J. Elizabeth Hill is one of the most inspiring and supportive people I have ever come across in life or on the interwebs. I don’t really think she realizes how spectacular she is. She is there for other writers with words of encouragement. If I ever tweet about being down or upset or just having one of those days, she is one of the first people that responds or messages me asking if I want to talk or giving me virtual hugs and hot chocolate.
She is kind. She is hilarious. She is beautiful, inside and out. She is intelligent. She is fierce. I could fill a book with all the great things she is, not the least of which is simply this: she is a fantastic writer.
I met her through WriteClub where all the important people I've met go on Friday nights. I also saw her interact a LOT with all of my people, so it was a natural follow. We didn’t really talk much at first and I have no idea why. I thought for a long time maybe I wasn't cool enough, or funny enough, or something enough. But when we hit it off, it started an amazing online friendship and seeing that she is only in Vancouver, which is a few hours drive from here, someday soon we will meet up. And it will be awesome. And I am super excited for that day.
Her story is so flat out amazing, I'm so excited to have it on my blog. I gave her a striking photo to write from, one that had to have someone with a brilliant enough mind to make it something special. And she did. This story is romantic and sweet and heartbreaking and wonderful, because…well…it's J. So here it is, His Comforting Voice. Enjoy.
The Memory Project (continued)
The idea struck me like lightning. There was a "connection" between me and this suitcase and everything it contained. These pictures, these objects, they were all trying to tell me something, to lead me somewhere. Only, I didn’t have the faintest idea where that somewhere was or even if it was an actual place.
I shook my head. This was too confusing.
"Nat, what's going on?" Jesse reached out, taking my hand in his."
I pursed my lips and blinked hard to keep the tears from welling. "You'll think I'm nuts. Hell, I'm starting to wonder myself. The things I feel, the things I'm now seeing…I'm really scared something's happening to me." I turned my head, pretending I had an interest in the happenings outside, when really I just couldn’t look at Jesse. If I did, I'd lose it.
As if knowing exactly what I needed, even if I couldn't admit it myself, Jesse scooted close to me on the bed, and folded me in his arms. I buried my face into his chest, tears now escaping and falling onto his shirt. He leaned his chin on the top of my head and kissed it followed by a soothing, "Shhhh, it's gonna be ok."
But was it? I rested my cheek on his chest, listening to the steady rhythm of his heart. From the corner of my eye, as if it called to me, I saw one of the photos.
(to be continued)
His Comforting Voice
J. Elizabeth Hill
Lily walked out of the living room, glad to leave all the well-wishers behind. She'd only have a few minutes to herself before someone came looking for her, but it would have to be enough. Right then, all she wanted was to take a deep breath and pull herself together. She wanted to curse Aunt Nadine for insisting on having everyone come to the house after the service. As if losing her mother wasn't bad enough, now she had to put on a brave face for everyone.
She wandered through the dining room and into the kitchen. One look at the plates and cups strewn about that room and she groaned. She went back into the hallway that ran the length of the house. Everyone had been kind enough to bring food and coffee, but she knew she would be the one left to clean up the mess. They'd all say they wanted to leave her alone, that they didn't want to intrude, but they'd also forget about what they were leaving her to deal with, beyond her own grief. That was already more than she could bear.
There'd been no time. That was at least part of the problem. She still couldn't quite believe it had happened. Others had years, or at least months to become accustomed to the idea of losing a loved one. Her mother's stroke had been so unexpected. Only a month earlier, Helen had completed the local walk to support cancer research, and now she was gone.
Tears began to fill Lily's eyes, threatening to overwhelm her. She concentrated on breathing until the feeling subsided, then climbed the stairs. She needed more time, even if all she did was have a good long cry, then try to repair the damage to her makeup. She didn't want anyone to see, to know how much she was hurting. They'd ask to help and she was too old at thirty-one to believe there was anything they could do for her. Truly, that had been her view of the world since she was little, when her father had been killed in a car accident. There was no one she could rely on but herself.
As she ascended, she was careful to skip every place the stairs squeaked. Each one brought memories of her adolescence, lived in this house. She'd snuck in and out of the house so often, only to find in her twenties that her mother had known about virtually every time. A sad smile touched her lips. How self-absorbed she'd been as a teenager, how full of herself to believe that she'd ever fooled her mother.
She went along the upper floor hallway, struggling not to be overwhelmed by the memories the house held for her. Six years since she'd moved out, yet every inch still held memories for her, most of them pleasant. All of them held a bittersweet edge that day. She wasn't ready to say goodbye to her mother, but doubted she would ever have been prepared for that.
