Anita stood at the closed window looking down on the foreign street through gritty eyes; heavy arms dragging her shoulders down. The flight had been as bad as she had told herself it would be; trapped with four hundred and fifteen strangers for twenty-two hours in an eternal square-dance of unsanitary toilet breaks and plastic food. Her pulse had thrummed at the ruthless invasion of sharp elbows and polite conversation, her toxic thoughts the only escape.
She watched a group of greasy haired men below, whistling and hooting at a pair of short-skirted young girls walking past. It only served to add another calloused layer to her heart. She blinked hard and turning her gaze to the horizon, caught the last molten sliver of a fiery sunset. The air above the roof tops sizzled as a sudden rain shower opened up, rinsing the day from their baked tiles. For anyone else, it would have been breathtaking, but Anita closed her eyes, shutting out the city, denying it access to her ruined soul. She only saw a sugar-coated existence; rotten on the inside. Meaningless.
John watched his wife from across the room, a shrunken silhouette bathed in golden light as the sun set on the city behind her. Paris had been his idea. A surprise. A break for them both. A chance for him to soothe her. He saw her, twenty years younger, face lit up with her toothy grin, standing at the same window seeing Paris for the first time; a new bride, starting a new life. The Anita who had laughed loud, sung karaoke, bet on the horses and kissed with passionate abandon, was not the Anita in front of him. Her stiff back and the pervading silence told him Paris alone would not fix her.
He forced himself not to sigh, promised himself he’d be more present for her. Wouldn’t take it personally. The tightness in his chest lessened a little. He’d help her find a way out this time.
The next morning she said she didn’t care where they went or what they did, Paris was Paris. She then turned, smoothed the dress over her hips and waited, wraithlike, for him to tie his laces. He looked up to see her studying chewed nails and thought for a moment how he could just strangle her. But he crushed the unwelcome thought, that murderous traitor, the instant he noticed the tears filling her eyes. In the next moment, he stood folding his arms around her rigid body, his shoe-laces forgotten, her hands clasped awkwardly between them. He was going to break through, he was – he just had to keep trying.
Cutlery scraped on china plates in interludes of muted conversations, as smiling tourists went about planning their adventures over buttery croissants. Anita sipped her tea, staring out into the hotel’s little courtyard with its pretty-as-a-picture fountain while he remarked on the comfy bed, mentioned how good the water pressure was in the shower, mused over whether they should ride the metro or take a walk. But the words went unheard, John unacknowledged. He wondered what it would feel like to just get up and walk away. Would she even notice?
A waiter hovered over her shoulder, a wiry man with a moustache that seemed painted above his upper lip. John motioned to him to take her plate. She blinked as the arm appeared over her shoulder, but didn’t move to stop him.
“Souhaitez-madame aimez le thé un peu plus?” John saw her eyes lighten and flicker in a moment of confusion at the smooth Parisian accent and unfamiliar words and for a second, hope surged through him. She would react, move – speak! The light blinked out and the familiar distance of disinterest settled back in. Her once beautiful blue eyes, now flat and blank. His stomach churned and he looked away.
She walked in a state of confusion; the feeling alien to her, after so long feeling either one way or another; never caught in-between. So comfortable in the darkness anaesthetizing her life, these rare moments of light and shade terrified her. The imperious cadence in her mother’s voice followed her, accusing her of wallowing… and enjoying it; that if she only tried, she could be happy again. Anita felt her mouth tighten into a scowl, familiar claws scratching at her mind, the constant whispers of hatred solidifying into malignant shouts. No one understood her; she had accepted that long ago. John was no different to the others, although the harsh whispers about him were softening.
She stalked along the wide street, oblivious to the beauty around her, unaware of even her husband. In her mind, she walked the edge of an endless black pool, the surface disturbed by unseen monsters stalking her from its depths. She was safe on the shore, but the temptation to dip her toes in the inky water, to feel the scales of hidden things brushing her feet, grew.
Maybe mother was right. Maybe she didn’t want to leave this fetid site, the only place that felt truly hers.
He followed her like a faithful dog heels to its master. She was in deep and a blip of worry kept beat with his pulse; keep-up, keep-up, keep-up. He watched people slide out of her path, their faces alternating irritation and concern. The doctor had explained she descended into a type of trance, her reality splitting; one part plunging into the depths of her broken mind, battling unseen enemies, while the other part functioned normally; boiling the kettle, painting her nails or stopping at traffic lights.
John kept up with her, following the staccato of her heels on the ancient cobblestones, hoping the fog would lift long enough to coax her back to the hotel room. He had only seen her like this in their home where she could stalk the hallway without doing herself any damage. To date, the episodes had only lasted a few minutes. This one was by far the longest. The blip in his chest turned into a throb, as she picked up speed and he accelerated to catch her.
Threads of laughter, evil and nasty, wound their way around her as she paced the shore of the pool. The functioning part of her awareness told her to ‘keep to the left’ and ‘mind that curb’, while the broken part taunted her with words that stung and burnt. On the far side of the pool, she saw a light flicker and she realised it was her way out. Sometimes it appeared as a door swinging in to reveal her husband’s anxious face. Other times a rabbit hole appeared at the top of a set of twisting stairs, reality glimmering at the end. This time an exit sign glowing green, deep under the water.
She stepped out into the shallows.
Catatonic. That was the only word he could think to describe her and he didn’t know how to pull her out. The doctor warned him not to disturb her; like a sleep-walker, it could be dangerous. But lost in the stinking backstreets of Paris, miles from the hotel room, desperation overcame his fear of what damage he might do. His heart thundered in his ears, pressuring building. Something worse waited for them if he didn’t act now.
She was almost there, the water embracing her chest, caressing her legs. Her dress, swirling with her movement, began to weigh her down. She felt the things gliding past her, darting up to flick scaly tails against her skin. The whispers grew into wails but she focused on the green exit sign, its light shining up at her from below. Just a little farther—
She started, twisting around in the water.
She struggled on, her strength draining with every stroke. She was so close.
John? She stopped and turned to see him, standing on the shore—her shore—where she had been alone all this time. She hesitated, the water buoying her for a moment, then a silken hand wrapped gently around her ankle. She looked down through the darkness, to see her own face staring back up at her. The hand tightened and wrenched her under.
John sat on the road; a stranger crouched beside him babbling in a language he didn’t understand. A motor idled close by. A siren wailed in the distance. He looked up from his wife’s broken body to bear witness to the dark water pooling around her, seeping into the cracks between the cobblestones, soaking into his trousers. He cradled her head in his lap and wept.
“The Third Person POV” Challenge
For submission the week ending Sunday, 12th February.
Challenge: Write a short story from the third person POV. Genre: Open Word Count: 1500 words