From the author: Flash fiction - a message in a bottle holds a deeper meaning for Erica's ex-husband when he is given the chance to share with her his final thoughts.
My dearest Erica,
Happy Birthday, my darling! I’m so sorry that I can’t be there with you yet again. I do hope you don’t think too poorly of me. If such a thing were possible, I would be with you now, watching you blow out the candles on your cake, helping you to rip off strips of gift wrap. I would sing to you as I always did, loudly and somewhat out of tune, but with such vigour everyone within a four-block radius would know it was your special day.
I miss you so much. A full ten years has passed since I last held you. It is too long. Far too long. My arms ache at the absence of you. My body feels incomplete without you. There are so many things I want to share with you, but this method of communication has its limitations. I cannot tell you all the things I want to. My words are strictly monitored and if I am not careful they will be destroyed. I have written many letters to you which were burned immediately to ash because I dared divulge too much. Apparently, some things must keep their mystery. You have to experience them for yourself. You cannot be simply told.
Do you remember the first letter you wrote, back when you had no idea that it would reach me? How it did was a true miracle, an unusually benevolent act of the great Gods without a doubt. When that note arrived and I saw my name was written on it in your handwriting, I almost did not dare believe it. I thought it must surely be some mirage or a prank. It seemed impossible, but there it was.
Your words hit me hard that time, dear Erica. I knew that you felt lost, and I understood why. You might not believe me, but truly I did. I can’t imagine how I might have handled things, should our situation have been reversed. I know for certain I would not have found the courage to try to contact you had you not written to me first.
But enough of that. Tell me, how are Jenny and Tomas doing? They must both be so big now, so different to how I saw them last. Robust and healthy. Confident and strong. That’s what I remember most about them, that and their beautiful blue eyes. I don’t suppose they will remember me, and I imagine that is for the best. It takes the pressure off a little bit. Lowers any expectations and lets them move on. I did try writing to them, a few years ago, but in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was too hard. Unfair to everyone, or so it felt. Please tell them, if it’s appropriate, that I still love them very much, and I would give anything to see them both again.
Things here have been very much the same for me since last I wrote. Not much ever changes. It’s predictable and I am expected to follow a strict protocol. There are so many rules, I sometimes wonder how I ever remember them all. I’m used to it now of course. After all, I don’t have a choice. But some variation in routine would certainly be nice. I shouldn’t complain too much, it’s more than I expected, although to be completely honest, I’m not fully sure what I did expect. I don’t think I ever thought about it much.
I know it’s terribly selfish to wish that you were here with me, especially with all the many wonderful things you have going on in your life, but I cannot stop imagining a day when we might be reunited. If that is still what you want? I don’t mean to presume. Ten years is a long time. People change and feelings change. I can read through the lines when you talk about Gerald. I’m glad you have a friend who cares so much, but sometimes I feel quite envious. Angry that he is there with you instead of me. I hardly dare ask, Erica, do you still feel the same way about me? The way that you once did?
No, wait, don’t answer that. I don’t think I want to know. Let us think of more joyous things.
Do you remember at our wedding, cousin Annabelle in that ridiculous duck-egg blue hat? It boasted more ribbons than was necessary for a piece of formal millinery. When the wind reached down and caught it and swept it out across the fields, the entire wedding party whooped and hollered. It twisted and somersaulted in the air before the elements relented and laid it down over the centre of the lake. Even Annabelle laughed when the swans attacked it, so ridiculous it seemed. That hat, it stayed there all afternoon and evening, and Annabelle got so terribly drunk on pink gin she scarcely even noticed.
I never told you this before, I’m not sure why it comes to mind right now. We’d planned that day, or so I felt, almost since our first meeting, when I accidentally spilt cold beer straight down your neck at that terrible open-air jazz concert. You could have slapped me, or shouted at me. Instead you’d laughed and told me that you’d been meaning to take a shower anyway. We ran to the beach and swam in the sea. It was cold and deep and the light seemed almost lavender underneath the full moon. I think I fell in love with you right there and then. But I digress.
The evening of our wedding celebrations I’d slipped away to have a secret cigarette. You thought I’d quit nearly three months prior. I had no desire to disappoint you, especially not on that, our momentous day. I had felt strangely nervous, unusual as all the days' anxieties were done. I’d stood by the lakeside and watched in silence as blood-red clouds bloomed in the twilight sky. They faded to a purplish-grey, and as the sun went down, Annabelle’s forgotten hat sank with it. The water took it as a sacrifice, there was no chance of it ever being returned.
No-one else saw. Few would have cared. I’d never believed in omens, but a sudden chill embraced me, and I had felt like I was being pulled down too. I was frozen to the spot, not really understanding my emotions. Then I heard you calling me. I shook myself and flicked the spent butt out into the water. I walked as calmly as I could manage back to the wedding party and took you in my arms.
That day was one of many, of the best times of my life, when we could scarcely keep our hands and mouths off one another. Your eager, gentle love cracked open my hard shell completely and explored all the vulnerability I’d hid inside. I could be myself with you like I could never be with anyone before. I feel so terribly foolish now. I don’t think I ever really made the most of it. The problem is, my dearest, we always think we have more time. A second chance. Another moment. I certainly did. I had a plan, Erica, one which involved you and Jenny and Tomas. Being here was never a part of that.
When I first began these letters I had no idea how long I would be able to continue. It’s been very difficult and the situation has not been ideal. I am grateful, though, that we have had this option. It has at least provided some small comforts in quite bleak and dreary times.
And now ten years have passed since the accident. Ten years since the bloody boat capsized and we were forced to say goodbye. Sorry is such an easy word to say, it’s so much harder to really mean it. You warned me many times to get the hull resealed. Laziness and stubbornness meant I ignored you. I thought I knew better than you. I thought I could cheat my fate. I’m so sorry, Erica.
Time seems to pass much more differently here. I am never sure how long is left. The Higher Ones have told me this must be my last letter. They say our link is no longer strong. I don’t want to admit it, Erica, but I suspect I know why that might be. Our letters have grown shorter as each year goes by. Our connection fades, as well I suppose it must. It’s hard to embrace the future when your arms are still so full of the past. Letting go is necessary. It’s a part of grieving. Of moving on. You can always write to me, my darling Erica, in fact, I’d love it dearly if you did, but I won’t be able to reply to you any more. I feel, perhaps, that you must look to Gerald now for all your answers.
I suppose I must conclude this letter. I’ll put it in a cork-topped bottle and throw it out to sea. I trust that it will find you like my others did, just as yours always found me. It was a miracle. Perhaps an act of greater Gods. I don’t know why they chose to take me, or why they let my words get through to you for quite so long. What happens next, I’m not so sure about that either. Please, just don’t forget me, Erica.
I’ll always love you. Until the oceans' end.