Trigger Warning: Mention of self harm, mental illness, and character death.
This part of the park had the distinction of somehow being both secluded and well-trafficked. A dense, narrow thicket obscured the point where the path diverged; the only barrier between the gravel strewn dead end and the main passageway. A metal railing separated any visitors from the adjoining river, but could not shield from the lights of the boats making their way to and from the nearby harbor. Every so often, the murmur of voices would carry on the breeze, but it was quiet enough to give the illusion of privacy.
She was perfectly fine with giving in to that illusion. She didn’t fear the attentions of any miscreants. Even though darkness was fast approaching, this was one of the busiest times of the day. Those dragging themselves home, and those dragging themselves out, both used the park as a thoroughfare. Footsteps and laughter were muffled behind her, but their very existence was reassuring, as was the pepper spray in her pocket. Besides, Roscoe was stretched out at her feet, and he would surely alert her to the presence of any intruders.
She had told Riley she needed to think, right before practically running out of the apartment, and that was exactly why she was here. This place had become her sanctuary, even though she had studiously avoided any thought of why, but she couldn’t hide from it tonight. No, tonight she needed to face those things she had kept buried, and that thought alone terrified her more than almost anything ever had before. It was all Riley’s fault, she railed in her mind. Why did she have to go and ruin a good thing by asking her to move in? Why couldn’t what they had now be enough?
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”
She spun around, her heart doing a fair job of trying to exit her body, only to see the silhouette of a woman emerging from the treeline. She spared a glance to Roscoe, who stirred briefly to peer at her with one eye before promptly going back to sleep. Some guard dog he turned out to be. Truth be told, Morgan was a little irritated at the intrusion, but also a touch relieved. A distraction meant she could delay her unpleasant train of thought, at least for a little while. Hopefully the newcomer meant no harm, but she didn’t relax her stance completely, just in case. The woman stepped out of the shadows and Morgan’s breath caught in her throat once again, but for entirely different reasons.
The light was dim but she could still make out long, dark hair cascading in curls down broad shoulders. The woman looked to be at least half a foot taller than her, which would put her at just a couple inches shy of six feet. She was dressed in black slacks and a white shirt, rolled up at the sleeves to accentuate toned arms which were currently held up in a clear attempt at appearing non-threatening. Something nagged at the back of Morgan’s mind, a sense of familiarity, even though her memory told her that the woman before her was a stranger.
“It’s okay. No harm done.” Other than scaring the hell out of me, but she left that part out.
“I should probably go. No-one comes out here for the company. I’m sorry to have intruded on you….uh?” The woman floundered, as if only now realizing that they had just met.
“Morgan, my name’s Morgan.” She wasn’t sure why she felt compelled to tell this woman anything, least of all her name. Maybe she was experiencing some level of camaraderie. This wasn’t the part of the park people went to for a stolen rendezvous, and she felt the heat of a slight blush as she recalled exactly how she knew where that particular spot was. This was where people came when they had to get away, and perhaps the stranger needed this place as much as she did.
“Well it was nice meeting you Morgan, and again, I’m really sorry for intruding. I’m Emma by the way.” With that, she made to move away but stopped when Morgan spoke.
“No, wait. I should go. I wouldn’t want to impose.” Morgan had no intention of leaving but it felt like the polite thing to say. After all, the other woman had offered first.
“You know, there are two things wrong with that statement,” Emma chuckled, turning back to face Morgan.
“Oh?” Morgan prompted when it didn’t appear as though Emma was going to continue.
“One, you were here first so technically I’d be the one imposing, and two, I doubt your presence would be an imposition on anyone.” Emma smiled at the raised eyebrow pointing her way.
“Hmm, do you flirt with all the women you sneak up on?” The laughter in Morgan’s voice took the bite out of the question.
“Only the pretty ones. It’s a bad habit of mine…one of many apparently. My friends always tell me I’m an incorrigible flirt.” Emma shrugged. “I don’t mean anything by it though. It’s when I stop flirting that you need to worry.”
