Fiction – “Stay” by Angela Kroeger
Ethan stood in a park, unsure of how or why he’d come to be there. Popcorn clouds broke up the blazing azure of the sky. The brilliant green leaves and grass shimmered like emeralds scattered upon jade. He knew this place, although he hadn’t been here in years. It looked to be in good repair – the lawn was neatly trimmed, the sidewalks free of cracks – but it must have become a poor neighborhood, because all of the cars passing by were old, having that boxy look of the eighties and early nineties.
Half a dozen teenagers were scattered between two park benches. Silent and unmoving, they might as well have been statues, some kind of installation art piece. But they were definitely alive. They blinked. They pursed their lips. They wrung their hands. And they obviously shopped at thrift stores, as their clothes were a good decade or so out of date. Ethan had owned a Nirvana t-shirt almost exactly like the one the black-haired boy wore. No, not almost. It had that distinctive blue paint stain on the sleeve. It was Ethan’s shirt, which he’d donated to the Goodwill over ten years ago. What were the odds against that?
At a low volume, the boom box on the table played “Stay,” by Shakespear’s Sister, a song he had not heard on the radio since about 1992. Then again, a lot of forgotten oldies were making comebacks.
Even beyond the shirt, the black-haired boy reminded Ethan of himself. He wore his long bangs with the same flop over the right eye that Ethan had borne in high school. How stupid it looked, and it had always been in the way, blocking his vision and tickling his face.
The thin boy resembled Albert, with that feathery strawberry blond hair and the freckles covering every inch of exposed skin, probably his whole body. He wore a brown bomber jacket just like the one Albert used to wear, before the cat threw up on it and ruined the leather.
And the red-haired girl with the sunken eyes…
Colleen. She didn’t resemble Colleen. She was Colleen. The blond was Albert. The black-haired boy was Ethan. The others… the whole group from back then. Why?
Thirty-three-year-old Ethan stared at his teenaged self. The boy clenched his jaw and carved skulls onto the park bench with a knife. God, he’d been such a dork. Next to him, beautiful Albert slumped on the table, gaze riveted to his knuckles as if he’d never seen his own hand before.
Why was everyone so quiet? They’d always been such a rowdy bunch. Why wasn’t Albert leading them in some cheery old fifties rock song, like he always used to when the mood needed lightening?
Then he looked closer at Colleen. A dark bruise spilled across her cheek. Two long, red scratches crossed her forehead. Tiny black scabs speckled her chin.
Oh. It was that time, barely a month into their junior year of high school. Ethan leaned against a tree to steady himself.
She had been raped last night.
She’d told them she felt like her life was over. They hadn’t realized she was right.
She would be dead before tomorrow.
Why was everyone so damn quiet? Why weren’t they comforting her, telling her it wasn’t her fault, that she was still a good person, that they still loved her?
He knew why. He remembered how awkward he’d felt, squirming with the dim awareness that everything had just changed, although he hadn’t begun to imagine how much. His tongue so tied with the fear of saying the wrong thing, he had been unable to say anything at all.
His chest ached from the weight of all those years of guilt. Maybe one kind word would have been enough to save her.
Without really considering the wisdom of his actions – potential for paradox and all that rubbish – he strode into the middle of the group and slapped his younger self on the back of the head.
Young Ethan jumped up. “Hey! What the hell do you… think…” He trailed off, staring at old Ethan. Anger turned to confusion, and then to fear.
“Look familiar? Yeah, that’s right.” He jabbed his thumb at his chest. “I’m you. From the future.”
Young Ethan clenched his jaw. “Bull.”
Old Ethan pulled his wallet from his back pocket and tossed it to his younger self. “Look at the driver’s license.”
Young Ethan opened the wallet, and the color drained from his face. The others, minus Colleen, gathered behind him to peer over his shoulders. Young Ethan flipped through the plastic sleeves stuffed with cards and scraps.
“Look, the insurance card says, ‘member since 2002,'” said Jennifer, a grunge drummer Ethan had lost touch with after graduation.
“That coupon expires in 2011,” added Spencer, a squirrelly little nerd who would move to Alaska in a couple of months.
