Chapter 04 - Frost.
(Written in 2014 and Published in 2020).
Past - Chicago, 1861
The flames lick, even during the storm. I can see them crawling up and over the walls, rapidly burning through the hollowness of the dried out yellow grass. While it pours outside, nothing is safe in the wake of the wicked fire. The viciousness of the firestorm knows no limitations, no bounds of Mother Nature, as we look on, wondering why the rain will never seem to thirst its quench.
It knows no limitations. I am trapped in this little wooden house, out on the outskirts of this big city, and I am screaming. I am always screaming out to you because I can hear you, I can hear just on the other side of these wooden walls. I am frantically searching for a way out, as the heat melts away the definition of the doors, and shatters the frames of these windows. The knobs and latches have exploded and withered in the extreme heat. Everything seems to be vanishing before my eyes. There is no way out. Disconnected, I can hear myself scream to you, “There is no way out!”
But you never come.
A heroic dream of a nickelodeon-quality; there, you would burst through these melting wooden panels to find me. I’d stand in the middle of the kitchen, in this kitchen that we made together, and you’d come through and you’d grab me by the wrist and miraculously drag me through tidal-wave flames. Like you always promised some time ago – a long time ago – you would come and you would save me. It’s always when the rooftop begins to cave in that I can hear you scream, “Annabel, you have to get out of there, god damn it!”
“But I can’t! I just can’t!” I am screaming to my breaking point, screaming as the smoke consumes every last square inch of fresh oxygen left in this tiny house. If I could cry, I would cry; cry wet, wallowing wails, if it were not for the fire that saps every last drop of moisture from this air.
“Annabel, you have to get out of there, god damn it!”
As soon as the flames jump forward, I know you’re never coming for me. It’s the same story, over and over again, but yet every time the story begins to play, I hold on to some small, desperate amount of hope, that this time it will be different. This time you will burst through the doors and this time you will save me. This time, you will keep your promises to love me at my highest moment, and at my lowest. Moreover, for all those times you swore I had saved you, you’d finally repay your debt. You’d save me.
It’s when I am standing in the kitchen, alone, face-to-face with the tidal-wave flames and I can no longer hear your cries that I know that I am wrong. I am dead wrong. I am done, dead, and gone.
“NO!” It’s one last fighting attempt, one last protest against being burned alive. The flame is coming dangerously close to the flesh of my face. And in an instant, as soon as the flame begins to lick at my face, it all stops.
“Annabel, shh, honey, you’re all right.” I can hear the voice of another filling the walls of the burning house. I look around; strangely, everything on pause. Where is the voice coming from?
“Honey, wake up, okay? Just do that for me, please.” Wake up? But, the flames… As I look away from the other corners of this little house, I look back to the flames and notice they are frozen and retreating from the battlefield of my kitchen. They are growing smaller and smaller, to the size of a fireplace fire.
A gentle nudge on my shoulder, the first sensation of moisture as someone kisses my skin. It’s cool, it’s soft, it’s all of the things I thought were gone, burned up in the great fire. The great fire that took everything from me. In those fragmented, fragile moments, my memory comes back to me. Standing in the kitchen of retreating flames, I remember. This is all happening now, but not really now; the fire happened a year ago now. Somewhere, in the foggy haze of adrenaline and ashes, I make the temporal connection of yesterday and today. This fire I have endured just now, retreating back to the fireplace, has already come to pass. I’ve done this before, fought this fire – and this time will not be the last. This is nothing but a dream; a reawakening to yet another nightmare of my own history. I open my eyes. Softness lies on the top of my shoulder – his face, his cheeks. There they are, the face and cheeks of a man who would not dare leave me in the fire of a year ago.
Catching my breath, controlling my heart, I look over to the man who did not leave me in that burning house. I look at the man who came to hold me after it was all over, and I look into the eyes of a man who loves me for a plethora of reasons I will never understand. A man who swears I am everything he needs. He swears, but deep down we both know he could find a woman who could give him more than I ever could.
“Annabel, Anna-belly, my love,” he pauses for a moment. I know he is afraid to utter the next set of words to me. “Again?”
