This short story was written in June of 2015. The background is, back in the day (by which I mean 2014, which feels like a billion years ago at this point) I hosted a short writing tournament on a forum I used to frequent in which writers would get a set of prompts with which they were to write a story featuring both their and their opponent’s OC. The tournament had some amount of success, but one of the entries struck me as having a lot of lost potential. So I rewrote the story into what you see here, “rewrote” being used in the loosest sense possible since the characters, situation, and background are all different and only some elements of the plot and superficial points remain the same.
I think that this story was a pretty important part of my development as a writer, and one of the major stepping stones I took to writing–and more importantly, following through on–longer novel-length stories, so without further ado, here is Apples and Cinnamon, a story about two people being very sad about a dead person.
Desmond Xander McKenna is not a grief counselor. He’s not even the next best thing.
He muses on this as he drags himself up the stairs to his supervisor’s apartment.
Why did his coworkers have to send him, of all people, to talk to Isa? He’s not good at talking to people. He’s not even good at talking to this one specific person.
He grumbles as he takes the last few steps to Isa’s floor, but it’s all for show. The truth is, his heart’s almost beating out of his chest and he’s quietly hoping that his dinner won’t make a surprise reappearance (unfortunately, prospects aren’t looking too good on that front). All in all, it’s like he’s submitting his thesis all over again—all nerves and shaky hands—except it’s way worse because he’s so not ready to talk down his grieving boss. Especially when said boss is grieving about their mutual best friend’s death.
Desmond reaches the top of the stairs and stops. He closes his eyes and forces himself to take a deep breath.
The smell of musty carpet hits him like a truck, kicking up thoughts of Lenore like swirling clouds of dust in his head. He remembers her smile, her voice, the way she always looked so surprised when someone made her laugh.
When he opens his eyes again, he doesn’t move. He just stands there for a while, looking down the hallway at all of the identical apartment doors.
He remembers going down this hallway for the first time, something years ago. He can practically see Lenore’s face-splitting grin and hear her say, “Thanks for coming to see my boyfriend, Des,” in that infuriating lilt of hers. Then he saw his new boss through the doorway, and boy, was that a shock.
Desmond had long since gotten over his middle school crush, but he couldn’t deny it hurt.
He eventually detaches himself from the wall and heads down to Isa’s apartment. It’s slow going, for all that his legs feel like lead. He keeps his eyes on the ground, tracing the faded patterns in the worn carpet. It’s not like he needs to look at the apartment numbers anyways.
Isa isn’t a friend—never was, though it’s not his fault, amicable as he is. It’s just that Desmond couldn’t bring himself to trust his boss the way he could Lenore, and once Isa saw that, he didn’t push it. Desmond had no personal obligations to the man, and he preferred it that way. He just worked for him.
But in the end, that’s enough. He is the one walking down to Isa’s apartment like it’s the freaking gallows, because he and everyone else at the lab knows that nobody else can do what he’s about to do, and that, more than anything else, terrifies him.
Desmond swallows his pride and his fear and sets aside the cold feeling creeping into his chest. He walks because anything else is an affront to Lenore’s memory.
He stops at the door and, more out of habit than anything else, knocks slowly three times. It’s the knock for “friends”, codes being one of those things that Lenore had indulged in over the years. He has a spare key, but it seems awfully rude to let himself in under current circumstances.
Maybe a minute passes before he hears the familiar sound of creaking floorboards. A few seconds later, Isa opens the door.
Isa’s eyes widen when he sees Desmond. His mouth opens and closes, but nothing comes out.
He looks like crap. His face is sallow and gaunt, his hair is more gray than brown, and his eyes are sunken and bloodshot and ringed by dark circles. He hasn’t shaved for a few days and it doesn’t look like he’s changed clothes in just as long.
Desmond does his best not to cringe.
“Hey,” he says before the silence gets too awkward. He considers faking a smile, but that seems disrespectful. “Is it a bad time?”
Isa smiles, just a tiny bit. It’s not much, but it helps. “No, not at all,” he says.
“Yeah,” Desmond replies. “We—we’ve been worried, down at the lab. Wanted to make sure you were okay since…you know.”
