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The Last Goodbye

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It's cold and bleak when she arrives at her destination, and she'd expected nothing else, not here at the arse-end of the world. The whole journey's been a nightmare, the world outside her car reduced to nothing but the lights flashing past on a never-ending motorway, the hiss of the rain beneath her wheels, and the whirring squelch of the wipers. The rain streaming down the windscreen had distorted everything until it felt like the whole world was remote and insubstantial, washed away by the winter rain, with her left utterly alone in the middle of it.

Her knuckles are still white from the tension.

Dawn starts to break as she's finally winding through narrow country lanes, and the hedgerows loom mistily overhead in the early morning light. It doesn't bring much relief from the weather, though - she can't see the sun yet through the watery clouds, and she's not sure it will be strong enough to burn off the mist. Not today.

At least the ever-present rain has eased, but any relief at that is short-lived. The wind starts up as she drops the car into second gear and climbs the hill, blustering little squalls that splatter the windscreen with sparse droplets. She switches on the wipers again and grits her teeth at the sound of them squealing against the glass, too little water to ease their passage.

She's always hated this kind of weather, when it's neither one thing or the other; not rain or snow or sleet. But today it seems fitting, somehow. It suits the bleakness of her mood.

The wind picks up even more when she finally pulls to a stop, putting the handbrake on and opening the door. It whips her hair around her head, tangling it as icy gusts find every gap in her coat, every buttonhole, every seam, and chill her to the bone.

At least the rain has stopped. Thank goodness for small mercies.

She tries her phone again - the signal is still for shit, and she frowns, waiting for the other end to pick up through the crackling line. It goes to voicemail again and she bites at her lip, tasting lipstick and that fresh tang of iron that tells her that once again she's chewed the inside of her mouth raw without even realising it.

She leaves another message, even though she doesn't think that this one will be returned either.

It's a heavy weight as she leaves her car behind, picking her way through the mud in shoes that cost more than her very first pay check.

The house is just as she remembers it, from the long white steps leading up to the front door, with winter leaves caught in every corner, to the grimy windows with their faded, chintzy curtains.

She stands and stares at it for a moment, willing her feet to move, waiting for the curtains to twitch in the way that she remembered. Her sunglasses help, fixed in place despite the dullness of the day. They're her mask and her armour both at once, and she takes a deep breath, setting her jaw and finally starting to climb.

The keys that she'd kept still fit - she'd half expected the locks to have been changed, but perhaps she wasn't the only one who'd never believed she'd ever come back. They catch for a moment as she turns them, sticking in a lock that needs oiling, but then the tumblers click home and the door opens with a creak.

That's another thing that needs oiling, just something else that's rusted and worn.

It's even colder inside the house than it was outside; her breath catches in her throat, shuddering down into her chest and spreading like icy fingers down her spine. The house has always been cold, but now it also feels empty, the kind of stillness that's more than just a lack of life.

She hated this place growing up, hated it and loved it both at once. She moves through the rooms, touching objects that were once familiar and are now remote, as lifeless as the rest of this place.

There's less dust than she expected when it's been abandoned for so long. White sheets cover everything, but even they aren't grey, just faded by years of washing. She remembers them hanging on the line outside, how heavy they were when they were still wet, how hard it was to hang them when her fingers were cold and cramped and the ever-present wind threatened to pull them out of her grasp.

It was easier when he came. Everything was easier when he came. For a little while, at least.

She tries her phone again, still longing to make that connection, praying that this time he'd pick up. She can't even remember the details, now, what they'd fought about. It's all a blur, like the journey here was a blur, the world just as out of focus even though this time it's not the rain that's to blame.

She can't bear it, the emptiness, the echo of her own voice down the line, and shoves her phone back in her pocket, moving from room to room and pulling the sheets free. Now dust swirls, rising into the air and dancing in the dim winter sunlight. The windows are still grimy, cold to the touch when she presses her fingers against them, straining to see outside, looking for a glimpse of warmth.

She doesn't find it, and she does; an echo and nothing more.

She remembers it, hiding here with him behind the curtains, the soles of their feet pressed together as they sat on the sill, the drawn curtains making them feel like they were in their own little world, cut-off from the wider world outside, but never alone. Not when they had each other.

They'd breathed on the windowpanes, giggling together and drawing hearts in the mist that formed. Her initials and his, added together and never divided.

Not then.

She leans forward and breathes out, expecting the fog to form, wanting to capture that moment once more, everything they were then and everything that she'd hoped they'd be again. But her mouth is dry and the glass remains clear, clear and cold against her fingertips.

She shudders, pulling back. Her feet and fingers are chilled, and she abandons her plan, heading into the kitchen and turning her back on everything they were.

At least for now.

The kettle's new - she doesn't recognise it, but it still manages to be old-fashioned enough to fit with the rest of the house. She runs the water from the tap, just in case it's been standing in the pipes, but it runs clear from the start, ice-cold when she splashes her fingers through it. It's the work of the moment to fill the kettle enough for one cup, listening as it tap-taps against the base, that sound of water against metal so achingly familiar.

The gas hasn't been cut off yet, and she sets the half-filled kettle to boil. They'd long since stopped trying to persuade her foster mother to get something modern and electric. The old witch had always claimed that tea tasted better made this way, but she'd never been convinced.

