“Columbines” – Gavin Cross

As they sat cramped together on the little taxi speedboat, the two of them smug behind the driver, Colin never looked at his wife, his eyes glued to the red reflection of the setting sun against the Pacific. This was just another job. Some millionaire’s summer cottage that needed a facelift. Lacey didn’t look at him either, pressing her dress to her knees in the wind.

They pulled up to the client’s island, a spoonful of dirt in the sea, and stepped off the boat. The cottage was tall. Four floors, each staggered smaller than the one below, with a tiny room at the top. Pots of various shapes littered the island, each with a single blue flower, a columbine, standing tall.

“I’ll be back to get you in four days,” the driver said.

“Thanks.” Colin paid the man, grabbed their things, and walked up to the house as the speedboat pushed back to the mainland.

“The key’s in the porch light,” Lacey said, her eyes fixed straight ahead.

“I know.” Colin slipped the key in the door. It felt a bit like walking up to their honeymoon villa in Santo Domingo. When he had opened the door that time, he had feigned surprise at the dozens of candles lighting the room. But there were no candles here, just a dusty chandelier above the entryway. He flipped it on. The home had that ancient, lived-in smell, like butterscotch and cigar smoke.

Lacey dragged her luggage to a bedroom she found on the first floor, and Colin scoped the empty rooms of the house before settling in a room on the third. He came back down to check out the kitchen. Lacey was already there, but left when he stepped in. It was small. No exterior light. The east wall would have to be removed first thing. And the whole layout was boxed and claustrophobic. Perhaps they could cut into the living room a bit. Oh, right. Lacey. He walked into the living room to find Lacey pondering the wall that he was considering moving, or even taking out at this point. But something was off. There was a hint of confusion in her eyes. He followed them to a portrait mirror, framed ornately in gold. He saw her reflection, but it took him a moment to realize that he couldn’t see his own. He shuffled left to get into the frame better.

“I’ve already tried that,” Lacey said. “She told me about this mirror. Said to make sure not to touch it. ‘It’s special,’ she said. ‘Shows you only what you need to see.’”

“That’s interesting.” He vaguely remembered hearing her say something like that.

“I don’t like it.” She turned down the hall to her room and didn’t come out the rest of the day.

The next morning, she opened his bedroom door to wake him. He blinked twice, orienting himself. He felt he could still smell perfume on his body. Lacey didn’t wear perfume, and the scent mixing with the image of his wife standing over his bed made him nauseous.

“I tried calling you,” she said, “but we don’t get cell service here. Land line doesn’t work either.”

“Good morning, Lacey.” He sat up, shielding his eyes from the light.

“It was hard to find you. Several rooms in this house.”

“Yeah.”

“The client said there was a shed somewhere on the grounds with old furniture and fabrics and what not. I’ll be working there all day to see if I can’t dig up some inspiration. So, in case you never see me.”

“That’s fine.”

Colin spent the first several hours of the day in the kitchen, orienting himself with the plumbing and electrical sockets. The sink was on the wall opposite the one shared by the living room, and next to the east wall that he wanted to tear down, so it was fine where it was. The fridge, however, would have to move. If he placed it on the west wall, he could build an island out of the extra space. Lacey would put a wine rack overhead, of course. But that probably wouldn’t be so bad. And she would get rid of the mirror splash board behind the sink, too. The mirror. He stepped carefully into the living room, took a deep breath, and looked up. Everything was there, just as it should be, except for his own reflection. It made him think of Dracula. He felt around the tips of his teeth. Nope. All good. Lacey stepped into the image, and he turned around.

“Does the island look smaller to you?” She asked.

“Than home?”

“Than yesterday.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“No really. It’s like the water’s rising or something.”

“It’s the tide. Happens every day.”

“Oh, well yeah. I guess that could be it.” She turned around and walked back out to the shed.

Colin went back to the kitchen for lunch. The fridge had been stocked for their arrival. He had a frozen dinner. Chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes. It was a bit bland, but better than making lunch from scratch.

