The Road Taken

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By Jennie Del Mastro

 

 

It was past midnight, a winter’s night, and snow lay on the ground. He opened his bedroom window and stood there, dreaming deeply, slowly bowing his head to his bare chest. He let the wind blow on him, blowing away the chaos of the evening, the elation, the triumph, the despair, till he lost himself. Everything was over. As he went downstairs the chill lingered, numbing him for the thing he had to do.

In the study he sat at the desk, unfolded the silk handkerchief and looked down at what it contained. It was already done, before he even pulled the trigger. There was no escape, and yet this was his only escape. It had always been like this.

Then there were soft light footsteps on the stairs. Not his father’s heavy tread, nor his mother’s uncertain patter. Was there someone else in the house? This had never happened before. He waited, knowing he was safe. There were no lights anywhere. There was no sign to show he was here.

The steps went back and forth along the hall, and paused at the study door. There was a small gasp, an out-breath of impatience and nervousness. He knew the sound, and suddenly he felt like he was outside. A warm breeze seemed to blow over him. He smelt orange blossom, and chalk, and linseed oil on wood.

He shivered. This wasn’t right.

But his small movement brought her into the room. She was taller, and the long plaits were gone, and her movements were surer, but he knew her straight away.

“Periwinkle?” she whispered.

“Amazon,” he murmured with barely a sound.

 

She heard him, and at the same moment caught sight of his silhouette against the moonlight. “Periwinkle darling!”

“Shhhh,” he said.

She waited, but he didn’t speak again. “I was at the play,” she said. “I happened to see your name on a poster, and it was Shakespeare, and I couldn’t resist. I bought a ticket and sat in the back.”

She didn’t mention the strange feeling that had swept over her, de ja vu, as though she’d snubbed his play before a million times, passing on in her hurry. Just like how she’d seen his light through the trees each holiday and snubbed it, leaving him in her childhood. But this time she hadn’t.

“I saw you leave with your dad, and I followed. Didn’t go over to my place, just came here and climbed up to your window.”

Without realising it she had come closer to him, and now her thighs were pressing against the edge of the desk. She felt for the lamp and switched it on.

 

The light was dim and warm. It seemed to call him. He blinked and turned his face away from it, and from her too with her tense dark eyes and her ruby coloured coat. He touched the pistol. It was very cold, and he wanted to draw his hand back, but he didn’t. He knew she saw it, but she didn’t seem surprised, just kept talking.

“I’m going to the city to be a journalist. I’ve got a spot on a paper, probably just coffee-making, but it’s a start. The train leaves at 4:30. You should come with me.”

He shook his head. “You should go.” He picked up the pistol. Let her misunderstand him, think he was threatening her. At least then she would leave and this could go on the way it should.

“I knew you’d be giving up in some dramatic way,” she said, the corners of her mouth twitching up into a smile. “Remember when you burned your epic?”

He had to look up at her again, but he kept his gaze cold. “Yes. You helped me rewrite it. But you can’t rewrite this.”

“I think I already have,” she said.

“No.”

“You could find a dramatic group, get a job, work your way through whatever training you need. You don’t want to do the same old things, tread the same old path.”

 

As soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew they were a mistake. She saw his hand tighten and lift a fraction. “No. I don’t.” The dullness of his voice twisted her heart and made her furious. Where was all the old life and expression gone?

“You were good, Neil. You were really good. Don’t waste yourself. It’s a crime! Better to throw everything away on one wild chance! And why not? Why not seize the day while you can?”

She was startled when his cheeks flamed red. “Did you say seize…?” His voice was lost, and he put the pistol down with a clunk. “What are you doing to me, Amy? This is wrong. It doesn’t fit. It…it isn’t supposed to happen.”

She had to hold onto the desk in her relief. His voice was alive again. He was back. “Aren’t you feeling better though?”

He shivered. “Just one little play … one night treading the boards at the local theatre, and I knew for certain. I couldn’t be anything else. No matter what he says.”

“I know,” she said. “You’re right. It doesn’t matter what they say.”

Then slowly and methodically he moved, so slowly she had a hundred chances to think he’d change his mind, and almost crumbled where she stood. But in the end he folded the handkerchief back around the pistol and returned it to the drawer.

She took a breath. “Shirt, jumper and jacket, Periwinkle.” She reached her hand across the desk, waiting till he took it. His fingers felt like ice. “Come on,” she said.

 

Upstairs he dressed, and they packed his case, very quietly. Hers was waiting for them out on the front doorstep. Before they left they raided the kitchen.

“Remember how we acted out all his plays up in the tree house, the last summer before we both went away?” she whispered. “Do you think it helped you?”

He looked at her wistful expression. Too soft for an Amazon, he’d always thought. But she was going to be a journalist, and she’d run away from school and climbed the ivy to his bedroom. She’d broken someone’s plans in pieces without a second thought, to save him.

He followed her to the front door, where she pulled a scarf from the hatstand and wrapped it around his neck. “It’s icy outside.”

It was his father’s scarf. The smell of the aftershave stifled him. He yanked it off. “It’s not that cold,” he said, and squeezed her warm hand. “It’s almost spring.”

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The Road Taken by Jennie Del Mastro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://tamworthlibrarywritersgroup.com/contact/.

Image:  Robin King

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