The Footsteps In The Hall: Part 2
Read PART 1 here
The weekend came and went as Harold forgot about the footsteps in the sanity of daylight. He bought his groceries and gathered up his clothes to bring over to the communal laundry room the dingy apartments shared. Once his short list of chores were attended to, he did something he hadn’t done in six months; he sat down and put a pen to paper. There were no words to spill from his mind, but there was a feeling. He was out of practice with writing, but the urge had stolen over him late Saturday night and so he had promised himself that he would try to write, even as little as a single verse.
He felt the pen ready to move, the words poised at the tip of his mind when his cell phone went off in the other room. He sighed and placed the pen onto the blank page. He had a feeling of who it was that was calling.
The face of the phone read “MOM”, confirming his suspicion. He couldn’t keep putting off talking to her. He had moved hundreds of miles from her and he was eventually going to have to tell her where he was (though it was likely she had already obtained that bit of information).
Harold answered the call and didn’t say anything for a moment as he was met with silence from the other end. He decided to be the first to break it. “Hey Mom.”
Her voice was calm and knowing, only revealing a hint of the emotion hidden within it. “Hey baby. You make it there ok?”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s hot here, stuffy ya know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
He was sure she also felt the awkwardness in the artifice of the niceties they were sharing. “How’re you doin’?”
“Oh you know, we’re holding up here. Things have quieted down a little now. We don’t really get reporters here anymore.” There was a pause; he sensed her regret at brushing even that close to the subject they dared not speak of. He also wondered how much of that was the unspoken question of if he would come back soon. If it was, he didn’t have to wonder if she already knew his answer.
“Is dad alright?” he asked.
“Oh yes.” Another pause. “He misses you…we all do.”
“Me too, mom.” This wasn’t entirely a lie, but he still felt shame in the relief he found at not having to see the look on her face at that moment. “Look, I’m kinda busy, you know?”
There was a sniffle from her end. “Yeah I know. You give us a call if you need anything; money, help, anything.”
“I will, Mom…I love you.”
“I love you, sweety.”
He could sense the longing in her voice to say more and hung up before she had the chance to. He tossed the phone onto the couch cushion next to him and held his head in his hands. He did miss his parents. He missed his friends and his hometown. It was a town, though, that held too many memories at this point. Maybe he would return someday…maybe. It hadn’t even been the unending stream of news reporters and local papers wanting to get his thoughts on what had happened.
What had happened to Sally…
Harold stowed that train of thought away and decided he should get some sleep before his shift. His dreams did not let him forget about what had happened.
It is January 16 of 2009. Sally is wearing a yellow sundress with pink tights and a soft green sweater as she sits next to the window with the book he bought her for Christmas. Harold is tuning his guitar into dropped D, knowing he’ll most likely pop a string when he brings it back to standard and not much caring. Neither of them cares about what will most likely happen. She reads as he plays through a few chords he had been fiddling with all week, not quite being able to find the order in which they should go.
He works during the week at a local hardware store, which pays just enough for the bills, while his weekends are filled with late nights at the bars in town where he plays covers of old country tunes. He loves hearing the people sing along with him, even if he can’t stand the genre of music. The energy that is transferred between the sound he produces and the emotional response of the crowd fuels his childish dream of one-day hearing people sing words that could be his own.
Sally teaches middle school English and, though not especially well paid, still makes more than Harold—he can’t help but feel a little insecure about that. Sally never was the cause of such feelings. She would only encourage him to write more. She helped him make payments in months where it seemed the money ran out faster than it should’ve, as was the way with learning how to grow up, and it was always with grace and love. She believed he should follow playing music even when he didn’t, which seemed to be most days. Even when it felt he wasn’t particularly good at playing or his voice felt frail and incapable, she simply responded to his doubts with, Even if you make a penny that’s more than most people’s mouths being open are worth.
These are the things that make her priceless to him. She is beautiful, to be certain; her brown hair frames her small face in a way that accentuates the softness of her chin and nose. The same hair that is graying, just so, prematurely and continues to strike him with a sense of wonder and wisdom that is beyond his own and makes her insecure in a way that only makes him want to hold her. It is her mind and her unwarranted belief in him that has caused him to hide the fact that he has gotten a raise from work and is siphoning the extra cash flow into a ring, slowly but steadily, and he is going to offer it to her before the year is out. He’s already decided that if he’s not more than sixty percent of the way there by mid-summer he’ll sell his guitar to bump up his progress.
