The air was crisp against Daniel’s skin as he said his good-byes and climbed into the rented Ford sedan. The suitcases were already loaded in the trunk, ready for the long flight back to the coast. Daniel had spent two days with old friends, catching up with people he hadn’t seen since giving up on mountain life forever. Crystal’s wedding had been his excuse to come out, and it had been a beautiful service. She looked so happy there in her back yard with her high heels aerating the lawn. It was almost enough to let Daniel forget why he had made the trip at all. But something had been buried within him for too long, and yet still wasn’t at rest. It was long past time to do that.
As the pink sunset faded into deep purple overhead, he wound his way through familiar streets to Main Street. Oak and aspen leaves fell from the trees overhead and drifted across his field of vision. Broken down cars on dried out lawns had become the norm for the residential areas. When Daniel reached the commercial core, he found one in every ten business boarded up, never to reopen. The town that had nourished him throughout his childhood was now dying. Things were the same all over. In all other ways, it was a typical Colorado late-October day…he had missed them somehow, even though the seasons still changed out in Seattle. Something about the air was different. Perhaps it was dryer, crisper, more scented with memories and loss.
He parked on the street half a block fromNeptune’s Coffee and sat with the engine running. Daniel had heard from Crystal that it was still in business, even after so many years and the introduction of some corporate competitors. He hadn’t dared to stop in this entire trip — had in fact, not even risked going near the long beloved coffeehouse. He turned off the car and took a few deep breaths. It couldn’t avoid this any longer. Too many years had passed. ‘Anyway,’ he lied to himself, ‘she probably won’t even show up.’
By the time he stepped across the threshold, the sun had fully set and the slim crescent moon hung overhead like a nicotine-stained fingernail clipping. A few windblown leaves followed him in from the darkness to dance upon the faded green and white checkerboard tiles. He bought a cup of the dark roast and discovered that Neptune’s used sleek steel thermoses for their creamer now. He had suspected that they would, and had pocketed a few non-dairy creamer cups from Denny’s at breakfast. Cup in hand, he retreated to a small, round table with mismatched chairs near the front window and prepared to cast his trump.
It was Frida who introduced him to the idea of bending the way the world worked. She started with the little things: cloud shaping and calming scared animals…little tricks she called low cards. Together, they had explored bigger things, like trapping pieces of time and animating objects. These they had playfully dubbed trumps. It had been more than a few years since he had dared a trump. And he had never tried one alone. But things were different now.
Daniel removed a memento from his pocket; a cheap plastic bangle bracelet, frosted white and rubbed smooth with time. He placed in the center of the table. He lost himself in its cloudy surface — wavy but otherwise unremarkable — unremarkable but for the memory of how it came into his possession. Daniel’s fingers brushed it lightly while he gathered his resolve. He focused his mind to a white-hot point while one hand slowly stirred a cup of creamer into his coffee. The spiral of white and black gave way to brown, pulled him in, loosened his mind from the rigidity of earning a living, being responsible, and nearing his fourth decade with grim inevitability of a runaway train.
Daniel rarely drank coffee this late at night anymore. The best-case scenario meant nervous digestion and acid reflux, difficulty falling asleep, and powerful leg cramps if he didn’t take potassium tablets before bed. If he was unlucky, the demon caffeine spelled waking from nightmares, vibrating in a sweat-stained nest of displaced sheets halfway through the night.
It wasn’t a bit like his misspent youth when he had hung out here most nights, drinking coffee until close before going in search or trouble elsewhere afterward. Daniel and his friends would spend hours discussing philosophy, physics, the unexplained, movies, love, anything they were passionate about. He found it difficult to contemplate that almost half his life had gone by since those nights. Daniel liked to think that it would never change, but when the change did come it was so slow that he didn’t even notice it. Years went by before he realized that he had ended up a completely different person, a stranger in his own skin. As visionary as he liked to consider himself, Daniel never predicted living on the coast, older but no wiser, searching for roots in memories he had thought buried forever.
