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but oh, the smoke's still breathing

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our days like clocks unwinding
we came, we saw, we loved, we left
- jens kuross, “we will run”

 

He dreams of her all the time. Lingering, encompassing things, from the splinters of his mind, half Rob, half Adam, rupture upon rupture. He holds her name on his tongue, tastes whiskey and laughter.

The dreams dissipate before morning. He wakes in the deepest hours of the night, when the darkness in his flat is like a living thing. His heart slams into his ribs until he grows accustomed to its ache, and his fingers grapple for the switch on his lamp, like he’s a child again, afraid of the dark, afraid of the woods.

In the spill of ugly yellow light, he traces his hand along the sheets on the other side of the bed, searching for left-behind indentations, for the last hints of warmth, from a body that’s never once been there.

 

 

Rob spends his days shuffling papers across his desk, looking at the places and spaces where his own handwriting used to be, a hasty, nearly-illegible scrawl that made her roll her eyes. At the bottom of each form, he used to sign Ryan, always in a rush, eager to be solving, not slogging away at a report. Sometimes he’d write on his own thigh, or on her back, or against the side of a to-go coffee cup, and his pen would poke through the paper. Her name would find its way next to his, Maddox, written on a flatter surface or with greater care, no accompanying puncture wound.

In the evenings he drinks, or reads, or puts on a vapid reality programme and pretends that he still lives with Heather, predictable in her frustrations and idiosyncrasies. Most nights he remembers to eat, takeaway containers piling on his countertops.

He listens for her voice in the hum of the furnace, the howl of the wind, the creaking of the old building his flat’s in settling at night. He waits for the familiar notes that cause his ears to perk, his heart to start thrumming to the rhythm of her name, Cas-sie, Cas-sie. He lives in perennial expectation of it: Cassie’s voice, her breath ghosting across his ear, a crisp whisper.

Run.

And he would. God, he would. He’d run as fast and faster than a terrified child in the woods of Knocknaree. He’d run and he’d run and he’d run, and this time, he swears, he would never look back.

 

 

Sometimes the dreams are excruciating. Sometimes he relives that day, in the van, listening to Cassie draw out Rosalind’s confession. Her voice strained and water-logged, the nausea rising up his esophagus; I just - I’ve never been that close to anyone. And now I can’t even think straight, I can’t… The terrible, grabbing feeling in his stomach, the closing of his throat. The way he knew she needed him, the way he knew he’d failed her.

And sometimes - sometimes the dreams are idyllic, halcyon. In them, his happiness is so sweet he knows it’s fabricated, but not for one instant does he care. He revisits their best days: Cassie on the beach, the wind in her curls. Her shirt unbuttoned over the camisole she wears underneath, combat trousers, shoes held in her hands. The breeze rolling off the water toys with her shirt and drags it down, off one of her shoulders. Rob can feel, really and truly feel, her skin beneath his hand as he tugs the shirt back into place. The clouds reflect in her eyes, covering over the things neither of them would dare to name.

She dashes forward, impish grin tossed back at him, and with a huff of put-on annoyance, he gives chase. His hands reach out, seeking purchase on her waist.

And then he wakes.

 

 

There used to be this thing they did, the two of them. Never during Operation Vestal, he realized in hindsight - maybe Cassie knew better, then, than to give him a chance at unchallenged escape.

A quick little comment, under breath. A single word. A solitary syllable.

Run.

It meant: let’s go, let’s get away from here. It meant: I’m right behind you, I’ll cover you.

Run.

The first time, it was Cassie who said it, toward the tail-end of a lecture from O’Kelly. He turned his back to them for a moment, still talking, and it slipped out of the corner of her mouth, just loud enough for Rob to hear: “Run.”

His feet moved before his mind did, and then they were outside Dublin Castle, not as contrite as they should’ve been, laughing and sharing a cigarette. He’d understood her without so much as a glance in her direction. She was underneath his skin by then, a second set of instincts.

