Listen

“Listen” is a five-thousand-word short story created using the tools I’ve described in my previous posts. My inspiration for this short story is a radio programme I heard last winter, and it recently transformed itself into this little love story. Five thousands words are about half an hour’s read. Perfect before bedtime.

I hope you enjoy, and feel free to comment.
“It’s been two years, Eric. Two years and not once have you said you loved me.”
A frown deeper than he’d ever seen before lingered above Kirsten’s glowing moss-green eyes. Her arms were crossed and, though the top of her head barely reached his chin, her intensity made him take a step back.
“That’s not true,” Eric began.
“Ditto kiddo doesn’t count,” she cut him off.
He took another step back.
“You never say you love me, you never show me you love me. Why don’t you pick me up and spin around, telling me I’m the one? You could, you know.”
Eric frowned. “Spin around? Kirsten, I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“Going on? Going on!” Kirsten took a step toward him.
Eric swallowed and had to tell his legs to not take another step back. What on earth had gone into her?
Then as quickly as if someone had blown out a candle, the flame and intensity in her eyes was gone and replaced by some inexplicable dark sadness. She came so close she could have put a hand on his chest the way she usually did, the way that made him feel twelve feet tall in a good way instead of the six-feet-four-clod he’d felt most his life. But she didn’t put a hand on his chest, her arms hung limp when she looked up at him and said, “Do you love me at all?”
“Kirsten…” he began but something stuck in his throat.
“Tell me. Tell me you love me.”
“You know I do.”
She turned away from him, went to the window and looked outside. Eric didn’t move from his spot on the rough rug in front of the door. He had his boots on. Hell, he had the whole gear on, the thick woolen sweater and the insulated pants. He’d just needed his coat and he would have been on his way to check the turbines if she hadn’t burst into whatever this was. What was she doing looking out the window now? There was nothing to see out there but snow and darkness. She was hugging herself as if she was cold, but fire was blazing in the stove. His feet boiled in the heavy Sorels. Was the argument over? Could he leave? Something told him that would be a bad idea, but the turbines needed to be checked before ten. He looked at the clock on the wall of their little cabin. 9:35 PM.
Kirsten turned toward him again and tried to fix a few of her auburn curls behind her ear. “Why don’t we drive down to town this weekend?” The curls broke free immediately. They always did. “We could stay at Best Western and dine at “L’oreille Cassee.”
“L’oreille Cassee?”
“It’s a French Restaurant.”
Well, he’d got that much. What he didn’t understand was why she wanted to go there, why she thought he’d want to go there. A Fancy place. Places like that always made him feel he had phone poles for fingers, and he usually had to stop at McDonalds on the way home.
Slowly he shook his head. “You know we can’t. I have the…”
“…The bloody turbines. Would you forget about those turbines for a minute?”
“I have to check them. You know that.”
“Five nights a week, Eric. Not seven. Energy Net’s paying you for five nights a week. And there’s never even been anything wrong with them…”
“Because I tend to them. If we drove three hours south – or five in this weather – and the turbines stopped, people would lose power for half a day, and that’s without counting time to fix them.”
“And so what? There’s not one house around here that doesn’t have both stove and emergency generator. They’ll survive.”
He opened his mouth in silent protest. What had gotten into her? Eric looked at the clock again. He would have to go across the lake to make it in time now. He grabbed his coat from the hook next to the door.
Kirsten frowned. “You’re not leaving now?”
“I have to. I’m already late.”
“Forget the turbines, Eric. You’re not listening to me.” She came forward. This time she reached for his shoulder. “Stay. Stay tonight.”
He shook his head, zipped up the heavy down coat and gave her hand a squeeze. It felt tiny and fragile as a kid’s beneath his giant paw, and yet he knew it was strong as rope. “I’ll be back by midnight, babe. We’ll talk then.”
Eric backed out the door, turned and was closing it behind him, when she stuck an arm out and grabbed his upper arm. “Don’t go across the lake, you hear?”
“What? Why not?”
She shuddered. “You know why. It’s crazy to drive on the lake alone at night.”
He nodded in a non-committing way.
“I mean it.”
“Yeah, okay?” Jeez woman. He worked his way through the fifteen inches of newly fallen snow to the RAM.
Sometimes he forgot she was a townie. A townie that had lived in North Echo Valley for five years, but still a townie. They never got used to the idea of using the lake as a road during winter. A twinge in his stomach told him it wasn’t a completely fair description of Kirsten’s fears, but he shut the feeling out along with the freezing cold as he closed the door of the truck. As he started down the driveway, he lowered the plow and turned on the radio.
