This is a short story that I wrote under my pen name Elizabeth Harris, which is the name I use for my work that is less bloody. Although it must be noted that ‘Reunion’ does include some violence and profanity thus it is not intended for readers younger than thirteen.
Elizabeth Harris’ poem ‘Darkness’ is published in the collection ‘IN THE QUESTIONS’ from Spider Road Press. I highly recommend you check them out not only for their excellent publications, but because they donate a portion of their proceeds to charity.
‘Reunion’ is a story that I did submit for a contest, although I have yet to find out the results, I find it to be one of my favorites. It’s the story of a woman who’s lost everything, and how she’s picked up the pieces since. I hope you find it as heart wrenching, yet tender as I intended. Enjoy-
by Elizabeth Harris
I tipped the glass to the left, letting the whiskey sour meet the rim, and then tipped it to the right. Ice cubes tinkled against the glass. The ice melted, as if my gaze alone caused the physical reaction diluting my drink. I didn’t care, there would be another. Or two. Or twelve. Drunk was good, sober was bad. A clear head reminded me of all I lost.
Which was everything.
My head fell back letting my brown hair cascade down my back, and allowed the whiskey a quicker trip down my throat. If there was a burn, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel anything anymore. There wasn’t a word for what I’d become, a loss that great went beyond the English language.
I slid my glass to the bartender and nodded.
“I know it’s none of my business ma’am, but they won’t let you on the plane if you’re drunk.”
“You’re right,” I eyed the twenty-something, sinewy, dark eyed man. “It’s none of your damn business.”
He leaned in. “I’m just trying to look out for you, ma’am.”
I chuckled because everyone tried to ‘look out’ for me now. They didn’t care about my struggles before, only the endless despair that currently cloaked me. Even if he didn’t know that I was mentioned constantly in the news, the bartender could feel the shroud of sadness around me.
“I’m old enough to be your mother, so do as I say, and get me another drink.”
He backed away and did as I bid. A fresh drink was set in front of me. The bartender refused to make eye contact, not that it mattered. In another life I would have taken him to a bathroom and showed him that women, like wine, only improved with age. But in this life I lost my only love, and any feelings of joy would only prove a betrayal to Tom.
I dipped my index finger into the glass, and ran it along the edge, causing a high-pitched vibration. There weren’t travelers desperately running to their gates, babies crying, or an incoherent voice booming from the loudspeaker breaking through timid jazz; for me there was only the glass.
I startled and turned my head to the sound. When my large eyes focused on the man behind the gruff voice I wasn’t surprised by the skinny, tall, black clad man on my right. After all he was the only person to ever use that nickname.
“Hey, Joe.” I hoped my tone didn’t sound as hollow as I felt.
A smile that could light up a million caves filled his narrow face, blonde hair that was being overtaken by gray covered most of his forehead creating a curtain for his eyes. Those were the same. I could have picked them out of a million pictures of green irises, although wrinkles were imprinted around them.
“Of all the airport bars, in all of JFK, I walk into the one with Spencer Goldman.” He shook his head, set his guitar between us, and sat down on the stool next to me. “Must be my lucky day.”
I scoffed. “You’d be the only person on Earth to believe seeing me is lucky.”
“People must recognize you all the time, Ms. Famous Author.”
My gaze retreated from his face, which was an odd mix of familiar and stranger, back to my drink. “Not exactly what I wanted to be known for.”
Joe sighed. “I know. I read it. I’m sorry for…”
The bartender interrupted, and took Joe’s order, which was a saving grace since I didn’t need someone else to reference my loss considering they’d never understand what it was to literally lose a piece of yourself.
I took a sip of my whiskey sour. “You’re more famous than me anyway. If MTV still played videos you’d be their number one star.”
“That’s kind of you, but no one used my name as a talking point in the last Presidential debate.”
“That’s just because they want votes.” My mouth turned up in half a smile despite myself, “Obviously they don’t listen to good music. No one’s ever called me this generation’s Kurt Cobain.”
Joe chuckled, and I saw a hundred glistening white teeth. “Most of the kids that listen to my stuff didn’t really know about Cobain until after that article came out. Guess I made it better than him considering I’m way past twenty-seven and have no plans of putting a gun…”
His whole body froze. I finished my drink, and held up the glass to alert the bartender I needed another.
Joe shook his head and murmured. “Spence, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even think…”
“Don’t worry about it. I can’t spend my whole life avoiding jokes about guns. After I wrote the book about Tom I knew they would come in droves.”
“Still.” Joe’s eyes dimmed.
Maybe he did understand, a loss like mine. I could tell he was hurting, his face said it all. It was the kind of knowledge only someone who’d been the first to fall head over heels in love with him would know. An intangible connection that we shared, much like any pair of lovers. I strongly believed that ours was the greatest love, the only love that would ever be. The kind that would last centuries, like Lancelot and Guinevere. At least when I was seventeen I did.