“Now I’m not sure if I should be relieved or offended.” Morgan pretended to ponder. Surprisingly, she was enjoying their banter.
“Relieved, definitely. Besides, I’m leaving the city soon so I’m not looking for any hook-ups. Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the view though,” Emma said with a shy smile.
“You really are incorrigible.” Morgan appeared to be contemplating something. “Look, there’s no reason either of us should go. I just came here to think and, as long you’re not going to practice the drums or anything, I’m okay with you staying.”
“I don’t think I could hide a drum in this outfit.” Emma made a pretense of looking.
“Fair enough. You’re not a serial killer are you?”
“I don’t think so, but the night’s young.”
“You have a twisted sense of humor.” Morgan shook her head at the other woman’s antics.
“Little bit.” Emma responded even though it wasn’t a question.
A silence fell between them, not exactly companionable, but not entirely awkward either. It was almost as though they were sizing up one another, each waiting for something from the other. Morgan turned back to the river with a sigh, taking up her previous position against the railing. She heard rather than saw Emma make a similar movement, keeping a respectable distance between them. Morgan appreciated that. Emma was stunningly attractive, but she had Riley and she wasn’t the type to play the field. Maybe at a different time when she had been a different person but, for all her teasing, Morgan didn’t sense any real attempt to make a move on her from Emma. Funny how misery apparently did like company after all.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“The river? Yes, it is.” Morgan had to agree. It was beautiful, especially with the last vestiges of sunset still lingering in the air. There was a time when Morgan had a fantasy of life on the river, until she found out that she had a taste for the more luxurious things in life.
“Not just the river, more like the river at this time of night. I’m going to miss it.”
“So you’re from around here then?” The longing in Emma’s voice couldn’t escape Morgan’s notice. “You said earlier that you were leaving. How come? Wait…never mind. That’s none of my business.”
“It’s okay.” Emma waved her off. “I came here to think, just like you did, but maybe talking might help, if you’re in the mood to listen that is.”
“Of course.” Maybe listening to someone else’s troubles might make her feel better about her own, but Morgan couldn’t exactly come out and say that.
“I lived in the city all my life, up until a few years ago. Some things happened, the details don’t really matter now, and I had to move away. I just came back for a few days, or rather circumstances allowed me come back, to tie up some loose ends.” Emma sighed. “I think I forgot how much I missed this. It’s hard leaving again.”
“Then why leave?” It made sense to Morgan now. She’d undoubtedly run into Emma at some point, and that explained the feeling of having met her before. Sure the city was huge, but it wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility. “I mean, if you want to stay that much, surely there’s a way you can make it happen.”
“I wish that were the case, but it’s not up to me alone,” Emma replied, with a sad smile. “My life here seems like it was centuries ago. I’ve started making a new life out there little by little. I’ve met new people, even though I didn’t want to at first, and I know that my not wanting to leave has more to do with holding on to a past I can never get back than anything else. I know that, and I still want to give in to memories.”
“I understand more than you know,” Morgan said, with a slight break in her voice.
“Yes, I think you do.” Emma peered intently at her, seemingly coming to a decision. “There was someone. She was my everything, and I like to think that I was hers, at least at one point. I thought we would be together forever, but one stupidly unfair thing is all it took to shatter that illusion. Now, everywhere I look, I’m confronted with memories of her. The place we first met, the coffee shop we used to go to, this park. I haven’t seen her in so long and coming here just brought back all of those emotions. I feel like I’m trapped between wanting to re-capture the past and moving on to the future. Does that make any sense?”
“So much that I think you might be reading my mind.”
“Is that what you came here to think about?” Emma asked gently. “I spilled mine. It’s only fair that you should get to spill yours.”
“I don’t know you, and this isn’t something I usually do, but I feel like I can talk to you. I know how you feel because I’m going through something very similar right now. That’s why I came out here. My girlfriend asked me to move in with her.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“It should be…”
“But?” Prompted Emma, sensing Morgan’s hesitation.
“Riley and I, we’ve been together for about three years now. We literally bumped into each other when we first met and, well, I may have accidentally broken her nose. She still likes to joke about how that was the first time she ever had a first date in the emergency room.”
