Short Fiction: No Goodbyes

Summer is so changeable. The sun beams down, then thunder and lightning a moment later. Sometimes all at once. That’s how I feel as I get into the driver’s seat—all thunder and lightning and sun shining between slivers of pale cloud. 

So why not leave the top down and step on the gas.

The invitation arrived three days ago. It went straight in the trash. The next day I rescued it from under a pile of broken eggshells. Today, I got in the car and started to drive.

Norglenwold is this little strip of land along the southeast shore of Sylvan Lake. It’s a summer village. Rows of gigantic homes, on one end the massive log ‘cabin’ representing lumberjack Alberta chic; on the other, ultra-modern cement and corrugated metal with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. None of it is even halfway affordable. A rental then. And not a cheap one.

Despite my rising anxiety, the drive is beautiful. I’m glad for the cool breeze and even the light sprinkling of rain. It’s grounding. Makes me conscious of my body when my mind is crawling halfway out of my head to explore the possibilities.

The house is exactly what I expected: a looming three-story with a country-colonial build, a marriage of the styles in the area—both modern and old world. New and nostalgic with its square-panelled windows staring straight down the crooked driveway and its wooden gables warming the white and blue exterior. It sparks a distinct memory of a trip we took in junior year and a massive party we crashed. The driveway is lined with other cars so I park on the road. Walking towards the house, the sound of the revelry I’m about to plunge myself into is also reminding me of junior year. But we aren’t kids anymore. It’s been a long time since I felt comfortable crashing parties.

I recognize a couple making out against a parked car. Both from high school. Nice that they’re still together? Or maybe rekindling an old flame.

“Where’s Coltyn?” I yell as I pass. One of them holds up a middle finger without coming up for air.

There’s music filtering from the other side of the fence, thumping bass shivering the wild rose bushes on either side of the double gate. I follow the flagstone path to the right of the stairs and push through the gate. The backyard of the massive lake house is a who’s who of our high school years. A few I don’t recognize, maybe older friends. Far-flung friends. Some from junior high? They’re dancing, they’re drinking. There’s booze flowing freely and clouds of smoke that I swipe through on my way down the path. Conversation on every side of me, music that I can feel in the soles of my feet and all the way to my eardrums. I consider whether I’ve made the right decision or if it’s too late to turn around. Curiosity wins out. I sidle up to a guy I recognize.

“Have you seen the host?”

“Coltyn? Maybe he’s late?” He shrugs.

I doubt it. Putting all this together. Making me come all this way. He’s got to be here somewhere. I comb through the faces for a glimpse, heart all the way up in my throat like I’m at the top of a rollercoaster, waiting to fall.

There’s an in-ground pool and a tacky looking beach hut on my right. A banner strung from the roof says “Bon Voyage”. Some of the revellers have already found their way into the water, a pile of clothes on the deck. As I pass the beach hut, I accept a drink from a girl I don’t know. “Where’s Coltyn?” I ask her.

She laughs like a wave crashing over the shore. “Some goodbye party this turned out to be—looks like he’s already fucked off.”

Past the pool, there’s an open lawn that slopes down to the lake. There are lounge chairs scattered across the grass and people milling between groups. Cigarette and marijuana smoke curl in noxious clouds. There are various stations to set down a beer and pick up another. I notice more college friends, a few relatives. That guy that sat across from us in English 102 and hit on Coltyn every damn day. I’m still scanning for him, starting to listen in to the conversations around me as I get further from the source of the thrumming music.

“I heard he got a job in the States, that he’s leaving tomorrow.”

“I heard he met a girl and is moving to France.”

“What? Josie told me Denmark.”

The theories range so far afield and become so specific I find each possibility adds an additional knot to my stomach. Why should I care if Coltyn is with a woman? Why should I care if he’s leaving the country?

Why am I here?

It’s hard to be in love with someone for as many years as I have and divorce yourself from the outcome. Something about being apart but knowing I might see him at our favourite book shop. Being apart but expecting to find him in that pretentious grocery store down the block. Being apart but knowing he still visits the same restaurant every Friday night because the bartender is the only therapist he’s ever allowed himself.

Knowing Coltyn could be on the other side of the world makes me feel like a rope: once taut, now severed. Trapped in that moment where it shivers with relieved tension.

I glimpse Coltyn’s sister Anna, their mother, and his friend James all seated around a fire pit away from the other guests, further towards the lake. These are the people I remember best from my time with him. Anna sees me over her mother’s blonde head and stands up, wiping her palms on her jeans. She walks around the outside of the firepit as the others turn to stare, offers a conciliatory smile that I return with a shrug and a shake of my head.

