“Just a minute!”
Robert waited patiently at the doorstep, hands in his pockets, gazing outward towards the winding country lanes. They bobbed up and down the hilltops like buoys, disappearing over the grassy peaks before popping right back into existence at the bottom again. Visible for miles on end, they appeared as nothing more than a series of interconnected brown streaks from afar, like tunnels in an ant farm.
The leaf-strewn mud outside the house was streaked with fresh tire tracks, still moist from last night’s thunderstorm. Dirt stuck to Robert’s boots as he shifted nervously from foot to foot, whistling quietly and making a mental note to purchase a thicker jacket before the last remnants of Autumn fully faded, making way for the long, cold Winter. Even now, the air held an icy thinness, one that would soon amplify and expand to encompass every little extremity. Snow would be blanketing soon. Thick, heavy snow, several feet deep in the worst years. Snow up to the doorknob.
The sound of soft footfall came from the upstairs floor of the house. Robert turned, craning his head in the direction of the bedroom window. A familiar shadow danced across the blinds, making the rickety old window frame rattle with each step it took. It reminded him of candlelight, the way her body shimmered and glowed against the pale dark of the room, like a flame melting hot wax. Robert smiled, wondering if she could see him standing there, with a little less hair and a little more stubble, but still him, undeniably, still him. Still the Robert she used to know.
The light drained, and Robert frowned as the house went suddenly quiet. He stepped up onto the porch to press the doorbell once more, just as she came treading down the top of the stairs.
Even through the warped front door windowpanes, he could see just how beautiful she still was. In the time that had elapsed since their last day together, he had expected her radiance to perhaps dwindle somewhat, but no, she had somehow matured into an even more heavenly being. Her movements across the downstairs corridor were so fluid, so ethereal, he almost thought he’d seen her ghost. Her pace slowed as she saw him, perhaps standing a little closer than was necessary. Catching himself, he took a step back, giving her the space to move forward and unlock the door.
A hanging basket of wilted flowers thumped against the door as it swung open, only slightly louder than the thumping coming from Robert’s chest.
“Hello, Margaret.” he spoke as she came fully into view, putting on his most earnest, sincere smile.
“Do I know you?”
Her voice was like an angel’s, yet her words pierced his soul like daggers. Robert masked his sadness and cleared his throat, scratching the back of his head.
“We, um… we knew each other back in high school. Well, more than just knew each other, really… I recall at some point we were--"
“Ah, I remember,” she cut him off, leaning against the doorframe. “Funny how things change, huh?”
“Ha, I know, right?” Robert laughed awkwardly. “God, how long has it been, like, a decade? So many memories. Though, to be honest, quite a few I think I’ve forgot. I don’t even remember why we broke up.”
“Because I didn’t love you. I never loved you.”
Robert stammered, picking at his nails as he glanced towards the ground. Margaret plucked a cigarette from behind her ear and took a long drag, blowing the smoke out of the corner of her mouth.
“R-right, right… anyway, I… um… I was in the neighbourhood and was wondering--
“How’d you find my address?”
A jagged chill rippled down Robert’s spine.
“Well… um… you weren’t answering your calls, so I gave Emily a ring instead. She said the last she’d ever heard from you was that you were moving here. 15 Brookfield Pines. My aunt lives in the area and while I was dropping by to see her I thought I might as well come visit. It’s a shame you and Emily didn’t stay in touch, you always seemed like good friends.”
Margaret stared blankly, playing with her whitened curls.
“Hah… it’s funny, y’know, you always said you wanted to live out in the sticks somewhere, surrounded by nature. I always thought that would’ve been nice too, but I got stuck in some dead-end city office job. Guess we can’t all live out our dreams, right?”
“I suppose you wanna come in, don’t you?”
The slight annoyance in her tone nearly pushed him to breaking point. If only he could wrap his mouth around those scarlet lips one last time.
“Yes, Margaret,” he spoke. “Yes, that’d be wonderful.”
A whiff of perfume caught his nose as he strolled through the front doorway, Margaret following and shutting the door behind them.
The house was small and simple, cosy and rustic. It was the exact kind of place Robert envisioned him and her settling down in all those years ago. The walls were a smooth blend of wooden and stone surfaces, illuminated by a string of soft, white lights that stretched into the living room like a trail of fireflies. Rich, captivating daylight shone through the windows, bathing Robert in a warm energy that lasted right up until he took a closer look at the glass.
It was paradise, and yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t belong there. Him, reflected in the panes, with his thinning looks, thinning smile, wearing a messy hoodie, dirty shoes, and jeans that were too big… it wasn’t right. He was far past his prime, and she was only just beginning.
He snapped out of his daydream. He was sitting on the living-room sofa across from Margaret, a mug in his hand, filled with…
“Sorry, what is this? Tea?”
“Peppermint tea,” Margaret replied, already rolling another cigarette. “Only kind I had left. I had a mug ready to drink before you knocked.”
“It’s fine, I don’t mind peppermint.” Robert spoke. It was a lie, and she probably knew it, but it didn’t stop him from lifting the beverage to his lips and taking a swig, even as the taste burned the back of his throat and made his cheeks feel sour.
“So, tell me, Margaret…” he continued, setting down the glass on a kitten-themed coaster. “What do you get up to these days?”
