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Progress by Erised
Format: Short story
Chapter 2: Two
A week had passed.
Seven days had graced George with their presence, but he found that the concept of time didn’t matter anymore. As he sat on an unopened box he stared listlessly out of a frozen pane in the window; snow had fallen, gripping the pane with icy tendrils. A child ran past, bringing with him the vitality of life and joy and naivety, disappearing moments later. He was like that once. They were like that.
Change had occurred. He was no longer alone, left to revel in his own melancholy. At first it was all he craved, and so Hannah’s near constant company aggravated him. He wanted to be alone, left to rot. Hannah wouldn’t allow it. With her stubbornness came George’s gentle acceptance, a gradual succumb to social interaction.
A voice from behind summoned him from his reverie. He turned to use his good ear. He heard his name. Hannah stepped through the doorway, a bright smile adorning her face. She was dressed down in jeans and a plaid shirt, face shining with the effort of lifting boxes for the past few days. He wondered.
“Why are you here?”
The suddenness of his speech surprised even himself. Her face fell slightly, smile loping downwards. She blinked. George realised his error, the harshness in his tone and the stony expression he uses as a mask preventing him from being civilised. A small wave of guilt washed over him, seeping into his being. The silence was consuming. He tried again.
“I’m... I’m... I meant to ask... why?”
His unsaid but intentioned apology seems to be accepted as a minute smile graced Hannah’s face once more. He knew she understood. She sighed and sat down on another box, colourful toys spilling out from it. She bowed her head and clasped her hands for a moment before speaking.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I used to love it here. I’d come in whenever I could in the holidays and just be. Soak it all in. This place reminds me of home.” She stopped at this point, wetness rimming her lashes. “My mother was full of life. I felt closer to her here. And then the war happened, and... everything was taken from us. Including this place.”
The mention of her mother shifted something inside of George’s mind. She too had lost someone... he’d forgotten. He’d been so torn up about his own grief that he hadn’t cared for others. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled this time, looking at her. Really looking at her, with new, weathered eyes. She looked tired, ghostly bags marked under her eyes, and sad. Despite the facade, her eyes were sad. He could see it now.
Death had tainted them.
“You still didn’t answer my question,” George finally croaked, turning his gaze once more to the window. “Why did you come?”
Hannah shrugged. “I was walking past and I saw a light on. I wanted to check if anything was going on, and then I heard you... crying.” She stumbled over the word. “Call it fate, if you will.”
“You didn’t need to stay.” George cursed himself when a flitter of hurt crossed Hannah’s features.
“I know. I wanted to.” With this she stood up, looking resigned. “I’m going to get back to moving all this stuff. You need to finish that pile by the time I get back.” She turned to leave. “And George?”
“Nobody is expecting you to be okay.” With this, she sighed and left.
George stared at where her figure had been. Her words rang in his ears loud and clear as he turned his gaze once more to the window, where a single snowflake landed on the window, its intricate pattern visible. Fred once told him when they were kids that every snowflake was different before he shoved a snowball in his mouth. A bubble of laughter escaped George’s lips as he registered the alien sound; he hadn’t laughed in months.
Everyone’s grief was different, he realised.
At the back of the store, Hannah heard the small chuckle and smiled to herself as she worked on reorganising a stack of glittering rubber ducks. Each time she picked one up, they would tell her to leave them alone so they could sleep a little longer. She ignored them. George needed someone’s help, even if he didn’t know it yet. The shop was the tip of the iceberg. If anything, she was glad to have something to do, even if she had decided upon it so unceremoniously. Her mother’s anniversary of her passing was coming up soon. She needed to do something to take her mind off of it, if only for a moment. She would see her in her dreams, anyway.
Her spirit had been patched up again and again after the death of her mother, but the threads were getting stronger now. Time was the ultimate cliché and the ultimate healer. She would never be the same again, but maybe that was a good thing. Hannah was surprised to find a tear running down her cheek; she brushed it away in wonder. The last of the protesting ducks was sorted neatly onto a shelf. The next box beckoned.
“Why do you have talking rubber ducks anyway?” Hannah huffed as she returned. They had snuck off the shelf when her back was turned. George laughed again, getting used to the sensation once more that had been such a part of his life. He relished the sound. His heart tore a little bit more as guilt set in. How could he laugh when his brother was gone? It felt wrong. George wrung his hands together and looked down, a tear dripping off the end of his nose.
What was he doing? This was all happening too fast. He looked up with red eyes and saw the progress that the shop had made in just one short week. It would be time too soon; he wasn’t ready for it. How could he continue something he and his brother pledged to work on for the rest of their lives?
Hannah took his broken profile in and realised he hadn’t moved from the overturned box for several hours. It was as if George was punishing himself for feeling anything but sorrow for what had happened and her heart went out to him. Fred’s death was horrible and wrong, but it wasn’t his fault.
None of this seemed to matter to George. He let his heart fall to pieces for the thousandth time as he cried, the never-ending catharsis for his lost brother. Hannah patted his shoulder in an attempt to calm him down; she had become used to this over the few days they’d spent together. He barely felt her touch. His insides felt like ice, matching the weather outside.
It felt like an age had passed when George regained his senses as he sagged with the weight of grief on his shoulders. His soul felt raw with emotion as a finger twitched back into life. He had done this same process so many times, but it felt exactly the same again and again – still fresh, still agonising, still so very real. It was as if he’d just seen Fred’s body for the first time all over again. He’d looked so peaceful then – he was smiling. Why couldn’t George smile?
Because his brother was dead.
He heard Hannah’s voice through the midst of his anguish and he found the voice to string out an unintelligible grunt. Hannah’s words cut through like a shard of glass the second time.
“George, you really need to talk about this.”
The one tiny statement sent his head reeling. “I can’t...” was all he could say in response. Talking about it meant admitting that nothing was ever going to be the same again. Talking about it meant recognising that Fred was gone.
“I think you need to. It’s... it’s destroying you. Do you think Fred would have wanted that?” Hannah implored. Her words sparked a bolt of anger that shot through George like lightning. His tone became vicious.
“You don’t know what Fred would have wanted.”
Hannah recoiled, stung by his sudden outburst and the malice behind it. She masked her hurt and pressed on. “None of us can know for sure. But I think you know he wouldn’t want to see you like this.”
George knew that Hannah’s words rang true but he didn’t want to believe them. How dare she assume that she knew Fred like the back of her hand? That was his job. They were twins, brothers, business partners. Friends. He was supposed to feel sad for the rest of his days.
Hannah surveyed his conflicting emotions, taking in his tortured, dark eyes and tense muscles. She felt nothing but pity for the ruined man sitting in front of her. She looked out the window; the darkness was rapidly sweeping in. She lit a candle with the flick of her wand, creating eerie shadows on George’s features. She had never wanted to help a human being more than she did now. “Talk to me,” she pleaded.
Her request was met with silence. She sighed – it was getting late. She slowly stood up, retrieved her coat and scarf before heading towards the door. Her steps were loaded and heavy. She didn’t want to leave, but the tension rolling off of him in waves made her position clear.
She opened the door and stepped into the icy cold, shutting the door on George. She pushed him out of her thoughts until the next day when she returned and saw him once more, unmoved from his spot, unshaven and thin. He looked up at her as she stood, frozen. Had he been here all night?
“We were the best of friends. He was like a part of me...”
And in that moment, there was a ray of hope.