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Knitted Hearts

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Serena and Bernie have been bound from their first meeting by a cord neither could see. A red string tying Bernie’s thumb to Serena’s smallest finger. At first it was a gossamer thread of silk and then it grew to a cord. The closer they grew, the greater their bond; the greater the bond, the stronger the cord, invisible at first but no less incontrovertible for being unseen.

It was Fate, a Red String of Fate, in fact, binding their two hearts. When they first kissed, it unspooled between them in skeins, blood-red, entwining their hands, tangling between their bodies, tying them together in knots. Serena tripped on it fleeing when they were caught red-handed, red-lipped and panting. She saw the knots for what they were, the strings for what they meant. Bernie was hers and she was Bernie’s. But she had been for someone before and not been what they needed. She needed Bernie beyond bearing as it was.

Bernie had insinuated herself inside Serena’s body, threading through her veins, filling her to her fingertips, a capillary action. She was the nerve impulse that told Serena to smile some nights, the name on her tongue before she thought. She’d taken up residence inside Serena’s mind like living memory, growing vast and all-encompassing each day.

The cord trailing Serena home to her kitchen for a bottle of wine, to her couch, to bed, to wander sleeplessly through the house was the reason why.

Throughout the nights and days that followed, the cord tugged back and forth, often tentative, sometimes harsh, doubting. Some hours there was no movement to speak of. Simply two people on different sides of Holby City, bound and unmoving. Fate wasn’t something you asked for; it was what you got.

Serena hadn’t asked for Bernie to kiss her. Bernie hadn’t asked Serena to kiss her back. The terror that washed over her expression before Serena did said what the yarn loop fraying round her pinkie finger could not verbalize.

Maybe…maybe Bernie needed her too. Maybe Bernie sat at home just as terrified of how much that was true. Perhaps Fate was a footnote in the story they’d already started to write, purely incidental.

Serena gave the String attached to her hand a gentle tug to see if anyone remained on the other side. When eventually she got a tug in reply, she smiled.

The days that came after were awkward, painful. They tiptoed over emotional tripwires. They danced around spiderwebs of wine-red twisting over open body cavities and glanced past rust-brown fringe swirling down the drain of scrub sinks. They smiled shyly over wine and toasted to a connection they couldn’t deny. They got scared and they fought. They kissed and ran and kissed some more.

They loved and grieved and loved louder and harder. But they always, always followed the Red String home. Bernie from Kiev to Holby, from Holby to France. Serena from France to Holby, to wherever Bernie was. Bernie to home and away and home again.

When love binds so visibly, it’s easy to think it can never break. But like any other binding, a tie can become a tether, become a shackle or a noose.  It may kill as easily as it may break.

Or it may last forever.

The year Serena and Bernie lose each other, the tie that binds between them pales and thins. It grows weak and frays. There are days when one pulls just to know the other remains on the opposite end and the response is hours in coming. There are days it never comes. FaceTime dates becomes long phone calls becomes terse texts become taciturn emails in bullet points and monosyllabic replies.

An almost imperceptible pink ring hooked over a curled thumb leads Bernie home whilst its perceived absence leads Serena astray. What Fate did not give it can still take away.

When Serena sends Bernie back to Nairobi, she is clutching that String like a talisman, winding it through her fingers in a cat’s cradle as if to catch Bernie in its web. But Bernie can’t be caught and Serena won’t run (why didn’t she run, she’ll ask for years, already knowing the answer she can’t bear). The String stretches to the breaking point, faint and slender as a single atom of spider silk.

Bernie packs her belongings.

Bernie gets on a plane.

Bernie goes somewhere new.

Serena holds her breath for weeks waiting for the tether to snap in two.

Fate has spoken.

Serena has spoken.

Bernie has assented.

It’s over.

Serena waits.

The days grow cold. Holby changes. Guinevere grows.

The String lasts.

Some days it widens, broad as a scalpel wound in Serena’s palm, like thick yarn, when Cameron appears sad-eyed and in need of reassurance. Other days it thins and wavers, near to vanishing, when Bernie falls into Alex’s kiss like old times.

The day Bernie goes…Serena has wrapped the slack of the cord between herself and Bernie in a bow around her wrist. Guinevere had seen it—children are oddly perceptible, aren’t they?—and taken to tugging it so often Bernie had emailed to ask if she was all right. It’s the first direct contact between them since they agreed to lead separate lives.