He went back to the living room to look in the mirror again, and Lacey walked into the reflection. “What do you think of the colors in this bowl?”

He spun around. “Sweetheart? I thought you would be in the shed all day.”

“The cream is too yellow, I think.”

“What are you doing?”

“But it’s just these blue polka dots. They have such a nice kiss of green to them.”

“I guess.”

She sat the bowl on the couch and walked out again.

He had yet to have a chance to examine the mirror on his own, and somehow that bothered him. He turned to face the mirror again, and she darted back into the room, into the reflection.

“You know? I might need the bowl just in case I find anything that goes well with it.”

Colin was clenched stiff, his teeth firmly locked together until she left the house with the bowl. He walked around, locking every door to the outside that he could find, and lifted the mirror off the wall without looking into its reflection. Who would care if he moved it for just a moment if he put it back when he was done? He walked to the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and faced the glass with his eyes closed, breathing slow, deep breaths. One. Two. Three. He opened his eyes. The reflection was clear behind him, a simple white wall and a tiny window. But once again, he could not see himself in the glass. And no Lacey this time. But there was a shadow outside the window behind, and two skinny arms pushed open the window. Lacey pulled herself up and stuck her head in the opening.

“What are you doing in here!?”

He almost dropped the mirror as he stood and spun to her.

“Are you gonna explain why you locked all the doors?”

Without a word, he hung the mirror back in the living room, unlocked all the doors, and vanished to his bedroom.

He lay in bed for hours, watching the ceiling fan rock side to side. The mirror shows you only what you need to see. That’s what the client had said.

The next day, Lacey woke him again. She dragged him out of bed, down the stairs, and out the door. The water was much higher this morning. Past the palm trees lining the beach, covering several rows of the client’s columbines.

“What should we do?” Lacey asked.

“I don’t know. There’re no phones.”

“Let’s try the television.”

They ran into the house and turned on the TV. There was no cable, but they managed a news station in Chicago. The Blue Line was down for three hours earlier that morning. No mention of rising tides off the Pacific coast. They went back outside, the water higher still.

“Should we take a picture?” Colin asked.

“Help me with the columbines.”

“What?”

“They’re obviously important to the client.”

They spent the better part of the morning filling the house with the potted columbines. They started with the living room, then moved on to the dining room. They didn’t put any where they were remodeling, of course. It seemed the most professional thing to do. And when they couldn’t justify cluttering the first floor any more, they took some to the second, then the third. And by the time the third was half full, the water had already covered the rest of the columbines outside. Colin placed the last one on the floor next to the bed of the attic bedroom, just to keep things symmetrical. Lacey was in the living room watching the Chicago news. If the mirror was mad at him for neglecting his wife, this would be a good time to spend with her, and right in the mirror’s vision, too. He sat next to her on the couch, and she got up and went back to her room. After she left, he took a cushion from the couch and threw it at the window. The cushion fell, knocking over a blue columbine. He got up, placed the plant upright, returned the cushion to the couch, and went in search of a broom and dustpan to sweep up the spilled dirt. Lacey had piled her clothes outside her door, like she always did at home. They were dirty from moving all the pots. He picked up the clothes and started a load with both hers and his, glancing to the living room where he knew the mirror would be watching. He found the broom and dustpan in the laundry room, and swept up the dirt before sitting to watch the Chicago news. He got through two headlines before falling asleep.

“What are you doing?” She asked, jerking him awake. He took a deep breath. Thought he smelled the perfume again. “Look at all this.”

He rolled up in the couch and set his feet on the floor. “Whoa!” The floor was standing in an inch of water. He looked out the window. The ocean had crept up to the house in his sleep, the water lapping the bottom edge of the window.

“So we move?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He went upstairs for his empty suitcase, and brought it down to the kitchen to fill with food, and Lacey grabbed her stuff out of her room and moved it to a room on the second floor.