He paused for the briefest of seconds and thought about leaving the spoon and cup and creamer on the age scarred table and just walking out. If he drank the coffee, he would never fall asleep on the plane ride home, and Daniel needed the sleep. He hadn’t been sleeping well as of late. Not since he had accepted the invitation to come out for Crystal’s wedding.
No, he never dared to drink coffee after dark anymore, and never in October, just in case. But this was an exception. He felt the October night seep under his skin, a long forgotten electric crackle. Daniel looked again at the bracelet on the table, and made sure he felt the connection. With his free hand he slammed the remaining cup of creamer like a shot of tequila, not thinking about it’s taste so much as the sense-memory. The door to the late-night coffee house blew open on the breeze and he knew that it had worked.
Frida stood there in her old green cable knit sweater, her fine red hair blown wild by the wind. A strange mixture of fear and wonder was on her face as her wide eyes peered from behind thick lenses. She saw him, hand still on the spoon and comprehension dawned. “Daniel?” she said. A laugh caught at the back of her throat, coming out as sad rather than joyous. “Did it actually work?”
“I think the proof is in the pudding,” Daniel said. He felt a smile creep out from behind his beard despite himself. She had been eighteen when he had seen her last, but old for her years. She looked no older now, an effect of the trump despite the two decades that had passed since they had put it into play.
“So I’m really here,” she said as she sat across from him.
Daniel couldn’t help but choke ever so slightly on the answer. She was either too distracted to notice or had the good grace not to call his bluff. “Real enough, yeah.”
She scooted closer to him at the table, sitting so close that their knees touched. It was electric. It had always been electric with Frida. “You look so different, so much more mature.” There was a mixed tone in her voice, part awe that she was there, part disappointment that the world had moved on. “How long has it been?”
“Eighteen years. Do you…how do you feel?”
She paused and looked down her arms, down her legs, looking for some kind of defect and finding none. Frida was exactly the same as that night in October half his life ago. “I feel good. Tired, I guess, but good. How have you been? What’s been going on in your life?”
Daniel sat up a little straighter, and picked up the cup, trying to keep his hand from shaking visibly. “I moved out of Durango after college and moved to Seattle where I’ve worked a number of different jobs. None of them were worth mentioning. I kept working on my writing off and on. I got a few stories published and one book that tanked. But still, I didn’t write it to be a hit, just to write it. I’ve been working for a small weekly paper there for about a year now. The pay is crap, but it covers the bills and I like the job and the people I work with. It’s been…it’s been okay.”
She bit her lip while eyes strayed to the shops and cars beyond the coffeehouse window. It was an act, of course. She wasn’t distracted, merely trying to avoid questions she wasn’t sure she wanted answers to. Even with the intervening years, he could read her. Daniel kept his own face as neutral as possible and focused on his coffee instead. He waited for her to work up the nerve to raise the question he knew she was waiting for. It didn’t take long. “Did you get married?”
Daniel took another long sip before answering. “Yeah. Three times. None of them…it just didn’t work is all.”
“Were any of them…,” She couldn’t finish the thought. Again, she didn’t have to.
“None of them were you. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work out.” Saying the words, he knew they were true, just as he realized that on some level, he had always known. “I never loved anyone as much as I loved you then – as much as I do now. Maybe that made it difficult for me to connect to other people, or maybe it just led me to doomed substitutions. I don’t know.”
Daniel had to avert his gaze. He had caught just the briefest glimpses of tears in Frida’s eyes, and he knew he couldn’t give in to them. Instead he came close to draining his cup before her soft fingers brushed his cheek. “Daniel? Why didn’t we ever get married? You were my soul-mate. That’s why I bound myself to that silly bangle; so I wouldn’t ever lose what we had.”
