“You’re back!” Alice spun to greet him. If it weren’t for a raised hand of warning, Alice might have flung her arms around Alfred’s neck. Instead, she hugged herself, beaming as she drank in the familiar sight of him: wry smile, drooping eyes, rumpled schoolboy uniform.
“You haven’t been sleeping enough,” he said, with no sting behind the accusation.
“And you,” she said, rifling through the stacks of paper covering the kitchen table, “haven’t been visiting enough.”
“I went to the library like you suggested, and wound up my soul like a wind-up toy. The librarian was happy to see me again.”
“Did you talk to your aunt any more?”
Alice hesitated, fingers hovering over a poetry anthology. “I wrote back.”
“About the bunker?”
“About Mother and Father.” Alice shook her head, flipping through her book. “I don’t want to talk about that anymore. I found a poem for you.”
He looked across her disordered table with pity, taking in the dirty dishes, the unopened envelopes and half-finished letters. “Alice, you can’t keep living like this.”
“It’s a good one, a Yeats one. Wine comes in at the mouth, and love comes in at the eye; that’s all we shall know for truth before we grow old and die. I lift the glass to my mouth, I look at you, and I sigh.” She pressed the poetry book to her chest with one hand, lifting her other hand to her forehead and sighing dramatically.
He wasn’t able to restrain the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, though he rolled his eyes. “Maybe you should try lifting a glass of water to your mouth,” he said, gesturing pointedly at the coffee cups scattered around the table. “When was the last time you slept?”
“Oh, that reminds me of another one.” Leaning against the table, she opened the book again.
“Drink some water and then you can read it to me,” Alfred said.
“If you insist, dear rabbit,” she said, setting down her book to fill a glass from the creaking tap. She beamed over the rim as she took a sip. “And what would I have to do to get you to sit next to me as I read?”
There was that little smile again. It made her heart ache to see him here, in her dingy little kitchen, shaking his head the tiniest bit, the way he always had when she teased. “Maybe you could eat something,” he suggested. “You’re all bones.”
“And what would I have to do for a kiss?” she asked. His smile vanished like a rabbit down a hole, extinguishing the warmth in her chest just as fast, and suddenly her breath was shaky.
“Alice, you know you can’t–”
She cut him off, afraid that hearing the words aloud would scald her. “I know, I know.” If she never said it, if she never let him say it, maybe… she turned away, not daring to even think about it. She felt his gaze on her neck as she made a show of searching her cupboards, nudging aside empty jars and expired cans.
“You haven’t been to the grocery store.” She jumped at his voice so near her ear, nearly dropping her half empty glass. He peered over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow when she met his glance.
“I didn’t have time,” she lied, shaking a few stale pieces of bread from a paper bag. “I’ll go in the morning.” Her distress drained slowly, drawn from her like poison by his presence. She had to dance around him to navigate between the table and counter, depositing her glass and retrieving her book, and his nearness made her body hum. She curled into her armchair, tucking her feet up beneath her and lifting her chin in invitation. He followed her, settling onto the armrest beside her and draping one long arm over the back of the chair. She broke off a piece of bread, scattering crumbs across her lap, and stuck it in her mouth, realizing suddenly how hungry she had been. “Jush a mimit,” she mumbled, stuffing another hunk of bread into her mouth before she had properly finished the first.
He laughed. “Take your time, love. There’s no hurry.”
She wolfed down the rest of the bread, then leaned her head back against his arm. She hadn’t been this close to full in… several days, at least. A feeling of comfort washed through her. Alfred sat beside her in contented silence; soft fingers combed through her hair. She closed her eyes for a second, relishing his presence, and then fought back to consciousness, sitting upright and blinking rapidly. “I was going to read you a poem,” she said.
“You can sleep if you want,” he said.
“No,” she insisted. “You’ll be gone when I wake up.” He didn’t argue, and she couldn’t waste a precious moment with him. “Here, Sonnet 30.”
She read to him until her throat was sore and the pages were fuzzy before her eyes, unwilling to give up his closeness, his fingers in her hair, his lanky legs stretched beside hers, the faint smell of starch lingering in the air. The clock struck one. The clock struck two.
When the clock struck three, he got up at last. “I need to go,” he said softly.
“I’ll come too,” she said, standing in an instant, scattering crumbs about the floor.
“No.” She froze. “Alice, you can’t keep doing this.”
“What do you mean?”
“This,” he said, pressing his hand to his chest. “The late nights, the poems, all of this.” He gestured at the mess of her flat. “You can’t keep chasing after me.”
Her voice rose, shrill and pleading. “What do you want me to do?”
He looked at her with eyes full of pity. “I want you to live your life, Alice. I want you to be happy.”
“I’m happy when I’m with you!”
“There are some places you can’t follow me,” he said.
“But I miss you.” She flung the words at him desperately, and they found their mark; he winced. “I miss your smell and the cracks of your voice and the way you roll your eyes at me. I miss you when you’re gone and I miss you when I can see you right here. I miss you so much, Alfred.” Her voice failed her on the last word, and she pressed her lips together, her nails digging into her arms to keep herself from falling apart. His image swam in his eyes. She would have given anything for a true hug, for the warmth and solidity of his arms around her, shielding her from the world. He just looked on helplessly.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“I just want to stay with you a little longer,” she begged. “This is the last time.” The first part, at least, was true.
He pressed his fingers to his eyes. “Alright,” he said. “You can come. But you have to promise me that you’ll tell your aunt what happened in the bunker. You need someone more than me– someone who’ll be there when I’m not.”
She took a shaky breath, clinging to the concession like a lifesaver. “I’ll talk to her. I promise.”
He smiled wanly, running his hand through his hair so it stood up like tufts of grass. “Put your coat on, then,” he said. “It’s cold out.” She wiped her puffy eyes and took her coat, sliding her arms into the patched sleeves, then she opened the door and stepped out into the muffled darkness of early morning.
The church clock chimed a quiet quarter hour as she climbed over the low picket fence. It was only September, but the night already held the promise of winter, and she was grateful for her coat.
“I am tired,” she admitted, stumbling over humps in the lovingly-maintained grass.
“Of course you are,” came Alfred’s soothing voice. “It’s time for you to rest, love. I’ll watch over you while you sleep.” At last, her tired eyes found what she was searching for. Sinking to the ground, she curled up against the headstone, her fingers finding the grooves of the familiar letters. A-L-F-R-E-D H-A-L-L-A-M. The breeze ruffled her hair like an affectionate hand, and at last she fell asleep.