The Haunts We Choose

SETH, after.
I arrange the items on the table in time with my pulse. It is a frenetic, hopeful orchestration of salt shakers scraping, napkins rustling, forks aligning, planets colliding. This, the table shoved into the corner of the Say Hi Cafe, had always been our table. When it wasn’t holding a potted plant or a disillusioned college student’s lap top. In which case the table across the cafe, by the warped glass windows, had been our table. That spot was a good one to watch and be watched.

But sometimes, you didn’t want to be watched. You didn’t want to watch. You wanted to sit across from the laugh that you loved and drink your coffee and get out in time to make it to the night shift.

Or sometimes, you wanted to wait and see if that laugh was coming.

Right now, I wait.

I’ve ordered you your favorite, and the sweating plastic cup it arrived in is one of the parts of my orchestra. That nastily sweet iced coffee that you loved. If you were here, you would have already chewed the end of the straw flat, bite marks to match the ones on my collarbone.

Another college student comes in; sits a few tables away from me. Props open a volume about Woolfe.

I look at my watch. A year ago today, to this minute, you were dying. Held onto a hospital bed by the weight of a broken heart, newly found, though it had lived in your chest that way forever.

I draw a line in the condensation on the side of your coffee. And I wait.

GILLIAN, before.
We lounge on the disgusting couch in our apartment. I can’t say that it’s our couch, because we’ve only had it a week, and whoever had it before us had it for years and still has far more visual and olfactory claim to it than us. I do my best to lay mostly on you, Seth, instead of the faded plaid upholstery. Because I know where you’ve been. I believe the couch was made as part of a psychological experiment. And picked up by you as a further continuation of said experiment.

We are watching television, because it is on, and listening to the teapot about to scream in the other room because I am too lazy to get up for it and because you cannot get up, held down as you are by my body. There is a woman on the television explaining how she never said goodbye to her dead daughter, and she never has to, because she sees her every year on the date of her death. You shift your weight beneath me as she describes how she and her daughter pre-arranged it in the event one of them died before the other.

“I always thought I would be first to go,” the woman says. Her voice holds wonder and her eyes are dry.

You roll onto your back and arrange me more firmly on top of you, hips to hips, your hands resting on my waist as if I might tip. I will not tip. I would not risk touching the sofa.

“Our table at Say Hi,” you say. “Right?”

“The window one or the plant one?”

“The plant one,” you say and you are smiling in that serious way like when you suggested we get married. “It’s better for posthumous conversations.”

“Deal,” I say. The teapot is wailing by now, afraid to be in the kitchen by itself. I shift to get it because it’s drowning out the television.

You press a hand on my thigh. “Don’t go.”

“It’s the teapot,” I say. “Anyway, I’ll be back.”

SETH, after.
The shadows have moved behind your iced coffee, which is no longer iced and possibly no longer coffee, after this much time. It’s hard to tell without lifting the lid to see how far along the decomposition process is. I keep glancing at the other table, by the window, which is still empty. No one has sat at it for hours, and I wonder.

What will I tell you after all these months alone? What in a year is important when you have only a day to say it? I know what I am thinking. I am thinking about how I burnt all of your boxes of teas. There were thirty seven of them in the cabinets — did you know that? No wonder we had no room for canned goods. To think of the number of times that I swore at the apartment for its lack of storage and really it was all your fault. The cabinets were just over-laden ships bursting at the seams with rarities like cinnamon and plum and darjeeling and sleepytime and chamomile and dandelion and apple and peppermint.

I burnt the tea boxes in the tiny backyard and it smelled like Christmas.

I thought my tears would put out the fire. I thought they could put out a forest fire. I thought they could drown the world and me. But in the end there were only four of them caught in the stubble on my chin, which wasn’t enough to extinguish anything.

I feel, now, like I want to apologize to you for burning them. I feel like if you went to the apartment and saw the empty cabinets — in the end, what was there to store in them but tea? — you would think I had thrown them out and forgotten you.

I haven’t. I’ve been waiting for today all year.


GILLIAN, before.

