The clouds above were just beginning to waver to the sun when she finally made it the graveyard. Unbeknownst to nature, a similar battle waged within her as she edged closer, pushed the ancient wrought iron gate open. The hinges creaked under her weight, streaks of rust and chipped blue paint smearing her hands. She paid it no heed and leaned forward, wrapping her fingers around the thin, fragile bars as she forced her feet to move. But as always, her body struck an invisible wall and did not acknowledge the order of the brain, her legs refusing to move. Her heels might as well be welded to the ground, like her heart was in her chest.
She let out a sigh and pressed her forehead to the cool, weather-worn metal. She didn’t bother to try again, knew it would be of no consequence. The truth of the matter was, she didn’t have the courage to step inside. She never did.
She’d had a whole year to come to the terms of her loss and still her mind refused to accept it. Defeated, depressed by the sorry state of her continued weaknesses, she turned away from the silent scrutiny of harsh white tombstones, to go where she knew not. But her feet froze once more when clouds parted for the sun and she came face to face with him.
A year, she thought as that strange beat from long ago inside her started ticking again. 12 months. Three hundred and sixty five days and Lord knew how many hours since she’d last seen his face. It was disheartening to know it, he, hadn’t lost his appeal, or the effect he had on her.
He’d lost a little weight. His shape-boned face looked tired, jaw lined with a day’s growth of stubble. The deep brown eyes appeared lighter in the sun and there was an intriguing line of silver along the edge of his temples that her fingers itched to touch.
Not that she could do that. There had been a time when she would have. Simply marched forward, wrapped her arms around his neck and teased him about his premature and permanent old age. He’d have made a similar quip and together, they’d have laughed at the way her knees shook, his breath trembled whenever their eyes met.
But she was no longer a woman beguiled, nor he the man deserving of such vulnerable displays of affection.
Hardening her heart, she cast her eyes to the ground and started forward. They had no right to block each others way anymore, nor the authority to walk together. She was about to pass him when his words stopped her.
“Aren’t you going to go in?”
She refused to meet his eyes. “Not today. I have to be somewhere.”
To her surprise, he snorted. “Still can’t lie worth shit.”
She raised her head then, found his gaze fixed on the hand she’d unknowingly clutched in her jeans, a tell-tale sign of her dishonesty. Embarrassed, she forced her fingers free, crossed her arms. “Excuse me, please.”
“You’re going to leave?” he demanded before she could take a step forward. “Without a word, or salaam, where have you been, or even a how do you do?”
A caustic smile stretched across her lips. “Assalam Allaikum, how do you do? Where have you been? What place was more important than home after our only child’s funeral? Please, don’t answer that, I couldn’t care less. Have a nice day. Actually, no. Don’t.”
“15 years,” he whispered and halted her steps once more. “We were together for 15 years, since the age of twelve-“
Her hands clenched into fists by her sides. “I know,” she retorted between clenched teeth. “I was there.”
“15 years.” He stepped closer. “And you expect me to say goodbye like that?”
“It’s more than what you gave me,” she reminded him. “You left without a word.”
He flinched, raked an unsteady hand through his hair. “I couldn’t face you then.”
“I know, and I can’t talk to you today. I accepted when you needed to walk away, but please don’t expect to find me waiting.”
“I expected you to come for me.”
She caught the resentment in his tone and hurled her own at his face. “I expected you to be there for me,” she retorted heatedly.
And she’d waited. Like a blithering, pathetic fool she’d waited for him for days. Only to learn from relatives weeks later that he’d taken up residence on the other side of the city. Far away from her and the home they’d made together. She lost both, her daughter and husband within days. More, she’d lost her best friend. Her only friend. And she couldn’t, wouldn’t forgive him for that.
“Looks like we both disappointed each other,” she commented but he shook his head.
“No. You’ve been a lot of things to me, but disappointment isn’t one of them.”
She had to take a breath, clear her throat. “Is there a point to this? Or have you lost your flare for solitude and suddenly developed a habit of conversing with strangers?”
“You’re no stranger, but yes, I have lost my solitude.” His hand inched forward, a timeless gesture that shattered like a mirror when his fingers stopped inches from touching hers. He seemed to become aware of the move last minute and his fingers receded, eyes left hers as he rubbed the back of his neck, the move both sheepish and weary. “Alone is different from lonely.”
She found herself nodding, agreeing. “One is desolate , the other devastating.” Her eyes moved over his face, observed the lines of tension etched around his mouth. They used to laugh lines. Evidence, she’d always thought, of times, life well lived.
What the hell had they done to each other?
“Which have you been?” she couldn’t help but ask.
His gaze lifted, bored into hers. “Without you? Both.”