The butch girl, whose name Ethan couldn’t quite remember, grumbled, “This has to be fake. Why is the ten dollar bill orange? Did you spill Kool Aid on it?”
Old Ethan shook his head. “That’s just how they print them in 2009. Fives are purple and twenties are faintly peach.”
His younger self snorted, lips and brow twisting into a disbelieving grimace. “‘Faintly peach’? That’s… kinda too stupid for anyone to make up.”
“Is that a picture of me?” Albert’s malachite eyes widened.
Old Ethan nodded, wondering what Albert thought of being the subject of the only photo in the wallet. It would be almost five years before they came out to each other. Would it mess things up to start him thinking about it too early? Well, it was too late now.
Albert frowned. “Man, I don’t wanna get fat.”
Old Ethan smirked. That’s my cookin’, baby. You can’t get enough.
Narrowing his eyes, young Ethan handed back the wallet. “So, how…?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care.” Much as Ethan wanted to heap well-deserved hassles on his younger self and hang around young Albert, he knew there could only be one reason for him to appear at this specific time and place. “I don’t know how much time I have here, and I have something important to say.”
He turned and knelt on the grass in front of Colleen. Reeking of antiseptic, she was folded up on the bench, arms and legs pulled in tight so that her baggy sweatshirt and pants seemed to merge, like a blanket rumpled around her. She pressed hard against the table, leaning away from him. He scooted back to give her more space and sat cross-legged to make himself seem shorter and less threatening. Then he offered his hand. She stared at it, chewing on her lip, otherwise unmoving.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he whispered gently.
She sank her chin and mouth behind her folded arms until she looked like Kilroy peering over the fence. “Wouldn’t really matter one way or the other.”
“Of course it matters. You matter.”
She furrowed her brow and wrinkled her nose. Behind him, the others grew silent.
“Don’t disappear.” He filled his voice with all the tenderness he could conjure, hoping he could find the right thing to say. “So many people love you and would be sad without you. We were grieving for your happiness, too. We just didn’t know how to act. But we’ll get better. I promise. Stay with us.” He took a gamble and used a word from the suicide note she may or may not have already written. “You’re not ruined. You’re injured, yes. You’ll probably always have a scar on your soul. But you’re not ruined. No one has the power to destroy you, unless you let him. So don’t let him. Don’t give him that satisfaction. You are still whole, still alive, still beautiful.”
She huddled further in on herself. “You know too much.”
He shook his head. “I only know what you told me seventeen years ago.” He glanced over his shoulder at his younger self. “Or I guess it was a few minutes ago.”
After a long pause, she cautiously extended her hand and tapped his fingertips, as though trying to figure out if he really existed. She trembled, face white as porcelain, her expression a mix of fear and doubt. But one tiny flicker of relief in her eyes gave him hope.
He smiled warmly, pleading, “You’re still good, and neither he nor anyone else can take that from you.”
She looked away, murmuring, “Thank you.”
He rose and faced the rest of the group, offering his fiercest glare to his younger self. “And you guys get your act together and show her you’re still with her.”
Ethan woke in his bed, but it didn’t feel right. The mattress wasn’t as firm as it should have been. The sheets were softer – flannel, not linen – and they smelled of cheap potpourri and cedar. The room didn’t look right; the shapes in the darkness were in the wrong places. Where was he?
Someone rolled over beside him, and a smooth, plump arm slid over his chest. As he felt the brush of breasts against his side, his blood chilled. A woman? Who? Why? He couldn’t remember. Oh, Albert was going to be pissed. He had to get out of here, wherever here was.
The woman petted him and murmured, “Mmnh, you all right, honey?” Her voice was thick with sleep, soft and overly sweet.
“I… uh… yeah…” Queasy, he slipped out of bed. How could he have cheated on Albert? He peered at her face, but he couldn’t see her features clearly in the darkness. “I just need the bathroom.” He stumbled out into a hallway. At least he had boxers on, but he hadn’t seen any formless heaps that might have been the rest of his clothes on the floor of the strange room. He needed to find something to wear before he went outside.
