Last Chances

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: August 16, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 16, 2018



Brandy Vertrees

Last Chances

Must be in my genes, born into a salty, distrustful view of the world.  My father would later be diagnosed a madman, though I’m sure there must be a nicer clinical term for it these days.  Madman sounds about right, though, to me.  Days and days of sleepless nights, an almost constant sheen of sweat covering his pallid skin, eyes a blaze with fury and terror of what was coming, ranting and scribbling and spitting.  What was coming?  I’m still waiting.  I suppose he is too, wherever he is.  So I started writing as a way to stay in doors more.  Most of my 30 odd years I have existed effortlessly on that edge between dressed and undressed, thoroughly inhabiting a disheveled exterior that expresses just what you think it would.  But I like it in the gutter.  Less pretense, more honesty.  It was a fairly romantic idea, being a recluse (but not the madman), the image of the writer pacing inside the solitude of his study, fire burning in the fireplace, lounging on a worn in leather sofa contemplating the motivations of Marx and Bertrand Russell.  Grasping at the higher levels of reason the 18th and 19th century philosophers expounded upon.  But this is not a good strategy to meet women, which are the only creatures that humanize me. 


The morning came, after a fitful night of bad dreams and night sweats.  I woke up in a wad of damp pajamas and dark lavender sheets.  The room was cast in an early shadow, the sun giving a gentle nudge to the moon and a few scattered points of starlight still lingering in the far reaches of the sky.  I can smell you.  I bury my face in the pillows and pull in the scent until my lungs burn and a kaleidoscope of stars burst behind my eyelids, squeezing my fists until my knuckles go white and then I exhale hard.  My heart does that thing again.  That things it’s been doing for months only now it’s worse.  Because everything is worse.  I said this time would be different.  I’ve said that before but I really meant it this time.  I thought I did anyway.  Jesus, why I am such a fucking monster? 

Your pillow is still cool against my cheek, I open my mouth wide and scream into it until I have no breath left and my head pounds.


Marie and I met four years ago while we were both still in grad school but she refused to date me though I had asked many times.  She had just moved into my neighborhood and started coming to a local spot I liked to frequent.  I had been working in a mailroom downtown and she had a job in the basement of some rinky-dink local publishing house as a copy editor.  Shit job, terrible pay.  She quit there and was doing some freelance editing work and I was quite desperately shopping my first novel around to any place that even pretended to be interested.  About a year after we became friends I asked her to read it, which she did, though she said she hated the title.  Turns out, as she revealed later, it was one specific line that had caught her eye on the first page that convinced her to have sex with me.  My look contained an infuriatingly impatient question mark to which she answered with a slow smile and intentionally torturous hesitation.  The line turns out, was ******.  I only found out later when I read her diary.  She keeps her secrets, too.


I watched the light dance through the golden liquid in my glass and thought about where I was a year ago.  Funny how time always gets the last word and we’re forced to look back and pretend it was all for the best so we can keep getting up in the morning.  I am acutely aware of everything now, every function of my body, my lids scraping over my eyes every few seconds, the tiny hairs whistling in my nose with every inhalation of breath, the sore on the inside of my cheek that I just can’t stop running my tongue over, every cell that dies inside its perfectly orchestrated process of apoptosis; I am actually a little jealous. Programmed cell death.  Very clinical.  No attachments. No regrets. No goodbyes.


We met one night at a little restaurant downtown around the corner from where I worked.  It was January, icy wind cutting in from all sides and an almost constant gloom of droopy gray clouds hung overhead.  I liked this place because it didn’t look like it belonged in the city.  Wall to wall hardwood, scuffed and grainy, creaking under even the lightest step, mirrored bar with thick wooden adornments, long ago craftsmanship practically nonexistent today, and a fireplace big enough to stand in, flames casting orange and gold shadows over everyone’s faces, painting a rosy flush to the skin of their cheeks.  Tonight the fire was raging and the blast of heat pulled a damp sheen of sweat to my brow minutes after stepping through the door.  The smell of hearty cooking, warm doughy bread and salty meat in rich, creamy sauces assaulted my nostrils and stirred my stomach.  I took a seat at the bar and ordered bourbon neat and picked up a menu. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be going home alone. 