“…getting some of the cold weather we’re used to this time of year.”
Eric turned up the volume.
“We’re expecting a low of minus twenty-five, thirty-two with the wind chill. Tomorrow we’ll reach a high of minus fifteen…”
When the host welcomed two debaters to discus the problems of online identity theft, he turned the volume back low and focused on the road. Snow came down in buckets. Finally. And finally he could feel the power of the new heavy duty UTV plow as it effortlessly cleared the road in front of him. This lousy winter had almost made him regret he’d bought it. Tell me. Tell me you love me. Eric shook his head. He didn’t want to think about the argument. It was stupid. Better listen to the radio then. He turned the volume back up.
“Mr. Daniels, would you tell our listeners what you see as the biggest challenges right now?”
“Certainly. A breach always has serious consequences…”
Pick me up and spin around. Again Eric saw how the glow in Kirsten’s eyes was blown to darkness. “Do you love me at all?”
For two years they’d lived together in his little cottage at Whisper Hill. She’d agreed to move in after he’d agreed to take her to “Katty’s Dirty Dishes,” the only diner in North Echo Valley, three times a week. She needed the WIFI to send her data back home. Kirsten was a geologist who’d come to study rocks at the floor of the lake. “We think Lake Aures was created by a meteorite quite recently, no more than thirty thousand years ago,” she’d told him the first night they met. She’d talked at length and with great passion about the rocks, and what she hoped they’d reveal. He’d never met anyone with such passion, and for rocks of all things. He couldn’t help him self, he wanted to see her again and again to explore this passion, to feel close to it. Only in his wildest dreams had he thought he could ever be the object of it. Till that rib festival three and a half years ago when she’d asked him if he was ever going to make a move, because if he didn’t, she might give in to Martin’s – the local EMT – persistent flirt. Eric had nodded and taken her hand firmly in his, but she was the one to stand on toes and kiss him.
“She came for the rocks on the bottom of the lake and stayed for the boulder at the top of the hill,” Katty joked every time they entered her diner.
Eric slowed down as another plowing RAM came in the opposite direction. It was Derek coming back from evening shift. Eric lifted his hand in hello, but pressed his lips to a thin line. Now Derek was going to tell Marie that he was late again, and when Marie knew everyone knew. His hands tightened around the steering wheel as he turned off the main road for the lake.
What the deuce had gotten into Kirsten? Good thing he hadn’t stayed at the cottage. For a second there he’d considered it. But then what? Every time she threw a tantrum, he couldn’t go do his job? He bounced in his seat as the truck made its way on the uneven trail. Well, if she wanted to stay in fancy hotels and, Christ, eat French food she should have stayed in town. She should have found a “suit” that ate with lifted pinkies and used words like “exquisite” and “magnifique.” He bobbed his head at the words then snorted. If that was what she wanted, what was she doing here, in the middle of nowhere? Eric lifted his head and held his breath when it hit him. She was finally beginning to miss her old life. She wanted to go back to town. This wasn’t enough for her anymore. He wasn’t enough.
For a long time, he’d been sure this would come, he’d prepared himself. But the last year he’d completely forgotten to stay alert. The tires screeched and he bounced in his seat again as he drove onto the lake.
The strong undisrupted wind made snow flakes come at the windshield from all sides. Eric turned off the high beam and drove slower. The fluorescent clock on his dashboard showed 9:51. He shook his head. He was supposed to check the turbines every night – or technically five nights a week – at ten o’clock. Not that it made a huge difference if it was checked half an hour later. But it didn’t sit well with him to be late. Eric might be considered a clod, but he was someone you could count on to do his job right. And on time.
He’d been late more times than ever these past two years. Mostly because he’d had trouble getting out of bed again when they’d turned in early. Having to leave Kirsten naked and warm under the covers to go out into the cold had sometimes been close to impossible. The only thing that got him out the door was the thought of coming back to her, sliding under those covers, and feeling her body opening to him again. The truck bounced over a block of ice and Eric hit his head on the ceiling. Goddamn. He braked too hard and the wheels lost traction sending him sideways off the trail. He counter steered, eased off the pressure on the brakes and finally the truck rolled to a stop.
Eric drew in a deep breath and dried his forehead with the back of his hand. He’d been going too fast in this shitty weather because he was late, and now he was going to be even more late. Damn her. He put the gear in reverse and looked over his shoulder. Well, if it was any comfort, he probably wouldn’t be late anymore. Not if Kirsten was going back to town.
