Part 1, The Game: Chapter 1

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"Dawn," James said. "I thought you quit smoking."

"I decided to worry about other things."

The wind died and the leaves stopped dancing. The calm that descended was comforting to James. Silence had become like a mother to him.

"You look good," he said.

"That's funny." Dawn tilted her head. "I feel like hell." Her hair shimmered as it swung, long and dark, as beautiful as the night. "Did you get my message?"

"I got it."

"But didn't read it?"

"No." James felt a spatter on his nose and looked at the sky. Pathetic fallacy: nature had understood his mood and was responding in kind.

"Storm coming in," Dawn said. "We need to talk. Will you come for a coffee?"

There's a reason I don't answer the phone, a part of him wanted to say.

"Okay. Coffee."

***

The burger sat there, monolithic. James was starving but didn't eat. He stared, since it gave him something to look at other than Dawn.

"I got an offer. Assistant professor, sociology." Dawn ran her finger around the rim of her coffee like it was a crystal wine glass that would sing. "Tenured, obviously. Everything I've been looking for."

The burger was so large that eating it would almost require a fork, or a forklift. James let his gaze slide to Dawn's murky expression while she was safely looking away. After all these years, he still couldn't read her.

"But?"

"It's at Berkeley."

"California?"

Dawn nodded at her coffee. "California."

James picked up the burger and took a bite. It tasted like nothing. Not like cardboard, not like meat. Just nothing. "Congratulations."

"You could come with me." Dawn looked up suddenly enough to catch his eye. "Together. We could go. Writers can work anywhere."

"I'm a writer that can't get paid for writing." James took another bite. Ketchup and part of a pickle spilled out the back.

Burgers and lives: messy.

"There are part time jobs anywhere." Dawn pushed her coffee away, final acknowledgement that she would never drink it. "We could move in together. I would pay. Until you find something."

James put the burger down. "It's not just about money, Dawn."

"Then what? What is it about?" For the first time, Dawn's voice rose. "You're going to say no, we both know it. You've been hiding from this conversation for weeks and so have I. I could have tracked you down any time, come to your house or the library or the arena, but I didn't. And what for?"

Dawn ran a hand over her eyes, closed them, opened them, breathed deeply. She looked up at the ceiling, down into her lap, and finally out the window, opaque as it was from the brightness within and the darkness without.

"Just say it, okay?" Her voice cracked on okay.

"I can't go with you," James said.

There were other people in the restaurant; they ate, slurped soda through straws, had conversations. In the kitchen, deep fryers sizzled and employees shouted orders. None of it penetrated the silence by the window—until it burst like the clouds had, in a sad trickle.

"Maybe long distance could work," Dawn said. "Technology. Donald's been telling me. You know, virtual spaces."

The unfinished burger reposed in a grinning half-moon. James ate another chunk, making it lopsided and bloody with ketchup. The man in the moon was dead.

"Technology," he said. "How long do you want to live like that? What's the end point?"

"Eventually you might want to come. You might be able to come." Dawn tore her gaze from the window to nowhere. "You—"

"If Mom dies, you mean."

"I didn't say that ... I just thought—"

"That I might unplug her?"

"No, I didn't, I..." Dawn wiped at her eyes, savagely. "I wouldn't, please, don't say that. We could bring her. If it's money, I could help. Couldn't we?"

"Mom belongs here."

"But why?"

"You know why."

"She doesn't even visit anymore! She—"

Dawn caught herself and took several slow, steadying breaths. She folded her hands on the table and stared down at them, and so did James. They looked small. Yet his urge to hold them was an instinct that could only be hurtful.

"Okay," Dawn said. "I guess we both knew how this would go. That's why I waited three weeks, sending stupid text messages."

"Hey," James said. "I'm not the one that's leaving. I'm just the one that's not going."

"I know." Dawn nodded. "I know that."

They stood. James held the door, but for the first time Dawn was stepping through a different door than he was.

"I've always loved you," she said, making a half-turn toward him. "But not enough to live this life. The hand that you're holding the tightest was never mine."

"Good luck," James said. "I wish you the best."

"And I wish I could've had the James I see in your stories," Dawn said, voice jagged under the rain. "All those dreams you put on paper. Why are they only on paper?" A tear washed down her cheek and fell, mixing with the puddles and their staccato twinkles. "I wanted to be with you when they came to life. But along the way, I guess we ran out of wishes."

She walked into the night.

saltwater raindrop
disappear into the ground
final empty page

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