James had died a hundred little deaths in the preceding hours, slipping in and out of consciousness in a fevered oblivion. The result of a volatile mixing of poisons, perhaps—that of love’s arrow as well as lover’s kisses. Outside, the waking world had slipped into a snowy sepulcher. Ushered in on the tail end of December was a breed of bone-chilling coldness that leaves folks uttering clichés about witches’ mammaries. The entire pantheon of winter deities and their cold cavalry were clawing at the front door of the little town of Helle, all ominous stares and belligerent battle stances, bringing their fury of flurries. The town had warded off their advances with a collective “no, thank you” and a few mighty souls amongst the lot hurled a “fuck you” or three at the solstice savages. You know this type, though. Polite refusals just make them all the more persistent, like the date rapist that gets off on the struggle, and as any cursing of the gods goes, the people’s words were violently devoured like light in a black hole, melted like snowflakes on Satan’s tongue. James had last toed the waking world the day before the calendar’s bookend, when the dying year would heave its final breath at midnight and make way for baby new year. The Bard of Hibbing was the last voice to rattle his ears as he faded out: “So don’t fear if you hear a foreign sound to your ear. It’s all right, Ma; I’m only sighing,” he intoned, as James slipped into a fever-dream world as surreal as Dylan’s lyrical thought-dream. He came to on a Sunday morning, one full day after he had clocked out. By then, Helle had frozen over, despite his scalding body’s best attempts to thaw it from within his blanketed burrow. The sensual world greeted him with sounds of fellow Hellions unburrying themselves from the frigid white dross that had interred their year-end festivities. The metallic music of scraping shovels and the revving buzz of gas blowers echoed off the town buildings and pummeled the bats in his belfry. He lay there, still in the grips of fever demons, yet shivering out of his skin nonetheless, certain he could hear the faint chatter of teeth battling through the noise. His eyes twitched in time with the clacking that continued to swell until it transformed into the lively striking of castanets, and for a glorious moment he was transported away from that icy cluster-fuck to warmer climes, and he found himself in the thick cacophony of the Spanish encierro, and amongst the salacious, olive-skinned señoritas, he spotted her. Her eyes locked with his and she smiled. She blew a kiss and flower petals unfolded from the air and trickled down over him, little velvety pecks that braised his cheeks. He could smell her in the cross breeze, that earthy musk of sandalwood. This is where he first met her. They’d grown up in the same town, but it took a seemingly chance encounter thousands of miles across an ocean for a connection. He winked in her direction, but she’d already vanished once again.

The revery was short-lived and abruptly deflated by the icicle daggers of the present. Outside, the spasmodic, lurching locomotion of boots and continued scraping of shovels over snow and ice echoed like a washboard orchestra at the foot of his subterranean window. The anticipatory excitement of drunken revelry the night before had quickly given way to a high-voltage edginess over the white doom that threatened to put the holiday on ice until further notice. It was a volatile mix, not unlike beer before liquor, and left the townsfolk foundering through the winter ether. That staggered walk continued into the morning. The dense fog that wrapped each of their exhaled breaths even appeared to take a downward trajectory as it snaked out of those huffing and puffing mouths, as if being vomited out instead. James lay wrapped in his linen cocoon on his makeshift bed on the couch, huffing in unison, struggling against his super-heated lungs. Though still reeling from a fever-scalded brain, he could recall having read fiery words directed at him before his lights burned out a day prior. It was a letter with the bite of an adder, a hand-written kick in the kettle, in reaction to the good amount of venom spit at the ex-lover when he learned she was in the arms of another, mere weeks after the flame had been put to their soured romance. The sadism of this hasty exchange had drained the blood from him, replaced with a poison that needed to be hastily expelled, lest it eat holes through his composure, so he discharged it as quickly as he received it, back in the face of that lioness with her indelicate claws. Of course, he felt rightfully justified in his gracelessness. In our narrow recollections, the ugliness in others is always worse than our own.

As it goes with many young lovers, James and his other had been duped by the fluffy, fanciful idea of love presented to us all through fiction romances and greeting card poetry. The real, raw deal, carved out by all fortunate souls not yet two-thirds dead and with a modicum of lifeblood still trickling through them is not for the weak of heart, those ill-prepared for reality. Love is much like being possessed, a whirlwind from the inside out, and what’s drawn to the surface isn’t always roses and honey. In matters of love, life does not imitate art, thank your gods and stars. Such saccharine sap fed to all by Hallmark and emasculated filmmakers could deliver anyone into the arms of diabetic shock. The sweet needs a bit of sour, and every arrow from Cupid’s quiver must be delivered with some bite, a touch of flame. The rub being that all parties present must have a forgiving gut; they must be ready to dance around the fire without falling in. Alas, our two doves were much too delicate—both hard-headed and soft-hearted.