Normally, if I were not fresh out of the fire of a dream, I would fly off the handle. I would tell him that he can’t even begin to understand what that moment felt like, when my life, literally, went up in flames. I would scream that passionate fighter scream I was born with, raised with, taught to never ever give up. I would fight him until he understood. But here, here and now, I just can’t. The dream is too fresh and the realness of the heat is still searing at my skin. My emotions are still charred around the edges. I haven’t had enough time to cool off to remember who I am right now, at this moment. I am now Annabel, no longer the woman that a man left in a burning house a year ago.
“I know,” I begin. Even after emerging from the firefight, the moisture returns back to my body. “I am so sorry, Jackson,” I say, and the tears follow. Lifting his head from my shoulder, he pushes himself up from underneath the covers of his bed. I look away, ashamed that I am crying and not fighting. He isn’t ashamed of me or surprised at my moment of vulnerability. I just feel him gently place both of his hands beneath my upper body and lift me from the bed. I am cradled like a small child into the definition of his chest—the body of a working, breathing, and loving man.
He smells like what home could be. He smells sweet and slightly rusted, the combination of a hard day of work and the remaining scent of a soap bar from a bath. He smells like what a woman would love; he smells like what home could be for me. I take in his scent once more and I begin to cry even harder.
What home could be – yet, I am not sure what home is for me anymore. Even if the flames had not engulfed the entirety of our little wooden house in the outskirts of this great city, would that little house have survived any longer? Would it have held on; within its frame, the fighting souls of a man and a woman, so terribly misunderstood, so terribly and torturously in love with one another. Could it endure another night of screaming voices, of yelling across one another and never listening to one another? Would it have endured the rollercoaster that was a great love of quarrels and spats that never seemed to heal? The ending sentences of a fight enveloped in passionate embraces. Passionate utterances of I am so sorry, passionate nights of romance to rekindle what had been lost in those hours of heartbreak warfare. That poor, little house. Could it? Could it ever survive? Better yet, could I survive another day of heartbreak, falling down the depths of romance, only to be elated to the highest peaks of its emotional landscape yet again? My heart palpitates, but in reality, I don’t think I would have survived. Not another day. If my bones broke back then, how should I expect a little house of nails and warped wood to survive now?
Returning to this moment, I push my head farther into the softness of Jackson’s chest, taking in the maybe smell of a “could be home” that lingers on his skin. Could be, and I know that, deep down, I so badly want this to be home. I remember, however, the smell industry and home cooking. My heart flutters at the smell of lavender from the soap he used to always say was his favorite. In the lingering scent of lavender, I am brought back to the peaks of that emotional landscape. Lingering in lavender, I remember the smell of his rough hands when he used to wash up for supper with lavender. I remember the smell of our home. Joshua, I think to myself. I press my face so hard into the chest of Jackson and try so hard to consume myself with his smell. I try to replace Joshua with Jackson, lavender for softness. I try to use it to replace the smell of another man I still love, and use to call home. Momentarily, I am overcome, to the demise of my best efforts, with those smells. The smell of that kitchen, the smell of those hands, the smell of his sweat; it takes over every one of the senses I am blessed with.
“Please, please no,” I fight as I cry into Jackson’s chest. Please just stop haunting me.
“Annabel, you’re safe now. You’re home now.”
I can’t even bring myself to say anything in response. Is this man’s house now a place I can and should call home? “You’re home now, because home is the place I will always love you.”
All of sudden I remember the smell of fire, of charred wood and the burning fabric. I remember the smell of hopelessness, helplessness at the hands of the man who swore he loved me, over and over again. “I am so sorry, I just can’t take this right now,” I say, as I push away from Jackson.
I swing my legs out from underneath me and leave Jackson’s bed. He loves me, but at this moment, I cannot be in the comfort of another man’s love. I have to be on my own – the fighter in me. In my nightdress, in the beginning months of winter, I head out to the stretch of farmland surrounding Jackson’s modest house. In the darkest hours of the night, I can see the shimmering lights of the city, off in the distance.
