He knew when he came into the house that day that she was gone.
It was something he'd often suspected would happen one day, and the eerie calm that pervaded the rooms told him the day had come before he found the note, laying neatly folded in the centre of the bed, as though she'd just dropped it from the air and it had landed perfectly on the bedspread.
He'd known what it would say, or had at least suspected, so he let it sit there as he looked around, saw the empty drawer, for she hadn't taken much, the empty bathroom shelf, the towels she'd used last week folded neatly as though she'd never been here.
He picked up the note, folded it another time so that it was a smaller square, and put it in his pocket. He went downstairs, poured himself a drink, and sat on his back stoop, sipping at the drink and looking out at the waning light. Only after another drink, only after the light was nearly gone, did he pull out the letter, slowly unfold it, and peer at it in the dimness.
Her writing, still strangely unfamiliar to him, with its long and elegant letters, scrawled across the paper in neat rows. The first line was one word. "Bill."
He would read it over twice that night, and many more times over the coming days, each time folding it again, twice, and putting it in his pants pocket for safekeeping, until her scrawling letters seemed burned in his brain. He couldn't blame her, for those letters. Every time he read it, every time he thought of her now, he pictured her sprawled on the bathroom floor, her longs limbs folded underneath her, tears streaming down her face, blood on the towels.
He'd known, then, even as he'd bent down beside her, awkwardly patted her back, pulled her into his arms. Known, even as she sobbed against his shirt, that there was something separating them, that would always be separating them. He'd whispered clumsy words, promising her that everything would be alright, wishing he could make himself believe it too, but knowing it was only a matter of time.
He wouldn't show anyone else the note, over the next few days, but they would all guess quickly why she left. They would nod, grimace, attempt to offer him words of consolation. They were sympathetic, but they didn't blame her. They would say that this sort of thing can happen, that some couples just don't survive these losses together, that she took it hard and needed to get away, nothing personal. Jimmy was especially careful around him as he tripped over words of comfort, telling him that he could always come to him to talk about this unexpected heartbreak.
He wouldn't tell anyone, but he expected this all along. Maybe he hadn't said it to himself, in words, but in the back of his mind, he'd always felt his time with her would be like this. His hold on her, this town's hold on her, wasn't a solid thing like the ties he had with this place. From the first moment he met her, he'd known, somehow, that any attempts to hold onto her, to pin her down in one place in time, would be useless. She would move in her own time and place, and no one else would know the hour.
He hadn't been introduced to her. They spoke the first time several minutes after he first laid eyes on her, when she'd been unceremoniously heaved into his arms as the mayor and his sons, weary from their walk from New Bern, rushed to move onto their next task in protecting the town from the oncoming attack. He'd come out to meet them, to do his part in the frenetic rush of urgent activity, but had been handed a casualty. He'd grumbled only for a second, and hoisted her over his shoulder, ignoring the blood oozing onto his uniform, ignoring her weight tearing at his sore arm. As they neared the med centre, she'd spoken groggily, her disoriented words lost in her shallow breath and his efforts to keep moving. He'd spoken only a few sentences, telling her to stay still, that he would get her help, that again, everything would be alright. He never would have believed it himself, but she was quiet until he got them inside the doors.
Help had arrived near the entrance but he'd stayed with her until she was stretched out on a gurney, her leg already being inspected by the people in scrubs. He saw her pale face, covered in dirt and tear tracks, for the first time, and before he could turn to go, she had gripped his sleeve in her hand. She had wanted to ask some kind of question, he had known, but she was in too much shock, was too flustered, or too tired for the words to come, and he was too preoccupied, needing to get back to the battle ahead, to wait for her query. He managed a sentence - he promised to come back, later, and her fingers let go of his sleeve. Her hold then had been for a second, and then it had been gone. Just as he had known, somehow, that it would always be so.
