2014 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Third Place

 

'Other People's Lives' - by Ruth L. Jeffs

 
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There was a certain type of glance that people gave you when they were trying not to stare. Since he’d stepped up to the edge of the bridge, resting his hands on the side, everyone passing looked quickly in his direction, eyes lingering just long enough to betray that it wasn’t precisely a casual glance. He wasn’t sure why they were so worried. It wasn’t as though he was going to jump.
 
The water was inviting enough, dark and depthless, the surface catching every glimmer of light within reach and reflecting it back in ripples, fluid and beautiful. But the air was so cold his fingers were stiff and numb, his nose stinging. He hated to think how cold the river would be.
 
However, as he turned, he caught the direction of a nearby woman’s stare, and suddenly realised it wasn’t his proximity to the edge that was alarming them. At least, not that alone. He’d forgotten about the blood on his left hand. Darkness was drawing in, but under the rich glow of the streetlight, against his pale jacket and paler skin, the red smears were unmistakeable.
 
No wonder people were nervous. They were probably wondering if they were going to end up being called as witnesses.
 
He couldn't remember who’d said it, or where he’d first heard it. It had been years since it had first stuck in his head, that quote.
 
We keep passing, unseen, through little moments in other people’s lives.
 
It wasn’t right, though, not always. Not now, for instance. He was the moment, with the blood and the bridge. They were passing through his life, his moment, but it was becoming a moment in their lives, too. The moment they saw the boy, on the bridge, with the blood on his hand.
 
Perhaps that’s all people ever were. Moments. A collection of moments, passing in and out of other people’s lives.
 
He put his hand in his pocket. Out of sight.
 
 
Tragedy struck. That was the expression. Not tragedy came upon you gradually, or tragedy gently eased you in – it hit like a punch.
 
He wasn’t entirely sure being dumped by your first real girlfriend counted as a tragedy, but he vaguely remembered someone old and Greek had called tragedy something of magnitude – happening to someone who was mostly good – and evoking pity and terror. There was something about a fatal flaw in there as well. He wasn’t sure what his fatal flaw was. Unless it was believing she wouldn’t dump him. With no warning. In front of half the school.
 
If that didn’t evoke pity and terror, nothing did.
 
He started walking again, letting his feet carry him along the footpaths, letting his drizzle-soaked hair and grey coat blend with the rest of the passers-by, bloodless and unexceptional. There was a poem, or a line from one, that he wished he could have said to her. Preferably before she made a scene. Something about walking softly. You’re trampling on my dreams.
 
Something like that.
 
Putting his hand in his pocket had been a bad idea. His fingers, previously frozen nicely numb, were beginning to thaw. Pain, hot and piercing and aching all at once, flushed through his hand. He held it as still as he could, trying not to hurt it, or to bleed on his coat or his phone. The latter didn’t help by occasionally vibrating softly. He ignored it. He knew what the texts would say. If his hand were working, he’d turn it off. He had no interest in I told you so’s right now.
 
Instead, with a little difficulty, he tugged a paperback book out of his right pocket. Not carefully; it was already thoroughly beaten up – far more so than it ought to be, from the level of use it had ever received. For the most part it had kicked around the bottom of his schoolbag for six months. Until this afternoon when he’d found it.
 
“Look.”
“Hmm?”
“Look at this.”
“What... ah.”
“She must have meant it.”
“You don’t think, I dunno, actions speak louder?”
“She dumped me because it was rational. This is irrational. This is emotional, this is love. Love conquers all.”
“As the poet hath wrote, bro.”
“I’m going to go see her.”
“Oh, man. No.”
“Yes.”
“This is so going to end poorly.”
“It already ended poorly.”
“So now it’s going to end better?!”
“Now it’s going to un-end. She wrote this. She meant it. Love conquers all, Stan!”
“She’s not worth it. Dude. Dude. So not worth it. Stop. She’s just a girl, man, I mean, sure, I guess she’s, like, totally hot, but come on, hardly the face to launch a thousand ships –”
“She launched this ship, Stan. She launched me.”
 
 
Stan had been right, of course. He’d been like a dog crawling back to the master who’d beaten it, licking their boots, blind to the savage kick that awaited.
 
He couldn’t go home. Couldn’t face his parents. His friend. Their pity. His terror. So he walked.
 
A corner took him closer to the centre of town, where Uni students milled, laughing too hard and wearing too little. His eyes slid over a group of girls as he sidled past, but they weren’t what he was looking for. Who he was looking for?
 
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those... like... like those...
Damn. He couldn’t remember that one, either. God, his hand hurt. He wondered if it would need stitches. He wanted to have a look at it, there was better light here, but there were more people, too, and he didn’t want to cause a stir again.
 
He wondered what moments he was passing. There was a lot of laughter, sometimes music. He kept his eyes down. The next corner came as a relief. Those moments were too loud, too alive.
 