“Way to make an impression,” Emma commented, sounding suitably impressed. “Forgive me if I’m overstepping here, but your face lights up when you talk about her. And yet, you’re out here by yourself instead of making plans with her.”
“Yeah,” Morgan’s voice started to tremble, “because I can’t let go of Alex.”
“Your ex?” It wouldn’t be the first time Emma had heard of someone still hung up on ‘the one who got away’.
“In a manner of speaking. She died six years ago.”
“I’m so sorry Morgan. If you don’t mind me asking, how did she pass?”
“Does it matter?” Morgan asked, eyes glued to the river before her. “All that matters is the unfairness of it all. Although I suppose that’s not entirely true. If she had lingered, I would have at least gotten to say goodbye, but that’s selfish of me. The point is she’s not here now. I feel like I’m betraying her, like I’m moving on and having the life we were supposed to have together.”
“You say you’ve been dating this woman for three years now? Have you ever spoken to her about how you feel?”
“Of course. Riley’s great. She’s been so patient and understanding. She kept asking me out and I kept blowing her off. I didn’t want anything serious. I’d had a few one night stands since Alex died, and I was fine with that. I didn’t have to feel anything. But it was different with Riley. She got under my defenses. She understood. She gave me my space when I needed it, and she held me when I needed it.”
“So what’s the problem now?” Emma didn’t say it with any judgement. She truly just wanted to understand.
“Don’t you see? This makes it real. It’s done. It’s over. She’s really and truly gone.” Morgan was horrified to find that there were tears in her eyes.
“Hey, it’s okay.” Emma’s voice was soothing, but she still made no move to touch the other woman.
“It’s not.” She had spilled enough of her guts already; she might as well get it all out. “The first time Riley and I…made love…I burst into tears afterwards.”
“You felt like you were cheating on Alex.” Realization dawned on Emma.
“I did. Riley held me and we talked for a long while afterwards. I started getting better with the relationship, but Alex was always there. It was almost like I was seeing both of them. I’d spend time with Riley, but I’d go home to Alex. Sometimes I’d even talk to her, even though I knew she wasn’t there.” Morgan uttered a harsh laugh. “It wasn’t fair to Riley, but she’s just so damn persistent. Things have been better this past year. I’ve been better. But now this?”
“Why does this scare you so much?”
“Because if Riley and I share a home, then how do I go home to Alex? I don’t want to stop loving her. That’s not fair to her memory.”
“Then don’t. It’s clear that you and Alex loved each other, but loving someone else doesn’t mean that you have to forget her or stop loving her. I don’t know this Riley person, but I don’t think that’s something she would expect of you.”
“She wouldn’t…she doesn’t.”
“And if Alex were here right now, if she could see you again just this once, what do you think she’d say to you?”
“Probably to pull my head out of my ass and stop being a baby.”
“Well that’s not exactly how I’d put it,” Emma laughed, “But she’d be right. I’m sure that if Alex could have found a way to come back to you, she would. But death’s a hard thing to come back from. This might sound harsh but don’t spend your life holding on to a ghost, not when you have someone there who’s willing to love you the way you deserve to be loved. Alex is your past, and Riley is your future. I think deep down you know that, and that’s why the guilt is eating you alive. Don’t let it. I can’t pretend to know all the mysteries of the universe, but one thing I’m sure of is that, wherever she is, Alex would want you be happy.”
“How can you be so sure of that?” Morgan hated that she sounded so desperate.
“From what you’ve told me, Alex loved you in life. Why shouldn’t she love you in death?”
“It can’t be that easy.”
“It won’t be. You’ll still have bad days. You’ll still miss her. But you have to move on with your life, for your own sake. Alex will always exist in your heart. You’re not abandoning her. You’re just making room for someone else. I think that’s what Alex would want.”
“Do you think she knew how much I loved her?”
“Yes.” Emma answered without hesitation, instinctively knowing that she wasn’t referring to Riley. “And I think she’ll be happy to know that you have someone to take care of you now that she can’t.”
