If only she had said it.
Those three magic words back to him on that cold night in the mountains. When it was just them under the twinkling, all-seeing stars. When they believed the stars could make all their dreams come true.
If she had said it, would things be different now? Would she still be chasing after that train — panting and sobbing — for a goodbye she never gave? Or would she still be with him, the way she always dreamed?
But all those thoughts came to halt as the train finally left the station, leaving her and her bitter heart far, far behind.
If only. The only lingering regret in her mind, popping into her head on occasion, years after the fact. Always left a sore spot in her chest, making it hard to breathe; it was a wound that refused to heal.
Why she still thought about him, she wasn’t sure. Maybe the small glimpse of youthful hope that never really died out kept her memories of him afloat. Or rather, a yearning for what she could no longer have that kept her coming back to him like a desperate smoker trying to quit yet taking a smoke break.
She let out a heavy sigh, leaned back against her office chair, and stared at her desk computer spitefully. Nothing but numbers and statistics, which she couldn’t care less about. Mind-numbingly boring and practically useless. But why couldn’t it ever drown him out?
The alarm beeping on her wrist woke her up. 11:55 a.m. Pushing away from the desk and standing brusquely, she stretched. At the entrance to her cubicle now, she exhaled deeply.
“I need a break.”
She sat in the same corner in the office’s cafeteria and silently munched on her sandwich while watching the antics of her coworkers.
There’s Debra, she thought as she took a small bite. Debra, a woman with short, curly hair, who looked to be in her forties, stood in front of two coworkers, one male, one female, boisterously waving her arms around, while she held what looked to be a salad bowl. She was softly plump in the way a mother would be, but her enthusiasm rivaled that of a child on the playground. A total shift from the expected first impression.
She really likes the sound of her own voice. Reminds me of — Pinching herself between her thumb and index finger, she stopped herself from continuing. It’s better if I stop there. Scrunching her nose, she turned her attention elsewhere. Anywhere else that could take her away from those.
There’s Elaine, she sighed, but of course she’s all over a man. Elaine, a thin woman with a short bob that framed her face, was probably seventeen when she started to work here. Yet somehow, over the years, she attracted the attention of everyone around her, for better or worse. It was as if she was using her youthful charms to seduce the entire office. It was impossible for her to believe that Elaine was around her same age. Elaine always had people wrapped around her finger, laying herself into her helpless victim before they could even react. The strangest part was, no one minded.
Though certainly, someone did. She felt a sharp heat rise into her cheeks watching Elaine. How is it that no one else can see this? she thought, taking a messy bite from her sandwich. She’s totally messing around. A joke. Somehow the sight made her lose her appetite.
Shaking her head, she looked down at the sandwich in her hand. Barely half-eaten, but she knew she wasn’t going to finish it later. Checking her watch, lunch had also barely started. But her mood was already spoiled, reminded of things she didn’t want to be. Watching people be who she never could be.
Stiffly, she rose. Floating to the trash can and throwing her food away without hesitation, she silently left the cafeteria, returning to her plain old cubicle. As unnoticed as the bathroom ghost.
Home was as uneventful as work. A plain, boring apartment for a plain, boring person who worked a plain, boring job. Beige and white and black; the only spruce of colors that had ever graced her life. But it was hers, and she decided it was enough, and so that’s where she lived.
Coming home today, she couldn’t budge an inch. All she wanted to do was to lie down and drift out of her body and dance with the stars, like that one night … But she’d have to get to her bed first.
With a tired internal sigh, she dragged herself to her bedroom, carelessly littering her skirt and tie somewhere in the apartment along the way. Plopping down on her bed — laying on it now — with her button-up and coat still on, she kicked off her heels. She draped her hand over her face lazily with a sigh, and, shutting her eyes, she let herself breathe and her naked legs dangle freely over the edge of the bed.
All alone, she thought, taking in the sounds surrounding her. The shwaa of the wind that brushed past her windows with each passing car, the quiet ticking of her wall clock synchronizing with the one on her wrist, her slow, shallow breathing, the voices of the family who lived above her incoherently booming into her room. She felt all the sounds resonating and passing through her hollow chest, stopping for a moment to fill it, only to be too big or too small to fit in the holes.