Serena dithers over a reply, feeling out of sorts and out of breath, elation warring with nerves as it hasn’t since their first kiss. When she gets up her nerve, she writes back to say all is well and Guinevere sends her love. They all send their love.

Bernie replies with a winking emoji and Serena stares at the email, lovesick, for the rest of the day. She is thinking of a more substantial message to send when she returns to a soldier in a maroon beret leaving her office and Cameron standing in a daze. As she had known what it meant when the String around her finger appeared, she knows what that soldier means.

She reaches out and pulls and pulls and pulls with all her might.

Nobody pulls back. Nobody’s there.

Her world collapses while she remains standing, unspooled yarn, maroon as the beret on that departing soldier’s head, pooling at her feet.

*

Serena has broken before, she knows what it looks like.

She is aware of where the edge is. She’s danced upon it, dangled over it, and gazed straight to rock bottom out of morbid curiosity. She’s even jumped once or twice.

The last time she danced with her doom, a tug on her pinkie pulled her back. That tug said, ‘Wait for me.’ It said, ‘Don’t leave me alone.’ It stood on the opposite side of a fire door and slammed through, shoulder-first.

There is no tug to draw Serena back from this precipice. There was once, though, and for her sake, Serena steps back. She takes time. She takes a trip. She gets a massage or twenty. She reads romance novels about women who fall in love in Paris and in London. She reads about strapping soldiers with smoldering brown eyes and funny laughs. She regrets, she longs, and when she can’t bear the silence, she pulls.

Nobody pulls back.

She forces herself to get used to it, to the loneliness at this end of the cord that won’t disappear.

She keeps it spooled around her arm like a makeshift cast for a wound no doctor could treat. It stretches slack far into the distance, its end wherever Bernie is, wherever she died. Serena could follow it over land and sea and go there. She could see Bernie, find her when nobody can. Could be cowardice that stops her. Could be sheer bone-breaking terror. Either way, she is celebrating her birthday alone over chocolate mousse and a glass of Shiraz when Cameron calls.

Serena had convinced herself she was prepared for the inevitable. People don’t simply disappear forever anymore, do they? People know. The army chaplain they sent for Cameron had told her to prepare for the worst. So here she is, on her birthday, utterly shattered.

Some preparation.

Serena stares at her chocolate mousse in this fine French restaurant and doesn’t eat a bit. She sits in utter desolation as the hour grows late and other patrons come and go. She stares at the empty chair across from hers where Bernie should be, would be were she less of a coward. Maybe Marcus had the right of it, and she had sent Bernie into harm’s way. Maybe Bernie was a fool of a hero. Doesn’t matter whose fault it is anymore; Bernie isn’t any less dead for being her own worst enemy.

Her server, a person no older than Elinor would be now, offers to call her a cab if her dinner mate isn’t coming. They take the second plate of mousse away, leaving Serena with one. Serena had ordered for two, without thinking. She’d ordered for Bernie and Bernie won’t ever be here again.

Serena consents to the cab, nodding her thanks, unable to force her lips to speak or else she’ll scream that feral scream she’s been harboring in her larynx for weeks. Bernie is never coming back. This String that sprang into bright red existence with their first kiss goes nowhere now, only to hell and back.

When Serena is home again and the well wishes and worried looks fall like coal on her head, she sits in her empty house and she knits. Jumpers for Guinevere who is growing quicker than Serena can create. Socks for Ric who wears them while grimacing in his decidedly brotherly manner. Gloves for Donna who grins and wiggles her fingers in them and seems to like them enough. None for Jason who can’t abide the texture of knitted things. Greta takes a scarf in quiet contentment; she won’t pretend it’s beautiful but she’s grateful for the thought.

Serena reaches into the depths of her knitting basket for the gifts she never gave Bernie. The scarves. The gloves. The jumper Serena began when she missed her and didn’t send once she was lost. The bobble cap she didn’t wear last winter and desperately needed. Socks. Bernie’s feet are so cold. They were so cold.

Serena finishes them in her copious spare time, purposeful and diligent. She’ll give them to some of the veteran’s organizations Bernie favored. She’ll give them to Cameron and Charlotte to do what they like. She’ll keep them in her hope chest with all her other dashed hopes: Ellie’s things and Adrienne’s, photographs of Raf and Jasmine and Arthur under her winter clothes in mothballs.

She’ll pitch them in the fireplace with all the handwritten letters she didn’t send over the months that passed in a blink. She’ll bury them in a bottom drawer with Bernie’s journal and unearth them every other day, apologetic to these inanimate things that are all that’s left of Bernie Wolfe on earth.

