Chapter 6

A year had passed. Harley missed Ben every single day, but her calls and emails continued to remain unreturned. The hurt and disappointment drove her deeper into her work. Her comic book thrived, sales improving issue after issue. Her publisher couldn’t have been happier and discussions were in progress about starting another series. Her classes continued to feed her soul, though it was hard sometimes for her to teach since she was now beginning to be in demand for conventions nearby. On one hand, her life was a success.

On the other hand, she never felt emptier. Reminders of Ben filled her apartment, echoes of him in every corner. She finally boxed up all the little mementos of a relationship left behind. She kept a few photos of him on her phone, as a reminder, she guessed. But she just couldn’t quite bring herself to delete every one of them.

Rose watched her friend struggle with her emotions. She did everything she could to help Harley put Ben behind her. Without telling Harley, she even tried contacting Ben, but her efforts also were ignored.

As her best friend, Rose made sure to be at Harley’s on Ben’s birthday, to help heal some of the wounds. The two women had a sumptuous spread of wine and take-out. Harley was distracted, her energy low and muted. Rose finally decided to address the elephant in the room.

“I can’t believe he blew off Vegas,” Rose began.

“Rose…”

“No, not acceptable. And then to not call you or return your calls. At least say fuck off or something. But just nothing. For a year.”

Harley just shook her head. “It’s fine. I got too close. He’s always had intimacy issues. I guess…”

“He’s an idiot. At least be a friend and talk about it. Bastard.”

This made Harley smile a little bit, but it didn’t last long. “That’s the last time I let someone get close.”

“You can’t let one chickenshit guy discourage you.”

“He was one of my best friends,” Harley sighed. “He knew me better than anyone, other than you. If he doesn’t want me, who will?”

Rose smiled and took Harley’s hand. “Someone who can handle the full impact of you.”

Harley finally laughed. “The full impact of me? What does that mean?”

“It means that when you love someone, you love them with an incredible force.”

“The full impact of me. Makes me sound like a Mac truck.”

Rose held up her glass in a toast. “The Mac truck of love.”

Harley clinked in return. “Not sure that’s a flattering image.”

Rose chugged the last of her wine. “Forget him. You want something to distract you?

“Other than the next two issues of the book and the three signings I have coming up? Sure. Why not?”

“A friend of mine is producing a play and needs someone to create a fantasy set. I thought it might be right up your alley.”

Harley put her wine down and thought for a minute. “A set? I’ve never done that before.”

“Good challenge for you.”

“I guess. Cuz I need more challenges in my life.”

“There’s some pay, too. It’s a pretty good company so it wouldn’t hurt your reputation.”

Harley looked over at a painting on the wall of a couple in a waltz. It’s one of her few fine art pieces. The couple bear a strong resemblance to her and Ben. She managed to catch a moment in time, the couple seeming on the verge of something. Finally, she looked back at Rose.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Great. His name is Brad Miller. I gave him your number cuz I knew you’d say yes. He’ll be giving you a call. Have fun with it, Harley. You need some fun.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Rose finished her wine and put her glass down. “Okay, as a reward, I’m taking you to the art store to buy something you would never buy yourself. I just got a bonus and I must spend it on something frivolous.”

“Okay, I’ll let you.”

Harley put her glass down and gathered her things. Her waltz painting seemed to come to life for a moment, the two dancers moving a bit apart, an air of melancholy growing between them. Then they returned to their pose, frozen in time, just a heartbeat apart.

__________________________________________________

After a couple of phone calls, Harley finally agreed to check out the theater and see about doing the set. She figured a new adventure might be just what she needed to break out of her funk.

She pulled up to the theater, a charming older building in a very artsy neighborhood.

Entering the theater itself, she found a hive of activity. Actors and crew were scattered around the black box space, all chattering and all seemed to know each other.

Brad Miller, a handsome, sharply put together man in his mid-thirties, spotted Harley and immediately made his way to her.

“You must be Harley. I’m Ben.” He extended his hand and gave her an engaging smile.

“And you must be Ben. Very nice to meet you.” As their hands touched, there was a small spark.

“So glad you could be a part of this. Rose certainly wasn’t exaggerating when she said you could paint anything. Your online portfolio is amazing.”

“Oh, well, you know, I dabble in a bit of everything.” Harley could not stop looking into his deep green eyes. For a moment, they were Ben’s eyes.

“And you have a comic book out.”

“It’s a bit of the darker side of me.”

“Well, I can’t wait to read it.” Ben noticed that everyone was waiting on him. “We’re gonna get started then. The plan for tonight is to just read through the script and start to put some ideas together of how to stage it. Did you get the script I sent you?”

“Yup. I really liked it and I’m looking forward to hearing it.”