Isa blinks like Desmond’s speaking a foreign language. Eventually, he says, “Sure, why don’t you come in?”
Desmond actually considers refusing. The hallway is bad enough, so the apartment would be overkill. But there’s that feeling again like a hunk of ice in his stomach and he forcefully reminds himself that this isn’t about him. It’s about Lenore and he doesn’t want her to think he’s some kind of coward, especially when Isa needs help.
Still, he asks, “Are you sure?”
Isa shrugs. “You might as well. It’s not like there’s anything you haven’t seen, yeah?”
Desmond enters and closes the door behind him.
“It’s great to see you, Des,” he imagines Lenore saying as he takes in the warm, familiar smell of apples and cinnamon potpourri. If he closes his eyes, he can almost pretend that she isn’t gone at all. “It’s been such a long time.”
“Sorry about the mess. I’ve been working, and you know how that gets,” Isa says. “Leave your coat wherever, take a seat. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.” He limps off without waiting for an answer.
Desmond throws his coat and scarf over a nearby door hook, enters the living room, and freezes.
Isa’s “mess” threshold might be slightly off.
The apartment is a disaster. Apparently Isa’s last houseguest was a tornado, because papers are strewn everywhere amidst open books and binders and pens and pencils and drafting tools. He’s always known that Isa liked to drown himself in work, but he never realized how literally.
He clears a chair and sits at the breakfast bar, overlooking the kitchen, and spies a few ingredients and knives on the counter by the sink. His brow furrows. It’s past nine o’clock. Is Isa really eating (no, cooking) this late? That can’t be healthy.
Desmond taps the bar nervously. He and Isa definitely need to talk, but what does he say? What can he say?
Sorry your wife is dead?
Suck it up and get back to work?
Desmond sighs and puts his head down on the bar. He hasn’t thought much about Lenore’s death, because it’s not like they cross (crossed) paths all that often and it’s so much easier to work on other things. He isn’t actively ignoring the fact that she’s gone. He just…doesn’t think about it.
Obviously, that doesn’t work here. He tries to comb through his thoughts and file them into convenient little words, but it’s like untangling a string of Christmas lights in the dark—all little glimpses of everything but no clue how one thing connects to the next. All he knows for sure is that there’s an uncomfortably tight feeling in his chest and he desperately wants it to disappear.
After a while, he gives up thinking. Nothing he says is going to help, anyways.
He hears the distinctive tap-click, tap-click of Isa’s prosthetic leg coming back down the hallway and he glances—oh crap, his sleeve is damp. He hastily wipes his face before Isa sees him.
“Sorry about that,” Isa says. He’s changed clothes and washed his face, by the looks of it. He may have even attempted to comb his hair, but Desmond isn’t sure.
“It’s fine,” Desmond replies. “My fault, really. I should have called ahead.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Isa says with a dismissive wave. He swings around to the kitchen and plucks a bowl from the counter. “I was getting ready to cook dinner when you knocked,” he adds as he runs vegetables under the sink. “I hope you don’t mind if I do that while we talk.”
“No, no. Of course not, Dr. Schwann—”
“We’re not at work, Des. You can call me Isa.”
Desmond doesn’t really know how to respond, but he’s so not comfortable with his boss calling him “Des” (even outside of work, they were barely on first name terms), and he’d only really let that slide in the past because of Lenore.
After a while, Isa breaks the silence and asks, “Do you want to stay for dinner? It’s nothing fancy—just vegetables and fish—but I’d love to have some company.”
Desmond raises his head. Isa looks hollow, and he’s so damn sincere that saying no (no matter how much Desmond wants to) feels like kicking a puppy.
“Yeah,” Desmond chokes out, “if you don’t mind, that would be great.”
Isa smiles in earnest and it lights up his whole face, making his cheeks less pinched and his eyes more alive. It hits Desmond that he might be the only person Isa’s seen since the incident, and the thought is…sad, to say the least.
“Of course not. You know you’re always welcome.” Isa sets his bowl aside, and says, “Would you like a drink? We don’t have any alcohol, but there’s a, uh, bottle of cranberry juice, if you like.”