Even with the radio on low volume, he barely heard the crack. The truck was halfway under water before he realised what had happened. Jez, she told me. He’d no idea what he meant with those words, they were just there, inside his head as the truck descended, and the words more than the descent made his pulse rise. Above his head, water covered the last inch of the windshield and swallowed up the truck. She told me. That’s when he remembered why Kirsten feared going onto the ice. They’d only been dating about a month when she told him.
It was in the middle of the night and she was warming her hands on a cup of his infamous rom-toddy. Embers smoldered in the fireplace. He remembered how their glow seemed to be reflected in her eyes.
“I broke through the ice once,” she said.
“On a lake? How?”
“The drilling rig I was operating went through. No warning. It just sank like that.” She snapped her fingers.
“Couldn’t you get out?”
She shook her head. “It happened so fast.”
Eric looked out the windshield. The headlights were still on but instead of catching whirling snowflakes, he saw a stream of bobbles covering the glass and beyond it only darkness. He blinked hard. It couldn’t be happening, it couldn’t be.
The radio was on low volume, but without the roar of the engine the debate rang out loudly. “…But if the government doesn’t step in and make regulations as to how much security is needed in this matter, we’re all in grave danger.”
Eric ignored it and tried to remember more of the three-year old conversation.
“You were in the rig as it was sinking?
She nodded.
“You must have been terrified.”
“No. There really wasn’t time. As soon as the water started seeping in, I knew I had seconds to prepare myself.”
Eric looked down. Shit. Water was seeping in. The truck was still falling. How deep was the lake? How far out had he gone? He was calculating when his decent was broken by a soft bump at the backend of the truck and another bump as the front wheels landed on the rocky floor. As far as he remembered, he hadn’t quite reached the middle of the lake, but there was probably a hundred feet to the surface. The seeping water was streaming in now, and the icy cold reached above his boots, around his knees. He drew in a deep breath and held it as the water reached his crotch, then he started unzipping his coat.
“Welcome to you, Mr. Liao. You been listening to our conversation for this past…” The radio died and the headlights blinked. Eric looked down to the left, and just before the light died, he grabbed the door-handle.
Kirsten took his hand and closed her eyes. “You wouldn’t be able to imagine the darkness at the bed of a lake. It’s not like when you’re in a dark room and just can’t see anything. It’s a darkness that penetrates you, enters your every pore.”
Eric widened his eyes in an attempt to keep the darkness at bay, but it was everywhere. The only sound to break the stillness was the tickling water as it rose higher and higher. It surrounded his chest like an icy breastplate. He started to hyperventilate.
“You just sat in the rig and waited for the water to rise enough for you to open the door?”
“It wasn’t that long a wait. To be honest, I think time disappeared with the light. You asked me before whether I was frightened. I guess when the lights went out, there was a moment where I almost panicked. I was hyperventilating badly as the water rose around me. But then I remembered our training. If you hyperventilate before holding your breath, you oxygenate your blood, and you’ll be able to hold your breath longer. I realised my body was instinctively preparing itself. All I had to do was help it.”
“You’re one coolheaded lady, that’s for sure.”
“Would you have said that to a man?” She lifted her chin, shaking her head. “Guys still expect women to panic while they stay calm.”
The hand not holding the door-handle shook like crazy, and he made a fist to keep it steady. Still hyperventilating, Eric lifted his bum off the seat to follow the rising water as far as he could. In the corner between the ceiling and the windshield he drew his last breath and with it all sound disappeared. He opened the door of the truck and stepped out.
“What was it like down there, besides dark?”
“Quiet. So unbelievably quiet. In movies you always hear bobbles when the camera goes under water. But there’s no sound at all. And yet it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Quiet seemed to ring out like a silent crystal bell.”
He’d sniggered.
“Don’t do that. I know silence isn’t supposed to have a sound, but it has. I’ve had many sleepless nights find the right words for it.”
“I’m sorry, babe, I’m an ass. I’ve just never heard you being poetic like that. Weren’t you freezing?”
She shook her head. “I don’t recall being cold at all. Only stiff and breathless but that came later. I guess adrenalin keeps you from feeling your body freeze. Once I was out of the rig, I was focused on one thing, and one thing only: Getting up.”
Standing on the rocky lake floor, Eric shed his unzipped coat, bended his knees, and with all the force he could muster, pushed upwards. He kicked his feet in the heavy boots, used his arms to draw up and up and up.
Or was he going up? No, he was going down. He was kicking his way down again. Or was he? What the hell way was he going? His lungs tried to expand in his chest, tried to draw in air. A convulsion shook his body.
“it’s so dark you lose sense of direction.”
She was gone and he was alone drinking whiskey. But he hadn’t had that stuff in the cottage for ten years. Not since pops passed. The sponge. That’s what everybody called him. Folks always talked. Eric saw himself checking the turbines. The log showed an endless list of his name, and the time always marked at 10:00 PM.
