December 15, 2023

The Hard Way

by Val E Ford

“He had taken it as his job over their several lifetimes, the killing of them both, so they could be together again. But Katy never remembered it being like this. Never such a choice.”

“Come with me…” Liam’s voice was scratchy from the tubes that had been sustaining him during the last bout of pneumonia and worsening health. He fumbled to unzip his fleece jacket with the hand that wasn’t holding hers.

An image burned itself into Katy’s being. She knew truth when she saw it; it was one of her gifts, to see the in-between spaces, and this was one, this was for her a liminal moment. She had to walk off this bridge alive today.

“Not this time, Love.” Katy stared wide-eyed down at the roiling floodwaters, hooked her knees through the space between the metal railings and moved her grip on him from a hand hold to a wrist hold. “You come back home and do it the hard way.”

“Katy… I can’t… I’m burning. It’s time. We have to go.” His voice extended into the realms beyond her ear’s ability to hear, and the essence of his elemental fire gift burned through their connection as he sent the command she’d been dreading ever since they’d realized he’d be living disabled for the rest of his life after the car accident. “I can’t live this way.” He sat on the balustrade, and his free hand pulled up on the orthopedic brace to lift his leg over the rail as she tugged at him to prevent the move. Even ill he was a great beast of a man and beyond her physical control.

He had taken it as his job over their several lifetimes, the killing of them both, so they could be together again. But Katy never remembered it being like this. Never such a choice. But maybe it had been; memories of other lives came on slowly, mostly after they found each other again. This time was different, maybe it was just that her attitude was different.

“I love you, Katy. We have to go.” His elemental fire was licking along his outline, breaking through into the air around him.

She fought his blazing command, bringing up the blessed coolness of the earth and binding the heat, sending it through her body and out her pores to meld with the wind and let it be carried away. “I’m not going. I’m not ready. You get back down here before you pull my arm off.” She started fighting his fire for him too.

“Katy! We. Are. Doing. This.” He swung his other long leg over the railing. “It’s just a step, Love.” He smiled and took it.

Katy tried to pull him back over the edge, but his mass only took a second to lift her off her heels; her knees around the rails were the only thing keeping her out of the air.  And by the moment she stopped trying to save him and instead save herself, his grip on her arm was winning. So, she breathed in the power of her connection with the spaces between and sent it flowing down the shining fluid pathway that anchored their souls together, down into the spaces between the cells of his heart muscle, and by the time she was done, so was he.

“Goodbye, Love,” she told her soulmate as his dying fingers slipped from their grip on her arm. He finished his long falling step into the flooded river alone. “We’ll find each other again,” she whispered as her tears followed him into the encompassing water below. She braced herself against the moment when their connection blazed and disappeared, and then she sat on the cold concrete for a long time taking in what it meant to be alone.

Over the next few weeks, Katy took to wandering the streets at odd hours on foot and in her car. She was unsettled, lonely, not sleeping, going long stretches between eating until a smell awoke her hunger and then she couldn’t stop. At first, she cried at silly things, sometimes everything, but after a while numbness crawled out of the crater inside her soul, and she started a new routine. She’d walk at first light to the bridge and cross, following the path along the shore until her feet didn’t want to go any further, and then she’d stop for a while, breathing in the sea air before walking back.

And then one day, like sun through a break in the clouds, she felt the moment he returned. And she cried because they were off kilter. A soulmate in diapers wasn’t an easy thought. But the crater inside her eased, and she slept well again.

And so, she started living again too. She started seeing clients once more, telling them the truths she saw in the spaces between their current selves and the ones they would become. She sketched for them their liminal scene, the one that might change them, the image that burned in her mind as she sat with them. And before they left, she gave them the picture along with whatever words seemed right. Often no words were needed; sometimes it was just a hug.

She was finishing a session with a client who had come because she was feeling upset with her marriage, and yes, she needed a hug. The picture had been of the client’s next-door neighbor opening the door to a motel room, and familiar shoes were sitting beside the bed. That hug went on a while, and when the woman steadied enough to step into her new life, Katy opened the door.

A squeal sounded under the woman’s foot as she walked out. A fluffy black and white Mountain Dog puppy cried on Katy’s doorstep, and when she picked it up, she knew.

“Hello, Liam.” A vision of herself and the slightly older puppy at obedience school with a chain collar and a leash filled her head. And she smiled, perhaps a little too long.

And so, Katy had a dozen years of friends and gardening and working and good doggie companionship, until the day Liam the dog started flaming and his wide muzzle and sharp teeth gripped deep into her lower leg, piercing the skin as he tried to pull her over the edge of the riverbank.

As she fought him, a vision filled her mind, she saw a huge set of balancing scales in a spotlight on a table. On one side a mess of her long hair and longer skirts showed the pile of bodies to be herself as she had been the five times Liam had drowned her. On the other side of the scales, she saw Liam lying pale and sprawled in his unzipped fleece jacket, seaweed in his dark hair as a spotted dog was lowered beside him. The scale barely righted.

