B-Sides: What Needs Doing
B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.
In his dream, he wasn’t cold.
In his dream, the sun felt just as hot as the day he’d met her, cutting straight through his shirt and roasting his skin as he stood there like a fool, dumbstruck by her beauty. She smiled at him as they were introduced, and he smiled back—how could he not smile back?—and he knew in that moment he had to see her again. See her soon. Even a day would be too much to wait.
Colleen was saying something about visiting, or staying the night, and a thought clicked in Liam’s brain in a way he couldn’t ignore:
“Sorry, you’re not from here?” he asked, and Maggie’s smile looked a little less comfortable.
“Just passing through,” she said.
“Oh, then I’ve got to show you around!” he said, happy enough for both of them.
“Show her what?” said Colleen. “There’s dust and there’s—”
He held out his hand to Maggie—an audacious gesture and one that should have seen him shunned—and said: “Care to take a stroll?”
“No, Liam, she wouldn’t care to—” said Colleen, just before Maggie put her hand in Liam’s.
“Why not,” she said, her smile coming back in full force.
Something nagged at him, like a fly buzzing ‘round the back of his head, telling him something was off. Something was wrong. Something was not quite right. But with her hand in his, he didn’t care. All that mattered was keeping her close.
He wasn’t sure how, but the lazy afternoon passed so fast he found himself shielding his eyes from the setting sun as they walked through the tall grass to the east of Corkstown. The forest, just beyond, was alive with evening bugs, like a symphony of sounds that made it even harder to focus on anything but her.
“I’m not looking for love,” she said to him, twirling gently, palms down so the grass tickled her fingertips. “If that’s what you’re after.”
“Why would you think that?” he asked, just watching her go.
“You have a look about you,” she said. “Someone who needs love.”
He blushed. He could feel it, even in the heat. “Don’t we all need love?” he asked.
She stopped twirling, and he realized she was wearing a summer dress somehow. Lighter than before. Airier. Breezy, like the wind. The orange light cast upon her in the most hypnotic of ways as she brushed the hair from her face and her eyes sought out his.
“I can’t be hurt again,” she said, not like she was hurting now, but more like a statement of fact. That hurt was not an option.
“I would never...” he said, and then remembered, somehow, that Rían was dead. It felt like a fact in his gut, though every other bit of him knew it wasn’t possible. Rían was at home making dinner, trying to find the herbs amongst all the other—
Maggie was there, right close to him now, squinting up at him as a breeze blew her hair around her neck, sweat trickling down until he—
“I can’t be hurt again,” she said, like she wasn’t sure he understood what that meant.
“I would rather die than hurt you,” he whispered.
She cocked her head to the side, watching him so very carefully. “That doesn’t help your case.”
She stepped away, back toward the forest. He reached for her, but she was too far, so he chased after, into the thicket where branches and leaves scraped his skin until he felt cold...so, so cold. Even though he’d kept her in sight the whole time, he couldn’t see her anymore. He stopped in a clearing, turning ‘round and ‘round and ‘round as the sun crept right out of sight and he was left in a winter hellscape again.
His sweat froze to his skin, his thin shirt amplifying the cold as he struggled to catch his breath, calling out with a desperate voice: “Maggie! Maggie, wait!”
No matter which way he turned, he couldn’t find the way out. Nothing looking familiar, or even the same, moment to moment.
“Maggie,” he said, sinking to his knees. “Maggie, I’m sorry.”
Her hand touched his cheek, and when he looked up, she was there, kneeling in front of him, her summer dress sparkling with ice crystals that crept up her chin and onto her lips as she leaned in and whispered into his ear: “Promise you’ll never leave me.”
“Never,” he said, without hesitation.
“I can’t be hurt again,” she said, her ice brushing his ear.
“I swear it,” he said, frozen in fear that even the tiniest of motions would send her away again. “I swear it.”
Her lips brushed his cheek as she moved her face along his until she was looking into his eyes with the kindest of expressions. The expression that made the rest of the world disappear into an imprecise haze, and every sound was her breath, every sensation was her skin on his, every sight was her, her, her.
“He can’t know,” she whispered, eyes closing as she moved closer.
“I swear it,” he said, and her lips found his.
The shock of it hit him like a burst of warm air, wrapping around every pore of his body until he was in a different place altogether, floating weightless along the shores of a river, his bare feet catching chilly waves as he settled back into the grass, her head on his chest, tracing the lines of his shirt with a delicate fingertip.
He didn’t know exactly where he was, or how he got there, but he really didn’t care. He could feel her smiling, and it filled him with so much happiness, it took all his willpower not to cheer.
“I was just thinking,” she said, and oh, how he wished he could see her face...
“Thinking what?” he asked, hand rubbing her back, her dress still damp from their romp in the water.
“Of choices lost,” she said, like that was the end of the subject...but the oddness of it refused to be left alone.
“What choices?” he asked.
She shrugged, pulled a little closer to him. “The person I almost was, before I met you.”
