Ian plucked the last notes with his eyes closed. The whole room was silent except for the tune that floated from his guitar. The song he sang had been light, beautiful in its sadness. Even as the final note faded and died, the magic of his song lingered. Some clapped softly, unsure of what response to give, and some cried silently in their seats. All were touched by the message within his lyrics.
“Thank you,” he whispered without looking up. Ian stood and left his seat in the middle of the stage and headed straight for the bartender’s counter. The singer before him had received a hearty applause. He left the audience subdued. Pat, the owner of the bar walked into the spotlight as he always would after a performer had left the stage, but only a few people laughed when he made a joke before introducing the next singer.
Ian slid his guitar into its leather casing and leaned it carefully against the mahogany counter. “Joe, the usual.”
“Coming right up.” The bartender slung the stained cloth he was using to wipe the counter over his left shoulder and took out a bottle of beer. In a fluid motion that bespoke years of experience, he opened the cap and slid the bottle toward Ian. Not a single drop fell on the polished surface of the counter.
“One for me, Joe,” Pat called out from beside Ian. Behind him a woman was singing an original song. Another opened bottle of beer came sliding across the counter. “Thanks.” He lifted the bottle. To Ian, he whispered, “Such a show-off, ain’t he?”
Ian gave Pat a short glance and took a draft.
The audience loved you, boyo. Look at them.” Pat noticed the other man not paying attention to his words. He gave Ian’s shoulder a slight nudge. “Really. Look at them.”
Ian glared at Pat before turning his head to look at the crowd. Even in the dimmed light he could make out a few women wiping their cheeks with tissue or tablecloth or their own sleeves. With a shrug, he turned back and took another draft.
“You could sing for real, you know. Make money like all them professional singers.”
Ian gave Pat a bored, flat stare and finished off the beer.
“Whatever, man. You bring the crowd in, so I don’t complain.” With that, Pat took his bottle, stood up and left Ian alone. He went to greet some patrons sitting at a nearby table and they laughed at something he said.
Just when Ian found the solitude he sought, a woman came by and sat beside him.
“Lovely night, isn’t it?” If the woman sought to initiate a conversation with him, it was one of the lamest line he had heard so far. He ordered another bottle of beer and stole a quick glance at this newcomer. She looked thirty-something, slightly prettier than most cheap hookers, but not someone you could single out in a crowded subway. Not like Sam. Ian took a long swig when a fresh bottle slid to his hand.
“I loved the song you sang. Beautiful voice.” She sounded like she was struggling for the right words to voice out. “I’m Kelly, by the way.” She offered her right hand, but Ian left it hanging without even a single glance. She withdrew her hand and grabbed her half-emptied glass.
Joe left his cloth on the counter and came to the rescue. “Kelly, right?”
The nervous woman forced a smile. “U-huh.”
“Look, let me refill your glass. It’s on the house. And sorry ‘bout my man Ian here. He’s always like this.”
Kelly waited just long enough for her glass to be filled before she left them.
“Thanks, man.” Ian lifted his bottle slightly.
“No sweat. Pity though. This one looked decent.”
“Whatever. I’m done for the night.” Ian finished off his beer and lifted his guitar.
“Right. See you tomorrow, man. But sing something lighter, okay. We’ll have a lot of couples wanting a little romance.” Joe resumed wiping the counter.
“Tomorrow,” he echoed, hollow and barely audible. Ian put on his jacket and quietly left the bar. Pat gave him a single wave to acknowledge his exit.
Winter wind blasted at him just as he opened the door, but Ian ignored the cold just as he had ignored the woman in the bar. His apartment was not far away, but home was not his destination just yet. He had somewhere else to be, someplace away from life. Ian walked the path he had been using every night since…that day, looking up only before crossing the few streets that separated the bar from the graveyard.
Not many people were up and about that night, and those few that lingered hid within the depths of long and thick jackets, their faces masked by shadow even as they passed the watchful glare of streetlights. It was the kind of night when people are not afraid to come up and mug you out in the open. And even if they do, no one would really care. Car honks pierced the air once in a while, and at a distance, sirens from patrol cars could be heard, slightly muffled and not completely out of place. It is the city, after all.