Lily hesitated by the door of her childhood bedroom, but decided against going inside. Everyone would almost certainly look for her there first. Instead, she walked further, to her mother's room. She stood in the doorway and looked around, trying to hold on to some fleeting sense of her mother. The will hadn't even been read yet, so she couldn't make any decisions about the house, but she couldn't imagine getting rid of it. There was nowhere else she could go to feel this close to the one parent she could remember clearly.
She crossed to the couch in front of the large bay window that dominated the bedroom. Her mother had taught her to knit on this couch. The bag holding Helen's needles and yarn was still on the floor beside it. Lily reached for it but as she did, she could hear it, the distinctive click of the needles as her mother worked at the latest project. A sweater, a pair of socks, once a baby blanket for one of her cousins. It didn't matter. Helen had just loved to knit. She'd once told Lily it was her sort of playing. Again, she smiled and tried to keep from crying as she drew her hand back.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something she didn't remember being there before. A wooden box containing several familiar shapes sat in the bay window. Albums of photos, some from her own youth, some from her mother's. She remembered going through them many times with her mother, especially when she missed her father.
She pulled one out, from the years after her father's death. It had just been the two of them, but she had so many happy memories of those years. She wanted to relive them and forget for a moment.
Laying the book across her lap, she opened it and began flipping through the pages, tucking a lock of her blonde hair back behind her ear. Each photograph had been placed carefully, so it lay perfectly straight on the page. They were all captioned with the date, location and names of those in the photograph, but Lily didn't need to check those for most of the pictures. She was in every one and remembered almost all of them clearly.
The day they'd gone to the beach only to find it pouring. She'd gone in swimming anyway, unwilling to miss the final swim of the summer. Her mother had laughed, even as she'd taken pictures from inside the car, the door open in case Lily had needed help. She never did though, not her mother's water baby.
There was one from the time they'd gone horseback-riding together. Neither of them had known what they were doing, but they'd both enjoyed the day even so. They'd intended to go again, but somehow it had never quite happened. And never would now.
Lily bit her lip as she struggled with the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. She leafed through faster, the pictures blurring in her mind to a single image. Her mother, standing there smiling at her. Not so much a real memory as an amalgam of all the times she'd seen her mother smile at her. Oh dear god, how it hurt, to think there would never be another time, another smile, another adventure together.
The tears began to course down her cheeks and she pushed the album onto her knees, not wanting to ruin it. She couldn't afford to. It was all she had left. Whatever she decided to do with the house, these albums were coming home with her. She wouldn't wait for the will to be read.
She was about to close the book, realizing she couldn't take, anymore when she saw the photo she'd blindly stopped at. It was different from the others. This one was in crisp black and white, instead of the grainier, faded color of her childhood pictures. A long corridor, the floor and walls patterned in checkers, stood empty and damp, stretching into the distance. The clouds overhead completed the image of a rainstorm just ended.
Where had the picture come from? This wasn't the picture her mother had placed there, though she couldn't call to mind which one had been in its place. Who had desecrated one of the few meaningful things she had left from her mother?
"The photo's not gone, Lily. I was just trying to help."
She froze. That voice. The pleasant baritone that filled the room, even though the words were spoken softly. She knew it, though she hadn't heard it in years. Teague. Only it couldn't be. She'd left him behind. She'd been fifteen when her mother had told her it was past time. Grown-ups didn't have imaginary friends, her mother had said, so Lily had stopped listening to Teague, stopped responding to him. Eventually, she hadn't heard him anymore.
"I never left, just respected your wishes. I've missed you though. And today... Well, I couldn't help it. I wanted to make you smile again."
Oh god, she'd gone crazy. In her grief and misery, she must have lost her mind, to be hearing his voice again after all these years, sounding as real as anyone she'd ever shared a conversation with. And yet it reminded her of how much she had missed him in the early years after deciding she couldn't continue having an imaginary friend.
She closed her eyes, wanting to believe for just a moment that she was still a child and that her mother was still alive. "If anyone could, it would probably be you, Teague. I missed you too."
"Do you mean it?" She couldn't ignore the surprised hope in his voice. Though she doubted it was a good idea to tell him the truth, she'd never lied to him before and wouldn't start now.
"Yes. I had to say goodbye, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't regretted it."
There was a long silence, then he spoke again, but something about his voice was different, constrained in a way she didn't understand. "Lily, open your eyes. Please."
