Long Nights – Short Story
I can’t remember the last time I saw her smiling at the world around her. I don’t know when that distinct sparkle in her eyes faded away, or when the lights around her dimmed. Or maybe I do. We drifted apart, slowly, gradually, then all at once.
It’s way past midnight. I know it, but I also know better than to try and check the time.
I’m certain this will turn into another of those long sleepless nights. It has been the case for the past week and I’m used to it by now.
It was hectic the first few nights. I would turn off the lights, my phone, and everything that could possibly keep me awake, close my eyes and wait… It has never worked.
I would always end up tossing on every side, like a fish out of water. I tried everything I could think of, even sleeping pills at some point, but sleep just wouldn’t show up. And I had to give up waiting for it. That’s when the rules came. I figured that, if I was going to live through the night’s endless hours, I needed to set my own rules. And so, rule number one: Never check the time. Or was this rule number two? I can’t remember. Anyways, it was one of the first things I learned, that checking the time would only make it stretch even more. And that was the last thing I needed.
I put down the book I was reading for the past two hours and walk to the window on the opposite wall of my room. A cold breeze greets me as soon as I open the frames and I welcome it, taking a deep needed breath. The night view from this side of our house has always been my favorite. Endless velvet black sky, swaying trees, ghosted streets, turned off lights, and silence… It’s amazing how darkness envelops everything at night. The way every color turns into a darker hue, melting together into an astonishing monochrome painting I could never get tired of looking at.
I lean against the window sill, close my eyes and try not to think of anything, but it’s almost impossible. My brain is all over the place. No matter what I do, it keeps taking me back to that one night a week ago. The night I could no longer sleep.
It started with a message I received as I was laying in my bed, scrolling down my social media account.
Ariel: Callum, R U THERE?
I kept staring at the screen of my phone for several minutes. I couldn’t decide what surprised me more. The fact that she used my full name or the one that she even texted me in the first place.
Then just as I was about to reply, another message came.
Ariel: Can I call u?
Ariel and I were close friends, well, as close as she allowed us to be. I met her back in our first year of college. That was 5 years ago.
Our friendship was unusual to say the least. We knew enough about each other, things we didn’t usually share with other people. But once outside of Facebook, we were a little close to strangers. Our paths were naturally bound to cross multiple times a day since we had the same classes. Most of those times, she would barely acknowledge my existence. And on rare occasions, she would nod then shoot me a discreet smile. A smile that reaches her eyes and freezes everything around her. She had her own way in delivering her thoughts without using a word and I was used to it. She has always been a mystery, one I wasn’t sure I wanted to solve.
Me: Hey! Yeah sure!
Few seconds later, my screen lit up with an incoming call and I answered it right away.
“Hey Ari, what’s up?” It hit me for a second that it may not be the right thing to say to someone you haven’t talked to for more than four months. After all what happened… But then I heard her voice.
“Nothing much I guess. How have you been?” Her voice was a little distant but it was everything you would expect from someone like her. Soft, soothing and confident…
“It’s been great, nothing to complain about. How about you, how have you been?” I was trying to sound casual but I was nervous. My brain was already buzzing with thousand scenarios, questions of why she would call me after all this time. But none of them made any sense.
“Circling around…” She said and suddenly I was at ease. Circling around, this has always been her reply. She told me once that she was named after a moon that rotates around Uranus. That her purpose in life was to find her right orbit to fall into. Until then, she’ll always be circling around. I remember thinking that she didn’t have to, that she shone so bright she could be her own planet instead. But I never told her any of that.
“Look, I’m sorry I’m calling you this late, it’s just… I was feeling so very out of it and I didn’t know who to talk to and I needed to get out of my own head…”
“Hey. It’s okay, really! You can call me whenever you want, I don’t mind” I said trying to sound reassuring.
She was silent again. I could hear my own heart beating so loud in my ears. Or was it hers? There was a cicada on the tree next to my window; its distinct sound was filling the room. A clock was ticking somewhere near, another rhyme added to the deafening silence. It was a soothing symphony I didn’t want to end. But then it did.
“Why do you think he did it?” it was a whisper but I could hear it very well. And it wasn’t a question because she was fully aware no one knew the answer. Not even her. Four months ago…I remember thinking it was a prank when I first saw the news on TV. “A tragedy in the Scotts household, a man kills his wife, his son, and then takes his own life.” I ran to her house barefoot that day and I was met with the police cars circling the whole area. It wasn’t a prank or even a nightmare, it was true.
I don’t know how anyone was supposed to react to losing their family that way. But I know she was never the same after it.
“I’m so sorry you had to live through all that.” I didn’t know what else to say.
After the accident, everybody kept their distance from her, and I was no different. She was strong I would tell myself, she has always been and she never needed my –or anyone’s help. I thought I was being thoughtful but the truth was, I was just scared. We all were for one reason or another. The truth was, we were a bunch of cowards that gave up on their own friend in a moment of need. No excuse in the world could ever cover for that.
Another silent pause. There was so much I could say then. I could apologize for starters, for giving up on her way too soon. Sooner than she probably needed. I could apologize for never visiting her when I knew she was admitted to St. George’s mental hospital, or when she was released. I could apologize for so many other things I did wrong but I didn’t. It was selfish, but I was hoping she could forgive me without having to voice it all out.
“It just doesn’t make sense you know?” She suddenly said breaking the silence. “We talked that morning and he hugged me the way he always does. And he was actually pretty excited about his new job! We were going to move into a bigger house…And mom…Oh god, he loved Mom so much! And Leo…” Her voice quivered, and the pain in her words was almost palpable. “Did you even know that they couldn’t prove he did it? Just…what in the world is wrong with this town! And they say I’m crazy…huh” She sighs heavily.