Everything moved, she realized. Moved onto the next thing with each passing tick of time. Even her own pumping heart could do that, and the sounds that drifted through it. But her mind, even after all these years, was stuck in a moment she could no longer take back.
We were just stupid kids with big dreams back then, she thought, her eyes beginning to burn behind her hand, trying to rationalize this gaping hole in her heart. Neither of us knew what we wanted, it’s fine.
But she was 25 now, going on 26. And she knew more than anything now, that it wasn’t fine. What she wanted most was to tell him the three words that he wanted — needed — to hear that night. That night during senior year.
She should’ve grasped his hand tightly, held him against her chest, anything. To tell him, to make him understand that it wasn’t what he thought it was. But in the end, she looked up at the stars, shutting her lips into a tight, thin line, simply listening to everything else but his shaking voice. She couldn’t simply utter back, “I’m happy, too.”
Her life was an endless cycle: wake up, go to work, come back. Simple. And boring. As plain as her own name. Abigail.
She hated the name. Maybe because it was the most perfect name for such a plain, boring, simple person like her, which she didn’t want to accept. Or it could be that somewhere out there would be a man who thought Abigail was the perfect name for a cute girl. The thought made her stomach quiver.
Because now that her name had a meaning, it meant more to her. But the meaning meant nothing today. All torn out, stamped into nothingness — meaninglessness — like a used rag. The meaning behind her name had long left it. And she hated the name again. And she hated the man who gave it meaning. No. She hated herself instead.
Simple and boring suits me better, she thought. I shouldn’t pretend to be something I’m not. Even if it hurts.
Another empty weekend for Abigail. What would she do differently today?
She sat on her sofa, browsing the channels with one hand, her phone with the other. Nothing good was ever on. As for her phone … nothing beeped or rang like the movies said it would. Instead, it was devoid of interaction. Blank and default like her apartment. Like her life, really. And yet she always found a reason to glue her attention to the blank phone screen instead of the colorful, flashing lights of her television.
Noah. Her finger was always delicately hovering over the contact ID, playing a risky game of focus with herself. If she lost, the phone call would have to go through, and whether it got picked up would be a gamble. But if she won, it’d be another day. Another week. Another month. Another year of her thinking about him. Another period of avoidance, of yearning and pining. Of regret.
It was the reason she disliked the weekend, the only free time in her life, to do whatever she wanted, and yet … she occupied herself with a sick game.
She never understood why she tortured herself like that. She thought she’d have to lose someday. But she never did. And the cycle continued.
The big 26 was spent alone and without celebration. The only thing that came with it was spring cleaning. Not that she was much of a fan, but she understood the importance. Clutter had no use. She already had enough of that.
And yet, when it came to her phone, entering the photo album was always a no-go. Looking in there made her feel sick. It reminded her of too much, too many things she always wanted to forget, too many memories she couldn’t bring herself to delete. Too many thoughts that she couldn’t help but dwell on. And so she avoided it like she avoided everything else. At least …
Cleaning gave her something to focus on. And so she decided she liked cleaning. It could be considered fun. Stimulating. A potential hobby, even. Somehow, it gave meaning to her average life, despite being an average task, in and of itself. She couldn’t help but smile as she dusted her shelves.
For the first time in her life, she was certain. Handing in her two weeks’ notice wasn’t easy, but she decided it was time. Time to pursue something she actually had an interest in. Time to let herself go.
The manager didn’t bat an eye as he stamped and added it to an enormous pile of pink slips, increasing the risk of the tower toppling over.
“Just two more weeks, Miss …” the manager squinted at her scribble of a name, “‘Abiquail?’”
Abigail didn’t even bother to correct him, simply nodded shortly and offered a quick bow. “It was nice working with you.”
He didn’t look up from his papers, instead waving a hand of dismissal. “Yeah, yeah. Tell the next person in line that I’m ready to see ’em.”