He explored the house without turning on any lights, afraid to draw the attention of anyone else who might live here. Stepping on something small and hard, he lost his balance and stumbled against the wall. He stooped and felt the ground, finding an array of plastic dinosaurs strewn across the carpet like caltrops.
Only marginally more disturbing than his betrayal of his sweet, faithful Albert was his complete and total lack of memory of this house and that woman. In what he took for the living room, lined up on a shelf below a large mirror directly across from a picture window, a series of framed photographs seemed to glow in the amplified moonlight. The face in the mirror matched the face in the photos. He approached slowly, horrified by the growing realization that all of these pictures were of him with the red-haired woman, at different ages. There were young children in some of them, but he didn’t recognize them. Two pretty red-haired girls, maybe about ten and eight in the most recent-looking photo, and a grinning boy of about five. Except for the clothing and hairstyle, it could easily have passed for a photo of Ethan at that age.
One photo was rather larger than the others. Ethan was in a tux, and the woman was in a white gown with a veil. It couldn’t be mistaken for anything but a wedding photo. And she was young and thin enough in that picture that he knew her. The girl who had killed herself.
It hadn’t been a dream. He’d changed history. And in saving Colleen, he had changed his whole life.
What about Albert? Ethan was certain Colleen was nice, but life without Albert?
He remembered that day back in college, when he’d gotten hammered almost to the point where he couldn’t stand upright. He had fallen onto Albert’s lap and told him he had something important to ask, but he didn’t think he was quite drunk enough to say it. With that peculiar and unforgettable twinkle in his malachite eyes, Albert had said that he ought to ask anyway, because if he got any drunker, he’d be unconscious. Unable to put together any words, Ethan had kissed him. Albert had smirked and raised one eyebrow, and asked if that was the question. Ethan had nodded, and Albert then told him to ask again when he was sober, so he could be sure he really meant it. But instead of pushing him away, Albert had crawled into bed with him and held him all night. Nothing had happened, not just then, but it had been so sweet, so perfect. Albert had sat with him all morning, giving him a variety of hangover cures. Then in the afternoon, Albert had asked him to repeat the question. They had been together ever since.
And now that was gone? Just like that? Never happened? Ten-plus wonderful years together, erased?
Was Albert married to some girl? Had he found another man? Was he with someone who loved him and treated him well? Was he alone, waiting for Ethan?
Ethan scanned the pictures again, looking for some sign of his other life. There was only one photo – a small one from back in high school – with Albert in it. His smile was as radiant as the sun, even though his face appeared no larger than a fingernail. It was a picture of the old group, from a picnic several months before the incident. Ethan remembered it well. He and Albert weren’t even sitting next to each other. Colleen was between them.
Nauseous and dizzy, he sat on the coffee table and put his head in his hands.
The light clicked on, and Colleen stood in the doorway, wrapped in a fluffy pink robe with tulips embroidered along the hem. She weighed at least twice what she had back in high school, but she had a good face, smooth and free from any deep worry-carved creases. Apparently life with Ethan had been good for her.
She angled her head and brushed her fingers through her thick, red hair, tucking her bangs behind her ear. “Honey, are you okay?”
He could tell her he had amnesia, but it would be a lie. He remembered his life very clearly. This just wasn’t it. He took a deep breath. “I had a dream about the past, and I woke up and now the present is different.”
She nodded and smiled tenderly. “I know.”
He didn’t know whether to be relieved or worried. “How can you possibly know?”
“Because I was there. I’ve been waiting for this moment, when it would really be over.” She sat beside him on the table, then leaned over and kissed him. “Thank you for saving my life. It turned out to be not so bad after all.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “I do remember the other world. Those last few hours. I remember… ending it.” Her voice caught, and moisture beaded on her eyelashes.
“I’m sorry.” He meant it genuinely. He couldn’t imagine a more horrible memory to bear.