The movie is a scary one. Not a horror, but one of the psychological thrillers that would make me pull your arm over my face if we were watching it at home. One where you learn to suck in your breath and hold your heart tightly in place before the shrill strings race it to someplace unsafe. In the theater, I am leaning against your shoulder, though it makes the arm rest press uncomfortably into my ribs. On the other side of you, Brooke sits, her arms crossed tightly across her chest, holding herself since she has no one else to hold her.

I know she likes you. With a capital L. I know it’s why she came. Well, because she’s best friends with me, too. And I know she’d never try anything with you, because of me. But I know she wonders sometimes what would’ve happened if you’d met her first, because I wonder the same thing.

On the screen, a shadow becomes a man, the soundtrack screams, and my heart rabbits in my chest. My fingers tighten on your arm and you laugh, nervously, because your hands are pressed tightly to your legs too. It makes me feel better to remember what a chicken you are too.

“My heart is going a million miles an hour,” I whisper to you. I’ve said it enough times that you don’t believe me.

SETH, after.
I memorize the lines of the fake wood grain beneath my cold cup of coffee. I become immune to the electronic ding of the cafe door opening. I have spent so much time waiting for this day that I can’t remember what I used to do with my days.

I order you another iced coffee. By now, you would’ve gone through the first one and been ready for another.

I glance at our table by the window. It is still empty. My stomach takes an expedient elevator trip to my feet and back, a rolling sensation I haven’t felt since I saw them take your heart out.

Soon it will be time for the cafe to close; I don’t know where I’ll go, after.

The chair opposite me shuffles out from the table and my heart screams to a stop inside me.

I cannot bring myself to raise my eyes. Easier to live in this moment between anticipation and disbelief.

“How long have you been sitting here, Seth?”

It is not your voice.

I lift my gaze to Brooke. Her eyes are red but her mascara forms an orderly unsmeared line beneath each of them, reapplied to give the appearance of control. I do not answer. I glance at the empty table by the window again.

“It wasn’t your fault, Seth,” Brooke says. “I know you think it is, because I thought so too. I talked to the doctor. He said there weren’t warning signs. Not that we could see. No one could have known.”

I want her to leave. I need the chair to be empty in case you come. If you come in and see that your chair is filled, would you leave again?

“Come out with me — us — “ Brooke says. “Jared and Sammy and I are all going to the cemetery and then we’re going into the city. Don’t spend tonight alone.”

I don’t tell her to leave, but I don’t say I’ll come either. We sit there in silence staring at your two untouched drinks until the barista comes over to tell us that it’s time to clear out.

It’s closing time. It’s been one year since your broken heart split mine, and you didn’t come. I don’t know what to do if I’m not waiting.

“Seth?” Brooke stands and waits to see if I will follow.

GILLIAN, after.
I watch you from the table by the window. I watch you wait all day for me. I could cross the floor in a moment. Sit behind the the drinks you got for me.

But it’s better this way. You already spent a year waiting for me.

I see you stand to follow Brooke. On the way out the cafe, you stop right by me, and you press your hand flat against the surface of the table.

“Good-bye, Gill,” you say.

I’ve been waiting all day for you to say it.

_______________________________
Author’s Note: I know, another cheery one from maggie . . .

image courtesy: [auro]

46 thoughts on “The Haunts We Choose

  1. Waving at my face so I don’t cry at work. Well Done. Seriously that’s like NY Times best seller stuff there. Oh yeah IT IS! πŸ˜€

  2. Wow, remind me not to read your stories at work, ok? snuffling doesn’t sound very professional. πŸ˜‰

    Wonderful!

  3. This is such a YOU story. ❀ I love the quirky details. That's what makes your stuff stand out: the chewed up straws and million boxes of tea.

  4. And death. And emo. Don’t forget that hiding in the cabinet.

    You would’ve had him burn down the whole house to make himself feel better.

  5. It’s over a hundred degrees where I’m sitting, and I’ve got chills. Not to mention the sniffles, and a blocked throat.
    I love stories that make me feel like this. Thank you.

  6. Normally I do not like to make people sad without then making them happy. In this case, I’m afraid you will have to use your imagination to imagine that Seth pulls himself together and raises bunnies for a living. Think of all the children that Seth is making happy by helping thus bunnies to procreate.