One-handed, he used his thumb to flip open the front cover. Mostly to look at her handwriting, to remind himself that she’d really written the words. He didn’t need to see them anymore. Those he’d memorised a long time ago.
 
From me to you, for us to share,
2getha 4eva!
love, H.
 
It had struck him as intriguing, the contrast between someone who would give a book of classical poetry as a gift, and then write a dedication in it spelled ‘4eva’.
 
Once, that kind of contradiction had fascinated him. Now, he wondered if it had simply seemed less of a lie that writing ‘forever’.
 
“But why –”
“Forever isn’t even real! Nothing lasts forever. Not even the universe. Everything ends, everything is going to end, at some point you just have to accept it.”
“So you didn’t even mean it? You didn’t ever mean it?”
“It doesn’t mean anything. Forever doesn't exist. God, grow up.”
 
There was a tree in the park a few blocks from school, an enormous oak someone had told him once was over a hundred years old.
 
Everything ends.
 
By that measure, forever was always a lie.
 
He lay under that tree for a long time, staring up at the sky as the sun drained away, low rays of gold warming the dull grey-blue, gilding the layered edges of the clouds, then fading, fading, dimming to cold dusky purple.
 
Nothing gold can stay.
 
His cut hand was getting hotter and hotter. His fingertips were throbbing now, and the skin felt tight. He tried bending them, cautiously, and felt something slick and wet. Was he bleeding again? Or was it just sweat?
 
There was no one around in this part of town, a street lined with shops and businesses long since closed; the glass storefronts now displaying only security gates, a ghost town of jail cells for designer clothing and cafe tables.
 
The chill air was wonderful on his burning skin. It was only sweat, but mixing with the dried blood made a mess. There were no streetlights here, and when light was low, red was the first colour to slide into shades of black. In this greyscale world, it looked as if he was bleeding ink.
 
Poetry, he thought, is inside all of us.

Anyone who ever read the words in the front of this book, if they picked it up, years from now, and read that dedication – they would believe he and Helen had stayed together, forever. They would have no reason to suspect anything else. They would never guess at this dreadful emptiness in his chest.
A moment captured on paper. Made a lie by another moment, cut out of him in a shocked humiliation, beside the bus stop after school.
Perhaps words were written moments. Even people who had lived long ago had once been a collection of moments.
Forever is composed of nows.
Emily Dickinson. He remembered that one.
Forever was composed of nows, and people were composed of moments. His chest hurt with the words because they were still the same. A moment carried from one now, to another.
Perhaps history was the greatest lie of all; the lie in forever worked both ways.
 
Hours ago, beneath the tree, overcome with desperation, he dug for his keychain. There was a little penknife on there, a gift from years ago. He didn’t think it had ever been opened. A few minutes of struggling with a fingernail worked it free, though, and he set about carving their initials into the bark of the tree. As though he could manufacture a sense of permanence. If only somewhere, somehow, they were together. At least a little bit. At least a little forever.
 
He had sliced his hand open, of course. Barely managed his own initials, before the straight line down on the H in hers hadn’t been quite straight enough. And then there was blood, and violent pain, and a string of increasingly colourful profanity.
It was a pathetic little knife. Hopelessly blunt. But sharp enough for this.
He thought there was probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
 
His feet had carried him back to the bridge. Unthinking, he crossed to the place he’d stood earlier. A smudge of rust-brown on the stone parapet marked where his hand had rested while his blood was wet. Perhaps it was only right, in the end. Now he had a scar to match the one he’d given the tree.
 
There were very few people around now, all hurrying. He watched them, anonymous huddled coats pacing through moments he could only guess at.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky...
If forever is composed of nows, and people are composed of moments, then was it always a lie? If poetry was captured moments, reaching across time to sink their claws into his chest and grip tight, curling talons around his vital organs and wrenching hard... Perhaps captured moments spoke to future nows because they contained truths.
For some reason, that thought made his eyes sting. But why not? If it was true in the moment, if it was true when it was written, when it was said or done – or passed by – that moment remains true, even if future moments change. Surely.
His fingers curled tight around the grubby paperback book, held in both hands, bloodied and unbloodied. The book of written moments, small truths, spoken from other ages, lingering centuries after they were conceived, still being noticed, still being felt.
And one truth, maybe, from a more recent moment. A 4eva that would never be a forever but had still once been a now. The lie, he realised, wasn’t in the words. It was like Stan had said – actions speak louder. The words meant what they said. She just hadn’t continued to mean them.
 
The thought didn’t make him feel a whole lot better, but he thought he felt – less – alone. As long as there were people, there had been, and would be, feelings like this. Perhaps it was the nature of the human condition, to struggle with love, and longing, and loss; to struggle to reconcile heart and head. To struggle to tell wisdom from foolishness. To fail.
He turned away from the river and the night, his feet finally directed toward home.
It didn’t matter if the universe ended, he thought. It had once produced poetry.

 
 


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