“After that, it’s just blank. But on a separate track of my mind – brighter, fresher, more real – I have my whole life. With you. Branching from that moment in the park, when that old man showed up…” She chuckled softly. “Well, looking at you now, I see you’re not old at all. But when I was sixteen you seemed old. You gave me a reason to live. And so I wanted to give my life to you.” She sniffed and rubbed her finger under her nose. “I was always so afraid, that since you didn’t remember me dying, you’d forget that you needed to go back and save me, and that one day time would realign itself and I’d just stop existing. But now you’ve gone back, and it’s done. The circle’s finally closed.”
Warily, he corrected her. “I do remember you dying.”
She turned and peered into his eyes. After searching his gaze for several moments, she bit her lip. “But you don’t remember me living. You… barely recognize me.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Her lip trembled as she looked away. “Why? Why don’t you have both sets of memories, like me?”
Looking at it from her point of view, he felt almost as sorry for her as he did for himself. It must seem as though her Ethan had been replaced by an outdated edition, like the time he’d accidentally copied an older version of his budget spreadsheet onto his computer, overwriting the one he’d spent all day fixing.
Her voice sounded weak and fragile as she asked, “What was your life like? Without me?”
“I was with Albert, actually…”
“Doing what? Oh! Oh…” She covered her mouth with her fingertips. Her nails were painted iridescent pink. Then she smiled, just a little. “I did always wonder if you were gay.”
“Oh? What made you think so?”
She shrugged. “Well, you seem to… not like sex very much. Which, you know, suits me okay. It’s not my favorite thing either. You know I’ve never complained… well, I guess you don’t know.”
“Yeah, I don’t.” He had never had any such problem with Albert. With him, the passion swept Ethan away like a tornado. But apparently he had enjoyed being with Colleen enough to produce the three children in the photographs, in somewhat quick succession. It couldn’t have been that bad.
“Maybe if you just give it some time, your memories of this life will, you know, settle in.” Her tone was pleading, almost desperate.
“Maybe.” He frowned, clenching his jaw.
After a long pause, she hesitantly ventured, “So… you and Albert?”
He wanted to ask where Albert was in this world, what he was doing, who he was spending his life with, but he couldn’t. The actuality might be worse than his imaginings. He coughed and murmured only, “We were very happy together.”
“We were happy, too. You and I.”
He looked into her hazel-gray eyes and saw the scar upon her soul. And he felt her love for him like a tangible third presence in the room. He couldn’t bear to hurt her, so he smiled. “Yes. I’m sure we were.” He cleared his throat and scratched at the stubble on his chin. “So, uh, I see that we have children. What are their names?”
He was kind of getting used to his new life. Kind of. Colleen was fine. Because she knew the truth, she was infinitely patient with him. She would answer any question, then back off to give him time to adjust. The children, on the other hand, seemed to sense that he was not their father, not really. Oh, he looked like their father, sounded like him, had all his quirky mannerisms, but he just wasn’t quite right. Colleen told them he had amnesia, but he overheard them talking. They believed wholeheartedly that he was a pod person, and they watched him with enormous eyes, spying on him from around the corner or under the table, fearful that the body snatchers would come for them as well.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like the children. He just didn’t know them. They were strangers. Colleen was nice, but really, she was a stranger, too. She was very different than she had been back when he had known her. Different tastes, different philosophy, different everything.
And it didn’t stop with the family, either. Different house, different car, different job. He was doing surprisingly well faking his way through work, even though he didn’t know the first thing about corporate accounting. The job was mostly meetings and email anyway. How had he ended up with this interminable career? There was a cell phone store where his café was supposed to be. Somehow, that just seemed like insult atop injury.
He missed cooking. Missed inventing new recipes for the special of the day. Missed his regular customers. Missed his cat.
He missed Albert.
Missed him so badly it was an open, seeping wound on his heart.
He had always loved peeking out of the kitchen to watch Albert charming the new customers and mother-henning the regulars. Loved the way they danced around one another as they swept and mopped the floor every night after close. Loved their candlelight dinners in the back, feasting on whatever the day’s leftovers happened to be. It never ceased to be romantic, even when it had become routine.
Had he and Colleen ever had a bond like that in this reality? He couldn’t even imagine it.