She picks up the pot and then sets it down defiantly, pulling a mug from the shelf instead. It was a cardinal sin in her foster mother's eye, making tea in a cup instead of brewing it in the pot, as God had intended, second only to the sin of failing to warm the pot before you filled it for real.

But even that small act of rebellion is tinged with grief, the kind she wants to shake off but can't.

She leaves the kettle to boil and steps back into the living room, pulling the phone from her pocket again almost absentmindedly.

Still no answer. She leaves another message, her voice thready and raw, full of everything she wants to tell him but can't.

But it doesn't break, not yet, and neither does she.

She pictures him while she waits. His smile is clear in her mind, the way that the dimples had formed in his cheeks, his teeth shining as he laughed. And the way he laughed, the full bodied sound of it, full of life, full of feeling - that, too, echoes through her memory, leaving something bitter and longing behind, an ache that leaves her chest tight and breathless.

The kettle shrieks, startling her, and she stares at the kitchen door for a moment, so many memories threatening to overwhelm her that she almost cannot bear it at all.

But then her foster mother always said that tea was the cure for all that ailed you.

She doesn't use the mug, in the end. She uses her mother's best china, but she still makes the tea in a cup.

The tea doesn't warm her, not the way she'd expected. She is chilled to the bone, now, and not even the cup cradled in her hands can chase that chill away. The memories are overwhelming her, and not all of them feature this house. She remembers their first small flat together, instead, where they could barely move past each other in the narrow kitchen and he overcooked spaghetti until it was nothing but a gloopy mush.

They'd still eaten it, laughing as it slithered off their forks, but those had been the days when they'd laughed, had done nothing but laugh. Back when they had nothing but each other, no jobs to tear them apart, no miles or oceans between them.

The laughter had fled when the warmth had faded away, leaving nothing but this chill behind.

She still can't remember what their latest fight was about. She isn't sure it matters any longer.

The house is colder now, colder than she remembered, and she wonders how long it's been since the central heating has been switched on. She'd expect it to be damp by now, condensation forming on the windows the way it had when she was a child, when they were both children. But the air is dry, and empty of everything but dust.

Her tea has grown cold, and she leaves it standing, moving through the rest of the house instead.

All of the rooms are empty, still in a way that she doesn't remember. Sheets cover everything, blurring the lines of the furniture until it's unfamiliar, barely recognisable. Here and there she catches a glimpse, something that speaks to the past, but they are few and far between. The scuffed legs at the bottom of his bed frame, from where he'd used it as goalposts when he'd been younger. The chipped corner of a table, where the lid from her mother's cast-iron casserole dish had slipped and scratched.

The memories are there, but muted, faded by more than time.

She should have visited more frequently after they'd both left home - left together. Her foster mother would have forgiven them eventually. If she'd tried to mend those bridges instead of burning them down.

He'd always said as much. She should have listened to him.

Her mother's papers are still scattered on the desk her mother had used, and she lets her fingers drift through them like autumn leaves, the bills and the balances, the costs of keeping them all neatly calculated. They feel as crisp, as fragile as autumn leaves, too - the debris of a life she'd long since left behind.

It's growing colder still, and she moves back towards the living room, unsettled and restless.

The sun is lower in the sky now; hours must have passed while she's been dreaming. She moves closer to the window, resting her fingers against the glass as she leans forward and looks out. Birds circle in the sky, distant and black shapes that flutter in the winter wind, and there are ice crystals, sharp and cool beneath her fingertips.

She lets her gaze drop, and there's another car outside, something long and black. She didn't hear it arrive, and she squints, trying to make out the shapes standing beside it through the blur of condensation that only now has formed.

It blurs the world, as well.

Frost feathers across the windowpane, the freeze of it stealing her breath away.

And she remembers.

Remembers the fight, the last of many. Remembers the hoarseness in his voice, the red wateriness of his eyes as he told her he couldn't do this anymore. That she needed to decide what she wanted, when it was clear that what she wanted wasn't him.

She remembers the messages he'd left, one after another, all of them pleading, begging her to give him another chance, begging her to call him back, to not give up on them, not yet. Not when he hadn't, not really, in spite of his words.

She'd been so angry as she played them back that first time, and then again, over and over again, growing numb with each repetition, doubting the decisions that she hadn't made, the ones she'd been too proud to admit had been stumbled into by mistake because she was too cold and too careless with his heart.

Too careless with their future.

And in the end, she remembers the drive, the tears blinding her vision, angry and frustrated and guilty. She remembers the corner, the screech of tyres too fast on a wet road.

She remembers the splash, how hard and harsh and hollow it was, how loud in the silence that followed. How her fingers were numb and chilled and too frantic against her seatbelt, how they'd slipped away, unable to get a grip. How the water had risen, icy cold as it stole her breath away.

How it had all been stolen away, a moment's carelessness and a lifetime extinguished.

She's still numb, still chilled to the bone, and she'll never be warm again.

He'd promised until death; he, at least, had kept his word.

She touches the glass again, watching as the frost swirls from her fingertips, delicate patterns holding the kind of beauty she'd failed to appreciate in life, no matter how hard he'd tried to convince her of its worth.

She wipes it all away and sees him clearly for the last time, sees the both of them through that window, his arm wrapped around their foster mother's shoulders and both of their heads bowed. They're dressed in black, clothes as dark as the birds that had circled in the sky above, and she watches as they walk away, lost in their pain, and lost to her.

In the end, it's only fair.

She left them first.

The end