“Matt,” she says, surprised, “you came.”

I nod, eyes prickling with emotion I didn’t expect to feel. One day you’re part of someone’s family, the next… It’s my turn to be surprised when Anna reaches out and pulls me into an embrace. When we move apart, I let out the tension of a held breath. “So where’s he going anyway?”

“Rehab.” She rolls her eyes, shrugging. “Or so he tells us.”

My heart’s doing a drum roll. I’m not sure if this is just another rumour or something else. It would explain a lot. It would help me pack the last few years of our relationship into a neat little suitcase and name it “addiction issues” instead of trying to sift through each item like it’s part of an unsolvable mystery.

“You don’t believe him?”

She shrugs, wets her lips. “He… insisted on this big ass party. Insisted on having everyone he ever knew here. Thing is, he hasn’t tried to sneak a drink. Hasn’t talked to anyone. He’s just… it’s like… he doesn’t expect to come back.”

I swallow more questions. Bite back emotions. “Where is he?”

And this time I get an answer. Anna nods her head towards the water and gives my shoulder a squeeze before making her way back to her seat.

 Anna nods her head towards the water and gives my shoulder a squeeze before making her way back to her seat

Past the circle of family, there’s a dip where the grass gives way to a mixture of soft and pebbly sand. The sand slopes down to the waterline, trees encroaching on either side and then spreading out, welcoming me to a small and private beach overlooking a vast expanse of water. The western shore of the lake is just a hazy dark strip above the glassy surface, reflecting the colours of encroaching night.

Golden yellow light turns red as blood over the horizon, painting the bottom of the clouds with its colourful brushstrokes. The water reflects the sky, red and yellow and orange and pink all melded together in a gradient of light and pattern, broken by ripples and waves. An ocean of colours at the edge of which I find the party’s recalcitrant host. My heart plummets over the edge of that roller coaster.

He’s sitting in the sand, pant legs rolled up his calves, bare feet in the water. I shuck off my shoes and crunch across pebbles towards him. He turns—and I hate myself for the way my heart breaks. He looks gaunt. His skin is lit with golden sunlight but in the shadows he’s pale. His ashen blonde hair has been cropped too close to his scalp. He looks like he’s on leave from some private war.

I don’t say anything. Neither does he. I make my way down the beach and sit next to him in the sand.

As I settle, Coltyn slides his hand towards mine and grasps it. It’s such an innocent action, one I might have taken for granted in another life.

“I knew you’d come,” he says.

I have to laugh. It seems absurd. Not a single other person could say that, not even me.

“You’ve always put too much faith in me,” I say.

“Not always.” It’s as close to an apology as I can expect. I bite my lips, nod. Squeeze that hand like it’s the last time I’ll hold it.

“Anna says the party was your idea.”

“It was.”

“So what’s the point Colt, why the spectacle?”

“No spectacle.” He shakes his head, offended. Looks up at the sky. “I wanted to know who would show up. What they would say.”

“It kinda feels like you lured me here,” I tease.

“It’s not all about you.” He lowers his head and nudges me with a bony shoulder.

“What’s it about then?”

“I’m being moved to hospice this week,” he says, voice gruff. “Once I’m in there. I don’t come out.”

I rotate our clasped hands and take in the IV port taped to the back of his wrist. I bite the inside of my cheek and this time I taste iron.

The last lights of the sunset are dissipating. The golden light withdraws from our faces and leaves them hollow. I lean across, planting my hand in the damp sand and gripping his face with the other. I pull him close and rest my forehead against his. He shivers and I wrap him in my arms.

“Time for my exit,” Coltyn breathes into the bend of my neck.

It takes a while to untangle. Our clothes are damp and sandy and he’s trembling. I lift him to his feet and we walk up the beach arm-in-arm. We start at the firepit, I shake Jame’s hand and hug his mother too long. I support him up the hill through dwindling revellers. College mates and exes. Cousins and second cousins. We make our way through the high school friends, the oldest acquaintances. Smiling, shaking hands. Thanks for coming. Thanks for being here. Where you going, man? Somewhere new. Somewhere I’ve never been.

There must have been a plan in place because, as we near the top of the hill, the air starts to buzz and fill with smoke as hundreds of sparklers light up the dark. The guest’s shout and holler: goodbye, sayonara, see you soon.

I take his hand in mine and lead him through the double gate. Take him down the driveway. He’s tired and he’s pale. I lift him in my arms and carry him the last few steps, set him in the passenger seat of my rented convertible.

It’s dark and it’s cold and there are clouds overhead threatening to burst. We drive with the top down, hands clasped over the gearbox and no destination in our heads. 

No goodbyes. 

Thanks for reading!

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