“Great. Grab a seat and we’ll talk after.”

Brad led her over to a seat in the house before going up on stage to his own chair. He gave Harley a sweet smile as he settled in. Slow, sensuous bands of energy weave their way to Harley. She almost allowed them to reach her but they fell a bit short as she turned her attention to the script.

* * * * * * * * *

After the reading, Harley was lost in her sketchbook, not noticing that the theater was emptying out. Several people came over to say good night to her and she responded in kind. But very soon, it was just her and Brad left in the theater. He sat down quietly beside her, trying not to disturb her.

“Hope I didn’t make you wait too long,” he said softly, taking a peek at her sketches.

“Not at all,” she replied, putting her pencil down. “I’ve just been scribbling.”

Harley flipped through a few pages for Ben.  The sketches are inspired and full of movement. They were a brilliant hybrid of her graphic style combined with a stronger Art Deco edge. Angels and wings and cherubic beings littered the pages. Ben stunned.

“Wow,” he gasped, “that’s just scribbing?”

“Well, yeah,” Harley responded, blushing a bit at the compliment – and how near he was to her. “Nothing concrete yet but I have some ideas. I really liked the script and everyone was terrific. Rose didn’t tell me you were acting in this as well as producing it.”

“With small theater, it’s the only way to do it. I get to do things my way and get to do the work I want to do.”

“That’s very cool,” Harley agreed, trying not to look too closely into his eyes. “Kinda how I did my graphic novel. I made the first issue and then put it up online. It got picked up as it is, without a whole lot of interference.”

“I hate interference.”

The two looked at each other and there was definitely a connection there. Once again, his energy reached out to her but she pushed it away.

“What’s the next step?” she asked, starting to put her things away so she wouldn’t have to look at him.

“We start rehearsals next week. We open in eight. You’re welcome to come to any of the rehearsals you want, if you need inspiration. It might help if you see how things are going to be staged. Marco, our set builder, will work with you on the logistics. He can tell you what will work and what won’t. Maybe we could meet next week and you could have some preliminary ideas ready. How does that sound?”

“Sounds good.” Harley picked up her bag as Ben gathered his things.

“Excellent.” He settled his bag on his shoulder. “Let me walk you out.”

Outside the theater, Brad locked up the door as Harley tossed her bag into her car. Brad met her beside her car.

“I have to tell you,” he said, smiling broadly, “I’m so excited about this. I love that you have a background in impressionist painting yet you’re a comic book artist. How did you end up there?”

Harley laughed. “A long and winding road, I guess.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Have you always been an actor?”

Brad got serious quickly. “It’s all I ever wanted to do. I have an MFA in acting and work at it every single day.”

“When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?”

His intensity eased and he smiled sheepishly. “I guess I was six and I used to put up blankets to make a proscenium.”

As they talked, time passed without either of them noticing. Lights changed, cars streaked by, nothing but blurs of headlights and taillights. They had become instantly easy with each other, with lots of little touches and simple contact between them with no self-consciousness interfering.

Finally, Harley looked at her phone, startled at the time. “Wow. It’s really late.”

“I’m so sorry,” Brad apologized. “I hope I didn’t keep you from anything.”

“Not really. I’m a night owl anyway.”

“Me, too.”

They smiled at each other and, unexpectedly, a little bit of Brad’s energy reached out and slowly enveloped Harley. Her energy does not reach back, however. She stepped back, breaking the energy and the connection between them. “I’ll touch base with you in a couple of days, when I have something to show you.”

“I look forward to it.”

They hugged easily, like they had been friends forever, their energies finally coloring the air around them with potential.

 

Chapter 5

Ben was startled when he opened the door. Harley stood there, dressed in her own impeccably funky fabulous say. But fishnets always make any outfit better and Ben found himself a bit overwhelmed by her, for the first time. He gave her a sexy little growl because he couldn’t help himself. He was rewarded with a blush and a smile. She curtsied.

“Why, thank you, sir. Happy birthday.”

Harley handed him a bag. Ben took it and reached inside. He pulled out a very ool portrait of himself done on marker board. Harley made him look like one of her comic book characters – and maybe a little bit like James Bond, just for good measure. Scribbled on the bottom was “thank you for always rescuing me. Love, Harley”.

Ben was lost for words. Finally, he managed to croak out something. “Thank you. It’s amazing.”

Harley kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll always be my superhero.”

Ben pulled her closer and hung on longer than should have been necessary. In a romantic comedy, the kiss would come. But instead, he finally let her go, his spirit hanging on just for a beat longer.

“Let me grab my guitar and we can go.”

* * * * * * * * *

The restaurant is just perfect for Harley and Ben – unpretentious, comfort food and good whiskey. But really, nothing existed outside the two of them as they talked and laughed and shared the way two intimate souls do. The colors of their energies lit up the place, the connection visceral.