She did as he asked and shock robbed her of her voice. Teague stood only a few feet away. She'd never seen him before, but she knew it was him. Any other time, the apprehension in his face would have been comical, but she seemed to have lost her sense of humor at the same time as her joy. His light blue eyes remained fixed on her. Had she known they would be that color? She'd tried to picture him a hundred times at least, but the image had never been more than a hazy suggestion before. She remembered thinking that he had dark hair, but the short, black mess of curls was more than she'd quite expected. The suit he wore was a bigger surprise, so much like those of the mourners downstairs. Somehow, she'd always imagined him in jeans and a t-shirt, the sort of casual clothes that went with his relaxed, easy manner and warm laughter. And yet none of this was as shocking as what her senses were telling her.
He was really there. She was seeing him, live and in person, for the first time ever.
"I don't understand," she whispered.
Teague's smile was tentative. "You needed me. And- Well, I thought I could make you understand. I thought that, if you missed me, you'd let me be part of your life again."
"But you're not real. You were never real. A fantasy, a way to cope with Dad's death. That's all you were."
His expression grew sad. "I know your mother told you that, but she didn't understand. She was wrong. I was always real, but I had to stay hidden."
He shrugged, an eloquent gesture that spoke to her of many things. "You needed me," he repeated. "Or at least, you needed someone and when you came up here, I knew you wouldn't accept help from anyone downstairs."
She stared at him in disbelief, then dropped her gaze back to the book and the strange picture. "There's nothing they can do, that's all. No one can bring Mom back, or change the fact that I'm an orphan now. Alone."
Lily looked up as he came closer and hunkered down in front of her. "No one can change the past, but you aren't alone. That's why I spoke. So many years of silence, but Lily, you've never been alone."
"Then why do I feel like it?" She hugged her arms around herself, trying to hold in the sob that was trying to strangle her.
The book started to slide off her knees and Teague reached out to stop it. She almost jumped, her last doubts about him vanishing at the feel of his warm fingertips on the skin bared by the hem of her dress. Yet he was looking up at her with only concern and caring.
"Will you trust me? There's something I want to show you, but you have to believe in me and trust me, even more than when you were a child."
The sane answer would be to say no. She knew that, yet for once she didn't want to be sane. She wanted to let her oldest friend offer her the comfort she didn't feel capable of accepting from anyone else. And of all the people in her mother's house at that moment, Teague knew her best, or at least the girl she had once been. His presence suggested she'd never entirely left that girl behind, and for now, maybe that was okay. She nodded.
He held his other hand out to her over the album, his eyes searching her face. She couldn't believe the nervousness she saw. She took his hand.
"Close your eyes." When she hesitated, Teague said, "Please?"
Unable to resist his pleading face, she did as he asked. The hand touching her knee moved, then the world spun. She could feel it, and see the way the light swirled across her closed eyelids.
"Okay, you can open them now."
The world around Lily had completely changed, yet she recognized it. She was still sitting on her mother's couch and her friend still knelt in front of her, but all around her was the world of the strange picture. The checkered walls of the corridor sheltered her from the wind that ceaselessly drove the dark clouds overhead. But unlike the picture she'd seen, the floor was dry.
Teague got to his feet, still watching her as she followed suit, absently closing the album and setting it aside as she did. She turned around and noticed that the couch she'd been sitting on only seconds before had disappeared, the album with it. She turned back to her friend.
"Where are we?"
"It's a special place. I wanted to show it to you so many times, especially when you were sad, but then I didn't need to. I could always make you smile without it."
"That doesn't tell me anything, Teague."
"This isn't part of what you think of as the real world."
She stared at him and accepted that she'd lost her mind. The only other explanation she had was that she'd somehow fallen asleep on the couch and this was a dream. She wasn't sure which she preferred and it didn't matter. She was going to have to face reality soon.
Teague was already shaking his head. For the third time at least, he responded directly to her thoughts. "I'm just not what you always believed, not that you ever came to any real conclusions."
"I just wanted a friend."
He nodded. "I know. And I was, wasn't I? I tried to be, but I had to be so careful."
"Because I worried what would happen if your mother found out the truth."
"What truth? I don't understand."
He looked around, though there was no one in sight and nowhere Lily could see for anyone to hide, unless they were on the other side of a wall. He stepped closer and took her hands in his. She was surprised at how warm they felt. Was it because she felt chilled by the air? "I'm not human, Lily. Never was. I don't even belong in your world. I only went there when I got curious. Or at least, that's what I used to do before I met you."
"Then what are you," she asked, trying to contain her growing certainty that, whatever he said, this must be a dream. Or maybe some deathbed hallucination. That idea held a certain allure, because it meant the pain would stop, that the empty place inside her would go away.
He frowned and squeezed her hands tighter still as the wind overhead picked up. "Please don't think that way. This isn't any of those things. I told you, this is a special plane. I'm-" He paused and took a deep breath. "I'm a demon."
