Authors: Jessica Katoff
“This isn’t how anniversaries are supposed to go,” she chokes out, her eyes trained on the space between their feet, at the distance there. She sniffles and absently wipes her tears with the back of her hand, rubbing it, makeup and all, along the side of her ruined dress once she’s done. Liam’s hands clench into fists at his sides as he attempts to steel himself for what he knows is coming, for what he knows he needs to say. Her eyes meet his as she moves closer to him and they’re boundless in their depth, as warm and inviting as they’ve ever been, and it’s then that Liam begins to cry, too. “Lee, talk to me.”
“I—we—” The words are absent, but he keeps trying, until his mouth feels entirely too weighty for him to maneuver. He can’t get it together and instead, he falls apart, like his words, and drops to his knees. Not one knee, as she had hoped, but both, and Harper feels something shatter in her chest when she notices this. She reaches out and places her hands on Liam’s cheeks, guides his head upward so she can look into his eyes. He shuts them tightly and sputters, “You hoped I would—I would—I’d propose tonight.” It isn’t a question, as he already knows the answer, but she nods anyway. He steadies himself, knowing that he owes her more than stuttered fragments of thought. He rehearsed the words over and over before he left, just as he had done in the days leading up to tonight, but he finds them hard to come by now. He clears his throat repeatedly as he staggers back to his feet, eyes open and boring into Harper’s, as he says, “Can we—let’s—let’s go back to the car.”
The cabin of the car somehow feels limitless and suffocating, and Liam cracks the windows open as it begins to rain. Their arms get wet as the rain drizzles in, but neither of them leans toward the center console, nearer to the other, to avoid it. Instead, Harper stares at the keyhole of the glove compartment and tries to stem her tears, because she doesn’t even know what exactly she’s crying over. Liam, however, sobs openly in the driver’s seat, his head bent down against the top of the steering wheel, hands gripping the sides of it until his knuckles go white. Harper barely resists the urge to slip her fingers into his hair and trace calming lines and trails across his scalp. He wishes she would, but knows he doesn’t deserve the comfort.
“Liam, talk to me,” she tries again. “You can talk to me about anything. Whatever it is, we’ll—we can get through it, deal with it.” She says the words firmly. Liam is her life, her love, and no matter what, she will love and stand by him, and she tells him as much. “I’ll love you through anything, Lee. You know that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” he replies once he finds his voice. He lifts his head then, and levels his gaze with hers, the whites of his eyes cloaked in a brighter red than before. She shifts and reaches for him, rubs her thumbs softly over the apples of his cheeks, finally making the move to be nearer, but he finds her wrists and moves her hands away, the touch of them still burning. “Harper, ten years is a long time,” he tells her, his eyes fixed upon the way her hands shift to rest on his. He clears his throat and begins again, rattling off the words he’s practiced, the words that will irreparably fracture their relationship, shatter her heart. “Ten years is a long time and even though I love you, I don’t think this is best for us anymore.” Harper gasps and he can nearly feel her heart splinter and crack, like glass up against a hammer, and he fights hard to remain stoic as he delivers the crushing blow. “For me. It’s not best for—I can’t do this anymore. I’m so lost, and I—I need to find myself, Harp. I don’t know who I am—who I am aside from you, from
“You just spent
with three hundred miles between
,” she spits.
“You came to Portland nearly every weekend.”
asked me to
!” As she shouts the words, she begins to fall apart. “Don’t do this, Lee. Please don’t,” Harper pleads, as her tears come in full force, rolling thickly down her cheeks. “I love you, Lee. So much. Please don’t.”
She can’t believe she’s been so blind to this, to the point that she expected the polar opposite —a proposal. He’s slipping from her grasp and she wants to hold onto him, clutch his collar, pull him to her, and never let go. She moves to do so, her unsteady hands reaching for him, but he stops her before she reaches her destination. As he holds her wrists, she digs her fingers against his flesh, deep into his forearms, aching at the thought of losing the ability to touch him, hold him, be held and loved by him, and he allows it because he feels damned, guilty, deserving of such pain. He pulls her to him, across the center console and into his lap, and she falls apart against him as he smoothes her hair back from her forehead.