“Fuck you, Liam! I am not dying today!” Her leg was on fire, and anger churned through her as she fell over the bank. They both rolled through the dried grass and blackberry vines and into the water. She hugged the big beloved dog, and with a practiced breath, she stopped his heart and watched him flop into the shallows.

When she got back home alone that night with stiches and burns on her calf, her tears were back, and she swore off pets.

When she woke up on Saturday morning, Katy took her graying head to the hairdresser and her sore knees to the gym, and she opened all the windows and burned sage in their house and pounded on her drum and let her towels and sheets dry in the sunshine.  Then she vacuumed dog hair off the couch and out of the corners and smiled as she made lasagna and savored their favorite meal alone.

Three months later a fuzzy black and white kitten crawled out of a stroller that a couple little girls were pushing toward her down the sidewalk. His littermates cried, their faces popping over the edge to see where he had gone. Katy picked him up, kissed him and ran to catch back up with the girls. “Enjoy this one, Love,” she whispered to the kitten. Katy scratched his ears and gave him to the youngest child. Liam the kitten yowled and bit the child. The little girl dropped him looking heartbroken.

Katy grabbed the kitten as he dashed around her legs, thumped his nose with her fingernail, and swaddled him tightly in a dolly blanket before handing him back to the child. “He’ll be better now I bet,” she told her. “He told me his name is Liam, and he loves tuna.”

Liam the cat was her constant companion as she worked in the garden and sat on the porch. But she never let him inside their house, and she never fed him. He attacked everyone who came to the house, even the UPS deliverywoman. At midnight every night for a month, he scratched and yowled until the screens were shredded.

When summer was heating up and Katy couldn’t take the hot air anymore, she took down all the screens to have them remade with scratch proof materials and reinforced with grating. She was opening the back of her car, parked on the busy street in front of the screen shop, when she was struck in the shoulder by a flying twenty-pound black and white and burning fuzzball.

She stumbled and flung the cat away and nearly fell in front of a bus that slammed on its brakes. “That is IT, Liam! You want war?” she said, looking around and patting out the places where her shirt was scorched.

Then she felt the connection snap, and she was alone again in this world as the bus rolled away from a squished black, white, and red form.

The next morning, Katy woke up with mosquito bites layered over yesterday’s burns and scratches, so she made a special trip to the store for bug spray and let off a great blast before going to work.

Her first client of the day was Doris, who really just wanted to know somebody loved her. Katy’s talents failed her. The only image in her head was of Liam choking and burning, so she put Doris’s plate of cookies into a sandwich bag and reassured her that children leaving home for college was a good thing as she walked her to her car. Then Katy quickly drove back home and opened all the doors and windows.

She found Liam hiding under the couch and let him spend the next day on her arm, drinking and dying as mosquitos do. And when he was gone, slow salty paths traced her cheeks as the drops of her tears fell beside him and upon him. She buried his tiny insect body beneath their favorite rose bush and sat on her knees remembering when they had planted it.

She longed for solace, for a full life with him, the children they had never had and the feel of his arms around her. She reached her essence deep into the soil and let the energy that lives between flow upward into her being. She brought the power up into her heart and let the imbalance of betweenness affect her, let the spaces between cells and molecules disrupt, and felt her death nearing as the gentle rhythm broke.

And then the earth beneath her feet became hot and heavy, and a drop of fire fell from the thorn of a rose and broke her concentration.

“Thank you, Liam,” she whispered and cried a while, but didn’t attempt it again. She sat out in the cold night air feeling the beauty of being alive fill and restore her.

At midwinter, their connection renewed as he entered the world again. And when the image came, she could barely believe the beauty of it. Liam had chosen a new way. He was a preemie whose head was misshapen, and his heart was barely clinging to life. So, she moved 100 miles and went to the hospital and volunteered to do some cuddling.

272 long days after Liam came into the world as a teenage addict’s infant son, Katy held him as he took his last painfilled natural breath. And then she held the now sober mother, their once great, great, grandchild and helped wield the shovels and sing the prayers as the baby, Liam, met with the earth.  And a few days later, she brought the girl home with her.

When she felt Liam enter the world again at midwinter, she felt expectation as the days grew longer and spring once more filled her garden. And then one afternoon at the end of a nap as she rocked on her porch, a vision of the scales appeared again, nearly evenly balanced.

She started walking again, saying her goodbyes to everything she loved, wandering pets, laughing children, the woman girl who was growing in her own ways.  She walked often over the bridge and down nearly to the ocean, and eventually she started seeing a great sight, a black and white seal swimming along with her as she walked. And one day when Katy was ready, she took off her shoes, her knobby tender old feet exposed to the rocks as she waded into the cold water, and they went diving. And with her last breath she also took his.


* * *

Originally published in ROAR 9



About the Author

Val E Ford loves life and all the messy complications of being temporarily embodied.


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