He came home from work and stood in the doorway for five minutes or more, just staring at the living room. It was only familiar because he’d seen it every day for two weeks. But he didn’t remember carving the notches on the door, marking the children’s growth. Didn’t remember stenciling a border along the walls, which Colleen assured him he had done himself. Nothing. Not one memory of this life that was supposed to be his.
Colleen came out of the kitchen, still in her Friday business casual. Had she become an accountant because of him, or was it the other way around? Or was it just a coincidence? She smiled brightly. “The Needhams are coming over for dinner tonight.”
His face drained of warmth, then burned, and his stomach tightened. “Albert?”
She nodded, heading into the hallway toward the bedroom, without making eye contact. “And his wife and kids.”
“Wh…” Ethan’s heart stopped, then crawled up his throat like a toad trying to escape, and he lost whatever it was he’d been going to say.
He had never asked her about Albert’s life in this world. Now she was going to make him face it.
She emerged a few minutes later, dressed down to jeans and a sweatshirt. He hadn’t so much as moved one finger. She glanced in his direction as she passed. “Could you change clothes and help me in the kitchen? They’ll be here in an hour.”
“Y-yeah.” But when he tried to walk, his legs failed and he pitched forward head first.
The Needhams arrived at half past six. Albert looked different than in his other life. He was leaner, not to mention a little chapped around the edges. His hair was much, much too short. Not nearly enough for running fingers through. And his khaki pants and polo shirt were far too plain for his beautiful face.
But it was Albert. Ethan’s heart soared. He felt woozy, almost delirious with dread and desire.
The nondescript brown-haired woman next to Albert furrowed her brow with exaggerated concern. “Oh, Ethan, dear. Are you sick?”
Who was she, and why was she talking like she knew him?
Ah, right. Albert’s…
Ethan couldn’t even bring himself to think the word. It just wasn’t right. Albert belonged with him.
Two children, young boys like Albert in miniature, darted out from behind their father and fell upon Colleen’s children like a litter of puppies. One of Colleen’s girls whispered loudly, “Come on. Help us look for pods!” And they dragged Albert’s offspring down into the basement.
Albert looked across the room with those captivating malachite eyes. “Buddy, you all right?”
“I… uh…” Buddy? Since when did Albert call him – or anyone – that?
Colleen glanced back and forth between them, then sighed, eyes downcast for the briefest moment. Then she smiled and took the other woman’s hand. “Melanie, come down to the den for a moment. I bought a new painting, and I’ve been dying to show you.”
And they were gone. He was alone with Albert.
Albert shook his head. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Ethan shrugged, trying to shake off the chill that crept over his flesh.
“Colleen said you, ah, haven’t quite been yourself lately.”
Ethan laughed a little louder than he should have. Then he shook his head. “Yeah, that’s kind of an understatement.”
“So what’s up?”
He couldn’t help it. He couldn’t stop himself. He took Albert’s face in both hands and kissed him hard on the lips.
Albert shoved him away, backing into the corner. He held up both hands, eyes wide. “Whoa! Whoa, man! That’s not funny!”
“It wasn’t a joke,” Ethan rasped.
Albert lowered his hands slowly, then shook his head. “No. Not cool. Not at all.”
Ethan’s chest tightened, constricting his heart and shortening his breath. “But I love you.” His voice came out feeble and cracked.
Albert pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyelids with his fingertips. He sighed heavily, tone softening. “Well, don’t worry. I won’t go all redneck on you. But…” He shook his head again. “No. Just no. I can’t do that to Melanie. You can’t do that to Colleen.”
Letting his arms fall limply to his sides, Ethan took a few halting steps back. This wasn’t his Albert. He knew that. He knew he shouldn’t say anything more, but he felt faint and weak, and a festering need eroded his sensibilities. “But we’re soul mates. I feel you here,” he touched his chest, “in a way I can’t feel her. I like her, don’t get me wrong.” He took a step closer, extending one hand. “But I burn for you. I need you the way I need air and water. I’ll die without you.”
Albert looked away, furrowing his brow. “This… is really sudden. You dropped this bomb on me totally out of nowhere.”