    I think my work here is done.

  7. This is my new favorite Maggie Stiefvater short. All that waiting reminds me of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Gorgeous.

    Lesley

  8. Ach, never apologize for not being cheery.

    This …is beautiful. I don’t believe that people go wandering ’round after death (that would be too, too sad) but this is something like I wish my grandmother had read, because she chose a haunt that simply kept coming back, and so she was never able to move on. She simply stopped.

    Which is sadder than someone waiting a single year…

    Sigh. I’m melancholy today anyway since a friend went into hospice this weekend. This is a good story to get past “mad” to where I can start to cry about it so that I won’t cry when I shouldn’t. (If that makes ANY sense.) Thanks.

  9. That . . . totally makes sense. And it also makes me feel glad that this story was the one that said “tell me!”

    Thank you.

  10. It. Ate. My. Reply.

    And it had llamas in it! And compliments! And woe is me! But, alas, I cannot recover it.

    Still, I will say that I’ve read this story a bajillion times, linked it to all my writing buddies, and angsted over how I can work my stories to have a fraction of the accessible, cinematic, heart-tugging appeal.

    Excellent work. NOW WRITE SOMETHING HAPPY DARN YOU! Or don’t, either way. πŸ˜€ (Is your muse the muse of tragedy? I think it is.)

  11. P.S. Of course it isn’t really tragedy. It’s sacrifice. Love. Loving enough to sacrifice. People who do beautiful, heart-wrenching things for others because something inside them compels them to.

    Le sigh. Good stuff.

  12. Holy FRICK. I just wrote a comment and deleted it too!!!!

    GAH!

    I’m sure it said something like: WHOA! Really!?

    And then I MISSED THE LLAMAS!?

    And then . . . I will do something happy next week. I think. Possibly.

  13. I’ve read this over and over, tried to come up with some comment worthy of the story, my reaction to it, the awe. Words fail. Thank you. Damn you. And thank you again.

  14. Oh, wow. Maggie, that was so beautiful and so sad and so sweet. Although it wasn’t long, I fell in love with Seth and Gillian and that aching “before” and “after.” I love your writing.

    This reminds me of a story my friend told me:

    He used to work at Chili’s and every Friday an elderly couple would come in for dinner and sit at one specific table. It was, my friend learned, their table. The man would order something different from the menu each time they were there; the woman, always the same dish. They were sweet–smiling, laughing, and giving generous tips. They were sweet on each other.

    For months, the staff at Chili’s served the two lovebirds happily. They were good customers after all. Loyal. Adorable. Their favorite old love story. But one week, the couple didn’t come in. The week after that: still no sign. A long-time employee called them;he had become close enough with them to do that.

    “Mr.— passed away,” he told my friend and to the rest of the staff. A few of them sent their condolences. But the newly-made widow didn’t come back. My friend quit before she ever could.

    But she did, eventually. My friend learned that she went back to eat at Chili’s. Every Friday and at the same table. But she had a new usual–the last Chili’s dish her husband ate before he died. Week after week, that’s what she ordered, eating quietly and across an empty seat.

    But then she got sick. Her weekly visits turned into every other week then to once a month. Finally her visits were unpredictable, only coming when her daughter could drive her and when she could withstand the drive. She came to sit at the table meant for two and eat the dish her husband once ate. It broke my heart to hear that.

    I’m sorry if this was too long of a comment. Your story reminded of the old couple. Their story made yours all the more touching and real. So I thought I’d share it.

    P.S.
    My friend doesn’t know if she still goes to Chili’s. I don’t know if she had the chance to say goodbye

  15. This thing you do, you do it so well. I dream about writing something that will make you cry. When that happens I know I’m close. *love*

  16. Wow — no, not too long of a comment at all! What a sad and beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing it. It really does make this short feel more real.

  17. *grin* Thank you. I love crying when reading . . . it just doesn’t happen very often. I think I can recall sniffing three times in my entire reading existence, and twice for the same book.

  18. ok.. i loved that. sooo very heart felt and sweet. With a touch of a dark side almost. As always….pleasing to read. Maggie you got a talent like none other.

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