“You know,” Morgan turned to look at Emma. “I came here to be alone, but now I’m glad that I wasn’t. And I think maybe you should take your own advice.”
“And what advice would that be?” The cheeky smile was back on Emma’s lips.
“I don’t know who she was, and I don’t know what happened between you, but clearly she’s not here now. It’s the memories that are making you want to stay, and you can take those memories wherever you go. Don’t hold on to something you can’t get back.”
“That, my dear Morgan, is an excellent recommendation. Whoever taught you must be very wise.”
“More like a wise ass,” Morgan said with a smile. Her expression turned serious for a moment and she regarded Emma quizzically.
“What it is?” Emma’s brows furrowed as she noticed the other woman staring at her.
“It’s nothing.” She shook her head as if trying to clear it. “It’s just that, I know it’s silly, but I can’t help feeling like we’ve met before.”
“Maybe I just have one of those faces,” she smiled softly, “Or maybe we did, in another life.”
“That must be it.” Morgan sighed and turned back to gaze out over the river. “Well I’m very happy to have I met you in this one. You really helped me to put things into perspective.”
“Glad I could help.”
“I should probably get going. Riley will be wondering where I ran off to.” She stopped, seemingly hesitating. “This is probably going to sound strange given that we just met but, do you think I’ll ever see you again?”
“I’m leaving soon, very soon from the looks of things” she said, with a sad smile, “but you never know. Maybe one day we’ll both feel a need to visit this same spot at the exact same time.”
“Goodbye Al…uh…Emma.” Morgan faltered at the momentary slip. Alex was undoubtedly on her mind. Emma was right though. It was time to move on. She would never stop loving Alex, but it wasn’t fair to Riley to continue shutting her out. She wasn’t foolish. She didn’t expect that they would be able to work out everything overnight, but she could take that first step towards a life together.
She glanced back, half expecting to see Emma gone, but she was there just as she’d left her, her long frame leaning against the metal railing. There was an aura of sadness around her, an unbearable sorrow that she didn’t seem able to lift from her shoulders. Morgan doubted that she had gotten the full story from Emma, but then she couldn’t expect to. They were strangers after all. And yet she hoped that Emma would find some little bit of the peace she had been able to give to her. She tugged on Roscoe’s leash a little and she steeled herself for the conversation ahead.
“Come on boy, let’s go home.”
She was vaguely aware of people walking past her on her way to Riley’s apartment but, truth be told, she really wasn’t paying much attention. She focused so much on her thoughts that faces were a blur. It was fully dark outside by the time she knocked on the apartment door. She could see the light on inside and, in any case, she doubted that Riley would have gone to bed. She heard shuffling and the lock was pulled back just enough to reveal red-rimmed eyes.
“Oh thank God. Any longer and I would’ve come after you, but I had a feeling where you were going.”
Morgan didn’t say anything as Riley opened the door and beckoned her in, Roscoe making a beeline for his bed in the corner. She just brushed past the slightly shorter woman and sat on the couch, watching as Riley sat next to her but made no move to touch her.
“I’m so sorry Morgan. I didn’t mean to rush you. I thought that things were going so well lately and…it doesn’t matter what I thought. I love you and I never meant to push you into something you’re not ready for. Could we forget that I ever brought it up?”
“No, I don’t think I can forget that.” Morgan didn’t want to forget it.
“Morgan….” Riley whispered, completely misunderstanding Morgan’s intent.
“Wait.” Morgan raised a hand to quiet the other woman. “Is that what you really want? For us to live together?”
“Yes or no Riley?”
“I want us to be together.” Riley sighed. “And yes, I guess to me that means living together eventually, and maybe more, but I understand that you’re not ready. I know that you might never be ready, and that’s okay. I just want you.”
“I’m sorry I ran off like that.” Morgan paused. “And I’m sorry I’ve put you through all of my drama because of my feelings for Alex.”
“Morgan, you’re only human. I don’t expect you to be a machine. And you don’t have anything to apologize for. If it were someone who just walked out on you, I’d probably be upset that you’re still so hung up on her. But you loved her and she was taken from you. I’m not looking to replace her. There’s no way I could.”
