just slipped in and out undetected, then left on my merry way.
But what the hell. I was always up for a challenge.
My breath grew heavy as I rounded the last corner. I wiped the sweaty bangs from my hair as I glanced around, smiling. God, it looked just the same after fifteen years The hedges were trimmed just the way they had been when I was young. My hands traced along the leafy elephant’s foot on my left, moving lightly along the branches as my heart swelled. I could find my way around this piece of the courtyard with my eyes closed. It was funny — in spite of all of the horrible misfortunes that had driven me there time and time again, I missed the place. The smell of the flowers, the feel of the grass and mossy cobblestone under my bare feet, the hilariously unnecessary lavishness of the place almost no one ever saw. In a way, it represented so many of the qualities I despised in my parents. But it was mine, and I trusted it. It was just how I’d left it.
Instinctively, I moved to the corner of the little courtyard and sat beneath the rearing horse’s hedge hooves. My hands leaned back into the moist earth, dirt weakling under my newly-manicured nails, and I sighed with relief. Looking up into the sky, I was awestruck by how beautiful it was. It had been so long since I’d taken the time to appreciate the stars, especially since they hid so well behind the lights of the big cities. In the distance, I could just make out the sounds of the guards, the clanging of the gates, and I smiled. Just like old times.
The sound of a gigantic bumblebee cut through the air. I jumped. There was a buzzing on my thigh, strong and incessant. My hand flew to smack it until it withdrew with pain. Almost immediately afterwards, I was struck with my own stupidity. I removed my cell from the pocket of my jeans and saw the screen:
Incoming call from: Grant Marshall.
I sat there, dumbfounded, suddenly struck with the reality of the moment. What the hell was I doing here? I’d forgotten to tell him I’d be home late. I was surprised he didn’t call sooner. My thumb hovered over the green icon. I told my thumb to press, but it continued to hover there, stupid and still.
“Come on, Abby,” I scolded myself quietly, “just pick up the damn phone.“ But my palms were slick with sweat. My hands started shaking as my eyes welled with tears. I furiously pushed the hair away from my face, just waiting for it to stop ringing, but it carried on for what felt like ages.
It all seemed to happen suddenly then. I was half-expecting to discover someone else nearby that could’ve been making the ugly sounds I heard. But I knew from the shaking in my hands as I spun and started scraping at the earth that the sobs were my own. My nails cracked and stung as my hands dug at the rocky ground beneath the hedges. It was only a few minutes before the hole was at least a foot deep. Without looking, I tossed the phone into the hole and shoved the piles of earth back over it. I couldn’t bear to watch his face disappear into the ground. I knew how much crazier I’d feel if I did. It was already bad enough. What was wrong with me?
I tamped the soil into place, waiting to hear if the vibrations continued. It was then that I realized through the blur and muck that the ringing must have stopped quite a bit earlier.
My heart sank as I spun, pressing my back into the bush. I tried to quiet the gasps, but the sobs only grew worse. I could barely see his face in the night, but I knew it was him. There wasn’t a trace of anger in his voice. He approached me slowly, kneeling a few feet in front of where I was huddled. Concern lined the many wrinkles that were etched deep into the surfaces of his skin, which seemed to hang down a bit further than I’d remembered. He seemed so worried about me, so loving, still.
Tom removed his hat and set it lightly beside him, then looked up to meet my eyes. After a pause, he slowly leaned forward to place his hand on mine. “Oh sweetheart… what happened?”
I flung my arms around his broad old shoulders and cried. I don’t know how long he held me or how he kept the other guards from noticing, but he did, and I was grateful in retrospect. He rubbed my back and soothed me softly, but he didn’t try to quiet me. He let me weep, loud and ugly, until the tears just stopped flowing. It was that moment when I realized what it was: it wasn’t that I’d missed my home, my old life — it was that, even after all these years of fighting to be different, of working to shed that ugly history and be happy, it was all still so fake. Fake contentment for a fake future to very the real, permanent, crushing agony. I was living the life I thought I wanted. But I was lying even to myself.
And then the tears came again.