When Ian reached the graveyard, the gate was closed but not locked. Just as he touched its cold metal surface, the bell from the clock tower across the street tolled, long and deep, breaking the stillness of the night and canceling out every other sound. Ian looked at his wristwatch. Under the flickering light of a lamppost by the gate, he made out the two overlapped hands. Midnight. The bell struck again. Ian pushed the gate open. Its rusted hinges creaked so loud not even the bell could muffle it out. People like to say teeth-grinding noises like this one could wake the dead. If only the words were true.
The moon was his only source of light in the crowded graveyard, but it had been so long since he last stumbled on a tombstone. He had memorized the position of every marking stone along the route to a particular plot of land that meant the world to him. The bell continued its loud toll, but he wasn’t counting. Ian kept on walking at a leisurely pace, as if he belonged here. He had long ago noticed a certain stillness in the air, as if common breeze dared not touch the hallowed ground. Even the silhouette of the trees that dotted the scenery looked eerier. Once in a while he could make out vague scents of fresh flowers, probably laid there somewhere by visitors during the day. Everything looked, smelled and sounded different during the night than in daytime, but Ian was not that particular on small details. Even sudden sounds of broken twigs or ruffling of wings could not daunt him.
Ian stopped in front of a black marble tombstone. It was simple in design, a slab of polished Italian marble without a crucifix or statue to adorn it, but curved like an arch at the top. Its surface reflected the dim moonlight beautifully, and the gold plated plaque looked brand new even when it had already been there for so long. Ian had hired the caretaker to maintain the tombstone in its perfect condition, and the old man even kept the grass over the grave trimmed evenly. Ian squatted and traced his fingers on the words engraved on the plaque, but he had already committed every single letter and symbol into memory from the very first day he had the tombstone done.
Samantha Jane Watson-Green
18.3.1972 – 14.2.1997
She loved, was loved,
But God loves her more.
His one true love.
Ian slumped and leaned on the cold surface of the tombstone. He closed his eyes and wondered what life would be like if things had not turned out the way they did. His apartment would not be cold and empty. It would have been a home, a place he would have looked forward to go to every night. His bed would not be much too large for him, and he would have someone to wake up beside him every morning. Sam had loved to kiss the tip of his nose to wake him up, and he would brush his lips against hers to tell her he was awake. Ian stroked his nose lightly at the memory of those tender lips touching his skin. If Sam had not been so mercilessly robbed from him, he would be singing songs that celebrated her life, not hollow songs reminiscing in what was.
All of the sudden what Joe had said just now made sense. A night where couples want romance. It was already –
Ian had not heard that voice for exactly a year, but nothing could make him forget the light, tender whisper. Ever. If hearing it wasn’t impossible enough, nothing could prepare him for what he saw when he opened his eyes.
Ian shot up and almost lost his balance. It was impossible, but here she was, standing before him, the love he had lost. Sam was wearing the one-piece sundress that Ian loved, a white sleeveless dress with loose skirt that reached her ankles. The small colorful flowers embroidered on the hem of the skirt looked wonderful, just as he remembered it. She looked so real, so alive, with a rosy hue on her smooth cheeks, and those green eyes that gazed deep to the very core of his soul, and lips so pink and tender he wanted so much to kiss her there and then. Her long auburn hair flowed as if caressed by a gentle wind even though the air around Ian was still.
Ian still could not believe it. She even smelled wonderful. The fragrance of the perfume he had bought for her the last Christmas they had spent together filled his nostrils, bringing back memories he had forgotten.
“It’s been so long, love.” Sam smiled, but in its warmth Ian could sense a deep sadness.
“I’ve wanted to hear that again for so long.” His initial shock subdued, Ian acted instinctively. His fingers, still numb, reached for Sam’s cheeks and lingered there, savoring the smooth and gentle texture he remembered all too well. He closed his eyes and sought her lips, knowing she would reach for his. For the first time in a whole year, Ian felt complete again.
“You…don’t know…how…hard it’s been,” he whispered between gentle kisses. Ian couldn’t breathe right, his chest tight from renewed heartache. Suddenly he remembered the hell he had been through the first few months he spent in denial. “I wake up every morning hoping you’d be there.” Ian tilted Sam’s face upward to study her every feature. “But I always wake up alone.” He felt his chest tighten even more.