“So Vegas is still on?” Harley asked around a mouthful of food.

“Sure.”

“Good, ‘cause I have to sell a kidney to buy the plane tickets and pay for the hotel. Oh, Rose can’t go because she’s got some board meeting or something, so I have an extra bed if anyone needs it. What’s the head count now? Ten? Twelve?”

Ben smiled. “Two.”

“What?”

“Yup. Just me and you.” The colors around them burned just a bit brighter as Ben watched Harley for her reaction.

“Oh.” Harley tried to fight the smile. “I thought… Well, do you still want to go? I mean, if it’s just you and me…”

Ben put his hand over hers and squeezed. “Then it’s going to be just fine. I’ve already picked up tickets for a couple of shows.”

“How much? I’ll try to cover my end.”

“Harley, don’t worry about any of it. I know how tight things are. I’ll take care of it.”

Harley squirmed a bit. “But…”

“Sorry, I can’t hear you over the…. waitress.”

Conveniently, the waitress chose that moment to appear. She put the bill on the table, with Ben’s credit card on top of it.

“Thank you, sir. Have a good night.”

Harley grabbed the bill and card. “What? What did you do?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Ben as he slid the check back and signed the slip.

“The agreement was that I was supposed to pay since it’s your birthday.”

“And since it’s my birthday,” Ben laughed as he put the credit card away, “I choose to not accept that. You can buy me breakfast in Vegas at some point.”

“But…” Harley tried to protest.

“Let’s go.”

Ben stood up and held out his hand for Harley. She took it and as they moved through the restaurant. Ben wrapped his arm around her, pulling her closer, the energy deepening and brightening.

* * * * * * * * *

It was another nondescript, uber-hip bar where the cool and chic hang out. Or at least those who want to be. Ben and Harley walk up, his arm still around her. The bouncer nodded as they went through into the bar.

The place was so packed, conversation was almost impossible. Ben guided Harley as they fought their way to the bandstand. Many greetings went unheard over the noise, but Harley didn’t mind. Ben kept smiling at her and she was lost. The energy between them had created their own little world, their spirits no longer needed as they no longer fought their instincts.

Ben put down his guitar and his bandmates all greeted Harley over the noise. She leaned in to whisper in Ben’s ear.

“I’ll be right back.”

Ben squeezed her hand just before she walked away.

Harley wound her way through the crowd toward the bathroom, Ben’s energy trailing her all the way, leaving a winding trail of color behind. At the bathroom door, Harley turned for a moment and looked back. The crowd stood still, frozen in time, as her eyes met Ben’s. Sound, noise, lights all vanished and for one brief moment, it was just the two of them. Then Ben turned and the whole world came crashing back.

Harley went into the teeny tiny bathroom and shut the door. She looked at her reflection, which was smiling as widely as she was.

“Wow.”

She splashed some water on her face, her reflection seeming to smile more widely. She tidied herself up and then went back into the crowd.

As she reached Ben, she noticed he was talking to a whole new group of people.

“Hey,” she shouted, barely heard above the noise.

Ben smiled as she joined him and turned to the guy he was talking with. “Greg,” he began as he started to put his arm around Harley, “this is my –-“

Suddenly, everything in the room stopped as Ben looked at Harley, trying to decide how to define her. She looked hopefully up at him, her eyes full of how she felt.

But in that second, his stormy eyes became a bit colder and he pulled his arm away from her, although the ghost of it hovered. The distance between them suddenly stretched out for miles as Harley began to realize something had shifted. Even the ghost of his arm slowly evaporated, leaving her with nothing. Things snapped back to reality as Ben finished his sentence.

“—Harley. This is my – my friend, Harley.”

The guy said something but Harley didn’t hear it. She took a step closer to Ben, which he countered, keeping a safe distance between them. The shift is almost imperceptible but Harley felt it.

“I gotta get set up,” explained Ben as he left Harley standing alone in the crowd.

The rest of the evening was a blur to Harley as she watched Ben perform. The band sounded better than ever but Harley seemed singled out and alone. She tried hard to catch Ben’s gaze but he never seemed to find her. Her energy reached over the stage lights but fell flat at his feet, like a force field had been created.

* * * * * * * * *

Afterward, Ben and Harley walked quietly to their cars. The distance between them might as well have been miles.

Harley tried once more to reach out. “You sounded great tonight.”

“Thanks.”

“Great way to spend your birthday.”

Ben just nodded, not looking at her.

“You want to get something to eat?”

Ben shook his head. “I should head home.”

Harley opened her car door, turning to find Ben a million miles away. “Well…”

“Yeah.”