He hadn't thought again of the pale patient he had carried to the med centre until after the ASA helicopters intervened and stopped the battle over the town. He had gone to the clinic, like everyone else, to watch over his friends as they were saved or died of their wounds from the fight. At the end of a long and draining night, he'd happened to go by her room. She'd been set up in the staff break room, as had some of the other casualties. She was sleeping, her skin still especially pale, her hair tied back from her face. She looked to be in good condition, much better than when he'd left her there, a bloody mess with ragged breath, and now she looked almost peaceful. He breathed one deep breath and continued on his way home.
He had needed to go back to the clinic over the days and weeks that followed, because his friends, and the townspeople there, needed him. They were some of the worst days of his life. Never before had he imagined being around so much misery on a daily basis, as family members mourned and prayed around him, as he watched his closest friend totter on the brink of life and death. And he watched her. Twice he stole a glimpse through her door before he took the chance of knocking one day, coming into the room and introducing himself. He didn't introduce himself as her hero or rescuer, he knew that wasn't exactly his role in all of this, but he tried to be bracing. She gave him wane smiles, thanked him, gently held the wildflowers he brought up to her nose and inhaled. When he came to visit, sat on the edge of her bed, told stories in his best class clown manner, she would watch him patiently, chuckle breathlessly, even begin to tease him.
When she had been well enough to leave the clinic a few weeks later, he'd argued on her behalf for her continued stay in Jericho. It really hadn't mattered - the ASA was in charge now and they didn't care about a scheme of desperate imposters that had disbanded weeks ago. He knew it mattered to her. She had smiled at him, a deeper smile than he'd ever seen on her face, as he'd defended her case to the people with the clipboards, and he'd felt a warmth inside that had nothing to do with the spring weather that had finally over taken them.
When he'd offered her a place to stay, he'd seen a hesitation in her eyes, but he'd also seen the desperate need behind her wide smile, her quickly fluttering eyelids. She'd called him her hero, moved into the spare bedroom in his small house, and smiled at him every night across his table. He'd seen the longing in her eyes, the primary fears and instincts that seemed to flit in and out of her smile, and he knew she was hanging on here because she needed this, right now. He knew her praises, her contented sighs as she looked around at the walls now enclosing her, would not last. He didn't care, because he was coming to a realization. He loved that smile, he loved those eyes, and as long as she was there, he would love to look back at her.
The realization had come slowly to him, after many nights of watching her sit across his table or on the floor in his living room, her hair falling in curls around her face as she peered down at the few books she'd selected from his limited shelves. He knew, eventually, as he watched her flit around his house, seeming to not belong within its walls that couldn't contain her, that he loved her. If she realized it, she kept it hidden for a long time. She was friendly, laughing at his efforts to joke and even teasing him, but she was expertly oblivious to the way he'd stare at her, to the unspoken words behind his good nights and good mornings and inquiries into her next move. He would try to sound hopeful for her, when he asked if she had tried to locate her friends and family, or if she'd made any plans to travel back to the city life she'd left behind. Her answers didn't change much over the weeks. Her family was gone, her former life was erased, she had no plans to strike out on her own. Her words promised him nothing, they seemed, like everything about her, just a whisper in time, yet they gave him a bizarre kind of hope.
There were hints along the way, hands brushing together in the crowded confusion of morning, sincere compliments in the middle of a joke, a lingering stare that lasted longer than was polite in an acquaintance, yet he never knew if she realized any of it was because he loved her. After a while, he began to wonder if there was anything on her end, at all, but the first indication he ever had did not come until after the ASA declared him an outlaw.
After the chaotic days of chasing down Ravenwood, avoiding Beck and his men, and risking his life to bury Bonnie Richmond, he had come home to see her standing in the doorway. She'd greeted him enthusiastically, throwing her arms around his neck. He initiated the kiss, but she didn't pull away. He felt it under his hands, against his lips, that mutable quality that seemed to make up who she was. She would not always be here to kiss him back, to hold his hands again her waist, for any guaranteed time. He loved her still.
It was the same, when she had slowly followed him to his bedroom weeks after that. He'd loved every part of her he could hold for a second, and though he knew her whispers that she loved him were fragile, would last as long as the tears on her face later, as long as the slow rhythm of her breath against his chest as she lay beside him, he held on for every second.
