Shut the fuck up and let the silence settle.

Shut the fuck up and let the silence settle.

I wrote this short story in my late twenties before I learned not to touch the silence that settles between people in real life, as well as characters on the page. As a society, we’re so anxious to snatch every second of conversational pause that it’s become second nature. We’re desperate to use it, unconsciously or not, to alter the other person’s perception to reflect how we’d like them to see us.

The technical term for that is Inauthentic Bullshit Slinging and every time we do it, we miss the magic that might happen if we just shut the fuck up and let the silence settle.

This story is about what happens when we give that silence space to breathe. Here’s an excerpt:

 

The bus from Glasgow lurched to a stop at the Edinburgh bus station and I stepped off into a swirl of cold night air and diesel fumes. My pack dug into my shoulder as I turned down the road towards McGowan’s hostel. I’d found it years earlier when I was nineteen, my first time in Edinburgh, and loved it instantly. Built into a 17th-century cathedral, bunk beds were stacked three high against the stained glass windows and old confessional doors served as breakfast tables in the kitchen. Even filled with travelers, there’d always been something silent about it, secret, as if the walls had absorbed the confessions they’d heard over the centuries and held them in the stones.        

The sheer cliff at the north edge of the road dropped into the churning sea below, and across the water, Edinburgh Castle blocked half the night sky. The waves crashed against the boulders and I watched the silver foam slip back down the rocks like mercury as the mist around me turned to rain. I ran a hand through my hair as I walked and pulled on the beanie I’d dug out of my pocket at the station. Slowly, the smells of the city started to give way to the familiar scent of cold night air and roast. Almost every pub in Edinburgh served a proper roast on Sunday afternoon, with tender Yorkshire puddings and gravy, and the scent of roast dinner settles over the rooftops until morning, heavy and familiar, like a fog. I walked along the seaside and breathed it in, the wet cobblestones slick and black beneath my feet, until I reached the door of the hostel. I let my pack drop to the steps as I rung the bell.

   The heavy iron locks shifted and the door opened slowly. A receptionist I didn’t recognize took my pack while I stepped in and shook the rain from my jacket. Her skin was pale ivory, with a dark slick of walnut hair that she tucked behind one ear. As I followed her back to the front desk, I realized she was pregnant and took my bag from her shoulder to put it back on mine. 

She glanced up then, keys in hand, eyes the color of a storm fixed on me.

“You’re looking for tonight, then?”

“I am,” I said, “I know it’s late, I should have called ahead.”

She nodded and tucked her hair behind her ear.

“Every bed is full, I’m afraid,” she said in a soft lowlands accent, glancing toward the stairs. “It will be the couch in the commons for you tonight, but you can move into one of the beds in the morning.” 

I watched her walk down the narrow stone stairs that wound in a tight circle into the common room below. She was maybe five months along, small except for the swell of her belly. She wore a black linen dress with boots and walked as the thought that she might be beautiful had never occurred to her.

We reached the lower level and she opened the lock on the common room. The walls were aging plaster and rough timber beams, and the fireplace took up most of the back wall, framed by an old leather couch and several mismatched chairs. She wordlessly set about making the couch into a bed. I watched her tuck the corners of the sheets in carefully and wondered if I should tell her I’d be fine with just the blanket, which was true. She finished quickly and glanced back at the stairs.

“The men’s facilities are upstairs and to the right, should you need them in the night.”

I paused, but decided to avoid confusion later and told her I’d be using the women’s bathroom. Her eyes rose instantly to my chest, and she flushed, the color washing sudden and hot across her cheeks. 

“I’m so sorry…I just…” her voice trailed off as she took my jeans and short, masculine hair.

“It’s OK. It happens all the time.” I smiled at her as I shrugged out of my jacket and laid it on the back of the couch.

“I’ll just get the fire started and leave you to it then, shall I?” she said, folding an extra blanket at the foot of my bed and not quite meeting my eyes. 

    I found a spot on the floor for my pack and unzipped it, searching for my toothbrush. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pick up a pine log and step toward the fire, but before I could reach her the wood slipped from her hands and landed with a crack onto her foot. She sank down onto the hearth as the blood drained from her face and started to flow past the edges of the cut. Her hands were shaking, hovering just above the wood. I gently pushed them aside and lifted the log back onto the hearth. I asked if there were towels or bandages close, but she didn’t answer, just stared down as the blood pooled on the floor. I dropped to my knees beside her and stripped off my shirt, leaving my white tank underneath, and tied it tight over the wound. 

“How bad is it?” Her hands covered her face except for one deep blue iris between her fingers.

“I think you’ll be fine, although it’s bleeding quite a bit,” I said, resisting the urge to smile. “Let’s just get you to the sink and take a look.”

I put out my hand to help her to her feet. She looked up at me, not moving.

“I’m not sure I’m quite ready to stand.”

    I hesitated, but sat back down beside her, and she rested her head against my shoulder. Her hair smelled like warm rain and patchouli, and I listened to her breath as she pulled the sleeves of her cardigan down over her fingers.         

    After a few minutes, she told me where the medical supplies were and I unwrapped the bloody shirt, carefully disinfecting the cut before dressing it in gauze. It had bled quite a bit but looked superficial beyond that. I asked her to flex her foot to make sure there were no broken bones, then threw the log onto the grate and lit the tinder beneath it. The flames quickly enveloped the wood, the crackling of green Scotland pine the only sound in the room. 

“Thank you,” she said, meeting my eyes for the first time.

Her eyes were dark against her pale cheeks, and I watched as they traveled to my bare arms and across my shoulders. She was staring. I let her.

“I’m sorry I thought you were a man,” she said, still looking at me with a soft curiosity that felt surprisingly comfortable. 

“I wasn’t offended,” I said, “I think even my Mother was a bit confused at some point.”

    She laughed, a sound like tiny cathedral bells I instantly wanted to hear again; she was beautiful in an ethereal, fair maiden kind of way. She reached around to the cabinet beside the fireplace and pulled out a bottle of scotch and two mismatched glasses. I took it from her, set the glasses on the hearth, and poured. Her hands were still shaking, but she met my eyes as she took it. She sipped once, then set her glass on the hearth. She wanted to say something but didn’t. So I did. 

“Is this your first child?”

There was that laugh again. 

“First and only, I hope,” she said, running her fingers along the curve of her belly. 

I glanced at her bare ring finger as she reached for my hand and pulled it against her, covering it with hers.

“Can you feel her?”

She whispered it as if her words were a secret, her breath warm against my neck. 

    My hand melted around the curve of her body and I closed my eyes against the desire to pull her into me. A few seconds later I felt her forehead touch mine. I held my breath as she slowly placed her hand on the center of my chest, her fingertips soft and hesitant against my heart. Every muscle in my body tensed; I wanted to kiss her more than I wanted to breathe.

    After a moment I leaned back against the hearth, covering her hand with my own. She looked up at me, biting her lower lip as if to trap the wild words inside.

When I finally spoke the words were as soft as ash. “Tell me.”

She started to answer but paused, her eyes dropping to my mouth. “There’s so much I want to do.” She glanced down at the curve of her belly, “And now I never will.”

“Like what?”

She shook her head and looked down, sudden tears spilling over her dark lashes.

“I’m afraid I’ll never…” 

Her voice was so soft I could barely make out the words. I noticed that her hand trembled as she took a long sip from her glass. I didn’t speak as flames crumbled into coals on the grate, afraid to break the spell.

Her fingers traced the edges of the crucifix she wore, and she finished the rest of the amber scotch before she spoke.

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