Harley stepped to him and they hugged, but it wasn’t the same. And they both knew it. As they stepped apart, their spirits lingered in one last long embrace.

“G’night,” Harley whispered.

“G’night,” Ben barely replied, already walking away, through the mists of their spirits.

* * * * * * * * *

Finally home, Harley came into her apartment still wrapped in confusion. She dropped her purse on the floor and sat on her bed. She grabbed her phone and dialed Ben, waiting through the voicemail.

“Hey, um, it’s me. I just wanted to say happy birthday again. Did I tell you how awesome you were tonight? So good. And dinner was great. And, um. Anyway. Talk to you soon.”

She hung up the phone, emptiness filling her apartment.

___________________________________________________________

Days later, Harley was still distracted. Sitting at her art table, trying to draw, she was spending more time staring out the window than working. Finally, she grabbed her phone and dialed Ben again.

“Hey, it’s me. I haven’t heard from you in a few days so I thought I’d see if you’re still alive. Of course, if you’re dead on your kitchen floor, you’re not gonna get this message. So please don’t be dead, on the kitchen floor or otherwise. Call me, okay? We need to talk about Vegas.”

She disconnected the call, staring back out the window.

On his end, Ben watched as Harley’s call rolled over to voicemail. Poker face, he deleted the message without listening to it.

___________________________________________________________

Back at House of Heroes, Harley tried to keep herself distracted with the kids in her class. Her energy is very low and muted, but the kids don’t seem to notice. Most of the students have cleaned up and left, leaving Phillip behind, consumed with what he’s drawing. Harley just let him draw, lost in her own thoughts.

Will walked to the back of the shop, an easy smile on his lips. But as he got closer, he felt Harley’s low energy and his smile faltered. He gently put a hand on her back, a small spark at he connected.

“Hey, Harley.”

Startled, Harley turned and for a moment, she saw Ben’s face. Then it faded and turned into Will.

“Oh, hey, Will.”

She got up and they hugged quickly, a soft shimmer around them.

“Phillip,” Harley called to her lone student.

“One sec,” he responded as only a child can.

Will laughed. “Always on his schedule.”

Will noticed Harley looking at her phone. “You don’t have to hang around.”

“What?”

“If you need to go somewhere.”

Harley, embarrassed, put her phone down. “No, it’s not that. I just… It’s nothing. I’m always glad to see you.”

“In that case,” Will stated as he pulled Harley’s comic book out of his messenger bag. “Would you have a second to sign this? I couldn’t make your signing so I’m hoping you can make an exception.” For the first time in a while, Harley smiled.

“It’ll cost you.”

“How much?”

“A drink.”

Will laughed again and Harley noticed how easily he laughed and how it lit up his blue eyes. “We keep talking about that. Okay, you’re on.”

Harley grabbed a marker and wrote “To Will. You now owe me. Harley.”

“Here you go,” she said as she handed it back to him.

“Thanks. And – “ But Phillip was suddenly standing there, yanking on Will’s sleeve.

“Okay, we can go now. Bye, Harley.” And Phillip dashed through the shop, leaving Will and Harley behind.

“Guess we’re off. Um…” Will looked at Harley, but she was again looking at her phone.

“Yeah?”

Will put the book in his bag. “Thanks for the book.”

“Sure. See you guys next week.”

They hugged again and Will gave her a cute little wink as he smiled at her. For a moment, her energy lightened significantly. But as he left, she turned her attention back to her phone.

___________________________________________________________

Days later, Harley was curled up on her bed, her face tear-stained. She gazed out the window at the moon, her small poetry book on her lap. Half of a poem was already written, the words hanging in the air around her.

I don’t want/to let you go/but I don’t know how/to make you stay.

She tried to write a few more words but nothing was coming. Instead, she let her energy go to the moon. Quietly, she shared a secret with it.

“I miss you.”

Her words drifted out the window, toward the moon, into the night.

* * * * * * * * *

In Ben’s bedroom, Ben’s eyes are closed, the light of the moon touching his still face.

Harley’s words drifted in on the moonlight, finding their way to his ear. Her whisper could barely be heard. “I miss you.”

Ben opened his eyes, tears hovering but never falling. Quietly, he answered the moon.

“I miss you, too.”

But his words barely make it out of his mouth before they disappear, heard only by the moon.

Chapter 4

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.

“Hello?”

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.”

Marty.

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.

“Yeah?”

“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.

“Tomorrow.”

“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.”

“Fine.”

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.

“Ben?”

“Yup.”

“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.

“You okay?”

“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.”

“C’mon, spill.”

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.