His friends had gotten used to it, the strange coupling, as the months wore on, telling him they were happy for him, inviting her to town events and treating them like any other fixture in town, despite their initial misgivings about her. She tried very hard to fit, and to anyone else, it may have seemed she had made herself into a seamless match. He kept it up, looking hopeful on the outside, holding her hand in his at town hall meetings, smiling self-consciously as friends asked about her or passed on messages saying they hoped she'd join in the next night of cards or Boggle. Perhaps he had even told himself to believe in these things. He'd known all along, that this day would come, but he'd still let himself believe otherwise.
He'd known for sure last week. As he'd run his hands along the terry cloth covering her skin, he'd whispered words he knew would do nothing to change her mind. After a few choked sobs, she said nothing more, merely letting her tears fall against his chest. It was such a normal loss, such an ordinary heart break, and yet he knew there was something in her eyes that he could never reach. Something in his ordinary clumsy words that she would never be able to touch.
Her words hardly mattered. It was something that defied a wordy explanation. He wasn't sure why he'd held so tightly to her note, reading it again and again, knowing her words had no real bearing on the moment at hand. He read them still.
Sorry was always the way these things started. Or how they ended. Her letter started and ended this way.
"I'm sorry. I owe you more than I could ever pay back, but I just can't stay anymore.
I don't know what I could possibly say to explain or to make up for this. It's all because of me, I hope you understand. It's me who doesn't fit, who can't ride it out. I'm sorry."
Her name was scrawled across the bottom, in smaller letters than the rest of the words. He found himself whispering it to himself, as he finished the letter, the only word he could speak. "Maggie."
She left few reminders of herself around the house. She had never owned much, never gathered many belongings around her. He'd find himself whispering her name again, as he came across the small hints left of her, over the next few weeks. The winter coat she left, forgotten in the closet, two sizes too big for her. The patched shoes she'd worn across Kansas in her days as a false marine. The book, lying under the coffee table. The one she'd once been excited to find, at the temporary lending library Gail Green had once set up at the church in the hopes of helping the discouraged populace pass another long winter. She'd tried to explain what it meant, to him, many a night as they'd sat shivering, but he hadn't ever understood why the bird it was named after had any bearing on the Russian characters from another time period.
He didn't touch the book, any time that he saw it sitting there, the next few weeks. He would look at it, imagine running his hands over the worn cover, think about throwing it out the window or burying it on the shelf, but he left it. He squinted at the seagull painting on the cover, as he sat on the couch, pretending to be engrossed in his supper. "Maggie," he would think to himself.
She was right, and he'd always known it. It was her, who would never be fit to stay here. Her who would need to leave one day. He'd always felt it, in her kisses, her embraces, her smiles and her sobs. That it was temporary.
But it hadn't mattered. It didn't matter. He'd loved her anyway.
He still holds the letter, in his hands, as he sits on the stoop, on this Saturday morning, peering out into the sun. He has no where he needs to be today, it is a day where he can do anything, but he knows he will probably not venture far.
There is a red tailed hawk flying overheard. He stares up at it, watching its strong wings glide effortlessly through air. It is out of sight a few seconds later, obscured by the other houses and the few trees on his street. If he stood, he might see it a few seconds longer. He sits still.
She hesitates before responding to the woman seated behind the desk. Right now, she nearly hates the sound of her own name, but it is, once again, one of the last things that belongs to her.
"And your destination, Ms. Mullen?"
"And after that?"
"I don't know yet," she mumbles, glancing down at the desk. The seated woman peers up at her, and she squirms. Of course, they want to know an exact travel itinerary, but she doesn't know what lies ahead of her.
After answering another round of questions, she makes her way to the benches in the waiting area. She sinks into the one by the window and stares out. It is a bright day.
As she has done ever since the day she left the note on the bed, she tries not to think about Jericho, Kansas. As usual, she does not succeed. She feels the sharp pain as she breathes in and out, picturing his face, hoping at least that his friends will be around him, taking care of him, abusing her name over rounds of drinks or promising him he'll get over it. She hopes their words of comfort will be more helpful for him than they had been for her the week before she left.
