Unfinished Business by Hannah Hulbert

You’re always there, at the periphery of my vision. The flicker of motion in the corner of my eye. The silvery haze that doesn’t vanish with blinking.

One year, eleven months and twenty nine days ago, we were driving along the coast together. I was at the wheel and you were in the passenger seat, laughing and singing along to American Pie with all the wrong words. And then you weren’t. And you never will again.

When I see you now, it’s tiny glimpses. You’re at the office, where I’m supposed to be working, but instead am mostly twitching my eyes about the room, trying to catch you. You follow me on the bus, where I can almost see your reflection in the misty windows. You traipse after me around our apartment, your footfalls so close to mine they’re almost impossible to tell apart. But I can.

***

Today is Saturday, so there’s no need for pretence. I sit in the space that used to be our living room. Now it is bare wooden planks and bare walls that echo the rustling of your almost-breath. I stare into the corner, where the mildew on the ceiling meets the coving. I let my gaze fall out of focus and my mind drift. That’s where I usually find you.

And there you are.

You were always there. It was me that had begun to phase you out of my awareness. The guilt stirs up, a choking cloud of emotion. That I might fail to remember you, like I failed to keep you alive that day. That I am allowing you to fade.

There is no sound. There is never any sound. But your face, so pale and translucent, is folded in sorrow. You mouth the words at me: Let go.

No! I’ll never let you go again! I reach for you, and my fingertips sink through the illusion of flesh resting on the table before me, leaving me with nothing but goosebumps. You remain motionless, except your lips: Please, they say.

We both know how this conversation goes. It’s a script we rehearse whenever I’m alone. I vow never to abandon you, never to let you down again. To keep you alive in my memory, in my life, as you cannot be in any literal sense. Because of me. Because I let you go before. I weep, and my tears smudge your presence away all over again.

Except, today is different. I retract my chilled hand from yours, and as you beg me silently to release you, your face is no longer an origami mask of sadness. Your papery jaw is clenched, your brow furrowed, your nostrils flared, though they do not draw in air. Because of me…

Stop that! Your lips form the words sharply. My body freezes, startled into attention. Stop and let me go!

I know you want me to move on. To live my life. To let you fade away. But I can’t. I won’t. I reach for you again.

You speak your silent words. They’re new and I struggle to read them.

Stop this unfinished business.

That’s why you’re still here. Because I owe you this. No, I’m happy to carry the burden of being haunted by you, until we’re together again at last.

No! It’s your unfinished business.

Mine? I’m still alive. I can finish whatever needs finishing. It’s you that’s run out of time…

Then finish it. Your gaze pierces me with such pleading. Please. And let me go.

But how? I’m not sure I can. You’ve trailed behind me so long, while I’ve watched for the flicker of your presence. Comforted to know you’re there, haunting me still, reminding me of my failure and ensuring I don’t repeat my mistakes. Who will remind me when you’re gone? Isn’t that why you’re still here?

It isn’t. I read the emotion behind those insubstantial eyes, like a shaft of sunlight through woodsmoke. You don’t want me to let you go for my sake, but for your own.

I rise from the table and find a brown cardboard box behind the door. I rummage inside until I find the large envelope. I haven’t looked through the contents since the funeral.

When I look up, you’ve flitted away again.

***

It is exactly two years and seventeen minutes since you left. Except I never let you leave, not really. The flowers are long gone, but a ribbon still flutters from a tree at the side of the road. As traffic roars past, I squat on the verge and empty the envelope onto the ground. The cards from your mother and sister, telling me how sorry they were, and not to blame myself. The picture of us, arm in arm, at graduation. The CD they salvaged from the car, flashing in the sunlight.

I fish my old personal stereo out of my bag and load the disc, forcing myself to endure the strains of American Pie through my headphones. I read the words your mother wrote and try to believe them. I study your face, shaded by your mortar board. To re-write you as a happy memory.

A shimmering at the roadside draws my attention away. It’s you. And I know it’s for the last time. Your face is radiant with peace and light. My own crumples into an ugly sob, but you only smile. Your fingertips brush my cheek, sinking beneath my skin. Goosebumps.

Thank you, your lips say, with a gratitude that fills me with guilt again. At not having released you sooner. At regretting letting you go even now. I reach for you, almost willing to take it all back. But it’s too late. You’re gone.

I walk back along the grassy strip to the bus stop. Discarded food wrappers tumble alongside me, driven by the rushing vehicles. I’m glad you’ve moved on and are at peace, I tell myself. But the pages of life we wrote together are aflame in my heart and always will be.

About The Author

Hannah Hulbert lives in urban Dorset, UK. She is on a permanent sabbatical from reality as she raises two children and devotes her scarce free time to visiting imaginary worlds, some of her own creation. She has a degree in Ancient and Medieval History and an obsession with man-made places in the process of being reclaimed by nature. You can find her short stories in a variety of small press anthologies, including Cat Ladies of the Apocalypse (Camden Park Press) and the May 2020 issue of Metaphorosis. She is probably tweeting or doodling at this very moment.

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