Ethan stared at the notches on the door. He’d had a lot of bombs dropped on him lately. He understood. “Sorry, man.”
“How long have you… ah… been thinking about me that way?”
“My whole life.”
“Wow.” Albert nodded slowly, then puffed out his cheeks and exhaled loud and long. “And why now?”
“Why not now?”
“Why not, well, back when we were both still single? We roomed together for four years. Why didn’t you say anything back then?”
Little faultlines raced across Ethan’s heart, then split wide open. The pieces of his heart tumbled apart within his chest. “You can’t say you never thought about me…”
Albert looked wistful for a moment, although he didn’t meet Ethan’s gaze. “I used to.” He scuffed the floor with the toe of his sneaker. “But then I met Melanie, and I put away that part of me. I didn’t need that kind of pain.”
“Pain? Did I ever cause you one minute of pain?”
Abruptly, Albert turned toward him with a rare ferocity in his eyes. “You caused me years of pain! Yeah, I know, you didn’t mean to. You probably didn’t even know. But every day we lived together, I waited for you to figure it out. I waited for you to come to me. And every night, I lay in bed, alone. And then you married Colleen. And I gave up.”
After a long pause, Ethan murmured, “Well, why didn’t you speak up? Why just wait for me? You could have started it, too.”
“I’ve been asking myself that for years.”
Ethan reached for him. “Okay, so, now we’re on the same page.”
Albert brushed his hands away, shaking his head. “The ship has sailed. It’s gone.” He shoved past and strode quickly to the basement stairwell, calling, “Hey, girls. Show me this painting.”
Arms shaking, Ethan looked around for something to break. But he couldn’t guess what little knickknack or vase wouldn’t be missed. So he slammed his fist deep into the sofa cushion and let the tears drip off his nose.
He couldn’t blame Colleen. That was half the problem. She was so incredibly nice, he couldn’t find one single fault with her. For anyone with a heart to spare, she would be the perfect wife. And it wasn’t a bad life he had with her. By every measurable standard, it was good. It just wasn’t right.
He wanted his life back.
He wanted his life back, and he couldn’t have it.
So now he just wanted out.
Sometime between two and three in the morning, he went out to the garage and sat alone for a while. The house was silent except for the faint hum of the furnace and the wind rattling the window panes.
He didn’t want to leave a bloody mess for Colleen to deal with. She didn’t deserve that. No, he needed a tidy exit. Carbon monoxide might not be so bad. He could just go to sleep, and that would be it. He jammed towels under the doorway to the house and in all the cracks around the garage door. Then he ran a hose from the exhaust pipe into the car, packing a blanket in the quarter-open window to seal the space around the hose. Then he started the car, leaned the seat back as low as it would go, and closed his eyes.
The hose and blanket flew away from the window with a dull huffing sound. Then the door creaked open, and Ethan scrambled back as a brown-jacketed man leaned inside, falling across Ethan’s lap and pinning him in place. He smelled faintly of cinnamon, and he was turned so Ethan could see only thinning white hair and the freckled, blue-veined hand that reached for the keys. The man clicked off the ignition, jerked the key out, and palmed the key ring.
“Who the hell are you?” Ethan kicked with his thighs until the man backed out of the car.
The old man turned, and in the feeble illumination from the dome light, Ethan saw those vivid malachite eyes. No one else had eyes like that.
“Albert,” he whispered, heart pounding.
Those beautiful eyes shone out of that creased face. He had to be at least in his sixties. “You know how this works. You’ve done it yourself.” He smiled, and was just as beautiful as he had been when young. “I’m dreaming of the past. Please let me wake to a present with you still in it.” He took Ethan’s hand in his and kissed it with soft, cool lips. “Dear, dear Ethan. Don’t do this. She loves you so much. I love you, too. Please stay with us. Stay.”
About the Author
Angela Kroeger has a B.A. in English and works in a library where, contrary to popular belief, she does not get to read all day, much as she would like to. She is a long-time member of the critique group Nebraska Novelists, and has completed a pair of novel manuscripts featuring lesbians in Nebraska. Recently she’s switched gears and is now focused on writing fantasy.
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.