 

Chapter 3

Harley woke slowly, the blackout curtains keeping the morning light at bay. She looked around, confused for a moment. This wasn’t her bed. This wasn’t her bedroom. Finally, she relaxed as she realized she was in Ben’s bedroom and the memory of the night before came flooding back to her. Instead of sadness, anger drove her out of bed. She left on the t-shirt Ben had lent her and slipped into her jeans before heading downstairs to see what he was up to.

As she hit the bottom of the stairs into the living room, she spotted him and stopped.

Ben was curled up asleep on his couch, still in his clothes. He looked like a little boy, sweet and vulnerable. Harley padded quietly over to him, her energy reaching out to him. Her spirit leaned down and kissed his forehead just a beat before she did the same. Ben slowly opened his eyes, smiling sleepily as he rubbed the sleep from his eye.

“Hey, you,” he yawned, shifting a bit to make room for Harley on the couch.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“No, it’s okay. I wasn’t… okay, I was. But that’s okay.” He put his arm out and Harley snuggled underneath it.

“Thanks for letting me stay,” Harley said as she got comfortable. “I just couldn’t face that empty apartment.”

“Anything you need,” Ben assured her. “You have my extra key, so any time you want to come over and work or just hang out, you’re welcome to. I’ve got gigs all week so I’ll be out till the wee hours.”

“I appreciate it but I won’t be there much longer.”

“Offer still stands.”

“Thanks.”

Ben shifted, stretching his stiff limbs. “What’re you gonna do?”

Harley sighed. “Start looking for an apartment.”

“I do have that extra room…”

Harley laughed, giving him the space to stretch and wake up. “I don’t think it’d be a good idea. You’re one of my best friends and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Just thought I’d offer.” He finally stood up, trying to wake up. “Should we make breakfast?”

“You actually have good in your fridge?”

Ben stopped, then smiled at Harley. “Let me rephrase. Where would you like to have breakfast?”

 * * * * * * * * * * 

A short time later, Harley found herself in a new neighborhood, looking at a new apartment. The area wasn’t too bad, if you didn’t mind the gang tags or the loud mariachi music blaring from most windows.

But inside, Harley chose to ignore the noise. The apartment was actually quite nice. One large studio with a teeny kitchen, a small bathroom off to the side and that was about it. At the top of a long flight of stairs, it definitely was not as great as her current apartment, but something about the funky burgundy paint job and the big windows made Harley smile. Ben poked around but Rose kind of stood off to the side, surveying everything with a critical eye.

“It’s not bad,” Harley claimed as she opened the cupboards in the kitchnette.

“Yeah,” Rose replied sarcastically. “Think of the security. No other gang is going to kill you, just the one in this neighborhood.”

“TIffany’s lived up the street for five years and never had a problem. It’s becoming more of a family neighborhood, so it’s not as bad as you might think.”

“That’s exactly where I want you to live,” chided Rose, “somewhere that’s not as bad as I think it is.”

Ben shot Rose a critical look and Rose shut up. Harley missed it as she checked out the bathroom.

“At least this one has a tub.”

Ben laughed. “I kinda liked the one where the sink was in the shower and you couldn’t shut the door if you were on the toilet.”

“I’m still thinking about that one myself,” Harley agreed as she joined them again. Then she stopped and really looked around the place. She was quiet for a moment. “Marty would hate this place. Too small, too grungy, too… whatever.”

Ben came up and just stood thisclose to her. “All the more reason to take it.”

The reality of the situation hit Harley. “This is all I can afford right now.”

Rose framed her with Ben. “You should go after him for support. If you made him sell his books and all those collectibles, you’d be comfortable for at least a year.”

Harley shook her head. “No, it would still give him control over me and I won’t have that.”

“If that’s what you want.”

Harley stepped away from them, taking one more look around. “It is. I’m gonna take it.” Rose and Ben both give her a big hug.

“Welcome home, Harley Jackson,” Ben joked, still holding her. “Welcome home.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Slowly but surely, Harley’s new apartment came together, with much help from Rose and Ben. Unlike her other apartment, Harley began to hang her own artwork on her walls, filling the space with her unique black and white comic book style paintings. She hung a framed poster of the cover for “The Wraith of Love”, putting the finishing touch on the apartment.

With that one gesture, the ghosts of the old apartment faded away and this became home.

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

Several days later, Harley stood over Ben, watching him finish hooking up her cable and all the stuff that goes along with that. She smiled indulgently as he puttered behind and around all the wires and things.

“I could have done this you know,” Harley told Ben’s back as he plugged in the final pieces.

“C’mon, let me be manly,” he joked as he slithered out from behind the electronics. He hit the power button and the studio apartment was filled with all the wonder of cable television. “There ya go, m’lady.”

Harley curtsied. “Thank you, good sir. Much appreciated.”

Ben stuffed the cables and everything out of sight. “So what’s your plan for the evening?”

