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A ray of the setting sun shone on the chapel’s window as they were exiting the office building. From the steps, it looked like it wants to grab the dusty mosaic, to prevent its fall in darkness. Bruna walked next to Matej with tiredness in her eyes although her movements were brisk as always. Today she was wearing a black suit and a blue shirt, and her brown hair was falling on her shoulders freely, almost carelessly.
“Why weren’t you at the meeting?” Matej asked her. His voice was weak and stiff, it wouldn’t bend in the way he wanted.
“Ivan asked me to help him with his monthly account. I couldn’t come.” she responded. “But I heard the point. Today is the last day. From today until further notice we are not coming back here, right?”
“That’s right. We won’t be seeing this old building for a long time. I’ll miss the chapel, though…” He made a painful grimace after he stepped down too quickly, grabbing his neck.
“It still hurts, right?” she climbed down to him. “After so much time?”
“Yes. But I was lucky. I could have ended up a lot worse, like Rajna. I think she will never recover.”
“Don’t joke like that.” her tone became sharper.
They came to the parking lot. Bruna turned to him.
“Take care”, she told him. “Call me if you need something.”
“I will.”, he answered. He wanted to say that he doesn’t want to be alone, but Bruna already entered her car and started driving off the parking lot.
He finished all the work he had. He probably won’t work for a long time. He wanted to make another figurine, but he ran out of stone.
Matej approached the window. The sky was dark, darker than a couple hours ago, when the night fell. The storm that had been raging since midday calmed, turning into a light rain. Behind him, the flat felt big and empty, like a dried-up well, and he was like an unfortunate soul that had fallen into it.
In the living room there was a big bookshelf, Matej’s small library. In it everything from classics and dystopias to modern collections of horror stories could be found. All of them were sorted by topic and alphabet but dusty from not being used long. He had begun to read Pride and Prejudice. At least that was what he remembered last. He got to the twelfth chapter and then stopped; he could still see the bookmark protruding from the pages.
He moved toward the shelf. I don’t have to read that, he thought. I could… I could read the news. He stopped half step. He sat at the desk and pressed the power button. Nothing. He pressed again. The computer stared back at him, black and dead.
No computer service worked during quarantine. If the computer broke, it wouldn’t be fixed for a long time. Matej stood up to take the book, but he hesitated. He didn’t want to read. Or, rather, he was afraid to read. There were memories laying in those books, memories which it is best not to wake. Not now. Maybe one day.
He’ll call Bruna. She might know somebody that could help him with the computer, and he could invite her to coffee. Only, coffee bars aren’t working. Never mind, they can go for a walk tomorrow morning, Bruna can take her dog.
He grabbed the phone with such thoughts. But it wouldn’t turn on. The battery is probably empty. He put it to charge, but even then, the thing didn’t react, staring at him like the computer, with a cracked smile on its black face. Suddenly he began to sweat. He was alone, no stores open, and he couldn’t call anybody.
“It’s probably a power outage.” He looked at the ceiling. The light wasn’t on although he remembered turning the chandelier on a couple of hours ago. The storm, it seemed, took what it had come for.
There was no reason to panic. Power will be back soon; he was sure of it. But, what now? He could only wait. He looked at the shelf again. It was like some invisible force wanted him to read a book tonight. Even if I wanted to read, I can’t do it in the dark, he told himself. He approached the shelf and in the dim light noticed a small object half hidden behind books, a reading lamp that could be attached to the book cover and light the whole page up. He got it for his birthday, from Rajna. Her face appeared in his memory before he sent it away. Don’t think about her. She is in the past. It makes no sense to think about her. But it was like her face wouldn’t go away. It would just hide, waiting for a good moment to come out again.
Matej sat on the couch and opened the book where it was marked. In this position he almost felt her beside him, the way she used to sit, legs on the couch, sometimes reading some of his books, sometimes looking at her phone, and sometimes sleeping with her head on his shoulder. Her red hair touched his cheek then, which tickled him. She had sharp, stiff hair. Don’t think about it. It is in the past, there’s no use in thinking about the past, he told himself. He felt unimaginably tired. Sentences were slowly disappearing in a fog. He closed his eyes and felt the book sliding from his hands. He heard a light thump as it landed but couldn’t pick it up.
Dreaming, he saw a sea, blue and vast. He found himself standing on a small rock in the middle of the ocean, smell of salt protruding his nostrils. He saw a seagull in the distance, but there was no land or ships to be found. He started to panic. He didn’t want to die in the middle of an ocean…
He looked to the sky as if he was hoping for divine intervention, but only the sun looked back. But, when he lowered his gaze, there was sand instead of rock under him. The smell of salt was replaced by the smell of sunscreen. In the corner of his eye a red spot appeared.
Matej rubbed his eye. He shouldn’t have looked at the sun. But, the spot didn’t disappear. Moreover, it even talked:
“Hi. Long time no see, isn’t it? I bet you don’t even remember this beach. Perhaps you don’t even remember me.”
She didn’t insult him. She could never insult him. He looked at her. Her red hair shone beneath the sun, and her eyes burned green.
“I remember this place. Here we spent our first summer together. The sea was always cold, but we had the moonlight and the stars every night.”
“So, you remember. Do you remember me, too?” her voice was filled with expectation.
He stared into her face. He could still see it, but it was getting less and less clear, as if he was looking at it through fire smoke. When it became so foggy he couldn’t recognize the color of her eyes, he screamed and tried to run away. The fire that blurred that face grew and burned him, making him cry. He had to run away. Rajna’s eyes followed him, judging him, and the fire burned hotter and hotter…
The fire was gone. He found himself on the couch, covered in sweat. The living room around him was hazy, dark. In this dream he was in the past as well. Rajna was standing before him, stretching her arm out to him. He will wake up soon. When he does, he will no longer have to think about her. He took her arm and stood up.
