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Author's note: This piece was written while I was dealing with some pretty complex personal relationships and was inspired a bit by Hammers and Strings by Jack's Mannequin. I hope this story can help people to understand the possibility of their profound impact on the lives of others.
It's not as if I had planned it this way. It's just how it happened. People walk away from people, it's as simple as that. We don't always plan to do it, and sometimes or rather most times we think we'll be coming back. I just didn't. Of all the times we had walked away from each other, I picked that one as the last. I say picked as if it were a very clear, easy choice. It wasn't.
The last time she called me I could have sworn she was doing better. It always felt that way with her though; it was just so impossible for her to get any worse than how she was when this all began. I can remember our first phone call as clear as anything. It's as if the phone is still against my face, the dial tone droning in my ear telling me that she'd hung up. Beside this white noise, I sat desperately trying to collect my thoughts. To this day, they remain scattered.
It was an average day. Aside from her phone call, events were normal. I remember rain. I had been working a long shift that day. The rain made some customers anxious and impatient while others seemed docile. I stacked shelves of books, and managed to live through my day without much contact. Looking back now I find it impossible to imagine that she had been there that day. Perhaps she had been reading in a chair next to me. Maybe we'd bumped into each other during my coffee break at the in-store cafe. Interaction at the most basic level seemed impossible but inevitable. I walked home in the rain, the water was a blessing after eight hours of stale paper-scented air. The phone was ringing when I walked in the door of my small apartment. I didn't answer it. I remember thinking it would be my friend, Matt and I was tired. I took off my coat and put on some dry clothes just as the phone stopped ringing. Walking into the kitchen, I wiped my glasses on my t-shirt. The phone rang again. I grabbed it and hit the respond button, falling into the nearest chair.
“Hello?” I sighed into the phone. There was no response at first, just heavy breathing on the other end. I looked at the caller ID and saw it was a private number. “Is somebody there?” I tried again.
“You tell me,” came the breathy voice of a teenage girl.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“I'm sorry.” Whoever this was, she'd been crying; I could hear it in her voice. “Please don't hang up.” I had been thinking about it but I let her pleading win me over.
“I'm sorry, who is this?” There was a long pause before she responded.
“I'm not sure that's important. Can I have your name?” I was confused.
“I don't know if that's fair,” I told her.
“You're right Dadrian,” hearing her say my name sent my mind reeling.
“Do I know you?” I asked, growing more concerned and intrigued with the conversation.
“Probably not. I got your name from the tag on your shirt at Best Books,” she said, "I'm sorry for calling you." I sighed, I'd moved past intrigue and into annoyance.
“That's fine,” I said, “Is there a reason you're calling me?” I hoped she would be able to answer quickly.
“No. Yes. I needed someone to talk to, I'm not feeling so well lately.” Her voice had begun to shake, I imagined her crying again.
“Look, how can I help you if I don't know you?”
“You can't,” she said in almost a whisper. I held my breath waiting for her to continue, hoping she'd increase her volume while I waited for her to talk. Then I heard a dial tone. She'd hung up.
I awoke with a start, various fragments of the night's dreams floating through my head. I flung myself out of bed with an edge of frustration. I couldn't remember it. Last night in my slumber something had presented itself to me and it seemed very important that I keep this thought in my head until the next day. Dreams will often do that, bring about thoughts and the desire to remember them, as if their significance should be held above all else. I slammed my hand against the wall and proceeded to ready myself for the day. Disappointment spread through me like a rather large mouthful of cold milk. I had past the window and noted the strange colour of the sky. It was not dawn as I had assumed when I awoke but rather, dusk. I swore under my breath and stepped onto the balcony. This was the third time this month I had slept through the day. I stared out over the mountain landscape. It was summer and here, summer always brought spectacular sunsets. I watched barely able to contain a yawn as the sky was splattered with bold colours. Hues of blue and purple such as I had never seen before were playing over the distant roads and houses. The sun was quickly lowering itself from the sky. I took one last look at the glowing orange orb as it shattered on a mountain top. Shards of pink and blood-orange light scattered around the surrounding stone. The entire day had been wasted away. Just as well, I was ready to go back to bed.
I walked into the bathroom and brushed my hair, which I now realized had been sticking out at awkward angles. I pulled it back into a pony tail, and washed my face. Pulling on a fresh pair of pyjamas, I walked over to my bed and climbed back in. Looking around the room, I searched my mind for a reason explaining my increased exhaustion. My eyes fell upon the phone on my bedside table. Maybe I could call him again, he's probably worried about me, I think. I shake my head and rearrange the thoughts inside. He doesn't care, I thought and went back to sleep.