“I know. You’ve been so patient, and so kind. I…I know I’m not ready to move in with you just yet.” She reached out for Riley’s hand as her face fell. “But that doesn’t mean I never will. In fact, I think I might be ready soon for you to ask me again. Just be patient with me for a little longer?”
“For as long as you need.” That was one promise Riley was sure she could keep.
“I do love you Riley. I thought that was it for me after I lost Alex, but then you came along. You taught me how to love again. I felt horrible because I thought I was betraying Alex but I see now that my love for her doesn’t mean that I can’t love you. I can’t lie to you and say that I won’t have my bad days, but my heart belongs to you now.”
Riley could have burst into tears then and there. She had been waiting for this so long. “And I’ll be there to help you through every one of those bad days.”
“What did I do to deserve you?” Morgan whispered as she leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on Riley’s lips.
“Just lucky, I guess.”
“You, my dear, are an idiot.” Morgan laughed, full and throaty. It was music to Riley’s ears.
“But I’m your idiot.”
“That you are, and I’m thankful for it.”
Riley leaned over and grabbed the remote for the home theater system. Soon the apartment was filled with the soothing sounds of Morgan’s favorite jazz instrumental. A slight drizzle had started and it tapped against the window as thunder rolled in the distance. Roscoe whined a little before drifting off again. A storm was approaching outside, but they were safe inside.
“Dance with me?” Riley stood and reached for Morgan.
Morgan smiled as she took Riley’s hand and molded herself into her arms. She remembered dancing with Alex. This was different but somehow it also felt right. She imagined that Alex was out there somewhere, looking down on her and giving her blessing. Maybe she was, or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, she felt as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She didn’t know what the future held but this right here? This was perfection, and she was happy.
“Why did you do that?”
The woman to whom the question was addressed jumped a little at the unexpected intrusion, but still managed to shut the door quietly, even though the current occupant of the room was unlikely to notice either way.
“How much did you hear?” She asked guiltily.
“Pretty much all of it.” The nurse had a concerned look on her face, probably more concerned than she should be, but she couldn’t help it. “You can’t give up Alex. She’s still in there.”
“I know she is, but for how long?” Alex couldn’t stop her frustration from bleeding into her voice. “She used to at least know who I was sometimes. Now, she can hardly recognize me. Hell, she thought she was talking to you. You heard her. As far as she’s concerned I’m dead, Em.”
“But you’re not.”
“No, I’m not, but in her mind I am, and she’s hurting because of it. What you heard was me telling her what she needed to hear.”
“I don’t understand.”
Alex was still hurting and she really didn’t want to have to explain herself, but she knew Emma wouldn’t let it go. “Do you see this?” Alex pointed to her own face.
Emma took in the slight bend at the top of Alex’s nose, the only imperfection on an otherwise perfect face. Her eyes widened as she understood the implication. “Riley?”
“No, Alex. Everything is twisted in her mind. I don’t even know how to explain it, and I’d drive myself crazy if I tried, but somehow I’m dead and Riley’s alive. I guess, deep down, that’s how she wants it.”
“So Riley is real?” Emma pulled them into the currently empty waiting room so they could have some privacy.
“Was real. She died in an accident six years ago…drunk driver. I hadn’t met Morgan yet but, from everything I heard, they were completely head over heels in love. Riley was planning on asking Morgan to marry her. She was on her way to pick out a ring actually. Morgan doesn’t know that. She was devastated enough already so no-one ever told her.”
“I can understand that.” In her line of work, she understood only too well the reality of trying to shield people from unnecessary pain.
“She tried to drown her sorrows in prescription drugs and alcohol. A few days after Riley died, her best friend found her slumped over in the bathroom. She had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. After that, friend and family took turns staying with her. They made up excuses but, in reality, they were afraid that she might hurt herself again. She had already said, more than once, that she didn’t want to go on living without Riley. They more or less forced her into therapy. She was better by the time I met her, but she never really got over it.”
“I can’t imagine loving somebody that much.”