“Rose was gonna come by for a bit,” replied Harley as she grabbed a couple of glasses of wine. Ben joined her on the couch. “And then maybe work on the book. The next issue is due in a week. And I have that signing for the first issue next week.” Ben clinked glasses with her.

“I think you deserve a drink.”

Harley gestured with her glass. “Um… For what?”

“Surviving.”

“Then I should have a drink every night.” Harley’s energy collapsed down around her feet. Ben packed up his few tools, watching Harley carefully. He sat down beside her, putting his arm around her.

“You wanna come out and hear some music tonight?” he asked.

“Who’s playing?”

“I am.”

“What?”

“Chris’ guitar player broke…something.. and he asked if I’d fill in. You game?”

Instantly, Harley’s energy climbed back into her and she smiled up at Ben. “Sure. Let me call Rose and see if she wants to come, too.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The bar was one of those nondescript but very cool bars that has no sign on it but everyone seems to know it. The hip and trendy hung around outside, listening to the  music pouring out through the open door.

Inside, the place was packed and the music rocking. People danced to their own rhythm, especially one particular hippie-throwback-chick, who writhed in her own contemporary-meets-seizure style. Everyone politely made room for her and let her have her moment.

Ben, Harley and Rose elbowed their way through the crowd. Ben spotted his bandmates off to the side and, with a wave of his hand to Harley and Rose, made his way over to them. The ladies pounced on a tall table suddenly vacated and roosted there.

Rose couldn’t help but notice how many times Harley glanced over at Ben. “So, how’re things going with Ben?”

“What things?” But Harley’s blush belied her feigned ignorance.

“You two seem to be spending a lot of time together.”

“He’s been helping me out a lot, that’s all. And keeping me entertained so I don’t turn into a big weeping puddle on the floor.”

“You guys have been out together almost every night lately.”

“So?”

“I’m just saying.”

Harley looked back toward Ben. “He’s just taking care of me.”

Ben caught Harley’s look, their gaze connecting. For a moment, everything went quiet as Harley saw nothing but his stormy green eyes.

Rose broke the moment. “Uh huh.”

“Stop it.”

Rose got up from her seat. “Fine. I’m gonna get a drink.”

Rose disappeared into the crowd. Harley looked back to where Ben had been  but he was no longer there.

Suddenly, bands of energy sneaked around Harley. A hand appeared with a drink. She turned to find Ben a breath away, standing behind her, trapped there because of the crowd. She took the drink and a small shower of sparks erupted when their fingers touched. She could barely breathe with him so very close.

As his energy wrapped around her, a spirit of him did the same thing, pulling her own spirit closer while their corporeal bodies remained apart. Everything slowed as the energy intensified.

Then real time snapped back into place and their spirits vanished.

The band on stage finished their set and started packing up.

“That’s my cue,” Ben said, stepping away from her a bit.

“Knock ’em dead.”

“Absolutely.”

Harley watched him move back to the stage as Rose returned, a fruity, brightly-colored concoction in her hand.

“Harley, I swear,” Rose proclaimed as she sat down, “if you give him one more Disney princess eyelash bat, you’re going to turn into a cartoon character.”

“That’s ridiculous. He’s…”

“…one of my best friends,” Rose finished for her. “Yeah. Best friends who should fuck.”

“It’s not like that.”

But she could see it as she looked over at Ben. Something in his eyes reached back to her and she couldn’t look away, her heart in her eyes.

* * * * * * * * * *

After a great night of drinks and music, Ben finally drove Harley home. Rose had abandoned them some time earlier, claiming an early morning. But really, she just wanted to let them have their time together.

Ben pulled up to Harley’s building, gallantly getting out and opening her door for her. She laughed as he offered his hand to her and helped her out.

“Thank you, kind sir.”

“‘Tis nothing, m’lady,” he responded as he bowed deeply. His smile widened as Harley laughed again.

“And thank you for a great night.”

“Glad you had fun.”

“And you were amazing. Can’t believe you didn’t even rehearse with them.”

“I’ve filled in a few times,” Ben explained, “and I’m a big fan of their music, so it’s not that hard.”

“I couldn’t do it.”

“I think you can do more than you give yourself credit for.”

“Yeah, right.” Harley’s mood darkened, despite the pleasant company. “I can’t even manage to pay for my own drinks.”

Ben gently took her face in his hands. “You walked away from an abusive marriage, put your own life back together, started you own comic book. Yeah, that’s not doing anything.” He lifted her chin so she had to look at him. “I’m so very proud of you, if I haven’t told you that.”

Harley’s eyes filled with tears. “I couldn’t have done it without you. You caught me when I fell.”

Ben just smiled. “You didn’t need catching. You just needed someone to help you stick the landing.”