Marie was beautiful.  I wouldn’t call her a classic beauty if you know what I mean but still she turned heads.  She was no Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner but I found her striking in a way more accessible, more real than a silver screen starlet.  She had a way of disarming you before you knew what was happening, a subtle takeover of your senses but it wasn’t uncomfortable, in fact, it felt like something you’d been waiting for your entire life but never knew it.  Her hair was a smooth chestnut with slivers of silver that only shown in the right light, pale gold eyes with flecks of brown, and light caramel skin that seemed to hold the warmth of every eye in the room.  She was graceful but not fragile and I could almost hear swells of music when she walked into a room.  It sounds like a cliché from every cheesy black and white film but I felt that dramatic about her.  I wanted to take her up in my arms the way Montgomery Clift did with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun.  The world vibrating from the force of two magnets coming closer and closer until something has to give.  That was us.


Just as my first drink arrived the door opened and in blew a gust of wind sparkling with snow crystals, and just behind that was Marie.  Her skin was luminous in the amber light of the fire.  Hair the color of coffee streaked with pale silver glittered with fallen ice, dancing in the frigid breeze just below her shoulders.  The place was almost empty.  She took the stool next to me, scooting it closer so that our legs touched.  The whole world stopped as I watched the movement of the fire twist in the folds of her hair as she settled onto her stool.  She ordered a drink for herself and I nodded to the bartender for another and then she turned and looked at me.  I didn’t turn but I could se her reflection in the mirror.  The lump in my throat threatened to suffocate me so I let out a panicked cough. All I could do was watch from outside, powerless, as my life was about to take a perilous turn. 

“So why didn’t you tell me?” Marie asked

“Tell you what?” I said slowly, my glass halfway to my mouth.

“Don’t you dare do that.”

I watched her in the reflection but didn’t turn.  I sipped at my drink, my heart fluttering.

“Look at me, James.”

I turned to face her.  Her eyes were on my face, pupils wide in the dim light.  She wasn’t afraid but I was and I was trying hard to hide it.  And she wasn’t angry with me exactly; it was more like fear tinged with exhilaration. A muddy ball of emotions rolled inside her.  At least that’s what it felt like to me.  Like someone caught in the net of a compulsion to run coupled with a fierce desire to stay put. 

“Your story is about me, isn’t it?”

“Would that be so bad?” I answered with a quip.

“It’s a story about murder.”

Her chest moved a bit faster as these words slipped out of her mouth.  It took some strength to get that out, I could tell, and out of nowhere I was smacked in the chest with guilt. 

“So?” My retort was pathetically weak as my nerve slipped away.  Her face looked stricken at my non-response.

“What is this really about, James?  Me or you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.  I just want you to have the guts to say it to me now.  Look at me and say it.”  Her eyes were like steel pins over my skin.  I was not getting out of this.

I swallowed hard, licked my lips, but nothing came. 

I am grossly familiar with the cliff.  The edge of something, or everything, that rims a person’s life, always waiting for the other shoe to drop so they topple off the edge.There is no present moment alone.  Instead, there is always a line drawn in the sand, a here and there, the future where it all goes wrong is tethered to every bit of laughter, to every hopeful promise made under the covers.  It is such an ugly thing to do.  To dirty up every pure moment with doubt and distrust, but what can I do?  Marie had the answers and I didn’t, simple as that.  You can’t trust what you don’t feel and most of the time I couldn’t feel anything but fear.  She was constantly pulling me out of myself and into the world and as much as I wanted to follow her I always struggled, just a little bit.  Why did I do that?  Why am I like this?  Why on earth did she love me?


I remember that time we took a road trip to the beach.  She knew I hated flying so we packed the car and drove ten hours straight.  She never complained.  She just took me in, with all of my anxiety and insecurity and she carried it all.  I was a messy package to be sure, and it was unfair to her, but I couldn’t let go.  To cut myself free would have been suicide and I’m too much of a coward to kill myself.  Marie was so good at finding the light in people but she took no bullshit.  She needed to see effort.  She looked right past my self-pity and dragged me out into the sun.  I loved her for that, most of the time, though I sometimes worried about her persistence.  We sat on the beach and drank cheap beer, giggling at my pasty white skin that scared the fish every time we waded into the water.


