Herbario Street, being terminal, was the reason Sam and Shelley decided to settle in. Their flat was sequestered against a grey wall lined with industrial bins. Someone had sprayed SKIMPED onto the boarded windows.
Sam turned to her, flaming blue hair framed against the incandescent streetlight.
‘This is perfect’, and kissed her.
Ms Turner is always late for class. Once she burst in twenty minutes late completely high and rocking out to ‘We Will Rock You’.
While Ms Turner has rare moments of clarity, she rambles a lot. I don’t want to hear another lecture about her cat Mr Sniffles or her mother.
I wish she would give out assessments on time and not make up homework on the spot.
Ms Turner could benefit from some time in rehab.
When Shelley woke up, alone, at the end of Hebario Street, her first thought was to call a taxi and never return. The university board had insinuated similar sentiments in her performance review.
“As a decorated scholar in the study and dissection of Surrealist Cinema, your contribution to the field has received accolades from numerous foundations and societies, an achievement this university holds in high regard. As a teacher of these studies, many students have voiced concerns about your mental health and competency. Based on student feedback and community concerns, the board recommends an extended paid leave to evaluate your direction and academic scholarship. We wish you the best of luck in these endeavours.”
She got out of bed slowly, feeling the stiffness in her knees. Someone was pounding at the door, an urgent, knuckle on wood pounding. Shelley received frequent harassment from bored teenagers. They all wanted a glimpse of her lined face to confirm their suspicion – a lone woman, living alone at the edge of
sanity a forgotten street.
The pounding stopped. She reached under the bed and tried to pull out a pair of pants. It resisted her tug and dragged out a moth-eaten box, kicking up an effluvium of dust. After her coughing subsided she held up the sordid remains of the box and peered into it. She spied cockroach droppings inside and let it slip from her fingers. The rotting paper gave way and spilled out its contents.
An empty cologne bottle. A passport, her passport, half eaten by moths. Her throat tightened.
Sometimes, in passing, she would look at herself in the mirror and find traces of Sam still etched on her face. The cobalt gleam in Sam’s eyes. The sharp jaw line that moved in to whisper I love…
She would look closer but only find the semblance of youth. An ordered decay. In the bathroom light her skin had the greyish pallor of dead trout. Tell-tale signs of fatigue dragged out sunken lines at the edge of her eyes. No matter how well she moisturized, there was a perennial ring of dry skin around her chin, flaking like dandruff onto her clothes. The other day, she found an angry varicose vein on her neck. She was horrified by the discovery, but more bemused. It looked like she wore her jugular on her skin, available for all – human or vampire – to examine or dig into, if they chose.
Maybe she never really believed that Sam had left. The Starina Theatre was a five minute walk from their flat and was their Saturday ritual. Shelley used to turn off her phone to prevent students contacting her and they would hold each other in the theatre all day. Even in the dark, Shelley could see waterlogged wallpaper that the owners refused to repair. It smelled damp and mouldy and the seats were faded red relics. Veterans acquainted with vomit, cigarette burns and even a few gunshots. But the tickets were cheap, and the darkness swallowed their essence in forgotten silent films. Endless loops of black and white celluloid driven to obsolescence by the advent of digital.
Now she preferred to stay in. She came across a short film in the (now-defunct) DVD store, borrowed it, and never returned. Sometimes without her realising, the DVD would be playing in loops on her laptop.
A man found out he had the ability to talk to fish one day while strolling on the beach. His newfound powers rescued him from the ennui of his life, but soon inundated him with the misery of a thousand fish facing their mortality by overfishing and pollution. To manage this depression, he bought a goldfish from a local pet store and kept it in his room.
He had long conversations with the goldfish every morning, then every mealtime, then almost every waking moment. He took the goldfish to the park and showed it what most goldfish could only dream of seeing. But he was careless and left the goldfish on the park bench while taking a leak. The man heard the goldfish scream, but it was too late. As the goldfish gasped for breath beneath glass shards, the man held it in his hands, listening to its dying breath. The man cried, hoping his tears could resuscitate the fish, but realised its futility and raised the goldfish to his lips.
And faded to the last title card: Let the darkness swallow me too, so I may be with you.
In an inexplicable way, the film touched her more than anything she had seen.
‘My god Shelley I know you’re in there, open the damn door!’ The vehement pounding at the door resumed with the shrill exclamation.