At the front door, the doorknob is there. It is solid, and it is cold, retaining the chill from the frost beginning to form in the nights and early mornings of these last months of fall. Pulling back from the chill of the metal, I remind myself. If I can endure the maximum temperature of heat and flame, I can cool those burns with the beginning frost of winter. The door slams behind me. I leave Jackson with a slap to the face, leaving him in the house he has tried to make a home for me. What he will never understand: home, right now, is where the flames consumed us so; the flames that left me inside a house that he ran from. Those flames – flames of passionate, explosive romance that the rest of the world knew was so wrong. But just to us, felt so, so right.
At the edge of the entryway path of Jackson’s house is a beautiful lavender patch I have always admired. It’s a smell, during the springtime, that lingers, subtly, as I walk the path to his front door. It reminds hauntingly reminds me of yesterday. Yesterday that is still today, in some ways, because that little patch, for now, is home. It’s all I have got. The little buds of purple lavender are frosted at the tips now, unlike their spring and summer fragrance. Those little lavender buds brittle in their very existence now; brittle, but numb, in the stages of embracing the cold chill of winter. I can imagine them now as unable to feel winter’s cruel, cruel assault, coming on now. I want to feel like that. To freeze over the burns from yesterday, unable to remember that these wounds of flames and fierce jealousy; I don’t want to feel it anymore.
I just want to be home, wherever that is now.
In the thinness of my nightdress, I embrace the chill of the lavender patch and lie in the thick of its frostbitten, muddy existence. I lay my head back, resting it into the thick of the mud like a small, ignorant child. The dying scent of lavender lingers in my nose. It’s a calming balm to this twinge of pain that still is burning in my chest.
In the frost, I pray I will become numb; I won’t feel anymore. The scent of farm and soap will become home, I pray; I am momentarily sure of this. Yet, the lavender creeps up again, emanating one last burst of perfume before the winter takes its last breath of fragrance. I sniffle, in the freezing elements of winter, with no flame in sight, no charring scent to overcome.
The lavender reminds me that this could be home.
But don’t you remember, I ask myself in the thick of the dying lavender patch. Don’t you remember the scent that you called home? And his voice comes through my memories; he’s emanating industry and flora. Because we were made for this, I hear him say, as I lay in the depths of the muddy, dying lavender patch. We were made for this.
He listened to the faint, soft breaths of the woman in the other room, as he sat at the kitchen table he crafted himself. Falling into her rhythm, he became lost in his own frustration. He made the table himself in the house he built himself; everything he had done, for himself, after the great fire took everything from him. Staring into the table, he noted how much he hated its finish. It wasn’t as smooth or natural as his first table. His first table had been used, tarnished in places, scarred with water rings and grease stains. It was imperfect, to say the least, but it was natural. It was blemished in spots, but smooth and polished overall. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a part of his home.
Annabel made those water rings and grease stains on his once-perfect table. There was the time she haphazardly sloshed a pot of boiling water, and another, a bowl of sugared peaches. She was always on the go, never careful to look two steps ahead of her to see what disaster she would cause next. She was an in the moment kind of girl, and he adored her for it. Yet, she was always looking, longing to be somewhere else, even though he loved her right there and then. He’d sit at the head of his kitchen table and watch her as she cooked, looking out the kitchen window as if to let her mind take a walk outside of their little kitchen. Appreciative, yet she was never content in that small house, with the small and precious things they had together.
He knew she loved him; there wasn’t a doubt about that. But he always wanted to venture off with her, wherever her mind wandered. He wanted to see what colorful images popped into her line of sight, to venture down the wilderness of imagination and possibility. It was so difficult for him to know how she could come up with the wildest of tales, how she could always find a silly little story in something they witnessed together. He saw a piece of gravel and she saw the story of a pebble kicked and blown all the way from the lakeshore in the City. He never understood, but always wanted to know. She tried to show him, but when the time came, he never really wanted to go with her.
Lazily, he traced the letter A with his finger across his freshly cleaned kitchen in the middle of the night.
“Joshua, you coming back to bed?” Roxie sleepily asked him as she stood in the doorway of the bedroom.
“I am. Just give me a moment, would you?”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Roxie. No. Just, a moment would you? Please?” He exhaled with frustration.
“Sure,” she quietly uttered as she turned her back and slowly disappeared into the darkness of the bedroom.