They were so close, it’s impossible not to kiss. But they don’t. Their spirits did it instead. And it was one of the best kisses ever. But only the spirits enjoy it. Finally, Ben took a step away, sending their spirits back into the ether.

“I’d better go.”

Harley had a hard time catching her breath. “Do you want to come up?”

Ben’s eye said it all – yes, please, okay, right now, oh, my god, what took so long, are we there yet? But instead, his mouth said, “Next time.” He gave her a long hug, having a hard time letting go of her at the end of it. Bands of energy trailed after him as he walked back to the car, Harley’s eyes filled with everything she couldn’t say.

At the car door, Ben stopped. Harley held her breath as he finally looked back up at her.

“What?” she asked hopefully.

The air crackled with energy and hope and potential.

Until he smiled and shook his head.

“Nothing. G’night.”

The energy sank with Harley’s heart as his car drove off into the night.

Chapter 2

“How’s your week been?”

The question came from Rose Hernandez, Harley’s heterosexual life partner and other best friend, who was helping Harley put the finishing touches on her outfit as the two prepared to hit the town for the evening.

“Pretty good. Went to karaoke with Ben the other night. Then he took me for dinner in Hollywood at that little place I’ve always wanted to try. Next week, we’re gonna try that place in Pasadena.”

Rose opened Harley’s fridge to get a bottle of wine. The only items the fridge held were pizza boxes, peanut butter and a bottle of Jameson’s.

“It’s a good thing someone’s feeding you. You live like a guy,” Rose said as she settled for a tumbler of whiskey.

“Never been a delicate flower. You know that.”

But her outfit belied that statement. Black jeans, black t-shirt and a scarlet and black scarf took Harley’s strong figure to just the right side of feminine. Rose gave her a once over before saying playfully, “I hate you.”

“Stop it. You’re gorgeous. Every guy I know wants to date you.”

Rose was definitely giving Harley a run for her money, albeit in a more on the conservative side.

“Lucky me.”

Harley laughed. “But much to their chagrin, you love Eamon.”

“I know. Just… sometimes I think I miss dating.”

“You think?”

Harley grabbed the bottle of whiskey from Rose and poured her own hefty shot.

“I think I miss the idea of it more than the actual sport of it,” Rose explained as she clinked glasses with Harley. “But I’ll get to live vicariously through you as you navigate the treacherous waters of new relationships.”

“You make it sound so enticing.”

“Seriously. I’d love to see you get out there.”

Harley took a moment to check her purse, allowing her to avoid looking at Rose. “First of all, I’m not even divorced yet. And… I’m not sure I’m done with Marty.”

Rose frowned at her best friend.

“Excuse me?”

“We’ve been talking…”

“You’ve been talking…”

A ghost of Marty materialized near Harley, his expression sweet and enticing. This is the man she fell in love with so many years ago. His ghost smiled at Harley and mouthed “I miss you,” the words floating over to Harley. “I think he misses me.”

“Let him.”

The words and the ghost faded as Rose grabbed her and made Harley look at her.

“Harley, he stopped just short of hitting you. I was always worried he would do something stupid when he was angry with you. Like accidentally push you down the stairs or hit you when he threw something.”

Harley looked over to where Marty’s ghost had been, but there was nothing there anymore. “I know.”

“He never supported you. Didn’t he even try to stop you from doing the comic book?”

“Yeah, but –“

Rose saw the hurt on Harley’s face and backed off. “I don’t want to tell you hat to do.”

Harley sat down on the Swedish chair, staring deeply into the whiskey for answers.

“I just wonder if we should try it again. He always said he would never leave me. And if I left him, he wouldn’t let me go. Maybe this is him not letting me go.”

Rose stood behind her friend, wanting to say the right thing but also not wanting to let the bullshit pass.

“Is he not letting you go because he wants to keep you, like he keeps all those books? Or is he not letting you go because he really doesn’t want to let you go?”

“I think I have to find that out.”

Rose reached over her shoulder and hugged Harley from behind as Harley struggled to hang on to her emotions.

“I never thought it would even get this far. I thought when I told him I needed some time to figure things out that he’d just give me the space to do that.”

Suddenly, ghosts of Marty floated up through the floor and the walls and the ceiling. Every shape and size, every expression. Their whole relationship filled the room.

“He was supposed to be the one, the rest of my life. And if he’s not the one, I don’t know that there’s another one out there. We were so good together.”

“Until you weren’t.” Rose’s words shattered the ghosts and sent them back from whence they came. “And that’s the problem. You’re so used to being a piece of him and not your whole self that you’re feeling lost. Don’t go back to him just because you’re feeling lost.”

“I just need to know.”

