Allison is a junior at SCAD, Atlanta pursuing a B.F.A in Writing as well as minors in creative writing and book arts. She currently holds the position of Opinions Editor at SCAN and The Connector. In her spare time she enjoys reading, watching bad sitcoms, and overthinking.
This is After
Her parents never liked him. Sometimes Dev could tell himself it was because of their age difference. At least, that’s what Lily told him, “They like you. They just think you’re a little old for me, that’s all.” After she graduated high school, they weren’t fond of her either. The relationship was never a strong one and once she announced she would be moving in with him, it fizzled out. They’re very traditional, her parents, unwavering Catholics who have dinner parties and business calls. They wanted more for their little girl. More than living in sin. If only they could see how beautiful his crumbling studio apartment looks while she glides around inhabiting it.
Dev and Lily waited until she turned eighteen, her senior year of high school. Dev was worried her parents would press charges if they didn’t, he was probably right. In hindsight waiting until she was eighteen was equal to leaving at sixteen, she was disowned. Lily’s mom locked the door behind her as she dragged her sole pink suitcase down the front steps of her Buckhead apartment building to his old Ford that she nicknamed “Clunkers” when she was only sixteen. The truck was named after the third time it left them on the side of eighty-five that week.
A year after that dreadful day, Lily began talking to her parents again although Dev didn’t approve. “You’re just going to get hurt again,” he said. He often wondered if she went to visit them while he was at work. Their little shack of an apartment wasn’t walking distance but it would have been easy for her to jump on a bus. He hated the thought of her out there by herself. He would call her, text her, wonder some more, and finally leave work early to find her strewn on the couch glistening with sweat from a lack of air conditioning partnered with June’s cruel heat. He bought a lock for the door, just in case, and it never had any signs of tampering. The lock was for her own safety, really. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, it’s that he didn’t trust other people alone with his Lily. She was far too innocent to go wandering around by herself.
That was all before.
It was before he found her hiding college applications and calls from unknown numbers. He would arrive home from work, his construction site only a block away from their dilapidated brick building, to find the bathroom door shut. One step from his muddy boot was all it took for the shower to click on. He caught her more than once seated on the tile, next to the rusted sink typing away on her laptop. After she fell asleep each night, curled into a tight ball with the comforter tucked under her feet, he would check her laptop. She applied to five colleges, one in each major city, none in Atlanta. He confronted her almost every week. She sucked air through her nose in short gasps, her left cheek red from his hand and her arm coated in small dark circles from his grip. Sometimes he can still hear those gasps. “I’ll come back, I love you, I promise I’ll come back” she would plea before he would gently make her go to sleep. He would hold her the rest of the night listening to his steady breaths.
In the morning she wouldn’t remember. He would watch her standing in front of the steamed mirror after her shower. Her fingertips tracing across the dark circles that patterned her bare skin. Their eyes would meet through the mirror while he leaned in the doorway ready for work and dreading having to leave. “I would never hurt her on purpose. She knows that. I just know she was planning to leave me. She isn’t going to come back like she said. I know it. After everything we had been through she’s leaving me,” he would tell himself, his coworkers, and himself again.
She wouldn’t leave, he made sure of it.
Lily graduated high school with a little belly protruding under her gown. Her chin remained raised as she walked across the stage in front of her judging peers. Her parents weren’t in attendance. He sat in the audience filled with pride, she had grown to be so mature. Afterwards, she pressed her head to his chest. He held her as she cried behind the stage. One hand clinched the diploma to her chest while the other guarded her stomach.
He remembers those curly locks bouncing as she twirled in the cramped kitchen after it was all over. She refused to take off her blue lace dress that she bought just for graduation. The fabric raised in the front a little too high because of the way it draped atop her stomach. She giggled while pulling him around, his dance attempts were clumsy but filled with good intentions. That giggle was always filling the air around him, until it wasn’t anymore.
That was all before.
That was before the afternoon Dev checked his phone two hours too late. Before the voicemail ended he was bursting through the apartment door sweating and breathless. A shrill sound in his right ear and the lock dangling from his fingers. The apartment was silent. He found her in the bathroom. Her body slumped on the tile, her arms wrapped tightly around her stomach smearing her blue less dress with red. There was blood everywhere, so much blood.
