Hours earlier on that bright and sunny afternoon, the glimmering rays of light found the open windows of Tina’s third floor apartment. The songs of distant birds simultaneously collided with the lively voices from the streets. But it was the aroma of freshly cooked food that lifted Grace from her heavy slumber.
Wiping the sleep from her eyes, she fumbled with her phone to gauge the length of her doze, surprised when seeing the clock read several hours past noon. Her groan was then interrupted by a friendly voice from nearby.
“I see sleeping beauty has decided to wake up.”
Tina was over in the kitchen cooking lunch, strolling around wearing nothing but her underwear. The comforting sound of rock music emanated throughout her apartment as she prepared their meals. When finished cooking, Tina carried a bowl of quinoa with mixed greens and a glass of water over to Grace, who expressed her gratitude. Realizing that she was starving, Grace didn’t take long to consume the contents of the bowl. She then walked the empty dish to the sink and rinsed it out.
“Thank you,” she told Tina sincerely. “That was very delicious.”
“Don’t mention it,” Tina replied charismatically.
The perforated blonde was casually opening a canister of marijuana and removing its contents. Grace walked over to the bed, gathered her clothing and leisurely got dressed.
“I should probably get going,” she muttered. “I really appreciate the food and hospitality though. I’m sorry I have to hurry out so quickly.”
Tina grinned, a joint now resting between her lips.
“Its all good honey, you do your thing. Don’t let me stop you.”
Tina offered Grace the joint, yet Grace respectfully declined. It wasn’t the time for induced euphoria, not at least until after she had been home for a few days.
Grace rummaged the contents of her bag and then exhaled a deep sigh.
“I have to somehow find my brother,” she said, quietly as always. “But I have no idea where to start. Part of me is scared to even try.”
Grace put on her sweatshirt, her head shaking as it reemerged.
“Well, then I wish you the best of luck,” Tina genuinely replied.
Then a look of pure sass formed on Tina’s face as she added,
“That being said, anytime your cute ass needs a place to stay, feel free to stop on by.”
“You know, I just might take you up on that…”
Twenty minutes had passed. Grace remained planted in front of Tina’s building, sitting restlessly on the stoop with a cigarette in hand. She found removing herself to be difficult.
As much as Grace wished to reconnect with her brother, she absolutely detested the idea of returning to her old neighborhood. The place was home to a plethora of unwelcoming individuals. None of whom she had any desire to see, especially not if that person was aware of why she had departed. But her inevitable return was necessary, because her main motive in coming home was to confront her past in attempt to defeat it. She knew a reunion with her brother would be painful. Yet it was still the easier portion of her planned healing ritual. It would be best not to delay.
The next of her top priorities was to search for a job, but that was a task of much less concern. In Grace’s experience, employment had never been hard to come by. On many occasions she had walked unemployed into an establishment and had left as an employee. It didn’t hurt that most of her employers tended to be guys who found her attractive, or women that thought her intriguing. Either way, once exposed to Grace’s diligent work ethic and maturity, it was difficult to let her go. As of today, Grace had enough money to survive for a few weeks, but she expected to be working long before then.
The neighborhood was hit by a gentle breeze, bringing a refreshing calm to the hillside. Suddenly Grace arose from the stoop, now smiling wittily. She knew the perfect activity to fill her void on a gorgeous day such as this: photography. It was also a wonderful excuse to revisit her favorite local landmark, the urban wonder known as Frick Park. Being that the park wasn’t far from her old neighborhood, she figured a little post-pleasure snooping couldn’t hurt.
Minutes later, she was a passenger on a transit heading south across the East End. Grace let her head relax on the windowpane as the bus rumbled along, yet her gaze extended well beyond it. In all her years away, she had long forgotten the natural beauty of Pittsburgh. The vibrant autumn foliage had turned the city to a sea of warmly shaded hills. Distinctly shaped houses lined its numerous slopes, many of which were decorated in the spirit of Halloween. Arched stone bridges spanned over its hollows, where the city's most isolated pockets lay hidden. She loved the town’s worn down, rusty appearance; the shadow of fallen industry laying its eternal blanket…
It was almost mid-afternoon when her bus arrived near the gate to the large rolling Cemetery adjacent to Frick Park. Standing in its silhouette, Grace couldn’t help but feel a tingle of excitement. The cemetery had always held special meaning. It was a popular hangout in high school, and Grace still retained many fond memories of the place. Yet it was the constant reminder of death that so comforted Grace. As one who walked amongst the shadows, peace was always found amid the stone graves. Similar reasons cemented autumn as her favorite time of year. To Grace, the aroused disquiet that followed the late summer slumber coincided brilliantly with the cycle of decay. It was one of few sensations that effectively sparked her primitive side. Much as Grace loved the fall atmosphere, it was the celebration of death from which she gained solace.