I think of something to say, anything, but nothing comes to my mind. Mr. Scott was an amazing guy indeed and everyone in town loved him. He owned a restaurant a few blocks down the road. It was my mother’s favorite. She would always speak of how much she loved the Scott’s, and how cozy their place was whenever she was in town. I remember how devastated she was when we heard the news.
“It never made much sense to me either,” I finally said.
“I was looking at it the other day and I found something. It was… Oh my god…” She said with a hushed tone, just as a loud screech sound made its way to my ears. Her sentence remained hanging in the air, unfinished.
“Ari? What’s wrong? Is everything okay?” Silence.
I tried to listen closely again but there was nothing. My heart beats were loud, louder than ever. The clock, the cicada on the window, the sound of my breaths and a weird noise of a passing car coming from the other side of the line. A passing car…she was outside!
“Was that a car? Ari, where are you?” It was 3 am and she was out. A weird feeling was slowly creeping up my chest, a very bad one. I was worried, scared, or maybe both. Her voice came back in a whisper after a while, but it did nothing to calm my raging heart.
“Something came up. I have to go. Bye” her words were rushed and barely understandable.
“Wait, what do you -” beep, beep “Hello? Ari!”
I tried calling her again but it went straight to voicemail. She was gone.
And that was the last time I –or anyone in this town– heard anything from Ariel Scott.
I went to her house the next morning but she wasn’t there. She was nowhere to be found, and no one knew anything when I asked around. In two days, I had already visited every place I could think of. I even broke into her room to see if she left any clue. But there was nothing aside from the faint purple walls, standing so tall, so lonely, and cold. As if they never contained a human soul. I didn’t even know where she was staying after she was discharged from St. George’s.
“Sometimes, we think we want to be lost, but all we really want is to be found.” Her words from the day we read “All the bright places” together keep replaying in my brain.
She was a mystery I wanted to solve, but I was helpless.
I step away from the window and my reflection on the glass faces me. My eyes look tired, and my hair is sticking in every direction. I’m instantly reminded that it’s been so long since I last shaved, or even looked in the mirror. I go back to my bed and the book is sitting still where I last left it. My room looks pretty much the same since that night last week. Except for the clock, I don’t know when but it stopped ticking. I grab my phone from the nightstand and it lights up instantly.
2 incoming messages.
I open the first one, it’s from my mom
Happy birthday darling!! I missed you so much. You’re probably asleep by now, but it’s 8am here already. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it today, there’s still so much to do but I promise I’ll be there by the weekend.
I love you!
My birthday? It’s the 14th of May! And today is still… It’s today… I can’t believe I forgot. I try to type a reply but then I think against it. She would know I’m still awake. I open the second message instead. It’s from an unknown number. I read the first words and my heart drops.
It wasn’t him and I can prove it! Freddy’s, 3pm
I jump from my bed instantly. It’s her. It’s Ariel. She’s still out there! My heart is beating so fast I think it might stop and my hands are shaking nonstop.
I read the message over and over again. Freddy’s, that’s the restaurant in the outskirts of our town. I spend so long checking for directions on Google. I can’t afford to be late.
It wasn’t him. The words are racking my brain and burning its every cell. My head is pounding and I feel dizzy. I can finally see her. I will…
I startle at the sound of a loud smash coming from somewhere in the house. My eyes take time to adjust to my surroundings, and it takes me a while to realize that I was sleeping…I slept! I look at the window to my right. Rays of sunlight are creeping into the room, drawing beautiful patterns wherever they land. Slowly, they reach the spot where I’m laying on the wooden floor, warmly kissing my skin then move further. There’s a bird singing in the tree nearby. The window blinds rattle with the wind and dust particles float in the air, dancing to the soothing melody.
I get up from the floor and instantly reach for the nightstand in front of me when my body starts to sway. I try to steady myself, and slowly make my way out of the room. My body feels too heavy for me to carry but at the same time, I feel like I’m floating. With every step, my feet don’t quite reach the ground. I can’t believe I slept on the floor last night. I pass the living room on my way to the bathroom when something catches my eyes, or someone to be precise. It’s Mom! When did she get back? I notice her luggage sitting next to the couch near where she’s standing, frozen. Her hands are covering her mouth, and she’s looking at something playing on the TV. She doesn’t notice me at first but when she does, she rushes to me instantly and envelops me in a tight hug. She’s crying. What’s wrong?
“Oh cal…” She says and her voice comes out strangled. Everything is happening too fast, or maybe my brain is taking too long to process whatever is going on. There’s broken glass and spilled water on the floor where she was standing a while ago. Things are slowly adding up. I lift my eyes to look at the TV screen. It’s the local news and they seem to be talking about a murder. My pulse quickens. Apparently, someone found a body lying on the side of the road a while ago. The picture and the name of who they think it belongs to fill the screen immediately. I recognize it right away, and I feel my blood freezing inside my veins. My hands instinctively reach out for the spot in my chest where a stabbing pain takes place.
I’m on my knees and no longer in my mom’s warm embrace. It’s dark and I’m thinking, maybe it’s just a dream. Maybe if I close my eyes long enough it will be. Maybe…
I couldn’t remember the last time I saw her smiling, or when the lights around her dimmed. But I remember the first -and last time- I heard her voice. She was a mystery I once thought I could solve, and now I know I can’t.
Author: Serine Safia Achache.