She looks to him now in the morning light. It’s harsh and exposes blemishes on her face that she has yet to hide behind a soft layer of makeup, and he loves that she looks like that now with him. Real.
“I want coffee,” she plainly says.
“We have some here.” He looks back to the small apartment kitchen behind him knowing what she’s going to say next.
“No,” she closes her book and walks over to him, “I want Starbucks.”
Harold sets his guitar to the side. “You’re so white and so basic.” He draws her in to straddle him and she follows his guidance.
“And you love me.”
“So will you drive to get me coffee?”
“Mmmm,” he playfully groans at her while looking over at his guitar.
She smiles and nods. “Oh alright, I guess I can go all by my lonesome this time.”
“Just hurry, ok?”
“Ok.” She leans in and they kiss for the last time. She stands and grabs her bright pink wallet while walking to the door. “Would you like anything, my love?”
He picks the guitar back up and plays through the uncooperative chord progression again. “Just you.”
She leaves and is stabbed seven times in the parking lot of the apartment building.
The week went by and the urge to write did not seize him as it had that Saturday evening, but he did begin to play his guitar again. He hadn’t touched the thing since that day, nearly seven months ago now. The smooth finish of the neck on his thumb and the taut readiness of the strings only brought him back to that final moment with Sally. He wasn’t even sure why he had brought it with him in the first place. It had a thin layer of dust over the strings and it had fallen flat in its neglect, but it only took a few moments to bring it back to tune. His fingers hurt terribly now that the calluses had all but faded away and the muscles in his wrist tired quickly, but it felt good. The old rhythms fell into place and he found himself throwing in pull-offs and slides before too long. It was a thing he had not thought he would feel again when holding an instrument; fun.
Along with his return to playing guitar came the summer storms. Around three or four in the afternoon, clouds would begin to roll in, casting a heaviness to the sticky warmth of the day. On his walks to work, Harold was used to seeing painters, road workers, and other blue-collar workers packing up to go home. Now as he passed by, the construction sites were already deserted with the work that had been done, covered with plastic and tape to try and protect what they could from Florida’s summer fancies. By Wednesday, Harold was forced to run to the bus stop, which was conveniently placed at the sidewalk in front of his apartment. Once in the office for Morningstar, he found the thrum of rain against the roof quite relaxing. He was beginning to like it there.
Then it was Friday again; the 10th of July. Harold ran into the MorningStar office once again covering himself and his small insulated lunch bag with a pocket umbrella. Theresa was gathering her papers at the front desk in a hurried fashion.
“You might want to wait it out a little, Ms. Nyugen,” he said, shaking the rain from the folds of his umbrella. “It’s comin’ down heavy today.”
She smiled and gave him a pish-posh hand wave. “Oh please, I survived ‘04 just fine. Worst thing this spat’ll do is make my mascara run a little.”
Harold had begun to prepare a new pot of coffee at the pot in the corner. “Well we can’t have that. You probably got a hot date tonight, right?”
This elicited a genuine snort of a chuckle from Theresa. “Yeah, and I’ll finally win the Mega Million.”
Over the past week, Harold had loosened up when speaking with Theresa. He attributed it to the small conversation he had had with his mother. Though nothing was outright stated, just saying anything to her had felt like a bit of a relief and so he felt easier around Theresa and Jerry. It didn’t make sense to be defensive with them when neither were prying into his affairs.
He nodded. “Mayhaps you will.”
She walked to the door, her black glossy purse dangled from the crook of her elbow, and her purple floral umbrella poised for release. “You stay safe tonight, Harold. Might lose power at some point but the backup genny’ll kick in.” She ran for her car on small skittery steps.
He watched after her, a foam cup of coffee in his hand. He was sure it didn’t mean more than a gesture of good will, but it had felt like she was warning him of something. The night in the hallway flashed through his mind. He looked around the small office building, imagining being here with no power at all, no lights. What else would he hear in the dark then, besides just footsteps? Harold shuddered and did his best to push the thoughts away.