He said it to her a couple weeks later, when the witness they were speaking with was turning out to be useless and he had a feeling, deep in his bones, that what they really needed was to speak with the victim’s family. “Run,” nothing more than a murmur, his head tipped oh-so-slightly in her direction, and all of a sudden Cassie was patting the witness on the shoulder and turning him over to the uniforms on the scene, and they were back on the road, hurtling toward the victim’s home address, Cassie’s knee bouncing with anticipation.

One of them would say it, sometimes, if they caught sight of Sophie leaving a scene and needed to get out of their current conversation to speak to her. They said it at the exact same moment, a synchronized breath, when another pair of detectives made an attempt to get their grubby hands on the best case that’d come up in months, even though Maddox and Ryan were clearly next in the rotation.

It seeped into the parts of their lives unconnected to work. “Run,” from Rob’s mouth to Cassie’s ear, when the guy who was chatting her up at the pub had something in the set of his jaw that made Rob uneasy. “Run,” hissed between his teeth in the kitchen, after a meal with his parents, when he was desperate to be somewhere else. “Run,” gasped past her lips when they accidentally received two pizzas for the price of one, darting down the street with Rob right on her heels, a bottle of wine tucked under his arm, like they were the criminals - careless reckless foolish euphoric - not the detectives.

It went the way so many things between them went: eventually, words were extraneous. He’d hear it in the bump of her elbow against his. She’d know it from the way he hooked his finger into her belt loop.

And they’d run.

 

 

Eleven months after Vestal, Rob grows sick of himself - of his red eyes, his sleepless nights, the way the dry skin on his lips cracks on the rare occasion he attempts a smile - and gets himself to therapy. His psychologist has light hair pulled back into a severe ponytail, glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She doesn’t look like anyone he’s trying not to miss.

She walks him back through his history. Rob is resistant, digging in his heels, but she pulls him along both firmly and gently enough that he keeps returning to her office, week after week.

She tells him, in the soft voice he often has to lean forward a little to hear, that he’s built a fortress and called it Rob. That Rob, presented to the world, serves as a shield for Adam. In protecting Adam, he’s closed himself off not only from the frightening, the damaging, but from the good. From forgiveness. Comfort. Closure. Healing.

“It’s safe,” she tells him. Rob wants to hate her, his hands balled together in a single, white-knuckled fist, but he can’t. “Bring the walls down, just a bit. Let Adam know it’s alright. Let him know that what happened wasn’t his fault. Show him the forgiveness he deserves. He was just a little boy.”

It’s bullshit. It’s the worst kind of bullshit, and Rob is sitting there, paying for it. His voice cracks when he asks, “How?”

Simply, his psychologist says, “Write him a letter.”

 

 

Rob drinks vodka in the evenings and sometimes in the mornings, and does not write a letter. Each week, the psychologist asks him about it in a measured tone. He straightens his spine and stretches his legs out, makes his body as big and as long as it can be, and gives the kind of nonchalant shrug that used to send O’Kelly’s voice flying up in pitch.

“Shall we try writing it together?”

He scoffs, and says, in the crisp English accent he’s been letting fade more often now, but never in this office: “No.”

 

 

He never writes to Adam. To reach for the child he once was is to dig his hand into the cavity of his own chest, to stop breathing through willpower alone - too painful, too impossible.

But he does write a letter. Late at night, four fingers of whiskey in a glass at his side, the clacking of the ice cubes when he lifts the glass the only sound in the room save for that of his fingers pressing keys. He types and types and types, and when he’s done he stares at the blinking cursor on the screen until his eyes can’t hold their focus.

The letter isn’t meant for Adam to read. Adam’s the one who’s written it.

maddox.cassandra@gmail. com, he types in the box labeled recipient, a slight shaking in his fingers that makes him flex them angrily.

 

 

Sometimes, Rob catches a glimpse of his reflection - in shop windows, in car mirrors, in the shiny metallic doors of the lifts at work - and feels of jolt of alarm, of aversion, like his reflected image has just revealed to him empty spaces in his being, their edges shimmering and distorted, air passing right through him. He is looking, always looking, for once-familiar fixtures that he can never find.