That was the day he picked up her limp body and she didn’t nestle her head under his chin as she always did. She didn’t move at all. In a rush of hospital rooms and nurses, he pre-maturely proclaimed himself a murderer on the outside of a closed door. He brought her home from the hospital in his arms while she clinched her stomach protecting something that was no longer there. He laid her on the couch and she seemed to stare through the wall. Hours passed, beads of sweat formed on her excavated body, she denied food and speaking and anything that involved opening his cracking lips. She didn’t move for days.
She was ghostlike while she grieved; absent and untouchable. She haunted the house for months. Sometimes he could hear her in the bedroom rustling around in her drawers. Other times she was sitting on the couch or wandering around the kitchen absentmindedly holding her stomach. She was always clinching, holding, touching her stomach. He could hear her ghost feet patting on the wood floor along with her voice humming a made up song. If he listened closely he could almost make out a lullaby in her hums. He rarely saw her. He never touched her.
The bathroom door remained locked with the shining silver lock that used to ensure her presence in the apartment. Dev scrubbed the tile floor every day for two weeks until his fingertips blistered but could still see blood. They resorted to using the communal apartment bathroom down the hall.
That was all before.
It’s three months later and Lily is four hours late. Everyone who came to her welcome home party has already left. They left two hours ago while the sun was still streaming through the dusty windows. They were all his friends. She never had many friends after she met him five years ago. It was better that way. He could tell she got lonely sometimes but he would just bring her along with his friends if she ever became too depressed. One night cured her loneliness, she was never one for crowds.
The leftover food is crusting over on the cracked kitchen counter. Lily was always the one that cooked so his friend Sarah cooked her welcome home dinner. One pink cupcake is left on a plate for her. Sarah places it in the refrigerator. She sits down with him on the couch and begins to run her pointed acrylic nails across his back. The calming feeling is familiar. It’s the same feeling she supplied when he was nervous the night before his first day on a new job. The day after the miscarriage, her touch remained. Her touch was never more than anything physical. Lily never knew but he didn’t think she wouldn’t mind. Sarah knew her place; she could never be his Lily. “Are you okay,” Sarah asks. He doesn’t answer but rearranges the lilies he bought for Lily, they were always her favorite. After that day, not even lilies could make her smile, only the idea of college could do that. So he let her go, but only for one semester.
This is the twenty-fourth time he has rearranged the flowers since he placed them in the vase this morning. They’re just not sitting right, they’re not perfect enough. He finds a strip of blue ribbon she used to tie her hair up with and ties it around the vase. During the past three months he’s found pieces of her scattered all over the apartment. The ribbon shakes in his hands as he ties it around the jar. He wonders if she will be disgusted by his calloused hands. She never used to care. She used to place little kisses on the sores before holding onto his pinky finger tightly. She would place all of her trust in him as he led her though the locked door and around town holding onto that finger.
Sarah’s nails start again and he looks up. She’s twisted her dark hair over one shoulder revealing bare skin on the other, her lips are pursed and coated in red lipstick that has dried and begun to peel. “She just went for one semester. I’m sure everything will be the same,” she says.
“No, I should have never let her go. I bet she’s already decided not to come back here.”
“She’s on her way, I know she is.”
“How the hell do you know that?” he says and watches her shrink. The humming of the refrigerator returns. She disappears into the kitchen and begins washing dishes.
“She loves you. She really does. I could see it in her eyes when you brought her into my store that day and bought her a new sundress. She came out of the dressing room and you couldn’t take your eyes off of her but in her eyes, I could tell how badly she wanted you to like how it looked on her,” she says.
“I know she was a little depressed and distant after you lost the baby but I’m sure she’s better now,” she says and the door slams behind him as he leaves. Outside of the musty apartment building he is able to take deeper breaths. The sounds of sirens and honking horns surround him as he sits down on the curb. A car pulls into the roundabout and familiar skinny legs emerge from the door. Her sickly skin color from days in the apartment has darkened under the sun. He imagines her lying in front of the one window with her hands outstretched feeling the sun as it hit her creating a square of light around her body. Her hair is curled and her face is made up. He’s never seen her this way, as if she belongs to the world, as if the world owns her instead of him. The driver emerges. She is awkwardly tall and he stares at her boney figure. He doesn’t pay much attention to the squinty eyed friend as his Lily strides toward him with newfound confidence. She doesn’t bounce, she strides. Tailored pants and a fitted shirt replace her dresses she could twirl in. He takes note of how skinny she appears; how flat her stomach is.