Margaret, Jimmy's wife, had been to the house, making her tea, folding the towels, ignoring her as she insisted that she wasn't an invalid and needed no special attention. Margaret had meant well, and so had Jimmy, and so had the other neighbours and friends that had dropped by, but she had needed them all to leave. She had needed to be alone, not with her grief, as Jimmy had eventually suggested, but so that none of them would see her as she breathed in and out and realize that her tears were actually tears of relief.
They might even forgive her that, if they knew. Relief was to be expected, really. Stanley Richmond had lost his wife last month. The times they were living in were scary, and she was someone without family, without a mother or sisters or cousins or even close friends to turn to. They would assume Maggie Mullen's tears as she crouched on the bathroom floor were relief that the fear, the dangers, the uncertainty had passed. And they would understand, and be good neighbours.
They wouldn't realize that the relief she felt as she sobbed and pulled the towel around her shaking limbs went much further into her being. That for the first time in days, she could breathe. For the first time in days, she could cry, because for the first time in days, she could fully understand the stony feelings that had gripped her since she had made the first realization. She couldn't do this.
She'd known, really, for days, but only when she saw the blood, felt the familiar yet sharper pain, did she put it into words for herself. This was not the life she could live. She had thought she could make it work, make do, and make up for everything she owed. But only when it was gone did she understand what had woken her each night in a shudder. She stood on a dangerous precipice and she had nearly slipped over it for good.
The tears came because she didn't want to see it as a precipice. But it was. Having his children, raising them in this town, living and dying here for the rest of her life, had loomed ahead, pulled her down. She would be tied here forever, bound to an existence that was not her own but some other character from some other book. It would be board games at the Taylors, meetings about gas rations, volunteering afternoons sorting through people's old clothes, hand-washing diapers and half-heartedly cheering at amateur baseball games, season after season, and she would lose herself in this town, until the day her name graced a forgotten gravestone and it would be all that was left of her, the rest of her having faded away long ago.
It wasn't fair, she knew. She knew even as he held her, kissed her hair, whispered his faltering but well meaning words, that she would have to leave. That he would never know it wasn't a shared loss that had sent her running away. It was the realization that she could never stay, and try to build a life with him. He thought she was devastated, she knew, and she was, because she had wanted so badly to make this life work.
She had wanted to love him. She had tried to love him. She had owed him that much, she told herself, again and again. Not that she saw it all as a transaction, all the little kindnesses he had extended to her and all the affections she had tried to return. It was a deeper feeling, one that she couldn't quite name but if she had to try she would call it gratitude. Not the kind of gratitude that led to thank you notes a few months later or donations made to an institute that helped in times of personal crisis, but a gratitude that made her want to love him, impossible as it may have been. After everything he'd given her, she'd wished she could give him everything.
She'd called him her hero, and it hadn't been because he'd saved her life. That credit had to go mostly to Johnston Green, who had carried her most of the way home when others might have left her to die. She had been told by the nurses, hours later, that the deputy had carried her the last couple of steps to the clinic, and it hadn't left too much of an impression on her. What had stayed in her mind was that he came back.
He came back to check on her, and she noticed him, though she pretended not to, as he sneaked peeks over at her recovery bed. As he began visiting, speaking to her, she began to count on his presence in a way she hadn't allowed herself to do with anyone since the bombs. From her small world of the staff break room and the hallway, all the acts of kindness he extended her way seemed like heroic feats. The way he brought her wildflowers, sat on the edge of her bed, looked her in the eye, made her feel more like a human and less like a ghost, and for that, she would be grateful, for the rest of her life.
She wasn't sure when she knew he was falling in love with her. Had she known as long as he did, or did it really sneak up on her? She'd had her share of flings and messy relationships in the past, but she'd never gotten close enough to someone like him to recognize the signs. Those early days, learning to walk again, learning the version of the truth the ASA was disseminating, struggling to keep her head above water in the town she'd once conned, she'd only seen a friend. He was nothing like the carefully sloppy argyle-sporting men she'd once found herself surrounded with, and he didn't try to impress her with a fiery disrespect of the status quo or lofty ambitions born out of too much theorizing and not enough living. He was simple in a way she wasn't accustomed to being, sweet in an unexpected way, and it seemed like he was asking something in return, though not something she could blame him for, and so she did what she could to return it.