After an hour of being lost amongst tall granite obelisks and pyramid fashioned mausoleums—many of which held the catacombs for the city’s oldest, and most prosperous families—Grace crossed a busy thoroughfare and entered the mouth of the forest. Once completely enclosed by trees, she removed the camera from her bag and became alive.
Grace navigated the maze of interwoven trails at a leisurely pace. Her hands remained steady and her eyes unblinking. Only when the aura was ideal would she snap the photo. An expert at catching light, many of her favorite shots featured large backlit leaves, boasting an x-ray type of appearance. She focused on the structure of branches, the weedy vines that lay woven throughout the shrubbery, and the blank spots from which the sky would poke through. She shifted her body to see how relationships between objects would change. With each click, she attempted to maintain perfect balance between light and dark. In these moments Grace was in her Zen. All else was meaningless. Even if the pictures never saw the light, it wouldn’t matter. The action of taking them was enough.
The forest was mystical. Artistic wooden birdhouses hung sporadically among the trees. Structures resembling igloos sat tediously, constructed from fallen branches. Birds chirped in the treetops. Land critters scurried over dead leaves. Various lizards and frogs swam the streams, which flowed peacefully through the naturally carved ravines, forever engulfed by the pleasant aroma of the urban autumn woodlands.
The trail widened, and Grace arrived at a peaceful meadow. At the center of the oasis laid a mound of colorful leaves. Overcome with a rare youthfulness, Grace trotted to the pile and dove in. Now resting within, her gaze met the myriad of patterns that formed the forest canopy.
About ten years previous, throughout the earliest stages of her grief, Grace found life to be physically and emotionally difficult. It was in this critical time when she began forcing herself to take pictures. Grace discovered that when she actively participated in life, her well-being would drastically improve. With photography, she discovered an accurate means to express her temperaments. Whether her mood be chaotic, dysfunctional, disturbed, or crushed, it hardly mattered. None could be kept a secret in nature. In the forest, those emotions were all surrounding.
To Grace, it was as if the dark, chaotic tangle of the vines reflected the very claws of chaos latched deep within her. And just like those vines the sensations would spread, consuming everything in their path. It was as if the trees were choked, like she herself felt strangled. So, in the sanctuary of the woods she sought her equivalents. The physical symbols of her emotions couldn’t be missed. It was Grace’s mission to capture these moments in attempt to pull order from the chaos. Following summer she would photograph the autumn forest as a means of therapy. This was her recovery, a yearly ritual both painful and comforting. Grace felt it necessary to pursue activities that scared her, ones that challenged her to feel. In turn, she developed a deep discomfort in idleness...
The late afternoon sun was bleeding through the treetops when Grace emerged from the pile of leaves. She brushed away the few that remained on her sweatshirt, grabbed her bag, and then headed west towards the park’s entrance. She figured it was best to visit her old neighborhood before sunset. Although in this regard she lacked time.
Grace arrived in a large open field upon reaching the trail’s end. She floated serenely along the cement path and observed her surroundings. The sounds of the nearby playground filled the evening air. As Grace passed her way through, distant memories of the place began to unearth themselves. She soon discovered herself drawn to the bench that sat near the basketball courts.
It was nostalgic.
The place had remained unchanged, apart from a few additions that Grace thought were a bit excessive. Children scampered freely in large groups. Vigilant parents hovered ever close, occasionally barking at the older kids for playing too rough. Youthful energy radiated from the playground and its purity found its way to every corner.
Grace felt her anxiety resurface, only to be followed by resentment. It was in moments like these when Grace viewed herself a leper. To make matters worse, her stare found its way to a young couple strolling casually down the walkway, glowing of innocence. The looks upon their faces held nothing but bliss. All the while Grace watched, jealous of the joy, the outcast overlooking the flock.
Breaking her trance, she fidgeted atop the bench and forced her eyes towards a young girl playing happily near the swing set, which in turn activated a different set of feelings. Her face reddened.
Grace, on more than one occasion, had considered the desire to raise a daughter. One who would receive all the love she had never known, and would never experience all that she had suffered. It was a scenario that was unlikely to occur, as Grace had no intention of becoming pregnant. Besides, what if she were to have a son?
But as she stared at the youth, sudden changes began to take place around her. The noises of the playground diminished and a harsh ringing found her ears. Soon, Grace no longer looked upon the young girl, but the ten-year-old version of herself. The child sported a dazzling glow, and was frolicking without a care in the world.