Desmond’s eyebrows shoot right up into his hairline. He can’t drink—
Right. There’s nobody to ask permission from anymore.
Isa looks off to one side. “We’ve also got iced tea and soy milk, if you prefer either of those. It’s just that, uh, I’ve never had a taste for juice.”
That’s a big fat lie, but Desmond doesn’t call Isa on it. He gets it.
“Juice is fine,” he finally says. “If you’re, y’know. Okay with it.”
A minute and a half later, he’s sitting with a glass of what might be dilute eosin or blood. He takes a tentative sip and a sudden chill shoots up his spine.
“Hey, I’m glad you like it, but slow down. No need to give yourself chills,” Isa says. He starts chopping carrots, filling the air with rhythmic thok-thok-thok sounds.
Desmond stares at the drink like it’s an alien creature. What the hell was that? His gaze flicks suspiciously between the spots on the condensation where he’d touched the glass and the liquid itself as it sits there, harmless and unmoving. He pushes the glass away, but the cold doesn’t subside. He rubs his arms.
“Is there a draft in here?” he asks. “Or something off with the heat?”
“Not that I know of, Des. Why?”
“I…nothing. Never mind.”
Isa raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t pursue the matter further. He finishes with the carrots and moves on to the broccoli. “You wanted to talk?” he asks.
Straight to business. Just as well, because small talk sucks.
“Yeah, I wanted to see how you were holding up after the, uh. After the fire.”
Isa makes a noncommittal noise and says, “I’m fine.”
Desmond huffs. This is why he hates talking to people. “Really? My mistake, then. I guess I came downtown in eight degree weather for nothing, seeing how everything is sunshine and daisies.”
Isa sighs tiredly. “That’s not what I meant, Des.”
“I know it isn’t, so can we skip the evasive crap? I saw you five minutes ago, Dr. Schwann, and that was not ‘fine’.” Desmond nervously rubs the back of his neck. “I…I know I’m crap at talking, but I’ll listen to whatever you have to say. Lenore was my friend, too.”
Isa’s spine goes rigid at her name, but he doesn’t respond, doesn’t even look up as he turns away to pour oil into a wok and slide in the vegetables. A hiss explodes out when they hit the pan—alarmingly loud, actually, but Desmond doesn’t know much about cooking beyond pasta. He assumes (hopes, really) that Isa knows what he’s doing.
Desmond waits until Isa finishes adding sauces and covers the wok, then continues, “It’s been over two weeks. All of us down at the lab, we’ve been busy with repairs and cleanup, but we really want to get back to doing, y’know, research.”
Isa starts chopping green onions and ginger, and says flatly, “I left things to work on.”
“Two weeks is a long time. We’re pretty much through your backlog. We need you, Dr. Schwann. I know you’re not having a great time, but we really do. The radio silence is hard for all of us.”
Isa dumps the spices into a bowl and slides an ugly grey fish onto the cutting board. He gazes at it for a while, then sets his knife down. He looks up, squarely meeting Desmond’s eyes.
“I know,” he says.
Desmond isn’t sure what he expected to hear. Anger, maybe, or sorrow. Instead, all he hears is weariness. For some reason, that’s way worse.
Isa continues. “I can’t apologize enough for my recent behavior. I’m supposed to support you guys, especially in difficult times like this, and it’s—it’s not helping anyone, my mourning. But I…I can’t not grieve, Des, and I mean, I’m trying to—” He falters and stops, unsure of what to say next.
“Nobody expects you to be all right. You’ve lost the most out of all of us,” Desmond says.
“That’s a lie, Des. I appreciate it, but it’s still a lie. You knew her just as well as I did, maybe better, yet here you are, trying to talk sense into me.” Isa smiles bitterly. “You saw it, I’m falling apart here while you’re…fine. Actually fine.”
Desmond’s heart clenches. I’m not fine, he wants to protest. I’m not okay because Lenore is dead and I have absolutely no goddamn clue what I’m doing. The words gather at the tip of his tongue, but he can’t force them out.
Isa doesn’t notice. “I’m letting you guys down, and I’m sorry. You deserve better, honestly, but…” He lapses into silence.