He kicked his legs harder. Up, he needed to get up. If only he knew he was going in the right direction. Kirsten, for goodness sake, don’t leave me in this darkness. Then far away as if he was looking through a keyhole, he saw the old scene in front of the fireplace. Except he wasn’t there. He was the one who’d left. Eric could see Kirsten’s lips moving but her voice sounded strange as if it came through a long pipe.
“The only thing I could do was keep going. If I stopped, I’d die.”
It couldn’t be this far to the surface, he was pretty sure about that. Somehow he’d got himself twisted around, and he was propelling himself further down into the endless darkness. And yet Kirsten’s words kept him going. His legs didn’t feel like legs anymore. They felt like logs, big stiff logs, and he almost couldn’t kick them. His head tipped back and his mouth opened a little.
Then he realised his eyes were open. They had to be, because he saw something. He tried to lift his arms as a stream of bobbles escaped his mouth. He closed it firmly and widened his eyes. Yes, there was something. Good gracious, it was white; white ice. He moved his legs a little more, used his arms as flippers. And then his head hit the hard uneven ice. The pain shook him, almost making him forget to hold his breath, he felt for an opening but everything was solid. Come on, I made it up here!
“There’s no hole, not even visible cracks, you know.” Kirsten leaned forward to stir up the embers. “The ice breaks but falls back in place within seconds.”
Eric put a new log on top of the embers and opened the damper. “How did you find your way though?”
“I had to go back down and look for the yellow.”
“Yellow?”
God, he didn’t want to, and yet he pushed off the ice and used his arms as shovels to push more and more water above him. All the while he kept his eyes on the surface above him. Kirsten was right, he could see no cracks in the ice, no opening. But there was a patch that seemed darker a little to his right. It’d been a sunny day when Kirsten went through, and she had been able to detect sunlight, maybe he was seeing a bit of black night? He swam toward the dark patch. There was no time to consider anything else.
When Eric pushed through the surface and heaved in air it felt like drinking refreshing spring water. He leaned back and let oxygen fill his limbs. Then he looked at the ten-inch solid ice wall surrounding him. At least he wasn’t as heavy as his truck. The ice would carry his weight. He reached above him till his elbow and lower arm rested on the edge of the ice. There was no feeling in his fingers, even his arms felt like badly operated thongs. He had to get out now or it would be too late. Still hanging by the elbow of his right arm, he lifted up his left arm. A deep cry escaped him as he dragged himself up till he was hanging in his armpits. After a few breaths he swung his right leg up and caught the edge with his knee. Another cry got his right boot up on the ice too, and slowly, slowly he let himself roll further in so the left leg was drawn out of the water at last. Alongside the hole, he lay on his back breathing rapidly, then he laughed out loud as he remembered the last part of the old conversation.
“So what did you do once you were out of the water? Was your truck parked close by?”
“I wasn’t on the ice alone, you goof ball. How crazy do you think I am? The second my colleagues saw me, they got me out of the water and called 911. I was rolled in blankets and flown to a hospital with a rescue chopper five minutes later.”
“Ha, don’t make it sound as if you hadn’t survived on your own. I know you. You’d have dragged your ass back to your truck and driven yourself to the hospital if you had to.”
“You wouldn’t have looked at me with those hungry eyes if I had.”
“Why not?”
“I’d have to have the fat layer of a walrus to be able to walk anywhere after two minutes in that water.”
The laugh still lingered in his throat as he looked at the snow falling from the sky. It didn’t feel cold at all to lay there wet in the snow, but he knew it wasn’t a good sign. He didn’t have the fat layer of a walrus. He rolled to his side and drew his knees toward his stomach. Everything swayed when he got onto his knees and tried to stand on his feet. He got too much weight forward and stumbled, landing facedown in the snow. Goddamn. He rolled to his back and exhaled. Nope, definitely no fat layer of a walrus. Then he leaned to his side again, drew his knees toward his stomach and sat up on them. He couldn’t give up now. She’d gotten him out of the darkness, he had to find his way home on his own. Standing on two stiff legs, he took at step forward. Keeping balance was going to be an issue. It felt as if his feet had been sawed off and replaced by round knobs. At least he hadn’t dropped his Sorels in the water. Only his coat. Well, a woolen sweater would keep you warm although it was wet, right? And his pants were insulated. For a non-walrus, his chances weren’t that bad.
