FREE Fiction Friday by: Jay Helmstutler
We’re stoked to have this great piece to share with you for FREE Fiction Friday.
Rain After Midnight
By: Jay Helmstutler
Our bodies lie in bed together next to the apples on the bedside table. The room is dark and heartless. It is so quiet, I can hear the mist outside. The night air spells the death of summer.
By the way she breathes, I can tell that she is sleeping. Her body clings to me like a disease. It has never had the energy to bind me here—though its weight prevents me from leaving tonight. Half her body lies on top of me as she lies face down. I am trapped, but trying slowly to get out. If I move too little, the tide of my weight remains beneath hers, unable to shift itself free. Yet too much movement, and she begins to awaken, along with my obligation to sleep here tonight. Already tonight we have slept with each other, making her body a ghost to mine. But I have not allowed myself to fall asleep.
There is darkness and weight and change all around us. She is asleep, but maybe sees it in her dreams. I have my own waking dreams staring up at the ceiling, trying to figure out how we ended up like this. Years pass in an instant: my years spent occupied in distant cities, only returning here for the warmth of summer and its respite from the coldness of the work year. She and I have met up routinely over the years, though we have never been anything more than friends.
That all changed when the phone rang two nights ago, as I was packing to leave town for the fall. She was calling to complain of how dark and quiet and lonely it got in her brother’s house at night, where she was house sitting for the week—and asked if maybe I could stop by if I got a chance. I knew what might happen if I did—something that might tie me to this place, or to her, ruining my freedom to roam during the year. But curiosity overcame me, and I found myself driving toward the house. There was a first night of intimacy here, then a second; I left the house both nights after she slept. But on this, the third night—the last night of summer—she has made me promise to stay the night through.
“But I have to leave tonight,” I tried to explain before she fell asleep.
“Please. I understand you have to get back. But something’s happened here between us—and all I’m asking is this one simple thing.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I just can’t stay.”
“Just do it for me. Please.”
“But you don’t understand. I should already be gone by—”
“Just promise,” she insisted. “Or I won’t forgive you. I won’t forgive you, and I won’t be able to sleep.” There was a frailty in her voice, a frailty in her nakedness next to mine. The guilt that had been building in me over the past two nights—guilt for using her, then returning to use her again—released itself in a gesture of consent. I nodded my head: Okay. Then felt regret in the shutting of my eyes; I had lied—there was no way I could possibly stay. As if she knew, she went to sleep with half her limbs atop mine, her body damning me to the fate of my word.
Now the same gods that smiled upon our friendship do not smile upon what we have become. They know, as I do, the union they stare upon to be damned. For I do not love her. I do not wish to spend my life with her. I only succumbed to an inevitability: that the bodies of two people who had known each other so long would eventually have occasion to commune. Surely, ours are not the first to have done so. And there are surely far worse crimes than ruining a friendship in bed. After all, no one has been murdered here. No one’s blood is scattered about the room. So why should this feeling of regret stab me deep?
An answer from her body, amidst its slumber. “Because you used me,” it says. “You used me, and you intend to deny her the one thing she has asked in return.”
“But did she not use me too?” my own body replies.
“Yes, but she wanted more.”
“How much more?”
“Do not make me say.” The answer, already known to both of our bodies: the forever ingrained in every embrace.
Forever? Did I promise her that? No, I did not. On the first night here, I told her exactly what would happen in the end. Our friendship will be ruined, and I have to leave at the end of summer no matter what. But it doesn’t matter what words I said. They were in one language; the actions of our bodies, in another. I must still be held accountable for getting myself into this. The darkness in the room does not let me off easily. It paints a picture of exactly what it sees.
It is the last night of summer.
Two people lie beside each other.
The man is awake, but the woman is not.
I see the fact of us from the ceiling. That there is no us and never was. We are lying in the bed in a lie. A lie against sanctity and the eternal. A lie against the better parts of ourselves. The soul and all its promise. The life beyond this empty portrait of limbs. We have no future together. We should not allow our bodies to lie like this. By one another. To one another. We should not be lying together in this lie.
Fatigue starts to overtake me, the lay of her limbs still victorious over mine. Her body, still pinning mine down to the bed as she sleeps, enforcing the promise I made to stay here tonight. Why shouldn’t I give in, allowing myself to sleep? An answer flashes in my mind, lighting the room. It is a reminder: I have never shared sleep with anyone before. Those few I have slept with, I have never slept beside. I think back to my past lovers, confirming it: I never spent the night with a one. Then a smile overtakes me—a smile that takes me forward, to a time that awaits. It is a time of promise, when my life’s dilemma will have passed; when I will no longer be forced to live this seasonal existence. The time between summers will no longer be out of my hands; no longer automatically sacrificed in the name of my Work. It is then that I will come to meet someone wonderful, to whom I can offer forever, sealing it with the precious gift that I have saved over the years—the truest gift of my first shared sleep.
It is a gift I will not waste by sleeping here tonight, beside someone I do not truly love. So it is that I must stay awake. I must rely on the sound of the mist to sustain me. Even now, it beckons me from outside.
Come, it says. You must leave before the summer sleeps.
“But I can’t leave without waking her,” I say.
Yet if you stay, you will surely lose consciousness. You won’t even know it until it’s too late.
“Then what am I to do?”
Pay heed to the time. Midnight is upon us. A solution presents itself as we speak.
This must be deliverance: in the shifting of limbs that frees myself from under her; in the Godspeed that allows me to dress with grace. I leave the darkness of the room, following carpeted steps to the living space below. My hand reaches for the front door: locked. I twist the doorknob and turn the deadbolt to and fro. The house seems to have locked itself from the inside, trapping me in. I think not; the darkness will not write my story yet.
Beside me, a window stretches from ceiling to floor. I pull aside the blinds, revealing the window’s opening at the bottom. The lock is stubborn, but finally budges. I drop to my knees and pry open the glass. Then it all rushes in—the mist and night air, the darkness and a brand new season awaiting me outside. I drop down to my stomach and start to crawl through the window space—an infant emerging through the passageway. My hands reach out toward the grass outside the window. The strands are wet as I grip them and pull myself through. My head scatters the darkness as my legs and feet emerge. As I stand, the night air swirls around my brain.
A flash like lightning. The flash: a bolt of memory. Her body, breathing heavily as my own must have fallen asleep. Then her weight was no longer over top of me. But how did I escape? The darkness answers, writing what it sees back inside the room.
Summer has ended.
A woman lies in bed, alone.
She will never awaken again.
I look at my hands, holding them out before me. They are bloody. Yet I am not bleeding. Another lightning flash: of memory. The moments just after midnight, rushing back into my brain. The apples on the bedside table. The plate in which they rested. Their peels, scattered on the plate. The knife that had been used to carve them. The deft move that had freed me from her limbs: I had reached for the knife with my free hand, stabbing ruthlessly through her neck.
I fall to my knees. Oh God. I was here at the turning of midnight. I was here for the turning of the season, at summer’s end. I was still in the room when the Turning overcame me; when this familiar, murderous part of me succumbed to the fall. Now her body sleeps forever: the first of the year—the first ever in this town—to lie lifeless because of me. The first victim to my Work not a stranger, but a friend—a friend and even more, these past three nights.
Heavy now. So heavy. There can be no deliverance from this.
Then a miracle from above: a lightness, beginning to sprinkle itself onto my shoulders. It is the mist, having congealed into the first autumn rain. Transformed from its former state. Fully realized, and awash upon my limbs. Not washing away the red so much as consecrating it. Making it sacred, like the truest gift of a first shared sleep.