A slight softness, in the places he’s gone so hard: a rosy cheek, the slope of a hip, a calf rounded with muscle forged long ago.

A pair of brown eyes, somber save for the slightest glimmer, only detectable by his own gaze.

An errant, bouncing curl.

In his reflection, he sees his true self: a body lacerated by loss.

 

 

Four days pass before Cassie replies.

Her message is a single line: thank you, Ryan.

 

 

He should’ve said it to her that night, when they were entangled on her futon, her hands running over his back, his hand hooked into the crook of her knee. He should’ve said run, right into her hot, perfect sanctuary of a mouth. He should have tried to save her from everything that came afterward.

But it wouldn’t have been any use, he knows.

They ran together or they didn’t run at all.

 

 

It’s a shock when her name appears in his inbox a second time, an e-mail timestamped 3:36 a.m. Her message is long. Rob sinks onto his mattress, laptop on his knees, and drinks up her words like he's been parched for years.

She tells him about someone named Grace, someone who called herself Naomi, Alanna, Megs, May-Ruth. Cassie knew her as Lexie. Lived her, as Lexie.

Cassie tells him everything she knows about Lexie, and while Rob reads that e-mail, it’s like nothing has changed. It’s like they’re partners again, like they’re back in harmony. Cassie drops her secrets into his hands and trusts him to hold them.

She doesn’t feel dead to me, Cassie writes, and Rob understands. It’s a thought he’s had himself a thousand times, about Jamie Rowan.

He envisions Lexie, with Cassie’s eyes and mouth and mannerisms, somewhere else in the world, living some other life, wearing some other name. He imagines Adam, an adult with a facsimile of Rob’s own face, tracing over Lexie’s steps with his feet.

He imagines them together. He imagines them happy.

Or maybe not even happy, necessarily. He imagines, with all the hope he’s ever held in his heart, that they’re alright.

 

 

Cassie is getting married at the end of May. Rob hears this not from her but from the flourishing grapevine, which always seems to find him, even as he keeps to himself, through the voices of uniforms ambling past his desk.

He knows that the ties that bound them together were severed long ago. He knows he struck first, hacking at threads of trust and kinship with a dull knife. He knows she had to go in afterward and do the painstaking work of unraveling herself from him, fighting to loosen knots that had grown too secure. But still: her marriage feels like a final, irrevocable blow. She has chosen someone else (someone better, someone whole) to be her partner.

 

 

The night that he phoned Cassie, after everything, and she answered in a rumbling, sleepy voice that was all-too-familiar to his ears. The night he said, Cassie, you’re not actually going to marry that boring little yokel. Are you? The night an ache rose from his chest, through his throat, and right into his teeth, and he told her, I love you, Cass. The night she set the phone down, and returned to her bed, to her fiancé. The night when, in kindness or in cruelty or in a muddled mess of the two, Cassie set the phone down and Rob listened to her breath deepen as she slipped back into slumber - he forced himself to understand that she had made a choice, and so he made one, too.

He waited until he was absolutely, utterly certain that she was asleep.

Only then did he whisper run, and ache at the sound of Sam’s soft snoring.

 

 

Rob is sober when he sends the e-mail. It’s early afternoon, the time for business correspondence, for party invitations. He does not hide in the shadows. His fingers are strikingly steady as he types.

Maddox,

6:00 ferry to Liverpool.

Run.

His computer makes a whooshing sound as the message sends, and Rob’s lungs echo it, releasing air.

When he inhales again, it feels like the first breath he’s ever taken.

 

 

He gets out of his car at Dublin Port at 5:45 a.m. He closes the door with more force than he usually does, and relishes the finality in the sound of the slam. He rests the strap of his bag on his shoulder and turns east, squinting against the rising sun, spots of pink and orange crowding his vision. He tries to picture what those splotches of colour will look like, broken by a solid, substantive form, moving toward him with a gait he could recognize anywhere, every step agile even in old, worn-in shoes.

He waits.

 

 

 

fin.