Silently, she rose from her battered seat, pulling another person into his office as she was told.
It didn’t take long for her to get work as a cleaning lady. As soon as she’d placed an online ad, Abigail received at least a dozen callers. Among the many nameless numbers that flashed across her screen, there was one —
Noah. The moment that name buzzed across her phone, she stood paralyzed. Panic and glee and giddy excitement coursed through her, but a hesitation and fear to finally hear his voice after so long … Well, all the thoughts that clouded her brain made the call fizzle out into silence. She could feel all the blood in her body drain out as the call dropped.
“No …” she gasped, and then another, louder cry of “No!” resonated from her chest as she cradled her phone close to her heart. “Please,” she begged, sinking to her knees, “come back to me!” And yet, nothing poured out of her. No tears. No snot. No nothing.
Just a desperate attempt at despair. A desperate attempt to convince herself that she felt something, too. Please, she thought, please let something real come out.
The ringing of her phone again startled her. Noah.
This time, without hesitation, she picked up the phone. Gingerly holding it to her ear, she waited for him to speak. What am I doing? she thought, her heartbeat pounding loudly in her ear. How did I …?
“Hi,” he spoke, his voice much more guttural than she remembered. “Is this Abigail, the cleaning lady from the ad?”
“Yes,” she said, taking in a deep breath as she spoke, “that would be me.”
“Oh, great!” he laughed. She could practically see his smile across the line. She couldn’t help but smile herself. “I’ve actually been looking for a cleaning lady for a while now, but I never really found one that appealed, ya know? They either charge too much or ask for other things that, quite frankly, I can’t give them. I trust you’re not like them?”
“U-Uh …” she stuttered, taken aback by how much he was speaking. “T-that’s right. The, the price that’s listed is what you’ll get, Noa —” She cut herself off, remembering that, as far as she knew, he was unaware of who she was. “Sir.”
“‘Sir,’ huh?” he chuckled, seemingly amused by her antics. “The name’s Noah, by the way. Feel free to call me that instead.”
Her mouth felt dry. “Okay then, Noa —” But she couldn’t bring herself to finish his name, an immense sense of guilt overtaking her body. I can’t call him by that name.
Silence filled the line. “Hey, did the call cut out?”
Abigail knew full well that it hadn’t, but she let them be suspended in dark quietness anyways. I’m not ready yet. After taking some time to breathe, she decided to rip the Band-Aid off.
“… Hello?” she started tentatively. “I … I think it’s back now,” she lied.
“Ah, there you are! I was worried for a second. Anyways,” he continued without pausing, “if you could come by my house maybe this weekend, I’d love to try you out and see what you can do. Ya know, if your cleaning skills really live up to what’s being promised.”
This … weekend? “Sure.” The faux-calmness of her voice did little to soothe her own internal fears, but at least Noah was convinced.
“Awesome. I’ll text you the address then. Looking forward to meeting you, Miss Abigail.”
“As am I.” And with that, he ended the call, leaving Abigail in a lost stupor, wavering in her living room, alone again.
I can’t breathe. The room spun around her head. Swirling and swirling, mixing and mixing her brain until she felt like she was just another part of the Milky Way. Her body became nothing. She couldn’t help but fall onto her couch, staring up at the ceiling blankly, as she held her phone loosely over the edge. She took a deep breath, without blinking, and thought: Does he not recognize my voice?
He had a big, beautiful house, she realized. He’d aged just like she thought he would, with fine stubble dotting his face, giving him that rugged survival look that he always talked about having. His scent was far more mature, enticing her in a way that she hadn’t remembered. And yet, despite how he’d grown, he seemed to still be the same hopeful person she’d fallen in love with, that driven glint in his eyes never faltering. Why did she let him go again?
“Ah, Abigail, right?” he greeted from his porch. “Just who I’ve been waiting to see.”
She felt heat rise up to her cheeks as she stepped up to his porch, but a lingering sadness tickled her heart. “R-right.” Can he really not recognize me? Then again, he didn’t seem to recognize my number either.