It’s a big risk, exposing your roots, putting words to the exquisite chaos that spit us all out into the world, creating and simultaneously destroying everything for the sheer sake of it.  Shining light on our mortal weakness doesn’t make things more bearable, quite the opposite.  It makes things hurt and burn, raw and scarred and the pain dogs your heels for the rest of your sick life.  Marie was my final blow, she was my life and death embodied inside a woman so beautiful I never felt the need to look at the stars again, or to continue to seek symmetry with anything beyond the liquid pools of her gilded eyes.  She was my end.  I really don’t know what I was for her.  She was such a rare and often peculiar bird; so comfortable with the ugliness of others, so willing to forgive.  I never understood her kindness, even though she wrapped me in it daily.  I was nothing but sharp, rough edges and she was like spider’s silk.  Massively different creatures bound by the power of opposites and doomed to the same tragic end.


“I’m not a whore, just so you know.”  Talk about bringing the mood to a screeching halt.  She was straddling me on my couch, breasts cupped in a baby pink bra right at my eye level, the light from the hall cutting a sharp triangle of white across her face. 

“I-I know”, I stammered.  I did know.  But in that moment I could tell she was worried, knowing she had been through a few guys before me.  Scared maybe that if she let me undress her the rest of the way that I wouldn’t be able to see that, that I wouldn’t be able to see past the sex to her goodness, to her kind spirit and sharp mind.  I watched the worry dissipate as I calmed my breathing, touched her face with my fingertips and smiled in a way that only lovers see, that only lovers know is the real you, not just some drunk guy at the bar but the one who is going to love you, even at your worst, even when you are half dressed and teetering on the edge of regret.  The one who will love you through the unexpected, through the worst day of your life, and beyond your last breath.


Happy endings are the real tragedy of any story.  What planet do these people live on anyway?  Am I the only one who sees humans for what they really are?  Happy endings make people feel inadequate and it’s drenched in dishonesty.  In the end, people need the truth whether they admit it or not.  Not too pretty, not too tidy, because it’s blaringly false and only serves to increase despair.  The fear of not achieving the fairy tale, of not holding on to something unattainable in the first place is crippling.  Marie was never meant to be for me.  People want the tragedy and I can give them that.  Shakespeare saw to that.  He was loved most for the mirror he put up to the crowd and they begged for more. 


I haven’t written in months.  Not since the…accident…argument?  My mind is still fuzzy on that one.  Not fuzzy, more like, a record that skips, abrupt and jarring when trying to roll my mind over specific grooves of my memory, everything slipping along smoothly and then your stomach goes up into your chest and your heart skips its rhythm before settling back down again into a long turn, scratching the surface a little more than before but still moving forward.  What is it that’s stuck in that groove?  Dust?  Some kind of gouge in the soft flesh of the surface?  Did I step too loudly as I neared the delicate machine?  Is it betrayal? 


I never could stand the sight of blood.  Especially as a kid but even as an adult to see even the slightest bit of the bright red liquid bloom at someone’s fingertip nicked by a knife or snagged by papers edge would set my stomach churning.  It’s not a weakness I have ever been able to overcome so I find other ways to get the job done.  I have plenty of strength in other areas like my hands.  I played baseball as a kid and my grip is as tight as an iron vice.  Yes, my hands never let me down when I need the screaming to stop, or the voices.  The damn voices that chatter until you feel you could pull out every hair in your head, when you haven’t slept for what must be days and that constant knocking sound…my hands always come through, they always comply. 


I’ve found myself at the bottom, scratching broken nails along the crusty floor stinking of some putrid rotten thing.  I turn my eyes upward toward a small pinhole of light like a spear through dusty curtains and see the motes as they float weightlessly on the air.  That putrid air. I’m in the cellar.  I roll to my back, the ground frigid beneath me and feel something solid to my left, something cold and hard but with the hint of something that was once pliable.  The skin on my arms jumps as though electricity has bolted through my body.  My mind opens slowly, a far away door in the darkness, a spear of light creeping out across my thoughts as I recognize what it is that lay beside me.  My hands have been at work again while I slept.  How long have I been here? 

Marie died on a Thursday.  When I awoke she had been gone for over three weeks.  At least that’s what they told me.  My arms were tied down and the bright white light above my bed caused my eyes to throb painfully.  Mr. ***, do you know where you are?  Do you know what’s happened?  I looked down at my hands wriggling to get free from the restraints.  I asked for Marie and received blank stares in response.  The panic building in my chest was not unfamiliar.  They wouldn’t let me go this time.  And why should they?  She was such a beautiful girl, so lovely in the moonlight, striking with the fire in her hair.  Why did she love me?  Why wouldn’t she stop crying?  Stop screaming?  My hands always comply to stop the screaming. 

© Copyright 2020 Brandy Vertrees. All rights reserved.

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