“Ian, I can’t stay.” Sam’s face was a conflict of guilt and sadness.
“I know. That’s what hurts me even more. This is not real but I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want to wake up alone again.”
“Ian, love, you know why I’m here.”
Ian wouldn’t let his eyes off Sam’s for fear she would disappear. He had lost her once, and once was more than enough.
“Look behind you. Please, for me.”
Ian felt the need in her voice and couldn’t let her down. Still holding Sam close, he turned around only to find it was no longer as dark as midnight should be. He wasn’t even at the cemetery anymore. The sun was a disk of white light above his head, staring at the world without warmth. They were standing at a broad street, with tall, dull buildings along the length of the avenue. There were many people about, all in their warm jackets. Cars and cabs completed the scene of a busy street. But everything was still, as if God had pressed the pause button. Birds with their wings stretched were suspended in mid-air; even plastic bags and paper blown by the wind were still and unmoving.
“Where are –” Ian knew he was supposed to remember this place, this particular scene, but he couldn’t quite recall what he was seeing. Until he spotted a silver Mercedes Benz down the street. Then everything fell into place. His eyes darted around, looking for people he suspected would be there. Another Sam was across the street, wearing the same dress the one he held was wearing, and another version of him stood among a crowd of pedestrians not far from where he was standing. That other Ian had a single stalk of a large blooming red rose in his hand.
“This is where it happened!” Ian let go of Sam and suddenly everything came to life. A loud honk blasted in the air, the birds continued their hurried flight, and everybody seemed to talk all at the same time. The other Sam walked in Ian’s direction, and his other self waited while others crossed the street, waving his free hand to greet the woman he loved.
Ian rushed across the street, wanting to prevent what he knew had happened. He couldn’t just stand and wait, and he had to do something. But the car sped through him like he was a ghost and everything else was real. A thump, a long pause, and a thud accompanied by a crack. Ian turned around and saw Sam lying on the street, a pool of blood starting to form under her still body. There was a split second of utter silence, followed by shouts of horror and a loud “Sam!” that drowned all other sounds. Ian could only stand still as he watched the other him sitting in the middle of the street cradling Sam in his blood-soaked arms. He was crying, calling out Sam’s name over and over again even though she couldn’t hear him anymore. A ring of spectators was forming around them, horrified look being the general expression. The rose lay forgotten not far from the pool of blood.
Everything disappeared and all was dark and quiet again, leaving Ian empty and devastated. Sam picked up the rose and walked closer to Ian, silent as words did not seem to belong right then.
“Why did you let me see all that again?” His words were barely audible.
“To make you see it wasn’t your fault.”
“But I should have been the one crossing the street.”
“Or the car shouldn’t have been there, or I should’ve looked before crossing. It was my time, Ian, and nothing could have prevented it. You have to let go.”
“I love you…so…much. I can’t…let you go.”
Sam caressed Ian’s cheek, soothing him and calming his shaking body. “Not me, love. The guilt. It was never your fault. I’ve been luckier than most people. I died in the arms of the man I loved. I didn’t feel pain, only your warmth as you held me. I felt your heartbeat, strong and fast, even as mine stopped. I should thank you, love, for leaving me nothing to regret about the life I lived.”
“Don’t leave me again, Sam.” Ian hugged her close and kissed her forehead.
Sam buried her face in Ian’s strong chest. “I’ll always be with you as long as you remember me.” It was all the promise she could give him.
But it was enough. “Then you’ll be with me till the day I die.”
Their kiss was long and tender, filled with years of love they didn’t have to voice out.
* * * * *
“Sonny. You alive?”
Ian awoke to the sharp jab of the butt end of a garden rake on his chest. After blinking a few moments to clear his head, he realized he had been sleeping with his back supported by the black marble tombstone. He rubbed his temple to ease what he felt like a hangover. When he opened his eyes, Ian saw the caretaker’s open hand in front of his face. He grabbed the old man’s scrawny arm and used it as a leverage to stand up. Ian felt something fell off his lap, and when he looked at the ground, he saw a stalk of deep red rose.
Ian couldn’t say for sure whether what happened that night was a dream from drinking too much, or everything had been real. With his guitar in one hand and the rose in the other, he walked out of the graveyard with a warm smile on his face. In his heart and in his mind, Sam would live forever.