I Love You

By Stephen Paden

“I love you,” Harold would always say. The look in his eyes, at least to Stella Ward, would never mirror the words or the intent. All he was looking for, he would admit to himself when he started this nonsense, was reciprocity—to hear a woman utter those words one more time.

“You don’t,” she would always reply.

It was a conversation that had gone on every morning for three years—usually as the two, now retired and widowed, went out for the paper or to run an errand and happened to see each other from across the yard.

Harold’s wife Louise had died of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma six years before while Stella’s husband was killed in a motorcycle accident in the same month. The opportunity to bond over their loss was missed, and Harold, realizing that the rest of his life held little hope and his cat could only comfort him so much, knew it.

There were signs. Stella, about a year after the death of her husband, started bringing over casseroles, cakes, and anything to ignite a spark of interest in Harold or to at least let him know that one burned in her. But he wallowed in misery and self-pity, thanking her politely and never asking her if she would like to come in and share the meal or to sit and just talk.

It was a year ago that Harold woke up. He had gotten up early one morning to take a walk and noticed a man leaving Stella’s house. At first he had had only one thought: scandal. But soon after, his gossipy fervor transformed into a feeling he hadn’t experienced since he was a very young man: jealousy. It was this emotion that forced him into action.

Harold looked out the window, but Stella had not yet emerged from her home to begin her daily routine. He looked at the clock: 8:46. He couldn’t let this opportunity die.

Instead of waiting for her to come out, he decided that today he would knock on her door and ask her to dinner.

Harold stepped out onto his front porch and looked at the street. There was only her car in front of her house.

“Good, stay gone,” he said, hoping that the man he had seen that morning would never return.

He picked a flower from his bush and walked across his yard into hers and then up to her porch. He hesitated, breathing into his palm and sniffing it, and then nodded himself forward.

He stood at the door and pressed the doorbell. His heart began to race, but he didn’t hear any sounds from within the house. He was about to retreat in shame before he heard a woman’s voice mutter something unintelligible, and then the clicking of metal from the doorknob. The door opened and Stella stood there, confused.

“This is for you,” he said, handing her the flower. She took it and looked at it, still confused.

“Harold what’s gotten into you? In twenty five years living next to each other, you’ve never knocked on my door for anything,” she said.

“I know, I know. It’s just—” He brushed his thinning white hair back with his shaky left hand.

“Just what?”

He composed himself and said, “I would like you to accompany me for dinner. I’m not much of a cook, but I would love to sit and eat and talk with you.”

A mixture of sympathy and joy crossed Stella’s face. “What took you so long?” she said.

Harold’s heart pounded through his chest. His smile engulfed his face. “Great! I’m not the greatest cook, like I said, but I’m sure I can whip something up.” Mortified at the commitment, he started scanning his memory for dishes that his wife used to cook him, narrowing them down to the simplest possible concoctions.

Not knowing what else to say, he nodded, backed away, and then headed back to his house.

Before he had left her yard, he turned and called to her.

“Yes, Harold?” she said with smile.

“I forgot to tell you—”

“Stop,” she said. He had gone too far. “It’s my turn.” Before he could let the rejection completely set up shop in his heart, he said, “But it’s the truth. All these years, I’ve been trying to tell you.” Stella left her porch and met him in the middle of the yard. She put his hand over his heart, leaned in, and kissed him on his cheek.

“Your turn for what,” he asked.

“To tell you what I’ve been wanting to tell you for three years.”

In the middle of Stella Birch’s yard, as birds flew from tree to tree, snapping up insects in between, Harold listened as Stella whispered sweetly in his ears, “I love you.”

Martha

by Stephen Paden

Martha Grainger settled into her chair and smiled. Her favorite program was five minutes from airing and all of the nightly chores, a conglomeration of petty rituals she had developed when Harry passed away last March, were finished. Oscar, her calico cat, rested on her lap in her usual position. Martha looked around at the walls of her living room−the pictures of Harry with Stan Drummond taken on a fishing trip, the picture of their small but beautiful wedding forty years prior, and pictures of their children−and clamped her mouth closed to prevent the quivers that would eventually come.

She flipped on the television with her oversized remote (her daughter bought her one with large buttons and numbers after listening to Martha complain about it) and let the flickering light from the TV wash over her, illuminating her smiling face.

When the program ended, Martha lifted fat old Oscar from her lap and placed her gently on the ground. She went to the kitchen and pulled a knife from the block and went back into the living room. Harry stood in the middle of the room, smiling. Martha smiled back and lifted the knife to her throat.

