Oh, Serena | by Helen de Búrca

     The bottle on the table between them is almost empty. As soon as the man consumes his cigarette down to the filter, he lights another. His hand trembles so that the ash spills onto his fine woolen coat.

     In contrast to the coat, his face is unshaven, the skin dry, the hair unkempt. His bloodshot gaze darts about incessantly, settling hungrily on the woman before flitting away again.

     He’s there again, he says, indicating slightly with the cigarette.

     Instead of looking behind her, the woman stares at his yellowed fingers. Her face is compassionate, although, just for an instant, her mouth twists.

     She says, I told you he’s having me followed. This is the fourth time. Will you believe me now?

     She pulls at the fur-lined collar of her coat, closing her eyes when the soft hairs brush her face. The man stares at the raw sensuality of her expression, but when he leans forward to run his thumb along her lips – it has been a while since the manicure grew out, and his skin is rough and dry with neglect – she starts and sits back, out of reach.

     Serena, he begins, but she is already speaking.

     It’s too cold to be sitting outside, she says. You and your cigarettes. You said you’d given up.

     I had, he says, until…

     Yes, yes, she sighs, looking toward the river. Still her eyes do not turn toward the tall man openly observing them from a few tables away. It has been drizzling all day and now a thick fog is making its way stealthily up from the river. It is not late, but there is so little light left in the sky that it might be midnight.

     The man stares at her pleadingly, his eyes filling with tears. Serena, it’s not my fault, you know I was shafted, you know it’s not my fault…

     … that they took everything, yes, I do understand. But I can’t do anything about your debts. And my husband is having me followed. This has become too dangerous.

     Don’t leave me! he says. His voice, louder than previously, bounces oddly into the approaching tendrils of fog. The observing man does not even twitch.

     The woman sighs again and appears to reflect for a few moments. Then she opens the handbag on her lap and searches through it. She holds out her hand.

     Look, take this. It’s one of my anxiety pills. You’ll feel better afterwards.

     The man glances at the pill, hesitates. His cigarette burns unheeded in his fingers. The woman gives the pill in her hand an encouraging little shake.

     You’re seeing everything in the worst possible light, but it’s not all so bad, she says. It will all be better tomorrow. I promise.

     The man’s eyes fill with tears again. He repeats, You promise?

     She smiles slowly and leans toward him. Her neck looks naked against the fur collar.

     None of us can know what the future holds, she says, and watches him chase the pill down with the dregs of his wine.

     When he puts the glass back down, he tries to take her hand, but she gives a tiny shake of her head. However, she smiles at him again and bites her lip a little, the way she had done at the beginning, when she had wanted him to notice her beautiful mouth.

     Remember, we are still being watched, she says.

     They sit in silence. The man smokes two more cigarettes. As he finishes the second, his face begins to relax and his body slumps slightly. He tries to grind out his cigarette and misses the ashtray the first time. The butt continues to smoke after he releases it.

     I feel a little strange, he says. The woman smiles at him, a kind, beautiful smile.

     It’s ok, she says, it’s quite normal. You’ll feel good in just a little while. Let’s go for a little walk, a walk by the river. Like we used to. Remember?

     The man nods slowly, but he looks confused. When he stands, he staggers slightly. He gives a little laugh, raises a wavering hand.

     Sorry, he says. A little too much wine, I suppose. Remember… remember when I used to kiss you under the bridge? A walk’s, yes, a walk’s just what I need.

     The woman is already standing. There is something feline about her as she waits for the man to search his pockets clumsily for money. Finally, he leaves a note on the table. When he continues to stand there, she says, Come on. He looks up blurrily at the note of sharpness that has entered her voice.

     My change, he says plaintively.

     You used to leave far more than that on tables before, she says, and there is a distinct sneer in her tone, but when he looks at her, she is smiling at him again. The fog brushes her skin, the collar of her coat. He moves towards her like a puppet, but before he can reach her, she turns and glides into the fog. Her voice trails behind: Come walk by the river with me.

     The man has forgotten the watcher and does not see him rise from his own table, leaving the exact amount of change neatly piled beside his empty coffee cup. Smoothly, the watcher folds himself after them into the fog.

     By the river, the fog is thicker, distorting sounds and veiling distances. It roils and eddies at the slightest movement. The man’s movements are increasingly erratic, and when he turns to look behind, he almost trips over himself. The woman stops and regards him with a glacial calm. A stone bridge arches above her. Her eye sockets are shadows.

     Serena, I think he’s following us.

     The man’s voice is frightened. The woman’s beautiful mouth curves into a smile that is no longer kind.

     Yes, she says. Yes, he is. Wait a moment. We’ll confront him and see what he has to say for himself.

     But… he may be dangerous!

     I’m sure he is, she murmurs, and the watcher emerges suddenly from the fog just behind the man.

     The shock of his sudden appearance is as effective as a shove. The man reels back, staggers and, with a faint cry, disappears backwards into billowing paleness. There is a splash. The sound of rocking water is quickly swallowed by the fog.

     The woman and the watcher remain in the same spots, unmoving. They do not look at each other. Their postures are oddly similar: lithe and alert.

     After a few moments, the woman gives her hair a little shake and steps forward. As if she has broken a spell, the watcher also steps toward her. She looks at him, smiling her beautiful smile, until he takes her in his arms. Then she winds her arms around his neck and tips her head back, but he does not kiss her.

     Do you think it worked?

     She sighs, but with a different impatience from earlier.

     Considering what I gave him, and the wine, and the temperature of the water this evening, he couldn’t possibly have survived.

     If there’s an autopsy, they’ll see…

     She interrupts, pouting a little. You didn’t even have to touch him, she says. He was depressed, everyone knew it. He had lost everything – even me. He had nothing left to live for. Of course it will be suicide.

     Oh, Serena, the man says, and at last he kisses her. When he pauses, she whispers, It’s cold here. Let’s go.

     The fog eddies and swirls for a while after their departure, then its movement slows.

     At some time during the night, the water peals in disturbance. A dark shape forms, slumping on the stone bank for long moments, before pushing itself with excruciating slowness into a standing position. Wavering, it pulls a saturated coat about itself with fingers blue with cold. The insides of the index and middle finger, however, are still stained yellow.

 

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Born in Ireland, Helen currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published in The Irish Literary Review, the Sunday Business Post, the Nivalis 2016 anthology, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology 2017, the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and the Arts, and Bare Fiction Magazine