Even when he had Annabel, this woman, Roxie, always caught his eye. She had been nothing but a friend; a friend many said had stronger feelings for him than he gave her credit. Even if he were to put stock in the things people said, he thought he would never act on it. Always somewhere in her own world, he loved a woman named Annabel. She always ran off in the wild, always inviting him to come along. Annabel; so young and fierce, but naïve and selfish in more than a few ways. She held on to his heart with a death grip, but sometimes, sometimes he wished she would just let go. If she would let go, he could be with a more practical woman, like Roxie – a woman grounded in the realities of this changing and complicated world. A woman who, like he, believed in the practicalities of things, not in the whimsical fantasies of what could be. She was beautiful, for a list of reasons completely opposite of why he found his Annabel so, so beautiful.
Even now that he had this woman who was as beautiful, and more practical and sensible, he felt something commonsensical about her, not something passionate and romantic as he once had felt before. She had the softest of skin and a smile that managed to tear the rough exterior of any machismo, reducing him to the emotional whimsy of a small, adored child. She was seductive when she wanted to be and modest when the rest of the world was looking. She was everything he wanted, everything he thought his woman ought to be.
When he kissed her, however, the taste of Annabel lingered around his lips. The first time he ever kissed her, in the shadows of the downtown skyline, he thought the taste of Annabel was simply guilt. He had left Annabel alone to be with her wandering thoughts and sought the comfort friends and another woman, Roxie, on an evening not too long ago. Annabel was her own woman who found sometimes she didn’t quite fit into Joshua’s world. On that night, left alone with this woman and the city skyline, Joshua was for once grateful Annabel did not fit into his world.
That night, he pulled Roxie in close, placed both of his hands on her cheeks, and intensely embraced her. He searched for her own taste, her own identity, but all he found was the sweetness of Annabel, the simple tones of fruitiness and cinnamon. That was distinctly how he remembered Annabel, and so he pulled away from Roxie at that moment, startled by the flash of Annabel in his mind.
“It’s okay, no one will find us,” she said. Roxie slowly leaned into Joshua, finding his lips with hers. Again, the taste of another woman startled him. Roxie ran her hands through his hair, calming him, reminding him that he wanted this just as badly as she had. Over time, he grew accustomed to the similarity of the two women in his life and slowly submitted to the seduction of a woman who fit into his world as he thought a woman ought to.
Coming back to the imperfect finish of his kitchen table, the memories of leaving one woman and embracing another haunted him as he traced the letter A with his finger on his new kitchen table. Pulling himself away from the memory of his first embrace with Roxie, he focused his hearing in on the bedroom behind him. If he held his breath and listened ever so closely, he could hear the soft, rhythmic breathing of Roxie in the next room. She had fallen asleep already. The taste of cinnamon began to rise in the back of his throat; guilt was taking hold. Guilty for lying with one woman of whom he thought was better, while his thoughts lingered to another.
Before his thoughts could linger too longingly, he reminded himself of all the reasons why the woman in the next room captivated him so. He reminded himself of all the reasons why Annabel had been one of his greatest loves, but why she would never be the love of his life. She was so sure of everything, and everything she was sure of, she wanted. Annabel knew before Joshua had ever entertained the idea that she loved him. She knew that it was a great kind of love, a love that had the potential to be the love of her life. Because of its tremendous value, she was so afraid of ever letting go, ever losing that love to anyone else, and so she pushed. She pushed him to try and recognize his mutual love for her all too soon. She wanted him to embrace her as she embraced him, with an open and unguarded heart. She wasn’t afraid of being hurt, because she never foresaw the day that he could potentially hurt her. All he saw was the day this wild little girl would ultimately break his heart.
The more she knew, the more she openly discussed and fanaticized their romance in different ways, the more he pushed her away. The more she made herself available to him, the more he put her on an emotional shelf to admire. She started on the lowest shelf and the more and more she touted off about her wonderful perception of him, the higher and higher on the shelves she was placed. The higher she’d go, the more out of reach, the more unreal, she would become to him. It was not intentional in the sense that he wanted to hurt her. In fact, he wanted nothing more than to love the beautiful, wild girl he saw in an alleyway in the City. He saw her and knew instantaneously that he had fallen for the wide-mouthed laugh that came from her, that echoed off the red bricks that surrounded her. In the company of friends, he only saw her. He only saw her and he know at that moment that he had to have her.