Desmond recognizes Isa’s tone from so many times before and immediately, he hears echoes of Lenore cussing him out.
“Will you get your head out of your ass or do I have to do it for you?” she used to say, her voice harsh and clear even after Desmond had discreetly left and shut the door behind him. “Feel free to quit moaning about how you’re a constant screwup, because you’re not! Nobody expects you to make the sun rise in the morning, for God’s sake. The guys at the lab all look up to you for a reason.”
It’s not until Desmond registers Isa’s gobsmacked stare that he realizes he’s said all that out loud. Heat floods his face, temporarily flushing out the cold. He depends on Isa for his paycheck, dammit. He can’t be—
“I’m so sorry.” The words tumble out of Desmond’s mouth. “I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s okay. You’re right. It’s just…that sounded a lot like her.” Isa laughs without mirth and turns his attention back to the fish on the cutting board.
Desmond puts his head back down on the breakfast bar, dignity be damned. He messed up, really messed up. He should have paid more attention to the crap coming out of his mouth, because while he has no clue what’s right, emulating Lenore was definitely not it.
What the hell possessed him to say that? He was…well, not smarter, really, but he knew better.
He hears Isa take the wok off of the stove and pour out the vegetables, then start cooking the fish like Desmond isn’t even there. It’s better that way, really. Anything he says will just dig himself deeper.
Isa cooks, and Desmond finds it easier to listen than think, so that’s what he does. His eyes idly sweep up and down the bar, taking in the scattered objects lying about.
There’s the juice, obviously, gleaming red and largely undrunk. There’s a little wicker tray with inconsequential things like vitamin bottles and gum and photos. Lenore used to put flowers in there, but there aren’t any now. Evidently, the last flowers had long since wilted and died.
Desmond’s hand passes over the bar and, almost unintentionally, falls on a face-down photo. He picks it up and shudders. It’s Lenore’s faculty photo, set in a mahogany frame.
There’s a lively nature to the picture, a spirit captured by the camera that Desmond can’t quite describe. His eyes flit from that curl in her hair she always tried to hide to the sharp angle of her brow to that damn lab coat she was so proud of (the one still hanging in her office, right now). He winces at the brightness in her sly smile like she totally wasn’t going to die at the age of thirty-two, two weeks ago.
Something grips Desmond’s heart again, pressing hard against his ribcage and lungs. He tries and miserably fails to ignore it. Intellectually, he gets that Lenore is dead. He even gets that life is almost exactly the same now that she’s gone (they interacted so little these days—those days—after all), but he also knows that he’s supposed to feel this loss and not go on like normal. He’s supposed to mourn. He’s supposed to suffer. He’s supposed to feel something, now that one of his best friends is dead.
And he does. By God, does he feel something.
It’s just that he doesn’t think he’s feeling the right thing.
“What are you doing with that?” Isa’s voice is uncharacteristically sharp, and it snaps Desmond out of his reverie.
He looks at Isa and flinches from his stony glare. He stares back down at the picture, but that spirit, that vigor, that whatever he saw isn’t there anymore; it’s ink and paper, and nothing more. “I’m looking at it?” he answers.
Isa’s face softens a bit, though his voice is no less harsh. “Where did you get it?”
Desmond gestures to the bar. “It was lying here.”
Isa doesn’t look like he believes him, but he lowers the heat on the stove and comes around to the other side of the breakfast bar. He sits next to Desmond, gingerly takes the photo back, and runs his fingers along the frame. He doesn’t touch the glass.
“I miss her,” he says, so softly that Desmond isn’t sure he heard him.
“You can’t help that,” Desmond replies. “It’s normal.”
Isa shakes his head. “It’s not, Des. You don’t get it. I—” He chokes off the sentence and his breath hitches. Desmond offers a hand (that’s what he’s supposed to do, right?), but Isa turns away. Isa takes a few deep, shuddering breaths before he’s able to talk again. “It’s not what you think it is, Des.”