He squinted and looked around him in the whirling snow. Was he even going to be able to find his way back to shore? He almost stumbled into the skid marks of the truck. Thank goodness, they’d take him right back to the trail across the lake. Strange that they hadn’t been covered in snow by now? That’s when he realised not more than ten minutes could have passed since the truck went under. It was just every minute that had felt like a life time. He placed his hands in his armpits to protect them from the icy wind and followed the skid marks. Half a mile on the lake, another mile on the trail to the main road. Surely someone would come by on the main road? Otherwise it was two miles more down the road. A bust of wind made him stumble and fall. He removed his hands from his armpits, put them down into the snow and looked up. Clearly he had another few lifetimes ahead of him.
Kirsten sat at her desk with her back to him, staring at her computer when he opened the door. “Back already?” she said without turning around.
“Yeah.” His voice made her turn. It was so hoarse and raw it sounded as if he hadn’t used it for years.
“Jesus, Eric.” Her eyes widened and she nearly tripped over the wheels as she sprang from her swirl-chair. “What happened? You look like a dead man.”
He swayed a little, feeling extremely tired. Just before he fell, he smiled and said: “I’m a walrus.”
When he awoke again, Kirsten sat at his side with a phone to her ear and tears streaming down her cheeks. “I don’t have a fucking tub. Will you listen already? What do I do when I don’t have a tub?”
Eric frowned and fought his way onto his elbows. Why was she angry?
“Okay got it, got it, got it.” She dropped the phone on the floor, ran to the kitchen area, filled the kettle, opened the fridge and found apple juice. All in one movement. Eric leaned back again. He noticed that he was naked and covered by the soft bison wool cover from their bed. It felt nice. Everything felt nice.
Kirsten was back a few minutes later carrying hot water bottles, towels and a tall glass of something steaming. She rolled the water bottles into the towels and placed them at his chest, groin and neck. It wasn’t till it was all in place that she realised he was awake.
“Hey you,” she said. Her eyes softened when they met his, but he could still see the fear in them. “Do you think you can drink this?”
Eric nodded and came back upon his elbows. He’d expected something strong, and his face must have shown his surprise at the sweet apple toddy because she said, “No alcohol for hypothermia patients. Only sweet warm drinks.” He felt her hand caress his forehead and hair. “I tried calling an ambulance, but the snow’s too deep for them. They’d send the chopper, but it’s already busy with a collision in Doversdale.” Acidity entered Kirsten’s voice when she continued, “They’ll call back in an hour, and if you’re not dead, they’ll see if the chopper’s available.” She tried to smile but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I guess you must have had some sort of accident, since I can’t find the truck anywhere, otherwise I’d have taken you myself. As soon as you’ve had a bit more to drink, I’ll call Derek.”
Eric smiled a wide relaxed smile. “Kirsten, if I was going to die, I would have done so already.”
“It’s not just dying, Eric. I’m afraid of frostbite, too. Your cheeks were so cold ice clung to them. I had to cut open your sweater and pants with the steel plate cutter. What happened, Eric?”
He stopped smiling and shook his head. “I went under. In the truck, you know.”
“Went under?” He could see when she realised what he meant. “The lake? Eric, you fool. You never listen to me…”
“I do, Kirsten.” He sat up further and took her hand into his pricking red ones. Pricking was a good sign. “You got me out of the darkness. Your voice telling me every step of the way. Remember three years ago when you told me about your accident on the ice? I remembered it all. I agree with your description of the silence down there. Quiet ringing out…”
“…like a silent silver bell,” she finished his sentence. “You remembered that? You laughed at me.”
“Not silver, crystal. A silent crystal bell. Yeah, I remember.” He patted his legs. “Come sit here.”
“What?”
“Come sit here in my arms.”
Kirsten crawled closer to him. He took her in his arms so she was sitting in his lap the way he would have lifted her if he’d ever had the courage to lift her off her feet. “You’ve been showing me the way to the surface since the day you kissed me.”
Kirsten placed a hand on his chest. “Don’t think about all the stuff I said before, honey. Not now. I’m just glad you’re alive.”
Eric shook his head. “When I thought about you leaving me…” He swallowed and leaned his forehead against hers. “Kirsten, I’d sink deep without you. And not just out on the lake. I’d sink deep without you anywhere.” He swallowed again and his voice was barely a whisper when he continued. “I do, you know. I do love you.”
He could feel her shoulders move up and down in little movements, but when he lifted his eyes, he was surprised to see that she was not crying but laughing.
Her tiny hand touched his cheek. “You thought I was leaving you?”
“Wasn’t that what you were trying to tell me?”
“Honey, you never listen to me.” She bit her lover lip. “I’m pregnant.”

One response to “Listen”

  1. A delightful story. I was on the edge of my seat there for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

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