When she runs out of yarn on a hot and balmy night, she opens the window of her bedroom and stares out at forever. It’s hot flashes tonight on top of the unusual weather and she’s wearing as little as she can get away with and keep decent for the neighbors. A cotton nightdress and a thick oxblood plait wound up her arm. Since summer it’s come back to her by yards. Battered and tattered, she thinks soaked with blood and soot, and she slips the end from her finger to begin winding it into a ball on the yarn winding gadget Essie gave her last fall.

It’s time to take a page for Bernie’s journal and be brave.

You can’t close the book until you know the final line.

She winds and winds and winds all night without end until it’s nearly time for her shift. When she returns from her day’s work, sore from surgery and holding herself taut as though still tethered to a woman no longer living, her String still sits beside her bed, a testament to a love she let go.

Sleep eludes her again and while she’s still out of yarn, she isn’t out of String. Serena picks up her needles from her knitting basket and she begins to knit in bright, loving red. She’s got one more gift in her yet.

This gift takes her days to do. A blanket instead of a jumper or cap. Big and complicated, sure to be warm. Each day she sets it down to see to work and to her family and friends. It will be here, it will wait. She has time; these are her golden years, after all, and she means to use them as she likes.

Each mistake she corrects, patient as she couldn’t be when it counted, loving as she was regardless of what she said. She knits a blanket out of the Red String of Fate that brought her to the love of her life. She pours all her love into this gift, red as heartstopping adoration she knows so well. Stitch by meticulous stitch until the yarn on her winder runs out and she’s drawing yarn from the slack that reaches down the stairs and out the front door, into the distance beyond. Still, she knits.

The end will come to her. She’ll be ready when it does. She’s had time enough.

Days turn to weeks and the blanket grows.

Holby changes.

Guinevere toddles and speaks.

Ric nearly dies.

Serena feels, quietly, desperately like she is running out of time.

The end will come to her.

The blanket spreads out around her, a mess of beauty and pain, rust-red and wine-red and love-scarlet, yet every stitch the perfectly imperfect labor it is. It spills out over the edge of her bed and out toward the walk-in, toward the vanity and door.

One evening, she tugs blindly for another length of cord, of yarn to loop round her needles, instinct and nothing more—

And something tugs back.

Serena frowns, sure it must have caught on a bedpost or a stray nail.

She tugs.

Something tugs back.

Serena pushes aside her blanket, all its organized, cable-knit madness and tattered edges crumpling to the floor.

She isn’t ready. This can’t be the end. She would have known.

She follows the rambling road of coarse, unfinished wool out her bedroom door and down the hall. Here it’s weathered and careworn. Bloody in places. Covered in dust. Trampled.

This is the end.

Serena covers her mouth. She follows the road. They’ve each always followed it home.

She turns down the stairs to see a thin figure hunched at the foot of her staircase in camouflage gear. Hair dirty. Clothes caked in filth. Limbs bent askew.

The figure reaches up with a shaky hand and tugs.

Serena's knees go from under her at the top step and she falls heavily on her backside. She felt the tug right in the center of her chest.

The only color she can make out of the beige and the grey is a faded red bow tied neatly to their thumb.

Serena finds her voice. “You never give up, do you?”

Bernie leans her tousled head back on the banister. "Not on you." Her breathing is labored, her voice made of gravel. “How’s a girl supposed to sleep with you moving around like that?”

The pulls and stitches. Hour after hour. Night after night.

Serena staggers down the stairs to reach Bernie. She’s been hurt, that much is obvious from the healing cuts and bruises covering her face. Serena still finds herself in Bernie’s aching arms. There’s no place else she needs to be.

“They said they found you.”

She’s a gritty mess. She’s shaking. Serena can feel her bones under her clothes. She’s alive. Nothing else matters.

“They were wrong. Every time I thought I was dying, there you were, yanking me back to life.” Her tired smile tugs at Serena’s heart. She didn’t think she had one left.  “Aren’t you impatient?”

Serena winds the final yard of damaged yarn around her wrist and the bedraggled string trailing up Bernie’s arm around her pinkie. When she tugs hello, Bernie tugs back right away.  Look, says the gesture, I came back.

“I think we’ve waited long enough, don’t you?”

“You’re damn right.”

Their Red String of Fate has come in countless forms, binding them since the very start. It’s finally led them both all the way back home.