For a moment, everything darkened. When his sight returned, he noticed Pride and Prejudice on the floor. Now he could think. He wasn’t dreaming. He couldn’t have been dreaming. They say dreams can feel as real as the reality they imitate, but that wasn’t true. Matej always knew when he was awake, since childhood. He was awake now, but still, Rajna stood in front of him. Her red hair had an unhealthy glow in the light of the reading lamp. He was feeling sick. He fell on his knees. Don’t pass out, he thought, not now.
He collected himself and stood up. “What are you doing here?” he wanted to yell at her, but only a coarse whisper came out.
“I came to see you”, she responded. “I can leave if you want.”
“You forgot me, Matej.” She looked at him sadly. The fire in her eyes was weaker than before. “Or, rather, you didn’t yet, but you are trying to forget me. Do you never think of me?”
He should have been scared. He should have screamed and cried for help. He should have told her to disappear, to return where she came from. But it was still Rajna. He couldn’t refuse her.
“I don’t want to think about the past. The past must remain in the past, where it belongs.”
“Don’t cry over spilled milk? I understand that, but I thought that I’m more important to you than a glass of milk.”
“You never said goodbye to me. I am always here, right? Even if you want to forget me, you will never be able to live without me if you don’t say goodbye”, she added.
“I said goodbye, at the funeral.”
“That is not enough. You said it, but you still kept me beside you. Now it’s time for me to go.”
He realized he was crying only when he felt tears on his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he heard his voice tremble. “I’m sorry, I’m stupid.”
She watched him for a couple of moments like she wanted to confirm what he had said. Then she hugged him. She was strangely warm.
“Stay”, he told her. “Can’t you stay?”
“I don’t belong here. I’m sorry.” He felt sadness in her voice, and indecisiveness.
“When will you leave?”
Red light protruded through the window. It was dawn. Matej pushed away and wiped his tears off.
“Do you want to go to the park? Before, we used to watch the sunrise together, so why not now?”
She nodded and moved toward the door.
They sat on an old bench under a linden tree. The sun was shining, bloated and orange. Rajna looked tired in that light. “I kept her here for too long” Matej realized.
She grabbed his arm. She didn’t say anything since they left the flat.
He continued watching the sun. He couldn’t look at her, he felt too much guilt and shame. The sun was spilling over the clouds while climbing, like climbing was difficult for it. Waves of loneliness washed over him, one after another, each one bigger than the one before. He didn’t feel Rajna’s hand in his anymore. He lost every thought. For a long, long time only the sun, misery and realization that Rajna will never be with him again remained.
He came round when she gently tapped his hand. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but the sun was shining bright yellow in the sky, proud of its success.
“Let’s go, she said. “It’s morning, it’s time for coffee.”
He moved after her, entranced.
“What kind of coffee do you want?” he asked her, standing over the sink.
“I will not drink coffee. Make what you want.”
He filled the pot and put it on the stove.
“Why not? Because you can’t?”
“That is not important.”
“It is to me. What are you?”
“I didn’t ask you who you are, but what you are. Do you mean to say that you are an alive human being, built of bones and flesh?”
“No. But what I am is not important. I am Rajna. That is the only thing important.”
“Are you a delusion or a ghost?”
“I am not a delusion. You are not crazy, Matej, at least not in this.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Since I died. I cannot leave.”
“Why? Why don’t you just go and leave me to fight my grief alone, however I can?” he didn’t want to yell at her, but he couldn’t control himself.
“Because you are keeping me here! I cannot leave, because you haven’t let me go!” now she was yelling too.
“Then you are doing this for yourself! You don’t want to help me!”
Behind him the water boiled wildly.
“That… that’s not true!” for a moment she stood there bewildered. “I want to help you. I want you to continue with your life, now that I can’t be a part of it.” Her voice became gentle and soothing again. “I cannot let you suffer because of me.”
He felt like a fool. “Why didn’t you come earlier, then?”, he whispered.
“I couldn’t. You never let me.”
“Me too.” She looked at him, then behind him. “I think the water is boiling.”
The water had already boiled and evaporated. Only the pot remained. Matej sighs and fills it with water again.
While he was drinking, they talked about their shared memories. In the emptier and emptier cup spun events long gone. He didn’t feel sadness anymore, only nostalgia. When the cup was empty, Rajna stood up and said:
“You still didn’t get rid of my clothes, right?” she grabbed his hand and took him to the bedroom, to her old wardrobe. She opened it and stood there watching for a couple of moments, silent. Then she stretched her arm out and took a long, green dress.
“Why don’t you donate this?”
“That was one of your favorite dresses. It always went well with your eyes… you looked beautiful in it.”
“I don’t need it anymore. Give it to someone, someone who will look as beautiful as me in it.”
“But it’s a memory of you.”
“You have enough memories. You don’t need my clothes, not the whole wardrobe. Donate it.”
“All right. But I will keep one thing.” Matej approached the wardrobe and took out another dress, short and purple, with white pearls around the neck.
She touched the dress gently. She looked transparent, so much that he could see the wall behind her.
“Thank you”, she told him. “Goodbye, Matej.” She took his hand. She seemed colder than before.
He could still see her, pale and transparent, with a tired smile on her face. Then she disappeared, and he was left alone.
One hour later, the power came back. While Matej was reading a book on the couch, his phone loudly notified him that it was charged. Now he could call Bruna and ask her whether she knows anybody who could help him with the computer. Maybe he’ll even invite her for a walk. Or, maybe to the flat, for a coffee. She’s never been here, was she? He didn’t believe she would accept, Bruna was, after all, a very responsible person. Maybe, when the danger passes, they can go out for dinner.
He was certain she would accept that.