Her touch on Daniel’s cheek conjured up more than goose bumps. He turned into her hand and kissed the palm softly. Frida sighed, her eyes half-closed. She looked no less concerned. Daniel began to rationalize. Dangerous, he knew, to try to apply reason to this situation, but he was desperate. Maybe that explained everything. “Frida, about eight months after you…after we cast this particular trump, you moved toLos Angeles. You decided you needed to do what was best for your life, and I wasn’t part of that.” Despite the horrified expression on her tender, pale face, Daniel continued on. There was no sense holding back anymore. He picked up the white plastic bracelet and rolled it around between his fingers. “Maybe the part of you that loved me got locked away in this bangle. Or maybe it was something else. I never understood it, and it left me with a lifetime of scars. But I never stopped loving you. And then…”
Daniel blinked back tears, but it was too late. He hadn’t been prepared for this; not even remotely.
“Daniel, what happened?”
“You called me about and year and a half later, on New Year’s Eve. We talked for hours and you wanted to see me, to work things out. I made plans to fly out over spring break. A week before I was supposed to leave, I got a letter telling me not to come out. I tried to contact you, to find out what had happened, what had changed, but I couldn’t find you. I even tried calling your father, but he wouldn’t tell me anything.”
He was weeping openly by this point. Frida wiped the tears away with her fingertips, oblivious to the tears that streaked down behind her thick glasses. He might have been the only person to think she was as beautiful as she was, and it broke his heart to see her cry like this, but there was nothing he could do to blunt her pain.
“Your father finally called me back two months later. You had been sick.”
A moment of confusion on Frida’s face was replaced by slowly dawning dread. “Sick? How sick?”
“You died, Frida. There was a tumor growing deep in your brain. It had been there for years and no one had noticed it. And by the time it was diagnosed, it was too late. It had been too late for a long time.”
He let that sink in as he finally finished off the last of his cup of coffee. He rolled the cup around in his hands, distractedly watching her. She was perfect, frozen in that crystalline moment of time when they were so in love that it hurt, when she wore her hair dyed red hair, and in a tail at the back. She was wearing her favorite sweater, and beneath it, a pink silk camisole that he had touched but only briefly seen. It hadn’t been that kind of relationship. But it had been perfect.
When Daniel rediscovered the bangle in a box after separating from his third wife a year ago, the old memories came flooding back. He realized that perhaps their relationship had been perfect because it had been so short, less than a year in fact. And he had never really had closure. Why did he need closure when he had the memory of the perfect relationship frozen in his hand?
“So what does that make me? Why would you bring me back here to tell me something like that?”
Daniel had expected Frida to feel hurt and confused. It was only fair, he figured, but still, he got no pleasure from it. “You’re a memory. A perfect, happy memory, that I was never able to let go of.”
Frida nodded. Wiping away her own tears, she stood. Daniel set the bangle on the table and stood with her. She bit her lip again, but she had put her brave face on. He had always loved her ability to accept the hard truth and move on. She wasn’t making it any easier, but then again, it wasn’t supposed to be easy. “Can I, you know, one last time?” She asked nervously.
Daniel smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”
He curled his fingers in her fine hair at the base of her skull as his lips touched hers. Her lips tasted of her tears, of time, of coffee. They tasted like home and they tasted like loss. They tasted like October.
While his eyes were closed, lost in the moment, he felt Frida’s arm rise. It only took him a second to realize that she had his coffee cup clenched in her fist. By then it was too late. With a sudden and deliberate strike, she swung the cup down with amazing force and crushed the white plastic bangle bracelet to powder.
“Buddy, can you try to not break our cups over there?”
Daniel looked over at the counter, to see the stocky barista glaring at him angrily. “Sorry. It slipped.”
The barista watched as Daniel, alone at the small table, brushed up the remains of the bracelet into one hand. He hesitated, hand halfway to his jacket pocket, before he changed his mind and dumped the remains in the trash along with his creamer cup. It was just plastic now anyway.
Daniel stepped back out under the moon while dry, brown leaves danced around his heels like happy skeletons. While he made his way back to the rental car, he couldn’t remember a time when he felt more alive.