Living in the same house as him, she came to understand she did love him. Listening to the howling winds of a spring storm at night, imagining the black holes crowded across their country where homes had once been, she loved knowing he was nearby. Talking with him at the end of the day, saying nothing impressive at all and having his undivided attention, she loved him. When he came back from hiding, after the soldiers had stormed through the house and she had been certain she would lose him forever, she was certain her feelings for him were deeper than those she felt for any other human being alive. And when she slid under the covers of his bed and murmured her gratitude against his cheek for the first time, she knew she didn't love him the way he wanted. The way she wanted to love him. The way he loved her.
It was a painful realization. He was a friend to her, someone who spoke her name when she seemed dead to the rest of the world, and he had given her a home. She cared for him, more than she'd ever expected to when she'd first seen him standing in the break room doorway in wrinkled khaki pants. She found comfort in him, and she told herself that that was enough. That it was more than a person could hope for in this world anyway. That it was all that she had hoped for, those horrible months scrounging and scraping to stay alive like a rat running through a flooded sewer. It was enough.
But as time passed, the winter passed, the days grew longer, and life continued, holding onto that enough was difficult. Much as he tried to make her fit this life, as she tried to make herself fit in this time and place, there seemed to be reminders everywhere that she didn't. She never joined naturally into those gossipy conversations she heard passing on around her, and sometimes she felt the strange sensation that a conversation had taken place moments before she arrived somewhere. There were those who were friendly to her, those who even tried to befriend her, and she accepted these invitations, but they always felt like those conversations that she missed, whispered and hard to hold onto.
She grew to miss the intellectual energy that had once been all around her. It seemed a much worse void now that she was living in civilization than it had that year she'd walked from town to town stealing food and supplies. Without the daily fear of discovery and the constant ache of hunger, her mind hungered for something else. She took to visiting the library collective at the church basement in anticipation for new books, hoping someone would remember something they had on a shelf and didn't want to read anymore. The day she found the worn copy of The Seagull, she exclaimed out loud. Mrs. Dawson gave her a strange look, and she hadn't known how to explain her excitement at holding just a little piece of her former life in her hands. Somehow, Mrs. Dawson had understood, if not why, the fact that it meant something to her. She had suggested Maggie keep it. She might be the only real Chekhov enthusiast in town.
Maggie had never considered herself a Chekhov enthusiast and she preferred The Three Sisters anyway, but she read The Seagull, cover to cover, three times that week. She tried to explain the plot to Bill, one night after dinner, but he kept getting stuck on the central metaphor.
"But she's the seagull? How?" he kept asking.
"Well, first it represented her sense of freedom and security, but then, destruction at the hands of someone she thought would make her happy."
"But why does she call herself a seagull?"
"She rejects it at the end, she decides she isn't the seagull, she's an actress," she continued to explain.
"So is she or isn't she?"
She would sigh. "Sometimes. It changes, through the play. It's a complex metaphor."
"I still don't get why you'd name a play after a bird."
She shoved the book under the coffee table one night, and didn't look at it again. She managed to stop thinking about it a week later.
As she sits on the bus, inching through the bright day and towards some unknown destination, she looks out and watches the landscape go by and her own reflection in the window. It is dim, she can barely see the outline of her face in the surface, and she can't see the tears at all, but she can feel them in the corners of her eyes. He will feel it now, but it's better for him, this way. She would have had to leave, sooner or later, something would have happened, sooner or later. Better now, than later.
The bus pauses midday at a small town stop in the middle of nowhere. She watches out the window as a few more strangers with no obvious destinations clamber aboard. She keeps her eyes on a hawk outside, making circles in the sky. It seems like it belongs in a different world from her own, though they are separated only by grimy glass and expanses of air. She watches until it vanishes into the blue, a few seconds, a blink of an eye. She watches the empty sky.