It had been a week since she called me and I had begun to worry. The last time she called me she sounded scared, almost panicked. It had been late at night, half-past midnight, maybe. The phone rang and woke me up. Groggily I answered it.
“I'm sorry,” came her voice through the dark. She had begun to start every conversation like this. She insists she feels terrible for letting me help her, but continues to call me regularly.
“It's fine,” I've grown accustomed to saying. “I just wish you'd let me actually do something for you,” I immediately regret this. I get short tempered when I'm tired. The phone goes quiet. She doesn't hang up though, she's grown past that. We've reached a certain comfort level which is difficult to say in a situation like this. “What's up?” I try to keep our conversations casual, friendly and lighthearted. I feel like she doesn't get many interactions like that.
“I saw you again last week,” she tells me. I close my eyes and sigh.
“You have to stop doing this, Sarah,” she tells me to call her Sarah, though I doubt very much it's her name.
“You looked a lot happier than me that day,” she says. I tell her it's possible I might have been, say that everyone has good days and bad days, try to explain that my mood shouldn't make her think less of her own. I continue speaking for a long time, waiting for her to stop me. “I was in the area,” she finally interrupts. I ask her why, trying to sound interested. “I had an appointment with my therapist.” She answers. Saying that word as if it tastes foul in her mouth, spitting it out like venom.
“You're seeing your therapist again? That's good.” She doesn't bother with a “yes.”
“He gave me some medication, says it'll help me.” She doesn't sound convinced. “Dade?”
“Yes?” I say, fighting off sleep.
“I know I'm not crazy, I've just lost any reason I had to live...” I say okay and wait for her to elaborate. “So why am I still taking the medication?”
“Maybe you've begun to trust him. Your therapist, I mean. That's good.” I know it's becoming obvious I'm not invested in the conversation. She murmurs some form of agreement and says she has to go. I hang up feeling selfish and terrible. I get up and make some tea. She'd call me tomorrow.
I was losing myself. I could sense it. The medication wasn't doing anything. I had one person to turn to, and I was too ashamed even to do it. I paced in my bedroom the sun had just begun to rise. The pink and purple light slowly spilled into the room drowning me in it's beauty. I couldn't think clearly. Every time I passed the phone, I wanted to lunge at it. I wanted to call him. Lately, though I seemed to feel worse after our conversations. He kept asking me to meet him. He wants to know me, help me. I can tell he knows I'm lonely, desperate for human connection. I'm scared. Not that he will take advantage of me, I can tell he wouldn't. I know his intentions, I'm afraid of my own.
I decide the only way to be sure I don't call him is if I get away from the phone. I leave my apartment and start walking. It's not like I have a plan, I just move. I let my feet decide where I'm going. I try to clear my thoughts. I end up outside of his store. Walking in, I fix a smile to my face. I head to the cooking section, disguising myself as a college student improving herself. I always find myself smiling when I'm in his presence, I think that's why he's never recognized me. I peer over the shelves covered with smiling people holding different dishes. He's smiling and interacting with customers, I make sure I'm not one of them. Seeing him gives me hope. It makes me think that one day, I'll be healthy enough to be like him, maybe even to be with him. I want to meet him but I know it would make things worse. For now observation is enough. He looks safe to me, just solid. He knows how to present himself, and he knows how to act. He's got it all figured out. I leave the store empty-handed and lead myself back home... he'll be off work at five. Maybe I'll call him. I took my hand off the door handle and turned back into the night. I couldn't.
The second week ran past me. Still no contact. I began to tear myself apart. My friend Matt had been asking what was wrong, why I was acting so strangely. I dismissed him, locked myself in my apartment, waited for a phonecall. Hours passed, then a day went by. I didn't leave, I felt like if I did she'd call right after and I wouldn't be able to do anything for her, she'd be gone. I can't say why I was breaking myself over this. I had never even met this girl. I felt like I knew her though. It was like I had known her for a long time, and being a stranger gave her the ability to share things with me she didn't share with anyone. I wanted to help her. I needed our conversations more than she did now. I waited.
It was three weeks later when I got the call. I had already assumed the worst, the best and everything in between. My dreams had been consumed by her. My subconcious constructed elaborate storylines in which she had moved on from her own problems, changed cities, started over. I dreamed that she was dead, that she'd been murdered, that she was hurt. It was the night before the phonecall when I had the most memorable dream. I had dreamed she had come to find me, to tell me I had helped her, to tell me that she was grateful for all I had done. I dreamed that she let me into her life, that we became friends, and guided each other in the future. I woke up smiling, but after a few minutes, bloody memories of my past dreams caused the smile to retreat and tears to fall from my eyes. Hot liquid frustration was streaming down my face and I couldn't think of anything but her. I took a shower to clear my head, but she was still there, taunting me in all her forms. She was there laughing and smiling with a new family, she was there crying alone, she was there dead on the side of the road. The water pounded at the thoughts in my head but they were solid. A brick wall of images. Try as I might, for some reason on this day she was all there was. The phone rang. I shut the water off and grabbed a towel, drying myself off as quickly as possible, I threw on my pyjama pants again. I made it to the phone as what I knew to be the final ring resounded in my house.