To her horror, her eyes filled. She, who hadn’t cried at the loss of their three-month-old daughter, shed a tear when their marriage broke under the weight, found herself reduced to tears by three simple words. It was a stark reminder of what he’d once meant to her. What he could still do to her.
She blinked the mist from her eyes, fiddled with the strap of her cross-body bag. “I should go-“
“Walk inside with me,” he interrupted.
She stepped back in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
He swallowed dryly, inched forward the two feet separating them. “I haven’t been able to walk inside the gate,” he confessed hoarsely. “I’ve come here everyday since the funeral but each time it’s like-“
“There’s a wall standing in your way,” she finished.
His face paled a little, mouth dropped open. “You too?”
The anger she’d buried for a year reared it’s head. Fire erupted in her blood, simmered at her bones and riding the wave, she reached up to clutch the collar of his shirt. “She wasn’t just yours!” she roared. “You weren’t the only one who lost!”
He cupped her face, swept his thumbs through the tears that that unknowingly escaped. “I know. Maybe that’s why she won’t let me come close.” His eyes, red with unshed tears, drifted over her shoulder to the dead waiting behind. “I thought it was because I couldn’t save her. Couldn’t protect her. That’s what father’s are supposed to do, right? They are supposed to protect their little girls.”
“You heard the doctors. It could have happened to anybody, there was nothing we could do. When did I ever blame you?”
“I blamed myself.” His grief spilled then, buckled his knees and took him to the ground. “But I couldn’t. I failed her and then, I failed myself. How could I ever amount to become anything when I couldn’t be what she, you needed me to be?”
“And so you left,” she whispered and dropped down to sit cross legged beside him, unmindful to the dirt streaked floor.
Reaching into her bag, she retrieved a bottle of water, passed it on. He sat back on his haunches, drank in small sips, slowly pulling back the tattered threads of his shattered control and dignity.
So this is what it comes down to, she thought. The two of them sitting on a dirt streaked floor in front of an old empty graveyard. Exactly like the first time they’d met. Only then, she’d been a little girl who’d just lost a grandmother. Her uncle had told her once that souls tended to linger in graveyards, awaiting their turn in the queue. Given the population, the process could take a couple years.
Afraid to leave her beloved Nano lying in the company of strange ghosts, she’d resolved to stand guard, even threatening her mother to tie herself to the gate of they forced her away. And then he’d rescued her. This daring stranger with a comical grin and quick brain, had rescued her from both, her grief and fears by suggesting to leave his beloved robot man action figure to guard the freshly dug grave. He’d fulfilled on that promise and promptly sneaked his way into her heart.
And that had never changed.
“Did it occur to you,” she began after a tiring pause, “to come to me? Hold me? That’s all I ever needed you to do. Be. 15 years,” she repeated. “15 years we spent beside each other, since the age of twelve. How could you ever think we’d be able to walk alone? Do you even remember how?”
“No.” He caught both her hands, pressed them to his lips. “All I remember is you.”
Her teeth dug into the soft shell of her lip. “Did you really expect me come after you?”
That lopsided smile she loved curved his mouth. “When have you not? Remember when I ran away at fifteen?”
She chucked mistily. “Planned to walk to Abbottabad, yes. Genius plan.”
“I was going to catch a lift and then buy a bus ticket,” he corrected dignifiedly. “But you stole my pocket money.”
“Not at twenty-one,” she added, “when you wanted to quit college and join a band in Lahore. You guys were about as melodious as a frog with constipation.”
He snorted, looked at her and they burst out laughing.
The laughed until their sides stitched and tears streamed down their face. They laughed until the crows and sparrows stopped being startled by the sounds of their mirth and perched down on trees to watch them with disdainful judgment. They laughed for the years they’d spent together, and the eon they’d spent apart. They laughed away the shadows of the anger and resentment they’d cherished. Laughed in the memory of the love they’d chosen to forget.
They laughed. And laughed. And laughed, until, at last, they cried.
He cradled her onto his lap, gathered her in his arms and felt the Earth’s axis straighten itself. “Do you think she’s mad at me because I let her mother down?”
“I think she’s mad at us because we let each other down.” She dropped her head on that perfect spot over his shoulder and watched the color seep back into the world. “Sometimes, when I’m alone, I think I can hear her cry.”
He pressed a kiss to her head. “Yeah, me, too. I think she doesn’t like stray ghosts, either.”
She sniffed. “Not everyone’s like Casper.”
His soft exhale ruffled the stray curls of her ponytail. “I know, which is why I’ve appointed a guard.” She frowned in question and he shifted sideways to retrieve something from the pocket of his pants. “He’ll watch over her.”
On his palm stood another miniature figurine, hands curled, eyes fierce and ready to do battle with some invisible enemy.
She smiled. “Let’s go set up guard.”
They rose to their feet, joined their hands and fingers linked, walked through the gate.