You were up to your ankles in concrete and didn’t know it yet.
An elegant waterfall of sweat poured down your bare shoulders while you stared at your cell phone and swore. You’d lost a call. Everyone had. It disrupted signal even as it made sidewalks run like water and tires melt to goo. It made “God damn it” your last words but one.
Maybe they weren’t your last words. Maybe you’re still alive, somewhere far away, unable to check your voice mail. I’ve left a lot of voice mail for you since then. I wish I’d called before.
You never gave me a chance to tell you I’m sorry.
I was caught in it with you. My old Datsun wallowed to a halt and sank onto its rims, and its rims sank into the asphalt. I was scrambling out the passenger-side door for the dubious shelter of a coffee shop’s awnings before I’d even registered the heat, and all I could think was, It’s Detroit all over again, Detroit really happened, you were right.
But “right” had never been the point. “Right” had nothing to do with the sudden silence opening between us, a chasm I hadn’t noticed until I’d walked right off the cliff with my stupid jokes about factory fumes and mass hallucinations. “You asshole,” you said, pointing at the empty children’s library on Woodward Avenue where news anchors interviewed the bystanders. “That’s where my sister works.”
Even then, I laughed. That’s what we’d always done, you and I. But you weren’t laughing now, so I had to laugh enough for both of us. “Lighten up,” I called, “she’ll be fine.” You didn’t dignify that with an answer. You just got dressed and walked out the door. The next time I saw you was a week ago, through the window of this cafe on whose patio I now sought refuge. You were crying, alone in the crowd, and it scared me. It made you a stranger.
“God damn it,” though, that was pure you. Irritated and amused and unflappable, a familiar handhold to cling to while the world turned incomprehensible and wrong. Hobbled in cement, crowned by a Tesla coil diadem, who cared? You were in the middle of a call, God damn it, and you weren’t going to put up with this!
Then your cell phone became a tiny sun in your hand that forced me to look away.
It was over in a matter of heartbeats. You cried out once, a single unintelligible word in the language of pain. It went straight through me, made you unknown and unknowable the way the sight of your tears had done. I’d run away, then, when I should have run to you. And there was no approaching you now. There was no time. The place where you stood inhaled the daylight in a huge, horrified gasp, and that was it. But this time, I promise you, I didn’t run away.
I raised my burning eyes and watched to the very end.
Once things resolidified, not even ash marked the place where you’d stood. Just a pair of foot-shaped holes remained, no different from the others.
The city’s going to repave the sidewalks next month. But I brought potting soil and I planted chrysanthemums in your footprints. I’ve watered them every day.
They don’t thrive, not in this heat, but I keep trying.
Nicole J. LeBoeuf is a native New Orleanian living in Boulder, Colorado. She’s a graduate of Viable Paradise, which is the Best Workshop Evah. Another of her short stories appears at Twilight Tales. On occasion, she blogs. Her husband, John, is the Best Beta-Reader Evah. Her cats are binary. She says:
I picture the story taking place on 30th Street at Steel Yards, in Boulder. She’s walking south on the east sidewalk, and he’s pulled over in front of Joe’s Espresso, where I told myself to sit and not get up again until I’d completed a new rough draft of something. Staring at my laptop screen, all I could think was, “It’s hot out.”