Shelley snapped, tripping over her pants. Which she now realised were only halfway up her thighs.
‘Open the damn door now or I’m kicking it down!’
She hobbled to the door, which did seem in danger of caving from the powerful blows.
Her hair was now a muddied green. They matched her eyes, which looked grey but often flashed green, cobalt and brown. She kept her hair at a length above her shoulders, emphasizing her long neck. Shelley felt a pang of jealousy that as she felt the burden of age, Sam still remained as radiant as the day she left.
‘Why don’t you answer your phone? Or check your email?’
She almost wanted to slam the door in Sam’s face. When starving orphans receive food from strangers, their first instinct is to hurl the food back at them. Longing begets a taut disbelief.
‘Hello? Are you there?’ Sam snapped her fingers in front of her face.
‘Oh uh,’ she looked at Sam, ‘My phone’s not charged I think.’
She also became aware, for the first time, of the rancid smell of cabbages and chemical waste. The industrial bins ten meters from the flat had not been visited by trucks for days.
Sam’s face relaxed, her lips settling into a grin. ‘I knew you still lived in this sordid thing. No one else could last here this long.’
And before she could stop her, Sam had pushed her way into the flat.
Shelley trailed behind Sam’s deliberate steps. She stopped in the kitchen and scrunched her nose.
‘When was the last time you washed anything in here?’ She picked up a teaspoon that had been sitting in a mug for a week, then dropped it with a clank.
Shelley felt mildly offended by this sudden intrusion. ‘What do you want?’
Sam sensed her tense shoulders, paused to study her face, then laughed her tinkling laugh.
‘Chillax Shel, I’m just here to get some things I left behind. Which you would know, if you bothered to check your phone or email.’ She stepped closer, brushing her arm.
‘What do you want,’ Shelley repeated and bumped into the kitchen sink while moving back.
‘I just want to see how you are,’ Sam paused, unaccustomed to this abrupt shift. ‘I missed you.’
‘After you just ran out?’
Sam sighed. ‘You threw a knife at me Shel, what was I supposed to do?’
The loose faucet dripped away their awkward silence.
‘A few days ago I was thinking about the time we rode to Mt Kirrinui,’ Sam’s eyes locked onto hers, ‘How we rode overnight and collapsed at dawn. Do you remember how dark it was? I was pretty sure we would end up dead riding like that. But thanks to you, we kept going. I was scared shitless of the dark but then the relief of dawn is something I’ll never forget. And the relief of seeing you in the first light, of having you.’
Shelley felt something within herself give way. ‘So what?’ she tried to maintain a calloused indifference in her voice, but it was chipping. Sam always had this effect on her and she knew it.
‘So…I’m going travelling again,’ Sam beamed, ‘and I need my passport.’
‘I think I remember where it was. I’ll go get it.’
Shelley retreated into
their her bedroom, her chest contorting in vicious betrayal of her composure. She had tricked herself into believing that Sam was no longer a part of her. Lived for months in solitude, knowing it was what she was best at. But the truth was standing in her kitchen, stirring a part of her she thought had long ago perished like silent celluloid films.
She had to sit on her bedroom floor for a few minutes before she could find the courage to go back. It sounded like Sam was in no rush anyway, Shelley could hear the kettle whistle and dishes clanging.
The passport was on the floor where she had dropped it earlier, its edges ragged.
When she returned to the kitchen Sam was beginning to run hot water for the dishes.
‘Take me with you.’ Shelley said it so quietly Sam did not hear it the first time.
She pressed the passport onto Sam’s back and caressed her shoulders. Sam flinched a little but did not withdraw.
‘Take me with you,’ she whispered near her ear, ‘I’ve recently been given extended paid leave. I’ve missed you more than you know.’
Sam stopped the hot water. She turned around and took the passport. She gingerly moved Shelley’s hands away.
‘Shel, I’m getting married.’
Shelley froze. Something caught in her throat. Then she began to laugh. Of course. Of course you are.
She couldn’t stop herself. The laughter came in fits, ejecting parts of herself she knew she would never reclaim.
Sam became alarmed and reached for her phone. ‘Do you want me to call an ambulance?’
But Shelley was lost on the floor, holding her chest and stomach lest they burst, lest they expose another weakness in her mind. She felt light-headed and could vaguely sense Sam’s hands upon her. But the last thought she carried into unconsciousness found their way onto her lips. Let the darkness swallow me too, so I may be with you.