“Where are my clothes!?” She peered from a corner.

“I was doing a load of laundry for you.”

She said nothing, but spun to the laundry room, grabbed the clothes, still wet, and marched back up the stairs. So much for that. The last thing Colin took upstairs was the mirror, which he placed in the second-floor den.

A few minutes later, she walked in with him watching the Chicago news in the second-floor den. “I just want you to know I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I’ll be staying in bed the rest of the day watching a movie.”

“Would you like a partner?”

“It’s Gone with the Wind. You don’t like that movie. Remember?”

“Oh. Right.”

She was true to her word. Never set foot out of that room. And he spent most of the day in the den with the TV. He was beginning to think it would be nice to live in Chicago. Elevated trains. No flooding way up there. At lunch time, he had an idea. Lunch meat sandwich. That sounded easy. He took out a lap tray from the den closet, and put the food on it, a sliced roast beef sandwich with chips. When he walked in, she was bunched under the covers, the light sliding through the ocean water outside her window.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“Bringing you lunch.”

“Is something wrong?” She looked at him strange, suspicious.

“Nope. Nothing. Just thought I would help out since you were sick and all.” He set the tray on the bed next to her.

She looked up at him, her eyes confused. “Thanks.”

He turned to leave.

“You keeping an eye on those columbines?” She asked.

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Good.”

When he left her room, he walked to the stairway to check on the columbines downstairs. The first floor was completely underwater now. The water was clear, cold-looking. He watched a school of angelfish swim into the living room.

He walked to the den and stole a glance at the mirror, sure that he had fixed it. But in the reflection, Lacey sneaked into a tiny corner, walking to the bathroom behind him. She lingered only a moment, and came back through the reflection and on to her room. When she was gone, Colin walked to the bathroom, and there, in the waste bin, were two untouched halves of sliced roast beef sandwich and a handful of chips. He kicked the waste bin, but only half-heartedly. He sat on the floor, pulled his knees up to his chest, and stared at the trashcan for several minutes before a most peculiar thought entered his head. “I love you,” he called out to the hall. He didn’t know if he really meant it, but he was sure she hadn’t heard him, so it didn’t matter anyway. He sat there a moment longer, defeated, and walked into the den one last time. He was through with this mirror. It didn’t know anything. It should have realized by now that he was the one being ignored. That the tables had turned. One last look, and he was done trying to fix things.

“I saw you in the bathroom.” Once again, Lacey’s reflection. Standing in the doorway. “At the trashcan,” she continued. “Just sitting there like that. It’s hard to explain. I’m just-”

“Don’t apologize. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

“I’m not.” She stared at him with something like fear grown pale, and then her expression changed, grew harder. “Not apologizing, that is.”

“Oh.”

“So why do you spend so much time with this mirror anyway?”

“Does it bother you?”

“Maybe.”

“Why?”

“Well, if you’d look at me for half as long, then we’d be somewhere.”

“We are somewhere. And what about the sandwich?”

“What was that about? Why all the sudden attention? It’s confusing. You’re just losing me.”

“I’m losing you?”

Her eyes grew softer, lighter. “Why did you say that? From the bathroom a moment ago? You know it’s not true.”

He didn’t answer.

“Or are you still pretending?”

Still no answer.

“Well if you aren’t, then tell me this. Have you ever slept with another woman?”

He looked into the mirror, then the floor “Yes,” he whispered. When he looked up, he saw the pale fear again. It wasn’t the answer that froze her in place. Colin was aware that she had always known. No, it was his honesty that must have frightened her, numbed her features. He walked out of the room, and halfway down the hall, he heard a loud crash and breaking glass, followed by Lacey’s hushed tears. He faltered only a moment and walked on. Something felt like beauty, but it was wrong, misplaced somehow. Before going to bed, he walked back down to the den and picked up the shards of glass from the mirror. He put them in the waste bin from the bathroom, covering up the uneaten sandwich, and took the waste bin with him, dragging it limp at his side up the stairs. The harsh clanking drowned the sound of his thoughts.