She laughed. She couldn't help it. Despite his earnest expression, she just couldn't fathom the idea that this man who appeared to be both ordinary and around her own age was a minion of Hell. She hadn't been to church in years, and didn't really believe in such things. A gust of wind blew around her, tossing the strands of her hair that had fallen out of the ponytail in the air. It felt like a razor of ice along her skin and she shivered.
"All right, so I didn't think you'd believe me," Teague said ruefully. "And it doesn't matter. The point is that this place isn't part of the human realm. And no, it isn't part of Hell either. As if I'd take you anywhere near there."
Lily's lips twitched into something that wasn't quite a smile at the disgust in his tone. Clearly he could read her thoughts, though that one had been more tongue in cheek than a serious question. "Let's say I believe you are what you say. Why did you bring me here?"
Before he could answer, the thought of her mother and what she would say crossed Lily's mind. Only she heard the words with her ears.
"You and your fanciful imagination, kid. What am I going to do with you when you insist on inventing everything under the sun to avoid reality?"
She turned and saw her mother. It wasn't the woman she'd had dinner with only a week before her death either. This was the younger version who had always said something similar whenever Lily had mentioned Teague. The tears began again, quickly filling her eyes and spilling down her cheek. She held one hand out to the image she knew couldn't be real.
"Mom," she whispered.
"Lily," Teague said, capturing her hand again as raindrops began to fall lightly around them. "Look at me. It's important. I have to explain to you about this place."
"But Mom... She's there." Lily couldn't take her eyes from her mother, the way her hands were on her hips, the small half-smile that had always told her she wasn't really in trouble. As the years had passed, the smile had gotten smaller until it had disappeared entirely, shortly before her mother had told her she had to give up on imaginary friends if she wanted to be considered an adult.
"She isn't. It's this place. Think about it. You thought of her, and then she appeared. That's how this place works. It responds to what you think and feel."
She was so shocked by this idea she forgot to be skeptical. She forgot she didn't want to look away from her mother. Instead, she stared at Teague. "What?"
"I wanted... Well, a lot of things, really. But I thought you could say goodbye. I know you didn't get the chance. And I wanted to show you something beautiful." He seemed oddly shy about this. Was it because they were face to face? Always before, his voice had been the calm, certain center for her in all her youthful adventures.
His description of this place only reinforced the idea that she had to be dreaming. Yet she couldn't pass up the opportunity to say some final words to her mother, even if it was too late for them to be heard. When she looked at the image of her mother again, she found it had changed. Helen was older now, the wrinkles starting to show around the corners of her eyes. Her hands were no longer on her hips, but clasped in front of her. Lily couldn't remember if she'd ever seen her mother in exactly that position and didn't care. This was how she'd looked the last time Lily seen her alive, before the phone call that had ended life as she'd known it.
She let go of Teague's hands and went to her mother, stopping a few feet away. The smile lighting her mother's warm expression widened. Lily tried to think if she'd made that happen but wasn't sure. "Mom, I'm sorry I didn't listen the last time we talked. I know you were just worried about me being alone and right now, I can see what you meant. I just- I never thought you'd go anywhere so soon. I thought I had years."
She had to stop to choke back a sob. "I miss you so much. I thought it was bad when Dad died, but this is so much worse. I don't know if it's because I had you when he was killed, or if it's because I knew you better, but oh my god, Mom, this hurts. My life feels so empty now that you're gone and it's never going to get better. People keep telling me it will, but they don't understand. I feel so lost now."
She tried to reach out to her mother as her tears became a flood, but Teague pulled her back. "You can't, Lily. This place doesn't work like that. You won't be able to touch her here."
This idea, that the comfort of one last hug was still denied her when Helen looked so real broke her. Closing her eyes, she fell to her knees, overwhelmed by her grief and sobbing almost too hard to breathe.
Thunder cracked overhead and suddenly the rain became a downpour to rival even her tears. She was soaked to her skin in an instant. The chill in the air dug into her very bones. Now she felt her grief inside and out, as if part of her had died and the rest was slowly following suit.
A powerful arm encircled her, the fabric of a jacket scraping across the icy, bare skin of her arms. Heat tried to infuse her back through the thin, wet fabric of her dress, but the cold refused to be denied. She heard a popping sound, then Teague's voice spoke in her ear.
"Easy, Lily. I'm sorry, but there are limits. If you touch her, the image will shatter."
She realized his chest, pressed against her back, was the source of the heat. It felt as if it really were the fires of Hell burning under his skin. He kissed the side of her head gently, just above her ear. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. I was never good with most human emotions. I'll take you back now. I can see I've only made things worse."