Sitting at the kitchen table, he fell upon that moment, his heart thumping wildly at the memory of Annabel in that green, tussled skirt on a summer’s evening, wandering the alleyway of the City looking for a moment of coolness and shade. But, sitting at that table, his heart wasn’t thumping wildly for the attraction and excitement he had at that moment. His heart pounded for the pain she caused him, for the stupidity he possessed in thinking he could love such a wild thing.
In that pain, he despised her innocence. He despised that her innocence was so intoxicating and so breathtaking that he couldn’t avoid it. He hated that he still adored that quality of hers, even when she fell into despair as his love lingered away. He hated that when he was so unsure of her, she stood there, on the other side of the imperfect kitchen table in his old house, fighting with him to see that she could never love anyone else but that man she met in the alleyway.
He thought about every fight they had, how she always seemed to cry and the more she cried, the more he seemed not to care. She’d show him that she loved him and he always denied it, always thinking about how she would inevitably hurt him. She was a storyteller by nature; a woman first, but an artist of words second. He had resolved to himself that she only loved him out of convenience, that she could never really love him because she actually fell in love with him. He told her this, over and over again. Somehow an argument about late nights, about miscommunications, about the smallest of mundane things would always turn to this. “Annabel!” he’d yell, as she sat at his imperfect table and cried. “Annabel, god damn it, you’ll never love me!”
He traced the letter A again into the table, thinking about all the times she continued to sit at that table and scream at him, cry for him, just to show him that she did love him. He never thought to actually look at her — all he could see were her words, words that would never, ever be enough for him. He started to believe that those fights were all they were made for. They were simply meant to fight, to scream, to talk past each other. She would yell at him until her pale cheeks turned a scarlet shade of red and he would cut her off enough times so she would finally give up.
Somewhere, in the midst of the jabs at each other’s egos, and the intentional punches at each other’s emotions, they would find a place to stop. Either someone conceding for the sake of ending the argument, or the both of them agreeing to just stop talking to one another. For hours they would quietly pass each other, hesitant in the aftermath of another verbal war to recognize the other one even existed. Annabel would try her hardest to play his game, to keep up with him emotionally and intellectually, as they maneuvered their post-war strategies. In the end, regardless of the strength, she tried to put on a show, she always gave into him. He’d walk past her, on his way into the living room and she’d jump into his arms. He never knew quite what to do with the little woman, but she always grabbed him by the face and kissed him with vigor and passion he thought never existed for the average person, living their average life.
“Little girl!” he’d grumble in between kisses, attempting to still be aggravated and stern with her. She never gave in when she let down her defenses. He’d bark and she’d bite him back, with sweet, sappy romance. He’d finally melt into her passion, tightly holding on to her and tasting the sweetness of her. He loved the fruit and citrus that lingered on her breath, the cinnamon he could always seem to taste.
In the aftermath, they would lay in his bedroom, she on top of his chest, tracing outlines of the letter J into his skin. After some time, she would quietly whisper, “I am sorry.” He knew she hated sleeping while angry. He’d take in a deep breath and slowly exhale. After a moment, he would kiss the top of her head and let his hands run through the soft, thin strands of hair. That was always enough for her.
But he never said sorry. He never said it because he never knew if he ever was truly sorry. She could never really love him, so why should he be sorry for being frustrated with her? She enticed him, seduced him, quarreled with him, and challenged him in every moment of their existence. She invited him, openly, to love her. But she was a storyteller, a cheat who could entice any man into loving her with those green eyes. Why him? She could never love him. For that, he wasn’t sure if he could ever say he was sorry.
Sitting at his new kitchen table in the company of a new woman, he found himself falling back into those angry memories and the rage welled deep within him when he thought about the seduction of that little storyteller. His large hands braced the side of the table as he suppressed the urge to scream out. He didn’t want to wake Roxie, but he needed to unleash the anger, the frustration, and the fury he felt when he thought about the way she looked. With an attempt to suppress, in a loud crack, Joshua broke off a panel from the table; a piece of darker wood he used as a border for his new table.
“Damn it!” He bellowed as he looked down at the panel of wood and the many fragments and shards that fell to the floor. He could hear Roxie stir in the other room.
