Harley was lost in her oil painting. She was building a beautiful, edgy black and white portrait of a couple in a tango. Her noir style left only the white spaces to carve out the shapes inside of the black background, creating an ethereal, stark piece. She almost ignored the phone when it rang. But she finally found a beat to stop and hit the speaker.
The phone was silent for a moment. Then a voice she hadn’t heard for a while came through the speaker.
“Hi, uh, it’s me.”
It had been a couple months since their disastrous dinner. She hadn’t heard from him and hadn’t tried to reach him. In fact, she spent a good amount of energy pretending he didn’t exist anymore. Moving had put him in the back of her mind, where she had hoped he would stay.
But, typical for him, he wouldn’t do what she wanted. And here he was, just when she didn’t want to talk.
“How are you?” Marty was trying to be sweet and kind, she could tell. He always got a certain tone in his voice when he knew he was treading on delicate ground.
“I’m in the middle of a painting.” Harley’s voice was anything but sweet and kind. “Do you need something?”
“Can you come by in the next day or so? I finally got a buyer for the time share and I need you to sign the papers so we… I can sell it.”
Harley hesitated. Of course, he asked her to come to him, not offering to come to her. Typical, she thought. She even considered not helping him. Finally, she put down her brush and picked up the phone, taking it off speaker.
“I can come by tonight.”
“Good.” His voice brightened a great deal. “That’s good. See you then. I…”
But she had hung up, despite the fact that his ghost hung around for some time afterward.
* * * * * * * * * *
Harley stood outside of Marty’s apartment for a long time, not really wanting to knock. She even took a step or two away, almost giving in to her flight instinct. Eventually, she sucked it up and knocked.
Marty must have been right on the other side because the door swung open immediately. His deep brown eyes lit up as they saw her. He smiled easily and opened the door wider.
“Thanks for coming.”
It took Harley a moment longer to enter his crammed, dark lair… apartment. Overflowing with bookcases stuffed with books, action figures and a huge assortment of other geek accoutrements, the air in the was tight and close. To Harley, it was as though the room was only two feet wide and she had to slide in between things to get past Marty without actually touching him. He watched her move, fighting the urge to reach out and grab her and not let her go again. But he just gestured to the papers on a nearby table.
“I marked where you need to sign.”
Harley moved silently to the papers and began to read through them.
Ben cleared his throat. “Um, I did read them, you know.”
Harley turned her hardened eyes to him. “But I didn’t.”
He did the smart thing – shut up and waited. Finally, Harley started to sign as she continued to read.
“How’s the new place?” Marty finally asked when he could stand the silence no longer.
“Fine.” The pen scratched against the paper.
“If you need anything…”
“Nope.” More pen scratching.
Marty’s heart was in his eyes, as were all the things he never said to her. But, as usual, he covered it up with bluster and with blather.
“When’s your signing?” he asked, trying to keep her there a little longer.
“That’s great.” He waited for an invitation that did not come.
“Yup.” Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Harley finally finished signing everything and took a moment to look back through the papers before handing them to Marty. He, of course, took one more look over them as she waited.
“Thanks,” he finally said. “I’ll send you a check when it all goes through.”
The two stood there for a moment, waiting for someone to say something, for something to happen.
“Is that everything?” Harley finally broke the silence. Marty hesitated before opening his mouth.
“Can you get dinner or something?” Marty waited anxiously for her response.
“Nope. I’m…” Harley weighed her words carefully. “I’m going out with Ben.” This stopped Marty.
“Going out with…?”
“He’s been… a good friend…” The innuendo was hard to miss and Marty didn’t miss it.
“I didn’t know,” was all Marty could find to say, much to Harley’s twisted satisfaction.
Harley started toward the door. “Let me know if you need anything else from me.”
“Okay.” Marty followed her to the door, trying desparately to connect but starting to realize how futile an effort it was. “Maybe we could…”
“I gotta go.” As Harley walked through the door, Marty’s spirit tried to follow her out. It reached out, missing her by a hair as the door slammed on it.