“Is this your guilt complex thing again?” The second it’s out of his mouth, Desmond wants to crawl in a hole and die (and maybe pull that foot out of his mouth if he has time). He has one freaking job, and…
But Isa doesn’t punch him in the face. Instead, he faces Desmond, eyes bright with tears, and says, “Des, I…I know you don’t particularly like me. I know you really liked…her, and I’ve never been the most accommodating.” It all comes out in a rush. “But I trust you, and I…is that okay?”
Wait, what? What does that even mean?
“Y-yeah, of course,” Desmond stammers out.
Isa holds his gaze with wide green eyes and nods once. He jerks away and stares at the photo again, carefully holding it away from his face. He breathes slowly, in and out. “Des, you got out of the building before the rest of us, didn’t you?” he asks. His voice wavers, but doesn’t crack. “You were what, sending those papers to radiology when the power went down because you lost at rock-paper-scissors?”
Desmond nods. He’ll be damned if he knows where Isa’s going with this, but he doesn’t dare interrupt.
“So you weren’t in the lab when she showed up.” Isa swallows. “Did you ever hear how…what she did?”
Desmond shakes his head. Since the fire, he’d heard some things about a freak malfunction with the fire safety and electronics systems, an unfortunate marriage between a bunsen burner and ammonium nitrate, and a huge panic, but little else. For his part, he had nearly walked into it on the fourth floor on his way back up, then turned the hell around and slammed the door behind him (to block the spread, though from what he’d heard, it wasn’t as effective as he’d hoped).
“The fire had already gotten to at least the third floor when she came to the lab,” Isa starts, building strength as he speaks. “The fire alarm wasn’t working, and neither was the PA system. If she hadn’t arrived, we would have had no idea there was a fire at all. Not until the escape routes were blocked off.
“She called the fire department. She called people on higher levels to get them out. And when she was done, she went up to those floors herself to make sure nobody got left behind.
“She’s the only one who didn’t make it out in time.” There’s a sort of finality to his words, like the last puff of air whimpering out of a balloon.
Desmond tries to connect the dots, but can’t. “Dr. Sch—Isa.” It’s surprisingly difficult to say his name when Lenore isn’t around. “That isn’t your fault.”
“You say that, but you weren’t there. She went straight to my office, told me about the fire, and said, ‘Isa, you need to get your people out of here right now.’ And you know what I did? I argued. Right as she was leaving, I grabbed her by the shoulder and said, no, she can’t go further into the building. I could go in her place. She needed to evacuate, just like everyone else.”
Desmond opens his mouth to speak, but Isa plows right through him. “She didn’t say much, Des. Never did, when time got tight. But the last thing she does, she looks at me straight in the eyes and—” he takes a deep breath, “—she looks at me and says, ‘I’m sorry.’
“And she leaves.”
Isa lays the photo face-down on the bar again. “Des, the entire time I was going down those stairs, you know what I was thinking?” He bows his head over fists that are clenched so tight that they’re almost white. “I was telling myself, there was nothing I could do. I’d just be a hindrance, me and my gimp leg. I had to get out. She…she’d be fine.”
“There isn’t anything you could have done,” Desmond cuts in. “Her death was a tragic accident, and there’s no way you could have…could have known.”
“No,” Isa says. He lets the word sit for a while against the muted sound of sizzling fish. “There’s no way I could have known, but I…she didn’t have to die, Des. She didn’t deserve that.”
“Nobody’s saying she did.”
“I could have stopped her, Des! I could have gone with her, given her those crucial minutes, I could have—” Isa chokes on the words. “I could have trusted her. Even that one minute I spent arguing, that could have made the difference.”
“You don’t know any of that. You did your job, you got all of us out safely. For all you know, you’d be dead too if you went with her.”
Isa slams his hands on the bar. “Then at least I’d have done something! At least then I’d be more than a fucking coward with a missing leg and all these goddamn excuses!”
The outburst and everything attached to it—the anger, the resentment, the guilt—hangs in the air like a physical, suffocating presence. Isa, seemingly deflated, practically crumples in on himself and slides down to the bar, hands hopelessly tangled in his hair. His breath hitches again, and there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s crying.
Desmond finds himself at a loss for words (in of itself, not a new occurrence). After a while, he just says, “Isa.”
