The glimmer of hope I had begun to feel was now shattered at my feet in a million tiny little fucking pieces. Reflecting back to me the tortured face of despair when I looked down at the broken remnants of my hope.
That lonely ride to the hospital was miserable. The entire time, my heart didn’t stop racing while sinking lower in my chest with each minute that passed. I wanted the doctor who called me to be wrong with every fiber of my body and soul.
My grandfather, the last of my family, couldn’t be gone. It was simply impossible. And that thought screamed in my head repeatedly until I walked through the doors into that frigid room and saw him there, unmoving and lifeless. I broke again at the sight.
Again, they told me he was gone, and I screamed. Wailing, crying, screaming. As loud and for as long as I could. Clutching at his lifeless form, praying and hoping that maybe if Papa heard me screaming on his way to heaven that he would turn around and come back to me.
It took three nurses to drag me out of the room, and half an hour before they consoled me enough to articulate the words thick on my tongue.
“But he was doing so good. I just saw him yesterday,” I had told the doctor once my sobs ceased wracking my body and my tremors were under some semblance of control. “How could this have happened?”
They told me it was nothing more than the surge before death. An unexpected return of clarity that can occur in the time shortly before passing. A fluke of nature. A cruel happenstance.
My last day with my grandfather had been false hope.
I couldn’t stand it any longer when the doctor looked at me with such pity, as if I were the fool for believing Papa could get better. It made me feel like a child being told their dog was simply sleeping after watching a truck run it into the road.
As I talked to them about the funeral home and my grandfather’s body, I felt sick to my stomach. Writhing snakes of unease came to life in my gut and squirmed madly until it forced me to my knees in the bathroom, where I promptly vomited.
I needed, more than anything, to turn my emotions off. To keep myself sane, I needed to become a void. My movements felt stiff, and my face was a mask under the dried tears, but I got it done. Like a puppet on autopilot.
It was well after midnight when I was preparing to leave the hospital. A few nurses helped me gather Papa’s belonging to take home with me, and only their presence kept me from crumbling into the ground.
“Oh, here,” an older nurse with greying hair pulled out a sheet of paper from the bedside table, “Mr. Sokolov wanted you to have this. One of the other nurses printed it out for him a couple of weeks ago.”
“What is it?” I looked down at the paper, realizing that it looked like a poem.
“Something he wanted read at his funeral. I’ll give you a few moments to finish up here.” She squeezed my arm reassuringly before walking out of the room.
My eyes skimmed the page. Each word hit me like another needle digging into my heart until they merged, forming an unpleasant knife of emotions while drops of water hit the bottom of the page. I realized I was sobbing again, falling to my knees on the frigid tile of the hospital floor and clutching that page to my chest as if it were my lifeline. As if it were the last thing my grandfather wanted to say to me.
The night was as dark as sin when I finally stepped out under the stars and waning moon. A box of my grandfather’s belongings under my arm that felt impossibly heavy under the exhaustion weighing me down. I stood near the street for a long time with no thoughts on my mind as I waited for a cab. In those lonely moments, I felt like a ghost in the night, waiting for the wind to blow me away, and wishing it would.
“Where to, miss?” The driver asked, pulling me out of the stupor, drowning my mind.
I looked up, and for a split second; I had to pause. The first place that came to mind was Viktor’s house. My first instinct at that moment was to go back to his home. To him.
“21 West End Avenue.” It’d been a while since I stepped foot in my apartment. One excruciating cab ride later, and I was opening to the door to that lonesome studio apartment.
Two months ago, this had been my sanctuary. My first apartment and place I had to myself after having to sell my grandparents’ house. Now it was dark and unwelcoming. The air was stale, and it felt unfriendly stepping foot in there.
There was no food in the fridge and half of my clothes were in another closet. I didn’t care. I left my bag and box of Papa’s stuff on the couch before dragging myself to bed. The debilitating fatigue of loss consumed me. Every drop of my energy was depleted, and I sank into a restless sleep. Tossing and turning wildly through the remaining hours of night.
A drawn-out car horn in the streets far below jolted me from my dreams. To my left, the mattress was cold and empty. The hell of being in love and waking up alone was too much for me to bear. I couldn’t handle it. Not now that I’ve lost everything.
When I dragged myself out of bed, the sun was blazing through the window. The time on my bedside clock told me I had slept for twelve hours. It still didn’t feel like enough.
I dug through my bag, looking for my phone out of habit. Of course, the battery was out, and I sighed at the thought of what would be waiting for me once it came back on. Still, I plugged it in and hopped into the shower while it was charging.