“Well, come on in,” he laughed, gesturing inside. “We won’t bite, promise.”
She gave him a curt nod, stepping inside his home to find …
“Oops, sorry! Did you just step on a Lego?” Noah asked, bending down to inspect the brick that she had indeed stepped on. “I told them to stop leaving these things in the doorway,” he grumbled. Picking it up, he apologized with a sheepish smile. “Kids are something else, am I right?”
At first it didn’t register. Then a sucking feeling stole all the air out of her lungs in the form of a hacking cough.
And then she blinked as he pounded her back. She couldn’t even hear what he was saying while he was doing that. Kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids kids. Kids? Kids?!
“Ah, kids?” she forced out a breathless laugh, trying to regain her composure. “I, I can’t imagine.” She tried to reassure herself that he was just a single father. Yeah, that had to be it.
He frowned, his eyes watching her with a worried yet fond gaze reserved for children. Not like that … Don’t look at me like that. Please. “You’re okay, right, Abigail? If it’s too much, don’t worry about it …”
“No!” she blurted out, taking him by surprise. His blown-open eyes … They reminded her of the expression he made when he realized what her silence truly meant. “No,” she repeated, somberly this time. “I don’t mind. I can do anything you need me to.”
He continued to stare at her, as if trying to coax some other answer out of her. Please stop looking at me. Not like that. She looked away from him, making it clear she would say no more.
He let out a sigh of relief. “You’re a strange one, Miss Abigail, but if you’re willing, then … Well, then that’s a weight off my shoulders. My wife, who, funnily enough, is also named Abigail, woulda killed me if this didn’t work out.”
She nodded, giving him a tight smile, but little did he know what was going on in her head.
Tunnel vision. His mouth continued to flap, saying senseless things she only continued to tune out. I’m drowning. Air refused to enter her lungs, as she swayed in his doorway, trying to make sense of all these feelings she felt. Abigail. Abigail. Stupid fucking Abigail.
I can’t. And in her brain, she continued to hyperventilate. I hate Abigail. I hate her. I hate her. I hate her. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made any damn sense.
Wasted. I wasted. Why is the Abigail in his life not me?
She wanted to cry. She wanted to shout. And she wanted to return to that boring, old office job devoid of any color. Or rather, back to the time when her life did have color: the bright blues and oranges, the sparkling purples and pinks, the beaming yellows and greens of Noah. But she couldn’t do any of that.
He doesn’t even remember. Because none of it meant anything anymore. Because she was the same old Abigail that let her silence do all the talking. That stood by and watched as her life blended into beiges, blacks, and whites, letting all the color drain out of it. And the worst part was, did she even feel a thing? Regret or sadness? Jealousy or despair? Were those feelings real? Or was she pretending to feel something she didn’t feel? Holding on to a notion she could only fake understanding. Because she wanted to feel it. Desperately.
It was all a lie. She couldn’t pretend to be someone else or do something she couldn’t. No matter how hard she tried to attach herself … It was … Pathetic. She was the Abigail that she hated so much, in the end.
“You’ve got the job!”
Why she accepted it didn’t make sense. After all, the emptiness in her heart spread into her brain and curled into her toes, finding a home in every crevice of her body. It felt strange to finally be engulfed by the silence of her own void after fighting it for so long.
She smiled, waving goodbye. “Have a good one.”
She hadn’t felt so happy in some time. Or so sad. Or whatever this feeling was. Void?
Working for the man she’d once wasted her time with … At least seeing him, being around him could give her the closure she should’ve given him a long time ago.
Abigail, his wife. Good thing they had the same name.
I can live, she thought, driving home from the end of her first month working for that family, a genuine smile plastered on her lips. By being around them, I can feel satisfied with the fantasy.
The fantasy of “I’m happy, too.”
Nayab Sanchez is currently a senior high school student in the San Bernardino area. She is an avid writer, specializing in short stories and fan fiction with the occasional poem as well. Her passion for writing spurred her on to start a writing club at school, with plans to start a school newspaper soon. She hopes one day to write and publish a novel.