He lays a hand on Isa’s back and repeats his name a few times. Isa’s breathing doesn’t even out and his body doesn’t stop shaking.
“Why…why did she leave me behind?” Isa asks in cracked, nigh-hysterical tones. “Why couldn’t I have gone with her?”
Desmond feels a muscle in his jaw twitch and his hand on Isa’s back curls into a fist. “Isa, if you’re implying for one second that you deserve to die—”
“Better me than her.”
At once, that cold weight in Desmond’s chest explodes into his body and limbs and face and eyes and he grabs Isa by the shoulders and shakes him. He’s being violent—he knows it, but he can’t stop himself. Suddenly, he doesn’t care that Isa is his boss, who has the power to hire and fire. He doesn’t care that Isa’s halfway into a total meltdown. He doesn’t even care that this is the man who took Lenore’s heart.
Well, that’s not true. He definitely cares about that.
“Listen to me, you selfish bastard,” he practically snarls. “Do you really think that she abandoned you? Lenore loved you, you son of a bitch. She didn’t go up there to sacrifice herself like some martyr, she went up there because she knew there were people who would die if she didn’t. She wanted you out because she needed to know that you were safe.”
Isa looks straight ahead, but it’s clear that between the tears and his breakdown, he’s not seeing anything. “I don’t deserve—”
“Cut it with your fucking worthless crap! Lenore died to save your life, and you’re still going to rail on about how you’re not worthy?” He pulls Isa close and looks him straight in the eyes. His voice drops dangerously low. “How little does her life mean to you?”
Isa blinks blearily. “What? I—”
“She decided that her life was worth yours. If you’re willing to throw everything away, then what does that say about her?” Desmond lets go of Isa, his hands still shaking with cold, angry energy. “I loved her, Isa. And she loved you. She wouldn’t have wanted—doesn’t want—you to suffer like this. I think you can respect her at least that much.
“And for what it’s worth, we need you back at the lab. You’re important to us and we miss you. Really.” Desmond furiously wipes his eyes and curses his emotions for all he’s worth. There is absolutely nothing worse than breaking down where others can see.
Except maybe lashing out at a slightly suicidal friend like a complete asshole and fuck, this is exactly why he isn’t a grief counselor. (Also he’s possibly just ruined his career, but that can seriously wait.)
He sits there and his eyes don’t focus and his body won’t stop shaking from adrenaline (and the cold, the cold won’t go away). Shame sits so heavy on him that he takes way too long to realize someone’s pushing an object into his hands.
He glances down. Lenore’s faculty photo smiles up at him.
Isa sniffs and says, “Dining room.” His voice is shaky and quiet, but otherwise under control. “Far seat. I don’t know how it got all the way over here. The fish should be done about now, yeah?”
Desmond knows a command when he hears one. He nods, drops out of his seat, and goes to the dining room. He doesn’t want to look at Isa anyways.
He enters the room and feels that cold again like a bucket of ice water (and dammit, no matter what Isa says, there is something wrong with the heat in this place). He scans over the table and sees it.
There, past the red deck of cards that he bought in Vegas, is a petri dish with two gold wedding bands in it.
No wonder Isa was angry.
He shuffles over and props the picture up next to the rings, careful to get it as straight as he can. He hears Lenore’s words in his head again, cooing, “Careful does it, take your time. Better that way, don’t you think?”
Desmond’s hands freeze on the photo, because when the hell did she say that? He glances up and his breath absolutely stops.
Because there’s Lenore, sitting right there, right next to him with her straight brown hair falling around her shoulders and her eyes warm and clear and her smile wide like everything is sunshine and rainbows.
He blinks, and she’s gone.
The smell of apples and cinnamon burns in his nostrils.
“Are you all right?” Isa asks from behind him, placid like Desmond hadn’t screamed in his face literally three minutes ago. Desmond hears the words, but they don’t really register.
He whirls around, and his eyes instantly fall on the burgundy vase on the side table where that smell should be—must be—coming from.
He rushes over as fast as he conceivably can, ignoring Isa’s indignant protests, and scoops up the vase.
“Des, what—what’s going on?”
“The potpourri,” Desmond says.