“I can.” It was said so softly that it was barely audible, but Emma heard it anyway.
“I tried. I really tried.” Alex’s voice started to break. “I tried to be understanding. I tried to show her that I never wanted to take Riley’s place. I just wanted to love her. She started opening up to me, I know that, but she never let me in completely. I think she felt that making room for me would mean losing Riley forever.”
“I’m so sorry Alex.”
“You know what the truly messed up part of this is?”
“No.” Emma didn’t know what else to say. So much of this whole situation was tragic.
“Morgan was adopted. She found out in her teens and she never met her birth parents. Her adopted family are great people and she never felt the need to look for her birth parents. But she didn’t know about the ticking time bomb in her genes. Even if Riley had lived, they would have been on borrowed time.”
“Morgan had no idea?” Emma wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t. So many of the first signs were often attributed to stress.
“None.” Alex shook her head. “It started with little things. She’d leave her keys on the table and forget where they were. She’d talk to someone on the phone and forget their name by the time I asked her who it was. She’d been putting in a lot of extra hours at work so she just figured it was exhaustion. We knew something was wrong when she wandered off on our anniversary. I found her in the park and she had no memory of how she got there. We visited a bunch of doctors after that. They were stumped initially because she didn’t know her family history but we eventually got a diagnosis, and she just withdrew into herself after that. She loved me, but she wanted to be with Riley, and she had been dealing with it all that time. This illness was the final straw.”
“I’m so sorry Alex.” Emma knew she sounded like a broken record but she truly didn’t know what else to say.
“The more her mind went, the more confused she got, and the more I ceased to exist. And here we are. Somehow, whatever’s left of her imagines that she has a future with Riley, but she’s holding back because her subconscious, or whatever it is, still loves me. So what do I do? Force her to hold on to something she no longer wants? Make her try to remember something she wants to forget? She doesn’t have a long time left and she’ll never be happy because that war is still going on somewhere inside her. I can’t let that happen. She deserves to be happy. I have to let her go.” Alex was close to tears.
“So what happens next?”
“She doesn’t know who I am, but she remembers Alex, and Alex just set her free. So I’m going to be here for her until the end, even if she thinks I’m you” Alex cracked a slight smile at that. “After that? I don’t know. I meant it when I said she was the love of my life, and I’ve been losing her all this time. No-one should ever have to see someone they love fade away like that. But I have learnt something from her.”
“What’s that?” An orderly peeped in to see if they needed anything, but Emma waved him off.
“I can’t hold on to the past. She did and, even if this didn’t happen, I don’t know that she would have ever truly broken free. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be so consumed by death that I forget how to live.”
“Would you do it over again, knowing what you know now?” Emma was genuinely curious.
“In a heartbeat. Because of her, I know what it feels like to love, and to be loved. She did love me in her own way. I could never regret loving her. There may be pain now, but there was beauty too. Take care of her okay? I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I will Alex. She’s in good hands here.” Emma meant it. She had grown fond of these two women and she would do whatever little she could to make it easier for them. She saw so much pain within these walls, so many lost souls. Life was more than a cruel mistress; she was wretched and unfair too. Her faith in a higher power had been tested more than once. But once in a while she was privileged to witness love in its purest form, and so she stayed.
Emma looked at the retreating figure, her heart breaking for three women who had loved and lost. She slowly got up and mentally counted the patients she needed to see on her rounds. On her way out, she decided to quickly check in with Morgan, just to satisfy herself that everything was okay. What she saw left her staring and slack-jawed.
Morgan had been withdrawn and depressed since the first day she came to the facility. She barely spoke to any of the staff, only lighting up briefly when Alex visited, although even that had ended over a month ago. Emma couldn’t blame her. She couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be trapped inside a mind that was slowly crumbling around you. But the woman before her now bore little resemblance to the morose creature who had greeted her all those months ago. Morgan was on her feet. A rare smile rested on her face, and Emma could see glimpses of the beauty she had been. There was no music in the room, at least none that Emma could hear, but her arms were clearly positioned around someone’s shoulders. And she was dancing.