Under the scalding spray of water, my bones turned to jelly, and I melted against the tile. I let the burning water turn my skin red, and I scrubbed until my flesh was raw. Anything to not feel the pain in my chest, and to distract me from the poisonous thoughts in my mind.
Alone. Alone! ALONE!
In the silence, my thoughts screamed at me. Shouting like a banshee. Those negative thoughts bounced around inside my skull like a stray bullet ricocheting off every corner of my brain. I needed to turn off those feelings. All of them gnawing away at me. Clawing at me. Tearing me to pieces.
Isn’t it funny how the chill of despair numbs everything but grief? I could light this room on fire and despite the glorious burn, I would still be cold to the bone.
Dressing in a thick hoodie and leftover pair of leggings from my dresser, I tried to fight off the chill that was coming from inside of me. I found some instant coffee in my cupboard weeks away from expiring and made myself a steaming cup. As I finally settled onto my couch with a black coffee, I heard my phone buzzing wildly at the end of my charger on the windowsill to my right.
A painful flutter hit my heart when I saw Viktor’s name all over my screen. Dozens of texts and missed calls obscuring all the other notifications. The phone buzzed again, and I yelped, dropping it from my fingers into my lap.
Viktor was calling me again. Even now, on top of all the hours, he tried to contact me through the night and this morning. But a heavy boulder of pain had settled into my chest. My lip trembled, and I felt the pinpricks of more tears behind my eyes.
It rang and rang until finally going to voicemail again. Seconds later, I got the notification of another voicemail, then another text.
At that moment in time, I felt lonely in love, because I knew the impossibility of it. Overwhelmed because I cannot live up to the task. Feeling like I could only fail, I needed to hide. To hide from Viktor.
Yet, I couldn’t help myself. In those moments of weakness, while I felt so dreadfully alone, I still desired his presence and the comfort I knew he could provide. My trembling hand lifted the phone, and I pressed play on the first voicemail he left me last night.
“Stella, I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m here for you. Alright?” He sighed into the speaker. “Please call me when you get this.”
Then another. “Please, call me, Stella. I’m so fucking worried about you. Where are you?”
“Stella, it’s so late and you haven’t come home. What’s going on?” Most of his messages were along the same lines. And there were many of them.
As the messages go on, I could hear the strain in his voice. The fatigue as he begged in voicemail after voicemail for me to answer, to call him, to let him know that I’m alive. And it hurt, like a knife twisting between my ribs, but I couldn’t stop. I listened to every single message, falling into the soothing tone of that deep voice, hiding a Russian accent.
“Stella, I’m worried about you. I miss you. I just hope you’re okay.” His voice in the last one broke my heart. It sounded as if he hadn’t slept all night.
A defeated sigh escaped me, and I sagged into my tiny couch. I turned my head and caught sight of the box of Papa’s things to my left. More sorrow flooded through me, and I choked on the air in my lungs.
Viktor and I had a contract that I’m sure I was breaking by deliberately ignoring him. There could be consequences to not responding and keeping him away. What they were, I didn’t know, and right now I couldn’t think about it. That was a headache for a later date.
All I could think was that I needed Viktor. Needed him to wrap his arms around me, to hold me and whisper sweetly in my ear that everything would be okay, and we’d find a way to be together. But I couldn’t have that.
What hurt the most was loving him and keeping him locked out. Especially when now is the time I needed him most. I wished to have Viktor at my side for this nightmare, but I needed to face the reality that whatever was between us was just a contract.
Just because I had feelings for Viktor, didn’t mean that he did. That he could ever return them. It was just a contract, after all. It would make sense that he would call me all night, trying to find his expensive, runaway fuck-toy.
Those thoughts didn’t stop me from listening to his most recent message repeatedly. “Stella, I’m worried about you. I miss you. I just hope you’re okay.”
I wasn’t okay. I was far from it. My body was an amalgamation of suffering and agony. My thoughts were waking nightmares that tormented me throughout the rest of the day. The furthest from okay I had been since my grandma died and then Papa got sick. The furthest since I had to sell their house to pay the medical bills. And the furthest since taking on the contracts and having my first meeting with an older man who pawed at me like a starving madman.
But at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter if I was okay or not. I went back into the shell of myself, dropping my emotions into the void and locking away the key.
No amount of wishing and hoping would make Viktor love me back or show up at my door like the hero in a romance movie. And no amount of screaming and praying would bring my grandfather back from the dead.
My phone buzzed again, and the name that sent my heart soaring flashed across the screen. I let it ring until it went to voicemail again. No matter how jumbled my sore feelings were, this was the time I needed to focus.
I had a funeral to plan, after all.
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