“I…Des, she stopped doing that about six months ago. Are you okay?”
Desmond blinks rapidly and he can practically feel the gears slip in his mind. He smelled it, he knows he did, and he can still smell it, heavy in the room and overpowering. But if she stopped, then…
Isa sets down his bowl of vegetables. “Des, you’re really pale. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you another serving of juice or something?”
Desmond snaps around to face Isa. “Another?”
“Yeah, another. Refill your glass.” Isa shoots Desmond this look before leaving to get some whatever.
Desmond follows towards the doorway, protesting, “I didn’t—” But then he sees his glass is completely empty and the words fall flat. He starts to feel faint, and he more collapses into than sits in the chair that Isa’s pulled out for him.
“I’m going insane,” he mutters to himself.
Desmond’s head spins like a centrifuge. There’s got to be some explanation—any explanation that can make everything make sense, but what? The cold crawls up his spine again, and he starts to suspect that Isa might not be lying when he says there’s nothing wrong with the heat.
He imagines Lenore’s hand on his shoulder (except it’s not imaginary, cries the irrational part of his mind) and he can nearly see her pulling the deck of cards over, saying, “I learned a new trick. Here, I’ll show you.”
It’s all in his head, he knows it is, except he opens his eyes and now the cards are in his hands, and he has absolutely no idea how they got there.
He fumbles like he’s wearing oven mitts as he mechanically riffles and bridges the cards. They bend and slide together cleanly; he paid extra for this deck, after all.
He doesn’t wait for the crazy voice in his head and just starts flipping cards off of the top.
Queen of diamonds. Lenore’s favorite card.
Low joker. His card.
King of diamonds. Isa’s card.
Desmond almost drops the deck. Magic cards and fortune telling aren’t real, but that’s one hell of a coincidence.
Hastily, he sweeps the cards back into his hand and fans them out. It’s a normal deck, ace through king. He really is going insane, he thinks as he riffles the deck and flips the top three cards a second time.
And immediately, something is screaming in his head that it isn’t possible—can’t be possible—because he put those cards at the bottom of the deck and he only shuffled once and mathematically, there’s no way for them to make their way to the top.
But there’s a relieved voice in the back of his head that says, no, I’m not crazy after all.
He pulls the cards together and riffles again.
“Doing a magic trick?” Isa asks from behind him.
“No, not really,” Desmond says thickly.
He pulls three random cards out of the deck, and it’s the same three cards a third time.
He’s almost not surprised.
“Isa,” Desmond says as he gathers the cards again. “Did Lenore have some code with you? With cards?”
Isa puts the fish down and gives him a weird look, but says, “A few phrases, yes. Why?”
Desmond holds the deck out to Isa and flips three of them. “Queen of diamonds. Low joker. King of diamonds.”
Isa looks at the cards, at a loss for words. “One hell of a trick,” he manages to say.
“It’s not a trick. This is the fourth time in a row and that’s not possible, but it happened. Something’s going on here.”
“Des, are you okay?”
It takes everything Desmond has to not slam the table in frustration. “I’m not going crazy, Isa. There’s something up with your apartment and the stuff going on tonight and—”
“What are you talking about? Nothing’s happened—”
“What was Lenore wearing the day she died?”
Isa’s eyes widen, and the sudden fury coming off of him is almost palpable. He takes a deep breath and opens his mouth to say something, but Desmond cuts him off.
“It was that sweater, wasn’t it?” he says, vaguely aware that his voice is creeping towards hysteric. “The red one you bought her for Christmas last year, with the buttons on the sleeve.”
Isa’s face flips from anger to stunned disbelief so quickly it’s almost comical.
“And that necklace, the one with the carnelian that she bought to celebrate her PhD?”
“This isn’t funny,” Isa snaps.
“I’m not laughing.” Desmond shoves the cards into Isa’s hands. “Flip some cards. You’ve got your code or whatever. I think she…I think Lenore has something to say.”
“She’s dead, Desmond. You—”
“I know she’s dead, Isa! Just humor me, okay? I’ll go talk to a psychiatrist or whatever later, just flip the goddamn cards!” He buries his face in his hands, his eyes burning. What the hell was the world coming to?