“Not much. Little bit of photography here and there. The landscape is pretty beautiful in these parts.” She lit the cig she had rolled, staring at the wall as she rolled it back and forth across her lips. Robert felt his jaw loosen as he started to lose himself in Margaret’s jewel-green eyes, quickly realising he needed to say something, or the conversation would stagnate.
“Y-yeah, I’d noticed. It’s nice to get away from the city every now and then. Remember how we said we would move somewhere abroad? I think it was Russia. You always did want to snap a shot of those funny little buildings in Moscow.”
She said nothing, though Robert thought he could detect a hint of sadness spread across her face, dampening her usual cold, indifferent expression.
“I went abroad last year. I won a holiday trip to the Falklands in some yearly office raffle. It was a treasure hunting expedition, the type where you go around exploring forgotten tombs and such. It was a lot of fun, though, I didn’t find much of anything…except this ring.”
Robert fished it out from his trouser pocket, holding it out in his palm. It was a dark shade of bronze, adorned with a cloudy grey gemstone and covered in intricate engravings that seemed to glow a hushed milky-white. Margaret turned her head, her eyes flaring with a subtle curiosity as she examined the ring, leaning in close to get a good look.
“Originally, I was just going to sell it, but no one will buy it off me. It’s got some silly old superstition surrounding it about a curse or something like that. I know you never believed in all that stuff. To me, it’s only really worth its weight in how pretty it is, so… I’d like you to have it.”
She raised an eyebrow, taking the cigarette out of her mouth. The smoke wafted between her fingers elegantly, like a thread of white silk rising up to the ceiling.
“Is that why you came here, then? After we haven’t seen each other for ten years, you stop by to give me some stupid ring?”
“I’m sorry Robert, but we’re over. We’ve been over for just about a decade now. Yes, I used you, and yes, I broke your heart, and yes, it was a stupid and soulless and irresponsible thing to do and I’m sorry, but I don’t want to get back together. I’m not looking for a partner right now, and even if I were, it wouldn’t be you.”
Robert felt his face turn bright red as he struggled to force out a sentence.
“No, no, no, you d-don’t understand, just… consider it a reminder of all the good times we had together. That’s all. I’m not trying to… just, please, take the ring. If not for you, then for me. It would really mean a lot.”
Margaret sighed, leaning back into the sofa and rubbing her forehead with her spare hand. She looked at the ring, still sitting in Robert’s now outstretched palm, then at Robert’s pleading face, then back to the ring again.
She grabbed it and slipped it onto her finger, sliding it all the way down to her knuckle.
“If anything, it was nice seeing you again, Robert.”
Margaret gasped. She knew she had said that last word, but she hadn’t heard herself saying it. As a matter of fact, she couldn’t hear anything.
“Robphert?” she slurred, her mouth filling up with saliva. “Ropbhern, whasp haphenning?”
She raised her hand to her face. Instead of grey, the ring’s gemstone was now glowing a fiery red, the patterns twisting and spreading outward across the skin of her finger, warping it to a saggy, grey heap of flesh and muscle. Snot filled her nose in an instant, dribbling onto the floor as it leaked from every pore on her face.
“I know you can’t hear me,” Robert began, standing up. “But I’m sorry you never loved me.”
Margaret shrieked, but no noise came out. She felt her entire mouth swelling up like a water balloon, filling with more and more saliva until it was drooling down her chin like the juices of a ripe mango. Hot, slimy earwax dripped onto her naked shoulder, burning and corroding the skin beneath it.
“I’m sorry I was never good enough for you, or your friends, no matter how hard I tried to keep you happy.”
Margaret’s entire arm was wilting, the skin melting onto the ground as it fell from the bone. The pattern engrained its way up her shoulder as she tried desperately to wrench the ring off her finger, to no avail. Her white, fluffy slippers burst open as sharp, jagged toenails pushed themselves through to the outside, rotten and yellowed.
“I’m sorry about that worthless ring, and the one I offered you in that little velvet box on the day we broke up."
Margaret staggered to her feet, her vision blurring. Thick clumps of shrivelled, discoloured hair fell from her scalp, littering the floor. She swayed back and forth as she stood, reaching out for something, anything to keep her balance. In her daze, her leg caught on the coffee table, and she collapsed onto the ground, slamming her head against the hard, wood floor.
“But I suppose, in some sense…”
Her pale, shrunken legs seized as her splintered skull began to collapse in on itself. Blackened, misshapen teeth went flying from her mouth as the shaking spread all the way to her head. Robert swallowed and crouched beside her decaying body, caressing a strand of mottled hair away from her face oh so delicately.
“That ring is priceless to me.”
The shaking stopped, and all was still. Robert flipped the body over and observed the ring, the fierce red of the central gemstone now having dulled back to its original shade of grey. He reached out to pluck it from the finger, hesitating as he was inches away from the flesh.
“No,” he thought to himself. “She looks much better with it than without.”
And with that, he let himself out. The caw of a faraway crow echoed across the land as he stepped outside, sucking in another breath of that sweet, unpolluted country air. The revving of his car’s engine was a pleasant sound as he hopped back into the driver’s seat, catching one final view of the corpse through the living-room window, reflected by the dusty wing mirror as he disappeared over the hilltop, the streaky brown path behind him becoming nothing more than a blur.
Written by Cornconic