James closed his eyes and reached his arms out to nothing in particular. There was a sinking feeling inside him. Gazing downward, he watched the wood tiles beneath him begin to buckle and sag, dropping away and sinking, one by one, into opaque waters bubbling up from places unknown or long-forgotten. The walls followed suit. Stretched out there on what felt like his deathbed, he let his arm drop down over the dark slick of wetness under his now floating couch-bed, the water being coaxed and teased by the moon. The flotsam of his apartment floor now dead leaves riding the small bobbing ripples. The smell of sandalwood tickled his olfactory hairs. He scooped up a handful of the leaves and fanned them out like playing cards. Slipped between his thumb and finger, contrasting with the golden brown leaves, was a tortoise green envelope. It was the Letter. Masochistic tendencies being the inevitable indulgence of the brokenhearted, he peeled it open once more, allowing yet another harsh lashing. Spelled out in green ink but broadcasting red, the words grabbed him by the throat, and gutted him like a Halloween gourd. He looked away and tossed the letter back into the water, watching the green bleed out through the paper. Vague traces of sandalwood floated off the water, casting apparitions up onto the ceiling. His eyes blinked and danced in circles, carving through the layers of reality, grabbing every ball and spark of light flashed in front. His ears buzzed, the humming of seven billion inhabitants in unison, the ooommm of the universe, whispers of the long dead, and poking through that white noise of infinity, a most familiar sound…

“What have you been doing these days?” spoke a soft voice.

James’ senses cracked and his brain spun like a roulette as he tried to determine the state of his mind and where his physical presence lay. Crouched at the opposite end of him, knees pulled up to her chest in her flowing Spanish dress, was Lowen—the flame, the lioness, his belle and his burden—wearing a mild look of pity. The world he thought he had come back to had ceased to exist, the two of them floating down river, beyond the looking glass. He stared into her marbled eyes, half expecting the whole scene to spontaneously combust at any moment. She swayed with the motion of the couch, anticipating his response.

“Trying to wake up,” he managed to rattle out.

“Wake up from what?”

“I’m trying to wake up back in the place I last left you.”

“You left me? I’m right here, though.”

“We’re not really here. I’m up there,” he pointed up to where he thought his room may be, “floating around like a dead skin flake, and you’re hungover in your bed!”

“Now, how would you know that?”

“I know you, Lo.”

She furrowed her brow, ignoring his subtle admonishment. “What have you really been doing?”

He stared off into space, yo-yoing in and out of the moment, grasping at some thread of grounding. “Watching Woody Allen movies, trying to figure out what went wrong,” came the sullen response from somewhere deep down in his throat.

“Life isn’t a movie, J; that’s what went wrong.”

“You said you wouldn’t walk away.”

“You didn’t keep all of your promises, either. You hurt me months ago, J.”

“Did you fall out of love with me?”

“I may have.”

“I don’t believe you. Love doesn’t die overnight.”

“You have so much to learn about love, darling.”

“Dammit, Lo, would you turn your pedantic mind off for once?! Love is lived, and you don’t just shut it off by choice!”

“James, I put my whole heart and soul into this and was present from the very beginning to the absolute end. You, on the other hand, showed up merely when you felt like it.”

He let out a loaded sigh, knowing she was right. “Let me make it up to you.”

“It’s too late for that, J. We hit the snag that unraveled it all.”

“I’m staying here, then.”

“J, you can’t hole up in these dead end fantasies your entire life and turn your back on everything else just because you’re dissatisfied with what reality delivers.”

“I’m not turning my back on anything. I’m just taking my business elsewhere. Speaking of dead ends…” He nodded toward the water. Wine bottles floated alongside, bumping against the starboard of the couch. Emptied of their Dionysian essence, each one had been stuffed with a desperate cry that, despite her best attempts to hold in, spilled out into each with every sip.

“I live my life,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

He wiped his thumb down her cheek. “You live your life running, Lo. Maybe you could get what you want so badly if you just waited for once.”

“Life is too short to wait.”

“Well, chasing your lust hasn’t served you very well.”

“It keeps my life interesting…”

He gazed at her intently, staring through her until she shifted in discomfort. They sat there in the whirling silence, their thoughts rising up into the air and fornicating with the palpable heaviness resting upon them both—Atlas with his earthly burden. She reached her hands over and lay them on top of his.

“I do still love you, but it can’t work, J, and I’ll do what I need to in order to move on.”

“I’m staying here, then,” he mumbled once more.

“James, what are you doing?”

“You have your way, and I have mine…”

Lowen’s eyes popped open. Feelings of burning regret, followed by a flash of panic, sprung her upward from her bed. She looked down to see a ball of paper, blotted in crimson, clutched in her hand. She opened it up and read the words:

Someone told me recently that desperate times make desperate people. That all you can really do is keep a hand outstretched and let them know it’s there to grab onto, but it can only be their choice, else it’s not you saving, it’s you impeding. But if they fall, catch them. Catching someone when they’re plummeting is not the same as trying to keep them from jumping in the first place. Sometimes it’s only when we jump that we realize our mistakes, and if we’re lucky, we have someone waiting below us with open arms. But if the fall can’t be broken, and they die in your arms, you can still have one last dance. I had my arms out ready for you, but I quickly realized that I was plummeting, too. We both jumped after this blew apart. All we can do now is grasp each other and fall. This is our last dance.

She tossed the letter down and watched the red ink bleed out into the water. The empty bottles bobbed along her bedside. She felt herself empty out in like fashion. The washboard orchestra outside went silent. A snowy sepulcher. A fever squelched.

“…it’s all right, Ma. It’s life, and life only!”