“Please,” she begs, her hands curling the fabric of his shirt into her tense fists. He kisses her cheek with tightly closed eyes, because he doesn’t know how to respond—he’s intent on this course, this direction of finding himself separate from her. But he loves her, and if he opens his mouth, he’s sure he will backpedal. She cries in the space of his silence, waiting for words that won’t come, her tears burning in her throat. Her voice cracks as her lips tumble out a hushed, “Don’t go.”
Liam cradles her, holds her out of the love that he still feels for her, even though he knows it will make letting go that much harder for the both of them. She presses her lips against his neck as she shifts and cries against him, and he almost tells her it was all a lie, that he didn’t mean it. He does mean it, though. He
to mean it. He knows it’s selfish, but he has to be away from her, to determine if he even has an identity of his own anymore, aside and apart from her and them. He can’t remember the last time he said
, and that frightens him. As he gets lost in thought, his body moves naturally, out of a decade of habit, and his mouth responds to the press of her lips on his. She gives herself over to him completely, thinking he’s surrendered, and fists her hands in his hair. At the feel of it, the pull of her hands, he pulls away, and she recoils, the hurt clear in her eyes.
“Don’t,” she says quickly, vaulting to the other side of the car, and it’s a different
has shifted to
don’t touch me
in the span of one kiss, mere seconds. Liam bows his head and Harper nods sharply, finality in the motion. “Take me home.” Anger consumes her and it shows in the way she bites out her words. Liam’s lips part, as if to speak, but she cuts him off before he can move his mouth to form a single syllable. “Just fucking take me home, Liam.”
“Harp, I don’t want to end this on bad terms. You’re too important—”
“Don’t do that.”
He closes his mouth and fixates on the gearshift, feeling worse than wounded, though she thinks he’s anything but.
“You’re throwing away a
away, and you think this will end on good terms?” Harper laughs humorlessly and reaches for the door handle, shakes her head as the tears begin again, this time hot with anger. “You’re right, Liam. Maybe you don’t know who the hell you are anymore. Because I sure as fuck don’t know you at all.” She opens the door and the wind whips into the vehicle as Liam opens his to follow her out to the roadside where this all began. When she hears him, she spits out a strained, “Don’t follow me.”
“Harp, come back and I’ll take you home,” he shouts to her as his feet move just a bit slower than hers, letting her leave, but wanting her to stay, as he has never been so unsure of anything in his entire life. “Harper—”
“Don’t fucking worry about it.” She refuses to turn around—to let him see another tear fall from her eyes. With her fists balled tightly, she marches on, dodging two lanes of traffic and crossing the median. “Just go. Go on and find yourself and I’ll find my own fucking way home.”
Hilary is running out of options. It’s been seven days since she collected her daughter from the roadside, soaked and shivering and nearly catatonic, and still Harper’s cries haven’t stopped. Day seven is much like the six days before it. Harper lies in her bed, still aside from the soft up and down motion of her shoulders as she cries, and doesn’t at all acknowledge Hilary unless it’s to ask or tell her to leave. That’s happened once or twice.
She moves into Harper’s room from just outside the doorway where she stands sentinel during much of the time she’s not at work. As she crosses the carpet and folds herself down at Harper’s bedside, she waits for her dismissal, but it doesn’t come. “What can I do, Harp?” she asks after a bit, her soft voice stained with an ache. The question is met with a deliberate glance away and nothing more, just like the last ten times she’s asked. She waits, but Harper doesn’t answer, doesn’t move, and Hilary studies her in the silence. Her reddened eyes look the same as they did when she was five and afraid of the dark, eleven and cradling a broken arm, seventeen and hiding, curled up on the floor of her father’s closet during his vigil. Hilary palms her forehead and huffs out a breath, grappling for words. “Harper—I just—this is hard to watch, Harp. What—what can I do? Tell me what to do and I’ll—”
“I’m so sorry this is hard for you to
,” Harper snaps, a crisp bitterness accompanying each syllable. Hilary stares at her daughter’s turned cheek as she speaks, and fights the smile that creeps onto her lips in the wake of her venomous words. Any fight is a spark of life, and that’s what Hilary has been hoping for. She refuses to call it a victory though, as Harper turns and levels a wild stare on her. She brings her hands up to clutch beneath her left collarbone, fingernails clawing to get to her decaying heart, as she looks her mother in the eye. The skin of her chest reddens under the scrape of her nails, and she spits out, “It’s hard for me to
Hilary reaches over and strokes her hair for a moment, before Harper twists away. She gets to her feet and despite Harper’s protest, leans over to kiss the crown of her daughter’s head before she turns to leave. The thump of her footfalls against the wooden stairs is drowned out by Harper’s cries—the sound follows her to the ground floor and clear across the house to the kitchen.