House of Heroes was its usual bustling self, with the addition of a nice line of people near a sign stating “The Wraith of Love”.
Harley sat at a table at the head of the line, nervously looking at the people waiting for her to start her signing. She juggled things around on the table, moving the pile of graphic novels from one side to the other, testing out markers and basically trying to control her rising panic.
Peter came over to her, carrying a new package of markers and a bottle of water. As the owner of the store, he was familar with jittery new authors and wanted to make sure to put Harley at ease. After all, she had been teaching for him for a while now and he was so proud to be hosting her first signing.
“This is great,” he encouraged her as he got to the table. “You’ve got a nice line of people waiting. The buzz is very positive.”
“It’s not weird if I want to vomit right now, is it?” Peter just laughed at Harley’s nerves.
“Everyone’s nervous the first time,” he assured her. “You’re gonna do great.”
Just then, Ben appeared at her side. “Hey, aren’t you Harley Jackson, the famous comic book artist?”
Harley lept to her feet, wrapping him in a big hug. “Wow,” he gasped, trying to pry her arms from his neck. “Okay, Harley, need to breathe.” She finally let him go. Peter stepped forward to shake hands.
“Hey, Ben. Good to see you.”
“Hey, Peter. You taking good care of my girl here?”
“You know it.” Peter walked away as Harley grabbed on to Ben’s hand.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said as he settled in the seat beside her.
“Where else would I be?”
Harley looked down the line of people, trying not to hyperventilate. All she could see was Marty’s disapproving face overlaid on top of the faces smilning over at her. Ben noticed this, squeezing her hand gently.
“Marty told me I would never get here.” She fought back the tears the memories brought to her eyes. Ben pulled her close, looking her straight in the eyes.
“Marty was wrong.”
With that, when Harley looked back at the line, Marty’s face was gone. All she saw was a line of people, waiting just for her. She wrapped Ben in her arms just as Peter rejoined them. She smiled up at Peter over Ben’s shoulder.
“Do you know how much I love this man?” The pair were wrapped in her electric energy.
Ben held her tighter. “What’s not to love?” He pulled her even closer, if possible, to whisper in her ear. “I’m so proud of you.”
Nothing in the world could have pulled them apart in that moment.
Harley’s apartment had finally come together. It looked like a home. A small, tiny, art studio type of home, but a home nonetheless. Her artwork covered the walls, hard-edged black and white noir paintings and drawings. But instead of making the place feel smaller, the art brought the place to life.
The last piece to fall into place was being handled by Rose. She sat on the floor with Harley near a small file cabinet. A pile of file folders, labels and paperwork surrounded them. Rose had a drawer open and was explaining the set up to Harley as she inserted files.
“So put your tax stuff here and your receipts in the accordion file. It’ll make it easier when you go to file taxes.”
Harley grudgingly took the things Rose gave her and put them in her place. “I hate doing this shit.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
Harley’s phone chimed with a text message. She looked at the message and then smiled that special smile reserved for Ben.
This did not get past Rose. “Ben?”
“Yeah. We’re going out for his birthday tomorrow.”
“Really? Just you two?”
Harley shrugged but couldn’t hide her smile. “He said he didn’t want to make a big deal this year. We’re just gonna have dinner and then he’s got a gig afterward, so we’ll go there.”
“And after that?”
Harley hid her face by putting something in the file cabinet. Rose waited patiently for her friend to look back up at her. Finally, Harley gave in.
“I don’t want to say it.”
Harley sighed, finally looking Rose in the eye. “You might be right. There might be something there.”
“Really?” Rose feigned surprise. “I’m stunned.”
“Stop it,” Harley chided. “I just… what if I’m wrong?”
“Harley, you two spend every waking moment together. He texts you all day. You check in with him before you plan things. Why would you think there’s something going on?”
Harley just shook her head. “But if I’m wrong, I’ll lose one of my best friends.”
“But if you’re right, you’ll gain something so much more.”
“I never thought…”
Rose playfully smacked Harley on the arm. “Stop thinking. What do you feel?”
Harley thought for a moment and then her smile said it all.