He winced, pressed her closer, refusing to let her go again. “Don’t think about her,” he said. “Never think about her.”
“Why not?” she asked, her finger stopping its lazy trip up and down his shirt.
“She wasn’t happy,” he said, trying to put memories of a different self into enough focus to explain. “She was never happy.”
She took a deep breath, nuzzled a little closer. “Am I happy now?”
“Yes,” he said, without hesitation. “More than anything.”
She nodded, then turned her head up toward him—and he jerked back at the sight of her red eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks like she’d been crying uncontrollably for hours or days or months or longer, and when she spoke, her voice cracked with heartbreaking agony: “Then why do I miss him?”
He tried to hold her, to reassure her, but when his hands touched her shoulders they passed straight through like she was made of smoke. He felt the ground give out beneath him, and he was tumbling backward and downward and—
Splash! Water sprayed his face, blinding him for a second before he remembered which way was up, and what breathing felt like again.
Maggie reached a hand back, resting it on his cheek. “Where were you just now?”
His heart went from racing to calm, and straight back to racing as he realized they were in a tub together, happily cramped in flickering candlelight. He was wrapped ‘round her, the sensations overwhelming him as she swished her hand this way and that in the water, this way and that.
“You were dreaming,” she said, half-turning her head toward him. “Was it a good dream?”
He was afraid to see her face. Afraid to see her crying again. “Yes,” he lied.
“Was I there?” she asked.
“Always,” he smiled, and kissed her neck.
She reached a hand back and held him there, shivering at his touch, at every kiss he gave. “Was I happy?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he lied. “Always.”
“How did you make me forget?”
He stopped his kisses, but didn’t dare move. “By staying alive.”
He could feel her smiling somehow. A genuine smile that made the water a little warmer, made his heart beat a little faster.
“I like this choice,” she said. “It feels right.”
“Does it?” he asked, and wished he hadn’t.
“You don’t agree?”
“I...” he said. “I’ve never been happier in all my life.”
“I’m glad,” she said. “You deserve to be happy. We both do. After all we’ve lost, after all we’ve suffered, we deserve to be happy.”
She turned around, facing him, eyes half-closed as her lips brushed his. “Can we stay here forever?” she asked.
“In the tub?” he asked, voice a whisper.
“Mmhmm,” she said, and kissed him. “Would that be alright?”
“We’ll get pruny,” he said, and let her kiss him again.
“I don’t mind,” she said, and pulled even closer to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and—
“Maggie?” came a voice from above, and Liam turned—Maggie’s lips smearing across his cheek—to see Rían standing there in his constable’s coat, mouth open in shock as he stood on a familiar ledge.
Liam realized they weren’t in a tub at all, but in the canal, back when it was half-dug. The water wasn’t water at all, but muddy sludge, dragging him down into the cold again. Maggie, slick with muck herself, wrapped herself around him tighter and tighter and tighter, trying to find his mouth with hers, but somehow never quite finding it.
Up on the ledge, Rían was stunned into silence, but his eyes spoke so loudly about the hurt and betrayal he felt as this woman who was not yet—and yet, yes!—his wife writhing all over Liam, desperate for his love even as her true love was standing right there, and—
Maggie was gone. Or Maggie was going, sinking into the mud like she was dissolving into darkness. Her hand tried to hold onto him, fingers digging into him, leaving white streaks where they cut away the muck on his chest, his belly, his leg, and then nothing at all.
Liam wanted to cry at having lost her, but then he felt a tug on his ankle, and suddenly he, too, was sinking away, disappearing.
He reached a hand out for Rían, pleading for mercy, pleading for help...but when he looked up, Rían was swaying in the wind, thick black blood pouring down his face from wounds on his skull, eyes rolling back in head as his life left him, and he toppled into the Canal and straight onto—
Liam gasped for air, convulsing up before settling back down onto a ground that felt like nothing at all. Everywhere around him was pure black, like a starless night. Every sound—if there were sounds at all—was muted, near imperceptible.
He lay there, staring up into the sky, and saw his breath above him, and realized it was cold again. So bitterly cold.
“I can’t be hurt again,” said Maggie, and he realized she was wrapped around him, naked and still slick with mud, shivering the last of her life away.
“I’ll save you, Maggie,” he said, but when he tried to pull her closer, she shattered into a million shards of ice. They ran through his fingers like sand, and melted into the blackness like they were never there.
“You have to do better, brother,” said Rían, sitting cross-legged in front of Liam. No constable’s coat, no blood, no malice. Perfectly calm, but deadly serious.
Liam sat, took an unsteady breath, and felt the pain of the real world chipping away at his delusions.
“I’ll try,” he said.
“No,” said Rían. “Do better, or do the merciful thing and die.”
Liam didn’t know what to say.
Rían sighed. “You heard her,” he said. “She can’t be hurt again. So you either do what needs doing, brother, or you give up living and spare her the heartbreak.”
Liam thought of what he’d endured. Thought of what the future held.
Thought of Maggie’s smile, so close to his.
And he did what needed doing.