He could still read my mind when he continued. “There was a car accident. Killed two of my best friends. I wrote a whole album about it, and that’s what made the top of the charts for months.” His eyes held me, their grip as tight as when we lost our virginity to each other. “So I know what it’s like, to be famous for something you wish never happened.”
The glass rocked back and forth in my hand. “I think that’s the one that Tom downloaded, or uploaded, or whatever kids do to put music on the Cloud.” I was no longer in the airport bar, but had been transported into my son’s bedroom littered with clothing, comic books, and volume on full blast. “He loved that song ‘Falling Skies’. He played it so many times I bet I could play it for you now if I had my guitar.”
“That’s the one.” Joe took a drink. “You still play?”
“Can’t play it behind my head like you.”
The atmosphere in the bar lightened, nostalgia proved to be an antidote to melancholy. “I can’t even do that anymore. That’s what happens when you’re a middle-aged rocker, don’t attempt to do anything that will break a bone on stage.”
“That doesn’t sound like any fun.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “I was never as fun as you.”
“I stopped being fun once I found out I was pregnant. From then on it was all about Tom.” A frozen skeleton hand gripped my heart until blood seeped out and poured onto the floor. Unfortunately death left me to continue breathing, but tortured my son by letting him gasp for breath for fifteen minutes before his body stilled.
Unaware of the scene in my head of Tom’s last horrifying moments, Joe continued. “You should have told him we dated over twenty years ago, that would have earned you some street cred.”
I let Joe dissolve my son’s dead body from the forefront of my mind, sipped my drink, and looked back at him. “I did, and it did, for a minute.” I took another sip of my diluted beverage. “I think he hoped you were his father.”
“I couldn’t have been…”
“I know, I think that broke his heart. It would have been okay if his dad never bothered to meet him because he was a rock star, when it was just because he’s the biggest asshole who ever lived…”
“Didn’t he…?” Joe stopped, tilted his head to the side, and took a drink of his vodka cranberry reviewing his words. “I mean after what happened to your son…didn’t he at least come to the memorial?”
“No.” My tone as cold as my heart toward the man that treated me like garbage when I told him I wouldn’t have an abortion, even if keeping him meant dropping out of college sophomore year. “Not even after my son’s death made the national news.”
“Sounds like he’s a worthless piece of shit,” Joe said to his drink.
More whiskey seeped down my throat. “Maybe it would have been different if you were his father.”
The glass rocked back and forth. “He’d be alive.”
“You don’t know that, Spence.”
“I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it.” If Joe had been Tom’s father he might have become a musician too, skipping college entirely. Then Tom wouldn’t have been in Algebra when a fellow student came into the classroom with an AR-15. “And you’re lying if you say different, Joe.”
“Everyone thinks about what could have been…” Joe shook his head. “You’ll drive yourself mad if you think about it instead of living.”
“Who says I’m not already?”
He smirked. “Glad you haven’t lost your biting wit.”
I finished the whiskey sour, and murmured to the glass. “I wasn’t joking.”
He took my hand, and squeezed. His hands were weathered and calloused, but it wasn’t hard to remember that they were one of his best traits. Suddenly I was fourteen watching his fingers caress the neck of his Stratocaster, then sixteen feeling them discover parts of my anatomy I didn’t know existed, then eighteen when he wiped the tears from his cheek when I dumped him the week before we left for our respective colleges.
But that was a lifetime ago, a time that I’m sure Joe didn’t remember as vividly as me. Then, from nowhere, or everywhere I was reminded of Tom. Reminded that he’d never graduate from college, have his own son, or even see another sunset. My son would never get a chance to turn into a man like Joe because he’d always be a week shy of his nineteenth birthday. Never old enough to legally drink, rent a car, or even bother to think about a 401K.
That’s when the tears came.
Joe didn’t say a word, just enveloped me in his long arms. My instinct was to push him away because I didn’t deserve to be consoled. Anyone who showed me an act of kindness should have been with Tom that day, so he wouldn’t have died frightened and alone. My unending sadness was physically evident on the shoulder of Joe’s t-shirt.
“Don’t be, Spence.” He brushed loose strands of hair from my face. “I wish I could say it’s gets better, but it doesn’t.”
“Then what’s the point, Joe?”
“Because if it was the other way around, you’d want him to live.”
I chocked on the words. “It was supposed to be the other way around. No one’s supposed to bury their child, especially when he wasn’t doing anything but reviewing the quadratic equation.”
He took my round face in his hands, caressed my cheek with his thumb. “You’re fighting though. You’re given school shootings a face, and now every time someone says we don’t have a problem with guns, they see Tom’s face.”
“That’s not how I wanted him to be remembered…”
“But that’s why you wrote the book. When I watch you on the news I think of the part of your memoir when tell the story about Tom going out in the backyard picking wildflowers for you.”
I smiled, because my son was five again, covered in mud, with the brightest smile ever. “Tom was so upset when I threw them out…he didn’t realize that they were weeds…not flowers.”
Joe grinned. “And that’s what the public will remember, the boy he was, and the man he should have been.”