But sure enough, he hears the slow and irregular fit-fit-fit of flipped cards, followed by a slow, shocked breath.
Desmond glances up and sees an ace, five, and four threes in a row. He can’t discern anything from that, but Isa clearly does, because he incredulously runs a nervous hand over his bone-white face, and breathes, “This…this isn’t a trick? This is real?”
He sounds so hopeful it’s painful.
“Yeah,” Desmond says, and he swears to Lenore that he had better not be lying, because he doesn’t think he can take it if he is. “It’s real, Isa. She’s here.”
Isa smiles grimly. “Ghosts and…that’s crazy, but…” He sweeps the cards back into the deck, shuffles again, and says, “I’m fine, but I miss you. A lot. Des yelled at me, but you were there for that, weren’t you?”
He flips two cards: ace, three.
He laughs bitterly. When he speaks, it’s like he’s completely forgotten Desmond is there. “Of course you were. You would have yelled at me even more, I’m sure. Are you— How are you?”
Two. Queen of diamonds. Five.
Isa’s grip on the cards tightens and he starts shaking again. “R-really? That’s…that’s great.” His voice is on the verge of cracking. “I…” Isa coughs and wipes his eyes and he hands the cards to Desmond again. “I don’t think I can do this. It’s too much.”
Desmond looks at the cards. “I can flip them for you, if you want.”
Isa nods and says, “Please. The first card tells you how many to flip.”
Desmond riffles the cards and starts flipping: three, ace, four, three.
“I love you, too,” Isa murmurs (practically hiccups, actually). He’s got his face in his hands, but Desmond can see that he’s smiling.
Desmond shuffles and flips. “Three, three, five.”
Isa gets up so fast that his chair screeches on the floor, and he’s suddenly out of the dining room and out of sight. Desmond hears him blow his nose.
When Isa comes back a few minutes later, his face is flushed and he’s crying again, but he has that sad smile on his lips and a resigned walk as he sits back down.
“I still think she would have survived if she’d had a little more time,” he murmurs. “On her way out, the fire exit was blocked, so she went down to the west hallway. That door’s usually open, but it wasn’t when she got there and the card readers weren’t working. No physical key either, of course. She got trapped and suffocated.”
Isa’s words hit Desmond like a punch to the solar plexus. “I didn’t know that,” Desmond says quietly.
“Most people don’t,” Isa replies. “They told me it was on the fourth floor. If she’d gotten there a little sooner, maybe that door would have been open. She… Nobody could have known, right?”
Suddenly, the cold feeling Desmond’s had in his skin all night evaporates completely and he finally feels the heat in the room, actually smells the food on the table, but he doesn’t feel warm at all. He just feels empty.
Because he’s the one who closed that door.
“I’m sorry,” Desmond blurts out.
Isa raises an eyebrow. “For what? I mean, the yelling earlier was…unnecessary, but I understand. You two, best friends and all. I’m used to it, anyways; you’ve got nothing on her when it comes to tempers. And the accident, well, there’s…nothing anyone could have done.”
Desmond almost chokes. He has so many things he needs to confess, get them out of his system like a burning toxin, but his mouth won’t work and his throat’s closed itself off and he can’t.
“You don’t need to flip any more cards, Des.” Isa’s using his truncated name, but he doesn’t deserve that familiarity, that affection, that trust. “You know how…how Lenore is. Never liked saying ‘goodbye’. Always ‘see you later’.”
“I…” Desmond tries to swallow, but his mouth is completely dry. “I need to go. There’s some stuff I—some things I need to think about.”
Isa puts a hand on his arm as he gets up to leave. “You’re a good guy, Des. Thanks for coming around. I really appreciate it. Even without the…ghost stuff.”
Desmond pulls away from Isa, but he doesn’t say anything, because there’s nothing he can say to make this okay.
“I’ll be back at the lab tomorrow. I think it’s been long enough,” Isa continues. “I’ll see you there, yeah?”
Desmond blinks, but he can’t make his eyes focus, can’t see through the fog in his head. In the end, he only manages a strangled, “Actually, I think I’m going to take a few days off.”