Lily opened her eyes, his self-condemnation reaching past her sorrow. What she saw was her mother, untouched by the rain that fell around her. She was sure Helen's expression had changed though. Was it her imagination, or was there something of a loving goodbye there, an acceptance of what had to be?
Realizing that she didn't feel the rain either, she glanced up and saw an umbrella. Teague was holding it above them with one hand, even as he held her close with the other. Around them, the rain slowed.
She looked back at her mother, her tears drying up. "I can't keep her and I can't stay, can I?"
He released her and they both stood up, though he continued to hold the umbrella over them. "No. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have- I should have explained before bringing you here. Maybe I shouldn't have done this at all."
Lily turned to face him and the remorse she saw in his expression forced her grief away for the first time. She reached up and touched his cheek. "It's okay. It just caught me off guard. But maybe I needed that. I haven't been able to cry since the phone call, not like that. But I guess you already knew that."
"Yes." Speaking that one word seemed to make him uncomfortable.
She stared at him in wonder, distracted from everything. "You've been with me, silent, ever since I stopped talking to you." He didn't confirm this, but didn't deny it either. "Why?"
"I didn't want to leave." He hesitated and let go of her. "And I didn't have anywhere else to go."
"I don't understand."
"I wasn't supposed to stay with you. Not in the beginning, when you were little, and definitely not after. I was supposed to do something else, something I couldn't do after I met you."
"Teague, you're not making any sense."
He shoved the umbrella at her. When she took it, he walked away. The rain, lighter now but still falling, plastered his black hair to his head. When he didn't speak, she followed him.
"Tell me what you're talking about. What were you supposed to do?"
Teague hung his head. "Sometimes I get sent up here, rather than coming of my own accord."
"And that was why we met?"
"Yes. I was supposed to get you to do something terrible."
She stood beside him and took one of his hands in hers as the rain stopped. "And you couldn't."
He turned to her and shook his head. "You were too sweet. You changed me. I don't think you remember, but when I spoke your name that first time, you looked around. You were so sad that somehow I couldn't imagine making things any worse for you."
"What were you," she began, but he shook his head.
"It doesn't matter. I couldn't do it, and then I couldn't leave because you were happy to have a friend. In truth, I haven't left your side since, though there have been demands for me to return to where I belong."
She froze. "Wait, you go everywhere I go?"
He laughed. "Except when you need privacy. I do understand there are some places I shouldn't follow you, Lily."
Breathing a sigh of relief, she let him take the umbrella from her. Their eyes remained on each other and when he reached out to put a hand on her cheek, she smiled. She felt like she should say something to him, but she didn't know what or how.
"I missed talking with you. I was glad to be near, but it wasn't the same anymore," he said. "Can we be friends again?"
She put her hand over his. "I'd like that. I'd like to not be alone, and to have you be the reason I'm not."
He tossed away the umbrella, which disappeared the moment it left his hand, and pulled her into a hug. She buried her face in his chest, slipping her arms under his jacket to hold him closer. Her head ached slightly from all the crying, but it felt good to have someone hugging her who didn't want anything more from her than her presence.
"Lily, look up."
She meant to, but then she got lost when their eyes met. She didn't understand how such a wonderful person, someone so kind and caring, could be a demon, but since friends trusted each other, she wouldn't doubt him. He was the one who broke the contact, turning his eyes skyward. She followed his gaze and understood at last how strange a place this was.
The clouds had changed, no longer hulking dark forms chased by the wind. Now they were like wisps of cotton candy strewn across the sky. A rainbow of colors lit them from within. Behind the clouds was the golden hue of the most beautiful sunset imaginable. The water on the ground reflected the fabulous sky so well that she felt for a moment like she was floating instead of standing on solid ground.
"We could do that, you know," Teague whispered in her ear.
Lily laughed at the idea. The sound was rough, and strange to her ears, reminding her how long it had been since she'd laughed. "Maybe another day. Right now, this is all I want."
She lay her head on his chest again, lightly this time. It was enough just to have her friend back, to feel the hug from him that she'd often wanted so badly in the year before leaving him behind. Maybe more than a friend in time, she thought, still amazed at his dedication to her. She tucked the idea away, knowing she wasn't ready for more. Not yet at least.
Teague kissed the top of her head. "Whatever you need me to be, Lily. I'm here. You're right. It's enough, more even than I dared hope for."
She nodded against his chest, grateful to at last have a small measure of peace and comfort in the grief that, while still present, had lost some of its keen edge.
You can find J. Elizabeth on twitter here: @jlizhill
Read her blog here: jelizabethhill.wordpress.com