“We’re going to be together, babe,” said Harry. “You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen down here.”

“Who’ll take care of Oscar?” she asked.

Harry looked solemnly at Oscar and then back to Martha. “You should take care of that first.”

Martha nodded blankly and knelt down as fast as her old body would let her. Oscar purred and looked casually at the gleaming blade of the knife. Martha jammed the blade into Oscar’s stomach and the cat did a mixture of moaning and made Martha’s smile grow bigger. Oscar’s eyes raced back and forth as blood poured from her mouth and onto the hard wood floors.

Martha picked Oscar’s limp body from the ground and held her close. She placed it on the couch and then turned to Harry.

“That’s my girl,” he said. “You always did take care of things, didn’t you?”

“It was my job, love. We can be together now.”

“Yes.”

Martha looked at the bloody knife in her hands, still smiling. The shadows from the flickering TV danced around the walls. She looked at her wedding picture one more time, then raised the knife to her throat and with a single, elegant stroke, severed her carotid artery and her throat. She fell to the ground and landed on her back. The light from the television began to dim. Martha took her final gasp for air, but ended up taking in only blood. She tried to cough it back out but she lacked the strength in her diaphragm to force the action. Blood drained from her neck and onto the floor, mixing with Oscar’s. The flickering TV continued to cast shadows on the wall, and over Martha’s body.

Despair

by Stephen Paden

She was born Hope Dawn Richardson, but everyone who knew her called her Despair. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone.

It started in ninth grade when Hope tried to overdose on Tylenol in the girls’ bathroom. Samantha Cole, replacing her tampon in the stall farthest from the door, heard Hope’s moans coming from the stall next to her. Samantha recalled that it was her decisive action that saved Hope, and decided to run for class president on the simple message: “I care about you.”

For Hope, however, the popularity, or rather notoriety had only exacerbated her desire to keep trying. She tried more pills, slitting her wrist (which looked more like a cat had used her arm as a scratching post), and even jumping off of the roof of her ranch-style home, resulting in two twisted ankles.

Nothing worked. Hope decided to stop trying and focus on school, but only after a brief stint in a mental health facility that catered to depressed teenagers.

After her release, Hope made good on her promise to not attempt suicide again and also her promise to focus on school. Four years of high school passed quickly and Hope found herself on stage at graduation speaking as Valedictorian.

Her classmates, however, never forgot her antics. After freshman year, she had earned the name Despair, which was, at first, a burden comparable to Jesus lugging his cross around Jerusalem, but in the end, a moniker that she wore with pride.

Forty years later, she still couldn’t help but laugh: Hope had become Despair like her body had become cancer.

The irony wasn’t lost on her. She put the revolver in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

On Top of a Hotel at Night

by Stephen Paden

I’m sitting here holding my head. It’s pounding. When will the aspirin kick in? I walk to my window and look outside at the city. It’s quiet. The pounding heart I feel is not outside in the streets or in the buildings; it is inside my chest. If I drink another cup of coffee, I think it will explode. Maybe that would be ok. Something just fell from the top of the Cardigan across the street. Some poor bastard, I suppose. That’s the way it is nowadays. When you live in pursuit of dreams, sometimes they don’t come true. Sometimes they turn on you; push you off a thirty-story hotel. I wonder what his dreams were. If you chase the moon and don’t make it, it’s a long way down. He just hit the ground. God damn, right into a crowd. I think he landed on fat guy. Good for you, buddy. I’m lighting up a cigarette, even though I shouldn’t smoke. This fucking headache, I swear. The doc said it’s the high blood pressure. I said “No shit? But have you ever sucked one down after you just fucked a hooker on the balcony of a high-rise?” He said, “No.” So I said, “Just write me a prescription, will ya?” “Three months,” he said as I left. That was two and a half months ago. The crowd that guy hit just got bigger. I think I hear sirens. It ain’t crowded on my side of the street. Too bad, I’d like to take someone out with me. I was always afraid of heights as a kid, but it’s different when you’re older. It’s different when you know. The wind is picking up. I wonder if I should let it take me where it will. Not sure why I took an aspirin, now that I think about it. The wind pulled me over, just like I thought it would. It’s a strange feeling, falling. I thought I’d have butterflies, but I don’t. I thought that my life would be shooting through my pounding head like a cracked out slide projector, but it ain’t. The world gets smaller when you grow up, but let me tell you, right now it’s getting bigger and big−