2020 Flash Fiction Challenge: One More Breath

As you may recall from last month, writer Cait Gordon is leading the charge this year on a monthly Flash Fiction Challenge. Every month, she draws three cards at random from a deck of playing cards that provide the genre and setting for the story, as well as an object that must be included. This month’s challenge: a gothic romance, set in a mausoleum, incorporating a pair of goggles.

Here’s the YouTube video if you’d like to watch her make the draw live.

The solution for the goggles came to me first, then the mausoleum. Honestly, I don’t think the final product has a gothic tone, but I do think the situation is close. Without further ado:

One More Breath

As mausoleums go, Gareth’s isn’t that bad. Situated on a grassy hill overlooking a broad swath of the cemetery, it’s guarded by a red oak that provides shade in the summer and puts on a dramatic show of crimson foliage in the autumn. From the entrance to the mausoleum, he can see all the way to the front gate and a bit of town beyond, and he has an unobstructed view all the way up the access road that runs past his home.

Home. His family was quite chatty at first when he arrived, wanting to know about this relation or that, who’d married whom, and how was Bransford Hall holding up. But that was the first year, and now they’re—not taciturn, exactly, but they only speak when necessary. And he doesn’t have the freshest news anymore, exactly.

So he waits, every day, at the doorway of the mausoleum for Robert.

Most days he doesn’t come, of course. Robert still has a life, after all. And it’s been two years. Still, he waits. Because every so often, he sees the motorbike zipping through the front gate and up the hill, Robert dressed like a vintage airplane pilot in leather jacket, scarf, goggles and aviator’s cap. He’ll spill his bike over and crack his head open one of these days, but has he ever listened? The getup looks ridiculous, but when he hears the purr of the Triumph’s motor, Gareth’s breath never fails to catch.

Breath that he doesn’t even need, but breathing is as much a habit as it was a necessity before, and old habits die hard. So to speak.

Today, for instance. It’s stunningly clear, beneath a vibrating blue sky with a chilly breeze worrying the leaves still clinging to the oak, their fiery reds now dulling to crumbled brown. He hears the bike before he sees it, and a moment later Robert comes roaring through the cemetery gate. The bike slows to a respectful putter as it passes other gravesites, until it’s barely crawling up the hill and comes to a stop right in front of him.

Victory: Robert is wearing a real helmet today, although he still sports the aviator’s leather jacket and the goggles, which he pulls down and lets dangle around his neck after he dismounts. His visits always follow the same pattern: he walks around the mausoleum, hands in pockets, staring at his feet. He stops by the oak and puts a hand against the bark, then turns and leans back against the trunk and crosses one ankle over the other in front of himself. Eventually, he starts to talk.

So it’s a surprise when Robert walks right up to the doorway and curls his fingers around the wrought iron gate. Which is also when the ring on his left hand catches a shine from the sun blaring through that vibrating blue sky.

“Hello, love,” Robert says. His eyes are closed, and he rests his forehead against the gate. “I know it’s been a while, and well, there’s a reason for that.”

He puts a hand on Robert’s shoulder even though he knows Robert can’t feel it, doesn’t even know he’s there. What he can feel are the sympathetic gazes of his grandparents, his uncle Albert, Auntie Vanessa, and all the others as they draw close behind him. They know what’s coming; he knows what’s coming, knows he would rather not hear it, but waits and listens anyway.

The words don’t register much on their own, and they’re not really the most important part. Phrases like “found someone” and “hard to do it alone” don’t matter as much as the heaviness he can feel coming off of Robert’s shoulders with each word, his posture getting lighter. When at last it seems like he’s said all he’s come to say, Robert lets go of the gate and stands up straight, clears his throat. It’s obvious only then that he was crying.

Robert swipes a knuckle under each eye before straddling the bike and putting his helmet back on. As he raises the goggles over his eyes again, he looks back toward the mausoleum and pauses, squinting hard. Maybe he sees something, the vague outline of a figure, but there’s no way to be sure. He puts the goggles over his eyes; his expression is unreadable after that.

“It’s a burden, that life,” Auntie Vanessa says, when they’re the only ones remaining outside, watching Robert’s motorbike roar back down the hill. “The living need someone to help them shoulder the load. You remember, don’t you?”

She doesn’t wait for a reply, but she turns and looks back down the hill before retreating into the mausoleum. “Sometimes, I think it’s us who are the lucky ones, not to have to carry that.”

He waits and watches until the Triumph and Robert pass through the gate and out of sight. He lets out a sigh then, which turns into a gasp; how long was he holding his breath?

It feels better now, letting that breath out, and it feels even better knowing that he need never breathe again.