“For now.” I sighed. “Then some celebrity will take a topless selfie and everyone will forget about Tom.”
“It’s up to you to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The loudspeaker above us crackled and boomed: Flight 815 to Los Angeles is now boarding first class passengers at gate G3.
I wiped my face, and stood up. Our physical connection gone. “That’s me.”
Joe’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, I’m doing a signing then being interviewed for a podcast by some comedian.”
I slung my overnight bag over my shoulder. “How’d you know?”
Joe picked up his guitar case, and towered above me. It wasn’t until then that I realized he was still a foot taller than me. “He’s interviewing me too, after we have a show at The Edison.”
“This is crazy, I mean I haven’t seen you in half a lifetime, and now we’re on the same airplane?”
Joe checked his ticket. “I’ve got the window seat, B12.”
I didn’t need to check my ticket before I chuckled. “B14.”
“I would say it’s destiny, but…”
He put on sunglasses, and a knit cap, as we headed out of the bar to our gate. “My girlfriend and I are supposed to meet up to talk about our relationship, which is always so much fun.”
The only check to gut I felt was that Tom would never have to have ‘the talk’ with a girl he dated. “How long have you guys been together?”
Joe stood behind me in line to get seated. “On and off for fifteen years.”
“That’s a long time, you should talk. It would be terrible to look back and wonder what could have been.”
“One could say that’s true of us.”
I gazed up at him, the man I loved deeply, so long ago. “I don’t know if I can be part of an us right now, or ever.”
“So, what you’re going to move out into a cabin in the woods and live off the grid?”
“I need access to a indoor plumbing, but yeah, maybe.”
“I like the woods.”
Joe had bought an extra ticket so his guitar could ‘sit’ next to him, but he buckled it into my seat on the isle so we could sit next to each other. Halfway through the flight my eyes weighed heavy, and my vision blurred. Sleep beckoned.
“I hope this doesn’t freak you out, but I have to tell you something,” Joe said.
“After Tom, nothing can scare me now.”
The light from the small window cast the setting suns orange rays on his face. “I was watching you, in the bar. I knew it was you, I just didn’t know if I should go up and talk to you.”
“Why did you?”
“Because you looked sad, and you were always so much more beautiful when you smiled.”
And that’s when the smallest molecule of my being felt joy before my eyes closed.
“Spence, we’re here.”
I woke with a start, lifting my head from Joe’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You passed out, and I remembered how angry you get when you’re woken up.”
I grabbed my bag from the seat in front of me, stood up, and realized we were completely alone.
Joe stood up, bent over so his lanky frame could enter the isle “The last guy just left. And my arm fell asleep, so I figured I should take the gamble of being punched in the face.”
“Good thing I didn’t. Couldn’t be responsible for giving Joe Taylor a black eye before his show.”
He grinned. “Yeah, but then when you’re on CNN debating some gun nut, I can call up and tell them to watch out because you have a mean right hook.”
“Pretty sure that would ruin my image for non-violence.”
“You once yelled at me for getting stung by a bee!” He chuckled. “You called me a ‘bee-murderer’.”
I rolled my eyes, “I was thirteen.”
“That’s still you though.”
After we picked up our bags we strolled to our respective drivers holding signs with our last names printed on it, we exchanged numbers. I wasn’t sure if I desperately wanted Joe to call, or I wanted him to immediately delete me from his phone.
“I hope you write another book, Spence,” Joe said.
“I wouldn’t know what to write.”
He shrugged. “Maybe something light, like about us, a million years ago.”
“That ending wasn’t what I’d call feel good.”
He shot me a sly grin. “You never know when it’s ended, after all you made Tom immortal.”
“Guess I did.” I chewed on my bottom lip. “Good luck at your show, and on the podcast.”
He wrapped his arms around me and he smelled like a hundred promises I made, and forgot to keep. “Next airport bar, the drinks are on me, okay?”
“Stay strong, Spence.”
“Stay sweet, Joe.”
Then we pulled apart. Slowly. Like a cinnamon roll you wanted to savor.
I watched Joe walk alongside his driver out into the bright sunshine, unaware if we’d ever see each other again, but if it was our ending it was a good one.
I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and when I opened them I felt his small, sticky hand take mine. His shoes were untied, knees of his jeans grass stained, glasses taped together.
Only I was lucky enough to see Tom.
He rose up a chubby arm holding a fist full of weeds. “I picked these for you, Mommy.”
I took them brought them to my nose. They smelled like the sweetest roses rather than onion grass. “Thank you, sweetheart. I’ll have to put them in water once we get to the hotel.”
Tom grinned showing the gap from his missing front teeth. “Mommy, will you hold my hand really tight?” My beloved asked. “I don’t wanna get lost in the airport.”
I ruffled my son’s auburn hair, traced the side of his rosy cheeks, bent down and kissed his forehead. “Don’t worry baby, I’ll never lose you.”
“Ever. You’re the only man I need.”