She wraps both arms around his neck. He feels her body rise onto her toes to rest her head on his shoulder. His eyes close. She smells different. She smells like perfume. She always used to smell like laundry detergent and the bar of soap they shared. His arms fit all the way around her waist until his hands grasp his elbows, something is missing.
“I missed you” are the first words she says to him. The hug is over quickly. She isn’t touching him anymore and he wonders why. “I’m sorry we’re late but we overslept a little this morning. My phone died or I would have called. This is Jen from my class in Chicago.”
She’s in the apartment again. He can physically see her gliding around each room. Her soft voice fills the bedroom and carries into the living room. She’s giving Jen the extremely short tour and he’s keeping his distance. He notices that this jen girl doesn’t have a lot to say. She makes a few comments about how “quaint” and “cozy” the place is. Sarah stands next to him, close but not touching. She greets the girls politely but narrows her eyes once they turn around. She watches Lily’s movements the same way Dev does, with speculation.
Everyone retires to the living room, Lily and Jen perched on the floor while Dev and Sarah sit on the couch. Jen taps Lily’s hand every so often for support similar to the way Sarah keeps discretely scratching Dev’s back. “Is it good to be home Lily?” Sarah asks.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different from Chicago but it’s still my home. I’m glad Jen gets to see it. I’ve told her all about it.”
“You told your friends about Atlanta?” Dev asks.
“Yeah, she told us all about your tiny ass apartment that’s falling in on itself,” Jen says.
“Who are you? I don’t remember inviting you into our apartment,” Dev says.
“She’s my friend and she’s staying What’s Sarah doing here?” Lily asks.
“She was waiting with me. You were more than four hours late, I had you a party and everything.”
“Who are you to tell Lily what time to be home? You aren’t her father.”
“Dev please calm down,” Sarah says.
“I have to be at work in the morning. I’m going to bed” he says before grabbing the pink cupcake from the refrigerator and handing it to Lily. “Welcome home.”
He listens to their conversations late into the night and early into the morning. Jen complains for a while about the “dusty couch” and the “annoying refrigerator sounds.” She goes quiet and remains quiet. He begins to feel as if he’s eavesdropping on a teenage sleepover as Sarah and Lily talk in hushed voices. “Chicago keeps everything opened twenty-four hours. I can only name like five places in Atlanta that are twenty-four hours and none of them are way out here in the perimeter. We would all stay up late working on our papers, talking, and eating this amazing pizza from the down the street,” Lily says.
“I would like to go to Chicago, at least once” Sarah says. “I have the shop though, I couldn’t just leave and go to school like you. I guess this is my home.”
“It used to be mine.”
“You know; you are his home. He might not always be the best at showing it but he means well, he loves you,” Sarah says.
He can hear someone sucking air through their stuffy nose and hopes it isn’t Lily. He considers going out there to comfort her but remains in bed thinking about how useless he is.
“It’s just after the baby he blamed himself. He didn’t know how to help you, but I told him you’re better now. That semester had to help didn’t it?” Sarah asks.
There is a long silence. He begins to wonder if they are talking too quietly for him to hear or if they aren’t talking at all. He thinks he hears Lily say “I have to go back,” but he can’t be sure.
“Is he okay? Just tell me honestly, is he okay” Lily asks.
“I think he will be. These things take time.”
He can hear movement. Sock covered feet sliding across the creaking wood floor. Fabric rustles. He closes his eyes, just in case. The girls say goodnight and something about Sarah sleeping on the floor just for tonight. “He does need you, I hope you know that,” Sarah says.
He feels her body lay down next to his. She doesn’t touch him. She hasn’t touched him all night. He assumes Sarah decided to sleep over and he can hear Jen’s snores from the couch. Somehow he feels as if they’re the only people in the cramped apartment. Somehow, it feels like nothing has changed. He can pretend that in the morning she will be strewn on the couch glistening in sweat and bouncing down to “Clunkers” wearing her blue lace dress ready for a day downtown. He can see her fidgeting in the passenger seat, yelling the lyrics to every song on the radio, mixing them up, and then continuing to scream them anyway. The wind will whip through her unkempt hair and she will giggle with delight when I swerve into the other lane a little. My innocent distraction. But that was all before.
He feels her foot slide under the sheets to meet his. They rest pressed together.
Tomorrow he will make Jen leave. Tomorrow he will remove the lock from the bathroom and return it to the front door. Tomorrow he will have his Lily back. Tomorrow he will.