“Is everything okay?” She looked half-awake and startled as she walked into the kitchen.
“Everything is fine, I just didn’t secure the table as well as I should have.” He brushed his hands through his short hair, trying to calm himself.
“It sounded like you ripped the table apart,” she commented as she looked at the fragments of wood on the floor.
“It just broke, all right? I just applied too much pressure and it snapped because I did a poor job building this stupid thing!” The anger and frustration he felt for Annabel welled up in his chest again.
“Joshua, relax,” Roxie begged as she placed her hands on his chest. “It’s just a table that you can easily fix. It’ s just a table.”
He took a breath and tried to regain his composure. Superficially, she was right. It was a table that could easily be fixed. What she didn’t know was that it was so much more than mending a broken wooden panel off of a kitchen table. It was about mending the wounds of a broken heart he wasn’t sure had the ability to break in the first place. As he exhaled, he pulled her into him, finding his calm at the end of the emotional storm. After a moment, he cupped her face with his rough hands and kissed her, searching for the reason why he would always love this woman and not Annabel.
“Mm, lavender,” she muttered between kisses, smelling the scent that came off of his hands.
He put the association to Annabel out of his mind and focused on making love to this woman standing in his new kitchen, in his new house, in the new life he swore he would make for himself; far, far away from the memories of the little storyteller.
- - - - - -
He stared down at the caramel-colored locks belonging to the woman whose head lay atop his chest. He loved the way the curled naturally at the ends. He kissed the top of her forehead, imparting affection after a rage of passion had exploded between them. She sighed contently as he lifted her from his chest and rolled onto his side, facing away from her.
“Everything okay then?” she sleepily asked as he rolled over.
“It’s fine, don’t worry; just sleep.” He heard her roll over, facing away from him, and quickly, she fell back into a soft, rhythmic breathing pattern. He waited for a moment, ensuring that Roxie was asleep.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, looking through the bedroom curtains to see the glow of the frosted moon in the night of early winter.
I am so sorry, he repeated to himself as the taste of Annabel lingered on his lips.
The Great Fire
It had been the hottest fall either of them could remember. The papers reported, day after day, the extreme temperatures of the early fall weather, and how the land was drying out at a rapid rate. Annabel awoke that day to the sun peeking through the curtains of the small bedroom window. It was another morning when she found the other half of the bed empty. Another morning when Joshua had gone into work early to beat the intensity of the heat.
The paper reported, again, the raging flames that had terrorized the countryside of Chicago. Both she and Joshua had been fearful that it would reach them, a mile or so west of their wooden home, and blaze onwards towards the east side of the city. That first night, as they fell asleep, they resolved to themselves that the fire would stop before it ever reached their little house. It would never happen to them.
The distance between them had grown quite large as of late, larger than the space between the threat of the fire and their little, wooden home. Their littlest fingers barely graced one another as they crawled into bed, cold to each other even after bouts of arguments took place at the kitchen table. His mind wandered on the thoughts of another woman, another life he thought he ought to be living. She found herself imagining a world where the pressures of reality left them, where they fit together, comfortably, in the context of each other’s lives.
The distance had increased, dramatically, on October 9, 1871; Annabel’s 23rd birthday. Joshua returned home, looking upon his little woman as she sat at his imperfect table, waiting for him. He found her, shoulders hunched, head in her hands, with that distressed look that always stretched her face before she cried. It hit him, as he watched her watery green eyes look up at him, coming in from a rough day. It was her birthday. The year before he had come home with a bundle of dried lavender, her favorite. But this year, after another year of enduring a tumultuous romance, he had forgotten; he had come home empty-handed. Her distressed posture indicated to him she knew what was going to happen to her at the end of the workday: disappointment as a gift.
“I was going to ask you what you wanted when I got back,” he muttered as he looked at her. She refused to look at him directly in the eyes. She wiped the corner of her eyes and shook her head violently, trying to get a hold of her emotions.
“I don’t want anything, it’s fine. It’s just a birthday,” she muttered as she stood up from the table and headed towards the living room. She just needed to get away from his presence.
“Come on, Annabel! Don’t play with me like that, I know you’re angry.”