The next morning, she didn’t wake him. It was the sun that coaxed him out of bed. He sat up and rubbed the chill bumps from his arms. She had woken him every day since they’d been there, and it suddenly felt sad, lonely, to be woken any other way. He got out of bed and looked both ways down the hall. He stepped wearily to the stairs and made it halfway down before he realized that the entire second floor was underwater. The third floor seemed empty, too. His breath quickened, his chest growing tight. Where was she? The mirror. It would know. He went back into his room, picked one of the shards out of the waste bin, and saw nothing. Not his reflection. Not Lacey’s. He turned and ran back to the stairway leading to the second floor. “Lacey!” He screamed. She couldn’t be down there. She had to have moved her stuff up sometime in the night. “Lacey! Where are you?” He ran back down the hall as the water crept higher. Her name fell from his lips in tight, successive breaths. He checked each room, under beds, behind sofas, until he reached the bathroom at the end of the hall. The last room. He grabbed his heart, gasped for air, and swung open the door.

He felt the pain grow stronger, settling somewhere in his head. He looked left, nothing. He looked right, and pulled back the shower curtain. There she was, taking a bubble bath, her ears under the water. She saw him and sat up. “What is it?”

He stared at her, calm now, taking in the lines of her neck, the simple beauty of her wet hair pasted against her face, committing every inch to memory, as if she were going to sink in his mind. “Nothing,” he said.

“I woke with terrible aches in my back,” she said.

It pained him that she hadn’t accepted his gifts before. The laundry. The food. For different reasons than it used to bother him, though he wasn’t sure what those reasons were. He wanted to bleach the perfume off his body, to ban anyone else from his dreams. He wanted now, more than anything, for Lacey to accept him. “Let me give you a massage,” he said.

She looked up at him, her eyes confused, but warm, like that first night they had spent together in Santo Domingo all those years ago. “Alright.” She stepped out of the tub, his beautiful wife, and his head grew light as he handed her a towel.

They sloshed through ankle-deep water to the stairway, and up to the attic bedroom at the top of the house. She dropped her towel before lying face down on the bed.

“Where does it hurt?” He asked.

“Mostly the lower.”

He pressed gently, afraid to hurt her. She choked back a moan, and her arms grew limp, one falling off the side of the bed. “Why are you doing this?” her voice was soft, muffled in the pillow.

Yesterday, he could have easily answered this question. The mirror. But he wasn’t sure anymore. “Because you need me.” But that didn’t sound quite right either. He knew somehow that this was the mirror’s purpose, and he didn’t need it anymore, but the words weren’t forming correctly.

Another moan. Or was it a chuckle.

“I’m sorry for locking you out of the house,” he said.

She made no response. And he felt the water crawl over his feet.

“There’re a lot of things I’m sorry for,” he added.

She pushed herself up and rolled over, looking into his eyes. “What’s happening to you?” Her eyes were soft, warm.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Are you going to leave me?” She asked.

“No.”

They stayed like this for a while, her searching his face, discovering him for the first time, and him standing frozen above her, until she reached up and touched his face, the water making its way up to his knees. She traced his jaw line, reached behind his neck and pulled him in for a kiss. It was a slow, lingering kiss without sound. He climbed onto the bed and held her to himself. Just held her. She could float away from him now. He felt it. He knew it. He held on tighter. And as the seconds rolled without a need for counting, they lay there together, the water creeping up to the top of the mattress. He would have to start over, learn to love her from scratch. He wasn’t even sure he knew what that meant, so he just held on. And over her shoulder, he watched the angelfish swimming around the last columbine drowning on the carpet underwater. He reached over and pulled the plant up onto the bed with them. Her hands wrapped into his around the plant, and as the first trickles of water climbed up to their bodies, a thousand glass shards floated into the room.

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