She doesn’t know what to do or how to help her—she’s never been left before. Hilary married Harrison mere months after graduation and they spent the next two decades together building a gratifying life and raising their beautiful daughter. At the time, Hilary couldn’t imagine suffering a greater loss, remembering the spot in her chest that turned cold and vacant as the light faded from her husband’s eyes, but hearing Harper like this, witnessing her barely exist this way, she thinks she may have been wrong. Her husband had never stopped loving her, right on down to his last breath, his final words, and she put him in the ground with that sole comfort holding her up.
She settles herself down at the table and as the sound of her daughter’s heartbreak seeps through the ceiling overhead, she says a silent prayer that it will all be over soon. As she does, the scabs fall away from her old wounds, and she cries over her loss of Harrison, wondering if the loss of love, no matter the kind, ever truly stops tearing someone apart once it starts.
The days and nights bleed slowly into and out of each other, all the same to Harper. She is a monument to her grief, devoted only to mourning, and she grieves the loss of Liam whether accompanied by the sun or the moon. From somewhere beneath that same sky, he haunts her, like the phantom pain in her chest he left behind when he tore out her heart. She knows she’ll never get it back, that she’ll forever be empty. So she sits and she cries and nothing changes, nothing matters.
“Just take a bite,” Hilary pleads, her weary head cradled in her palm. Harper is bent over the opposite end of the kitchen table, her frail arms limp on either side of the plate Hilary has set in front of her. On it’s the comfort food Hilary’s own mother made for her when she was a child—a golden brown grilled cheese sandwich and a mug of canned tomato soup. Harper’s stomach churns at the sight and smell of it, growls in hunger. She’s barely subsisting on bottles of water and a half-empty box of stale crackers she found beneath her bed, but giving in to more than that feels like she’s giving up on giving up, and she’s not ready to let the darkness go quite yet. She endures these warring thoughts daily, ever since Hilary began dragging her down to the kitchen.
Each day, her stomach wins the back-and-forth and she swallows down a bite or two before pushing the plate away, ashamed of herself for giving in, and stalks back to her room in tears. Today, she eats nearly half the sandwich. After Harper leaves and the slam of her bedroom door sounds, Hilary reaches across the table and eats the other half, the crumbs catching in the split ends of her silvery hair. “Well, that’s another one,” she says to herself around a bite. “Baby steps.”
A month is where Hilary draws a hard line. Harper’s grief has turned her into a shadow of her former self—ten pounds off her already small frame crafts her as skeletal, and she has a stench to her that indicates she has rarely, if ever, showered during Hilary’s long absences at the butcher shop. When she comes home from work on the evening of the thirty-second day, she knows Harper has once again ignored her repeated pleas and written instructions to bathe. She can smell her from the threshold of her room, musty with sweat and grime, and though she knows her daughter will fight her as best she can, she has to do something. Against the softly protesting flail of tired limbs, Hilary picks her up and carries her across the hall to the bathroom. It’s a feat, given Hilary’s average stature, but she manages to get Harper into the bathroom, and sets her in the basin of the tub as gently as she can. Hilary watches with an odd expression on her face as Harper dissolves down beneath the layer of bubbles, sinks to the bottom, as if she somehow expected her daughter’s lithe form to float.