“I’m NOT angry, I don’t WANT anything. I shouldn’t expect anything, so just leave me alone please!” This time she was sure she would not apologize to him.
He watched her as she marched past him and into their bedroom, slamming the door behind her. He hated her emotional rage, especially when she refused to be reasonable. Of course he had lied through his teeth, but he hadn’t openly admitted to forgetting about her birthday. She had nothing, openly, to mad at him for, as far as he could tell. “I am not playing your games tonight! Not tonight you little storyteller!” he bellowed as he grabbed his cap and turned out the front door.
A few moments later, Annabel quietly crept out of the bedroom to see if he had really left her, on her birthday, without an ounce of remorse. There wasn’t a trace of him, no indication he would ever come back to her. Pathetically, she fell to the floor, letting her emotions consume her as a little child would. She cried so hard she heaved, unsure of why he seemed to hate her, when all she ever did was love a man she swore could be loved.
When the heaving settled to quiet shivers, she lifted herself from the floor of their wooden house and slipped back into the bedroom, slowly unlacing the back of her favorite green, tussled skirt. She loved it not for its comfort or for its fine stitching, but for the way it made Joshua look at her. She knew he loved it more than she did. For her birthday, she wanted nothing more than that; to see the way he looked at her, the way he used to, in those few moments she knew he loved her even when he was a stubborn ass and would never, ever admit it. That’s all she ever wanted. She didn’t want to write the ending of their story in her head as they laid together in the quietness of the night. She wanted it to be real; she wanted sweet, passionate romance, and for him to finally tell her he loved her. She didn’t want flowers or sweet niceties. She just wanted him to admit he loved her as she loved him. She wanted their romance to be their romance, and not a fairytale ending she had written in her mind.
But maybe, she thought to herself and she slipped out of the skirt and into her nightdress, maybe this was an impossible thing to want. Maybe she could have asked for a bundle of lavender or lace gloves. Maybe that would have been okay because he would have won her heart over with something else; not something he had to provide himself. Lavender could make her smile and lace could make her heart sing. If that were the situation, he would never have to directly connect to her to make her happy. Maybe that’s what a woman should do, she thought; the woman who could actually fit into his life.
As the night fell, Annabel crawled under the covers of the bed they shared, wondering where he had gone, why he had left her on the night of her 23rd birthday. Without the previous hysteria, she began to give in to her childish sensitivities and tendencies, crying as she wondered where Joshua could be. She did not notice the hours that past as she cried to the point of tired, swollen eyes.
As the last faint sniffle escaped her breath, finally succumbing to the exhaustion that took over her, Joshua was embracing the scent of another woman. He didn’t care that the only thing he could taste was the woman he had left behind. He didn’t care that he knew he had destroyed her last hope that they would survive this spell. He didn’t care, not about her, not about how he really felt. He only cared about making love to a seductive woman he thought better fit into his life.
Annabel slipped off into another dream as Joshua slipped the dress off of another woman.
- - - - - -
She slept through the morning sunrise, only to awake to a pounding at the front door. Her eyes opened slowly, as she was barely able to part them from the swelling. Her head throbbed, dehydration, hysteria, and the heat taking over. The pounding continued, a familiar voice screaming, “Annabel!”
Grabbing a quilt from the end of the bed, Annabel wrapped herself and ran to the front door cautiously, as her vision was still a little blurred. “Coming!” she croaked, her vocal cords still waking up as well. She tightened the quilt as the grasped the brass doorknob and opened the door. Jackson, a neighbor and friend stood, looking panicked and startled.
“Annabel, why haven’t you been up yet? Have you heard? The fire, the fire Annabel.” Jackson was so startled he seemed out of breath.
“Wait, what? The fire—the fire, it hasn’t stopped?! It’s here?!”
“Yes, it’s jumped and it’s blazing holy hell. You have to get out of here, you have to leave; where is Joshua?” Her heart fell into her stomach. She fell asleep and Joshua hadn’t come back. He had really left her.
“I, I—I don’t know.” She was frightened to admit the truth.
“No time now to figure that out, you have to get out of here.”
“But, I am not properly dressed and I, and I don’t know what I should take with me. I am not sure I could take our things without Joshua’s help…” Annabel began to look around their little wooden house, panicking at the thought of seeing it all go up in flames.