"Hello?" I breathed into the phone. Nothing. I looked down at the caller ID, it was a different number, a payphone number. I knew it was her I could tell from her breathing. "Sarah?" I almost began to yell. "Sarah, is that you? Where are you?" I knew that I could trace the payphone, maybe find her I only needed time. I spoke frantically into the phone "Sarah if this is you please answer me. I've been so worried about you, why couldn't you have left me someway of communicating with you? Do you have any idea how scared I've been?" I waited for her to respond, and reached for my laptop, entering the phone number into a local database. "Listen Sarah," I said, "I know this is you, and I know you wouldn't be calling me if you didn't need to talk." I made my voice soft and gentle, safe. "Listen to me, my phone is dying, I need you to call me back on my cell phone number, can you do that for me?" There was no response but I had faith. I spoke my number four times slowly into the phone, and hung up. Grabbing my coat and phone, I ran to my car. The sky was heavy with rain clouds, and it was unseasonably cold outside for July. I gripped my phone in my hand as I got in the car, the address of the phone booth flashing behind my eyes. My phone rang. I began to drive. "Sarah?" It was matt.
"You're still going on about that psycho chick?" I hung up and waited again. The phone booth was on the far side of the city. I began to doubt that she would call me or that it was even her heavy breathing on the phone. I drove and waited and there was no call. My hands gripped the wheel and my eyes darted to the phone on the dashboard every other second. As I approached the phone booth, I could tell there was someone inside. I got out of the car and ran to the phone booth and wrenched the door open. I didn't care if this person wasn't Sarah, whoever was in there needed to see me. Someone needed to understand how much I cared. As the door opened, a small girl with dirty blonde hair whipped around and threw herself at me. I held on to her, not caring who it was. I peered over her shoulder and noticed six digits of my phone number were on the small rectangular screen of the payphone.
"I'm sorry," she gasped into my ear. She was crying.
"It's fine." I whispered back, and held her. She shook with loud sobs as I led her to my car. We got in and I drove to her house. I let her out and followed her inside. At the door I said goodbye.
"You're not staying?" she asked. There were tears all over her face and still swelling in her eyes.
"I can't." I said.
"You have to," she insisted.
"I can't," I repeated. I smiled at her and gave her a hug. It was important for me to have this moment, but I had become too unstable with her in my life. "I just need to know that you're okay."
"Well, I don't know if I am," she says. I look at her for a long time.
"The fact that you realize that means you are." She stared at me, she couldn't believe I was leaving. And I did.
"I'm not Sarah!" she yelled after me, tears still streaming from her face. I turned around and looked back at her she was taking something out of her pocket.
"Who are you then?" I asked, getting frustrated now was not the time.
"I'm her sister..." she said, tears falling steadily, gulping for air.
"Where's Sarah?" I asked, still shocked she had been using her real name.
"I don't know... I was hoping you would." She looked down at the paper in her hand. "She left this," and that was it. Nothing to say goodbye to anyone, she was gone, dissappeared. I took the paper from the girl's shaking hands. "Whoever finds this, I'm sorry." It read, "I had to leave. Please whoever you are call this number. Call this number and say that I'm sorry, say that I'm thankful, tell him he saved me. Please call from a payphone, he'll come find you, he cares so much. I need him to know that I know that. I need him to understand everything he did made a difference and that he helped me. If you're reading this now, and you were close to me, I'm sorry. It's important he is found, met and understood. Tell him it was you. Tell him you're okay, and leave him. Thank him and make him understand I loved him, but I can't face him. Please whoever this is, do it for me. I was beyond saving, and he tried. That is what is important. Pretend to be me, pretend to be happy." I ran towards the young woman in front of me, she was crying uncontrolably now. I hugged her and cried too. I didn't know where Sarah was, I wasn't sure I wanted to. Her sister's name was Nadine. She was a lot more stable, solid. She'd been checking in on Sarah every week, making sure she was okay. She'd never heard of me before. I pondered what Sarah had come to, it seemed very likely that she had killed herself, but I didn't believe it. I thought back to my first dreams of her. She was laughing, smiling and living. And that's how I chose to remember her, strong enough to move on but weak enough to be human. She couldn't say goodbye, and I'm glad she didn't. I only hoped she knew that she was as much help to me as I was to her.