And that’s when it started.
A harsh pounding began to materialize in Grace’s head. It was the dreaded sound of fists on a wooden door; the drunken yells of her father echoed ominously in the background. Her vision of the playground disappeared, and was soon replaced by the floor of her brother’s closet. There she sat curled in a ball, frozen with terror.
The pounding increased in volume. Her father continued his violent assault on her brother’s bedroom door. His voice grew angrier. The hammering grew louder. Within the walls sat Grace, trapped and trembling on the closet floor, heart pounding against ribcage, powerless as the terror grew near.
The door burst.
Grace was then removed from the closet and returned to the park bench. The din of splintering wood had vanished and the noises of the playground were returning in full. The girl by the swings was no longer in sight.
Grace immediately rose to her feet. Avoiding all eye contact, she swiftly exited the park and then collapsed a safe distance away on a nearby retaining wall. She began to breath deeply.
For several minutes, Grace continued with an even pattern of slow deep breathing, seeking a meditative state where all thoughts were exited from her consciousness. When finished, she re-opened her eyes and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. She felt like a freak. She always did after experiencing an attack. It had been her first episode since early in her Ireland travels. Having almost forgotten the horrible sensation, it made this one all the worse. She then arrived at one conclusion: it was far too early for a visit to her childhood playground, as certain demons would still need to be purged. Thinking on it, it was naïve to believe her attacks were gone forever. Triggers would always lie hidden in unexpected places. Then her thoughts returned to her brother and her anxiety further increased. Grace began to question whether a reunion would actually help the pair, as she could only fathom the circumstances surrounding him. What if the years had turned him cold? What if he was dead? What if he was angry with her for never saying goodbye?
Grace was a wreck. She decided it was best not to think about her brother in her current state. Searching him out would have to wait a few days, maybe even for a few weeks. As for right now, Grace needed a safe haven, and she knew just the place. Jumping to her feet, she quickly scampered to the nearest bus stop and caught the first transit that arrived. She took zero notice of the extraordinary colors that were now forming with the sunset, a visual Grace would normally have found fascinating…
Darkness crept over the city. The twenty-six year old trekked the hill that led to Gooski’s. This time, however, her face fell upon approaching the bar. Hoping to see the violinist, Grace was saddened to find her absent from the promenade. She would have loved to sit beside the gypsy as she played her violin. The beautiful music would have been a medicine for her marred spirits. Grace was then struck by a raunchy idea, as she was now old enough to bed the violinist. She shook her head hysterically and immediately pushed the thought from her mind. Longing for the dark confines of Gooski’s, she hastily thrust her way inside.
The place was exactly as she had left it, minus the live music. Grace took her seat on a nearby stool and ordered the same as the night before. She lit one of four remaining cigarettes and shut her eyes. Grace rarely enjoyed solitude in these instances, yet wasn’t a fan of socializing either. That was the beauty of the bar. It was a sanctuary built for shared desolation. Grace was happy to see that Tina wasn’t present, as she would have little patience for her happy-go-lucky approach to living. It was clear that Grace’s lioness would not be making an appearance tonight. In its place coiled the perpetual snake of awkwardness. It was always hurtful when Grace’s body didn’t function to her liking. She found it difficult to believe in herself during such times. Her lack of confidence was exceptionally unnerving. So on the stool by the bar she sat, bound by the weirdness. That was until a humble voice found her ear, shattering the crystal that was her spell.
“I see your sadness, but you wear it elegantly. I’m sorry for whatever brought it.”
A shiver went down her spine. Startled, Grace jeeringly turned her head, only to find the bearded guitarist from the night before. He sat calmly in the nearby stool, wearing a look of silent admiration.
Although his remark had struck deep, Grace managed to look the man dead in his eyes with a gaze that pierced his very soul. It appeared she was wrong about the lioness. Grace coolly stared him down until his eyes fell to the floor.
“What could you possibly know about my sadness?” she mocked. “Now fuck off!”
Grace shook her head in disbelief and dumped her cigarette. The darkness concealed the man’s blush from visibility.
“You’re right,” he replied. “It’s none of my business. I apologize.”
The guitarist bowed his head and effortlessly hopped from his stool. He walked to the far corner of the bar and screened himself in one of the booths. His eyes never went to her again.
Exhaling a deep breath, Grace carefully watched as the guitarist crossed the room. Her annoyance slipped away with his footsteps. Grace spent the next minute contemplating the man’s forthright words. It was a daring remark, and his genuine tone suggested more than just an empty attempt at flirting. The spontaneous, honest observation had left her shaken. Grace’s curtains had been pulled, exposing her as naked.