“Annabel, listen. You go on in and change and I will help you carry your things. We have to get you out of here.”
“Have you gathered your things?” Annabel asked in a detached voice. She couldn’t process how fast the world was spinning. She couldn’t find a moment to stand and breathe, even if for just a moment.
“Annabel, yes, yes I have. Wake up, woman! The fire is coming and you seem like you’re in another world. Focus on me and what I am telling you!” Annabel shook her heard, hearing the last few words Jackson yelled at her. She nodded, opened the door a little wider, and let him in to help her. Distanced from the world around her, she followed Jackson’s words as a mindless way of mentally rescuing herself. She began to walk toward the bedroom, looking upon the half-made bed. He hadn’t come home last night, the night of her birthday, when she thought she would be able to find a way back to him. She thought she would find a way to make him stay.
“He never came back,” she muttered as the emotions began to overcome her. She stood with her back toward Jackson, looking in on the memory-ridden bedroom. She cried, unable to pull herself together. From behind, Jackson placed his large hand on her little shoulder. He squeezed it, gently, trying to remind her of the reality she was facing.
“Annabel,” he began as the front door swung open. Stunned, both Jackson and Annabel turned to see Joshua standing in the doorway, wearing the same clothes he had from the day before.
“Joshua,” Annabel gasped, moving away from Jackson’s grasp to embrace him.
But all Joshua saw was another man touching Annabel, an affirmation of why he could never love the little storyteller. “Really? And you blamed me? Look at you—I knew I could never love you!”
“What?!” bellowed Annabel, confused by his assertions.
“Joshua, really, I came to get her,” began Jackson.
“She can’t be trusted—you can’t love the storyteller!” He stared straight into Annabel’s eyes as he spat out his words. “I never loved you, anyway,” he grunted as he turned without a second glance and left Annabel, hysterical, standing in the doorway of their little, wooden house.
A faint puff of the smell of lavender meets my nose and I awaken from the memory of the day Joshua left me standing in the doorway. There isn’t much to remember beyond his hateful words; I can’t remember what happened beyond the sounds of his stomping feet down the path of our little house. Jackson tells me that I fell to the floor of that house and refused to leave. He was frightened for me, worried that I would stay and die in the flames. He said I refused to tell him what to take from that house because I refused to leave in the first place. So, without a second thought, he left every possession I had in that house and carried me away as the flames grew dangerously close to the back walls.
I don’t remember that. I don’t remember most of what happened after Joshua left. I thought I could find a way to make him stay, but I guess love can’t keep the flames of anger away.
He hoped in the hours that passed, his body would grow tired from making love to Roxie. He hoped taking out his anger and frustration, channeling it into a passion, would slow his thoughts back to their normal rhythm. He thought sleeping with another woman would make him forget about her.
Licking his lips, dry, he again fell upon the taste of his former lover. As furiously as he tried, she would never seem to leave him. She was a fiery soul, a spirited storyteller. He would never know if her final story was true, if he was wrong to leave her, without knowing all of its details. But then again, he knew he never trusted the tales of the storyteller he loved in the first place. Looking through the frosted windows, the moon emanated a powder-dusted glow, fighting to shine through the clouded judgment of the sky. It was cold, colder than the beginning of winter normally was. But even the frost could not soothe the charred edges of his broken heart.
In the beginning of winter, immersed in lavender and sweet fruit tones, thoughts lingered of love that ought to be, but never could be. It was reported, in that year that followed, that hundreds of people lost their lives, even more people lost their homes, to that great fire. It burned through the walls of homes, of buildings, through the material belongings and valued possessions of people who were victim to its searing wrath.
In the ghostly visions of the fire that suffice as vivid memories for those victims, one can also see in the licking flames the scorching romance of two lovers embracing each other as the fire consumes them so. The flames took the fire of two hopeless, helpless lovers.
Separately they survived; together, they burned. Separately, they struggled, wounded by the licks of the flames that had been lit by the other lover. And in the desperate chill of the frost, they couldn’t be numb to this pain; they could not heal. They couldn’t forget the fire they had.
In the desperate December frost, they could never forget that great fire.