Hawthorne & Heathcliff
Author:R.K. Ryals

The tears came harder. “I want to stay with you,” I sobbed. “School doesn’t matter.”

The papers fell to the floor, his hands coming up to grip my shoulders. “It matters. It really matters. You can do anything. Be anything! I’m going to take care of you, Hawthorne. The house is yours—”

“Stop!” I cried, my nose running, my eyes dripping as I tried pulling away. “Just stop!”

Uncle Gregor refused to release me. “It’s been in this family for generations and has long since been paid off. I have enough put back for your—”

I wrenched myself away, my red eyes and swollen face staring up into his. “I don’t care.” I meant to yell it, but it came out as a jarbled murmur.

For a long time we stared at each other, tears falling; his lined face and my young one. Uncle Gregor and his Hawthorne. He was my love story, the man who’d made sure I’d eaten and dressed and loved after my parents left. He was the only person I felt comfortable talking to. This house was home, the four walls a place I could breathe. He wasn’t just my uncle anymore.

“For my sake,” he said suddenly, and my chest throbbed.

“For your sake,” I replied.

I was back in his arms again, my cheek against his safe shirt, the world beyond his embrace suddenly too big and too scary.

Outside, it rained.

Chapter 2

The following Saturday morning brought no rain, only sunshine and glittering frost-covered bark. Light spilled into my room, the beams playing over a sun-bleached brown carpet before climbing up chocolate striped wallpaper. In a weird way, the room should have felt like a prison, the stripes bars holding me in. Instead, they were inviting, the window seat built in front of my large second story window complementing it, the seat covered in faded cocoa-colored cushions. Brown was such a simple color, unexciting and plain, but it felt stable and reliable. I treasured reliability.

Sleep hadn’t come easy the night before, and I’d spent a good amount of time in the shower, the cascading water like my own personal rain cloud, before falling into bed with wet strawberry-blonde hair I knew would frizz by morning. For hours, I’d stared at the ceiling, the faintly glowing moon and creeping shadows replaced by the sun’s inching fingers.

For my sake.

My eyes misted, my heart so heavy in my chest that it felt like it would fall through me and the bed to the floor below. Life shouldn’t be about good-byes, but I felt like mine was. I was a revolving door. There was no way to enter my existence without exiting. In and out. Like breathing. Only it was the kind of breathing that hurt.

For my sake.

Those three words wouldn’t let me quit, but they couldn’t stop me from grieving either.

Throwing my legs over the side of my bed, I stepped toward a golden framed mirror I kept propped up on top of my dresser, the small rectangular-looking glass angled so that it faced the window. My fingers wrapped around the frame, and I lifted it, my face wavering as I fell back onto my bed, the mirror held above me. Mrs. Callahan’s assignment suddenly seemed more important than it should, as if the dead poet who’d written the poem had known I’d be holding this mirror the same way she’d probably grasped hers.

“It’s honest,” I whispered.

Gray eyes stared back me, the unremarkable orbs framed by wild, curly hair that saw fingers more than it saw an actual brush. Pale skin flushed by tears highlighted high cheekbones and full, downcast lips. She wasn’t an ugly girl, the girl in the mirror, but she was too old for her age. She was tears and heartbreak and fear. She was full of dreams and a million lost opportunities.

“Who are you?” I asked her.

A loud whack, whack answered me, and I sat up, the mirror falling forgotten to the bed, my bare toes digging into the carpet below. Slowly, I made my way across the room to the window, my palm resting against the wall, my knee sinking into the brown cushions as I glanced out into the yard. My eyes fell on curling mist in the field beyond before sliding through the crepe myrtles to a small shed visible from my room. It was a dilapidated structure, the door’s hinges rusted so that it wouldn’t completely close. Two small windows flanking the entrance were busted, the jagged glass sparkling in the sun. It was home to outdated yard equipment, pests, and vermin.

Next to the shack was a cutting log, an ax, and Heathcliff, his old sneakers replaced by sturdy well-worn boots. His head was down, his plain gray work shirt unbuttoned at the wrists and rolled up to his elbows despite the chill. He was splitting wood, the whack, whack loud in the still morning. Across from him, his sleep-rimmed eyes full of curiosity, was my uncle. He was holding a thick black mug full of dark coffee, his assessing gaze on Heathcliff. They were speaking, albeit not much, each of their lips moving occasionally as Heathcliff worked and my uncle watched.

Hugging my knee-length, blue plaid sleep shirt, I sat hard on the cushions, my eyes on Heathcliff’s obviously repaired boots. Shoes, I was beginning to learn, could say a lot about a person. For one, Heathcliff rarely bought new ones, despite the fact that his family owned a fairly lucrative gas station slash hardware store in town. I deduced three things from his not so new footwear: he didn’t like change, once he had something he kept it, and he took care of his things. He was also patient. How I knew this, I had no idea, but I was sure of it all the same.