Her eyes traversed the bar until they unintentionally landed on the guitarist. His gaze was empty, bearing only the air of contemplation. The longer Grace ogled him the more she began to understand, he too bore the look of sadness. Embarrassment took hold of her. Maybe her actions towards the man were a bit immature. Maybe they were even a bit mean. Grace wanted to apologize to the guitarist. To her bewilderment, she felt herself drawn to his melancholy. Her hormones were going haywire. Her stomach had become filled with butterflies.
Bisexual, Grace could rarely predict her own pendulum. On nights that followed an attack, she usually sought the comfort of a woman. Laying with a man in those situations was often dangerous; it was easy to re-experience trauma. But the night had sunk its fangs, and a long-forgotten loneliness had spawned within Grace. Her mind returned to the young couple in the park. She winced at the thought of them, jealous of the joy once again. It was the final straw. Grace finished her beer and arose from her stool, and then glided across the bar to greet the guitarist.
“Am I that obvious?” she said reservedly, taking the seat opposite him.
They were a shy pair, yet they quickly grew comfortable in each other’s presence. After revealing his name to be Matthew, the guitarist spun Grace his tale of how he arrived in her lost city. Matthew hailed from an abusive home as well, and had obtained refuge through his guitar playing and songwriting. At eighteen, his mother passed unexpectedly from cancer. He had always held his mother in high regard; the same could not be said of his father. At nineteen, Matthew departed from his hometown in Eastern Ohio. He has lived in Pittsburgh ever since, minus the occasional music related travel.
And when one heart bleeds, so does the other.
Grace, much to her surprise, began to uncover bits of her own troubled story. She didn’t mind that Matthew was a stranger with a dark past. It felt a relief to lower her guard. The depth of their dialogue provided a much-desired comfort. The scattered pieces within her began to magnetize. There was, however, much she chose not to reveal. She admired Matthew’s ability to listen, as his demeanor never strayed from humility. His eyes were that of deep pools, to which Grace was captivated. Matthew’s sadness had begun to consume Grace, just as hers did him.
A pair of broken hearts.
A pair of runaways.
As the hour grew late, so did the mood.
Matthew took Grace by the hand and the two briskly left the bar. The short, moonlit walk seemed a blur to Grace. Excitement now fluctuated with nervousness, but it was time to put worry aside and live. So by the time Matthew’s front door had shut the gentle kissing had already begun. The passion between them increased, and before Grace knew it the pair had entered his bedroom. But as Matthew removed the shirt from his body, Grace felt the blow of reality. This was not a dream. This was happening. Grace took a deep breath and attempted to remove her shirt, yet she found herself unable. Tension had taken hold of her muscles. Then it happened again.
The fists on the wooden door had returned.
The bedroom dissolved.
The vision of her brother’s closet had replaced it.
The scars of that haunting memory were reopening at the worst time.
Only now Grace was ready. She proceeded again with her breathing technique, using every ounce of her concentration. Eyes tightening as slits, hands clenched as fists, Grace pushed her mind instinctively towards Ireland. She thought of Joan and the sound of fiddle, the scent of hair and the touch of skin. Her sense of time reduced. The Earth’s vibration deepened its pitch.
It miraculously worked.
The pounding in Grace’s head began to soften with the release of each breath, diminishing to a distant echo before vanishing entirely. With that she let out a groan and her head sunk to her chest. Yet as much as Grace wanted to run and hide, her desire to stay was far greater. The hour was late, and she had no other place to sleep. Grace was fully aware of the dangers were a woman to spend her nights on the street. The chances of an assault were always high, especially in the inner city.
Grace opened her eyes and gloomily faced Matthew. He looked as pale as one could be. She confessed to him that she was not ready for sex, but then politely asked if it was still possible for the pair to spend the night together. Bracing for an angry response, Grace was thankful when one never arrived. She settled tiredly into Matthew’s arms, beginning a long deep embrace that spanned until morning…
Alex K.A. was born and raised in Pittsburgh’s East End. At age 18, while attending Taylor Allderdice High School, Alex began his writing venture by crafting acapella hip-hop lyrics. In the seven years that followed, he released two full-length hip-hop projects, The Belgreen Sessions in 2012 and Bird’s Eye View in 2015. A month after the release of Bird’s Eye View, Alex set hip-hop aside to write his debut novella, Hell With the Lid Off, which he released in June 2016. In early 2017, he released his second novella, The Windmaker’s Daughter. As for the future, he plans to continue writing and releasing short stories of varying types.