Rose moved around to kneel in front of her friend and took her hands. “You know I’ll support you no matter what you do. But if he hurts you again…”

Harley laughed. “Murder, death, mayhem. I remember the speech.”

“Good.”

Harley stood up and hugged Rose, their embrace saying everything they couldn’t.

“Now, let’s get out of this place before I feel compelled to discuss your décor – or lack thereof.”

Harley grabbed her keys and they headed to the door.

“Hey, I’m an artist, I don’t need décor.”

“Whatever.”

* * * * * * * * * 

Harley lived for the days when she taught art at House of Heroes, a very prominent comic book store. Nothing made her happier than to watch her kids draw their comic book heroes and discover the heroes within themselves. She also enjoyed listening to the dissertations of the loyal nerds who came in to argue super powers, artwork and general nonsense that made no sense to anyone outside of the geek community. House of Heroes had been her haven during her marriage and it continued to make her life complete.

Harley was keeping an eye on the time as the kids hurried to finish their work for the day.

“Okay, guys, we have to start cleaning up now.”

The kids all moaned in unison but began doing as they were told. They each brought their artwork to her for her approval.

“Who wants to share first?”

Just as seven-year-old Phillip Black joined Harley at the front of the area, his uncle, Will Black, joined the fray of parents coming to collect their kids. He and Harley exchanged familiar smiles and Will turned his attention to his nephew.

“Phillip,” Harley said, holding up his Spider-Man drawing, “what did you want to share?”

“I like my Spider-Man.”

“That’s great. What do you like about him?”

Phillip looked over to his uncle, who just encouraged him with a smile. “Ummmmmm….”

Harley caught Will’s eye and then turned to Phillip. “Well, you know what I think? I think you did a great job of finding the shapes to make Spider-Man look really cool. Does that sound good?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Excellent. Anyone else? Okay, great job today, everybody. I’ll see you next week.”

Chaos ensued as parents grabbed their kids and navigated their way through the geeks. Will joined Harley and gave her a quick, friendly hug, a warm glow surrounding the pair.

“Hey, Harley. How’re you doing?”

“Doing all right, Will. You?”

“Good. How’d he do today?”

They both turned their attention to Phillip as he packed his backpack.

“Better. His concentration was better and he managed his frustration well.”

“Great. My sister’ll be glad to hear that.”

They chatted innocuously about pencils and things that Phillip needed to make his artistic life easier. Will agreed to pick up some new supplies to help take the burden off his single-mother sister.

“You’re the best uncle ever,” Harley teased. Will got suddenly serious as he watched Harley drop her game face for a quick moment.

“You really doing okay?”

“Getting by, figuring things out. Thanks for asking.” She shifted her focus and turned it back on him. “You working on anything?”

“Got a few days shooting something next week and then some meetings on a script of mine. So things are moving along.” But his eyes had never left Harley’s face. “You let me know if you need anything.”

But with the perfect timing of a seven-year-old, Phillip ran over and grabbed Will. Will laughed. “You ready to go, buddy?”

“Been ready for a long time, Uncle Will.”

Harley and Will shared a laugh, a shimmer of energy passing between them as their eyes connected. But it only lasted a second, barely even a blip on the radar.

“Waiting on you now, Phillip. Say good-bye to Harley.”

“Bye.”

And Phillip was halfway through the store as Will turned back to Harley.

“Guess we’re outta here. See ya.”

“Have a good week. Say hi to Carol for me.”

“Will do.”

Will trailed after his nephew, Harley still smiling after them.

_______________________________________________________________________

The restaurant looked different compared to the last time she was there with Marty, which she took to be a good sign. Maybe Marty would be different as well. She studied him across the table from her – same receding hairline, same angry mouth, same beautiful brown eyes. Even though it hadn’t been very long, she felt that maybe she missed those eyes just a little bit. And the look on his face told Harley that he missed her deep hazel eyes as well. Small, tentative tendrils of energy reached across the table as the two kept the conversation light and simple.

“So she’s quitting and they’re putting another guy in her position,” Marty told Harley. “Things should be so much easier now that she’s gone.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I know how much you’ve struggled with her.”

“You were a big help through a lot of that, helping me figure out what to say to her, how to talk to her.”

“That’s what wives do…” That brought the conversation to a halt, each looking down at their plates as though that’s where the secret key to the evening lived.

Marty cleared his throat. “Did you actually get the comic book done?”

The word “actually” hits home for Harley. “Of course I did.”

“It’s just that it’s such a big thing to do by yourself.”

Harley felt herself growing smaller and smaller as Marty tried gamely to recover from his blunder. “I just wondered because it didn’t look like you could do it.”

Harley grew a bit smaller but she tried valiantly not to show it. “The first issue is coming out in a couple of weeks. Pre-orders are good, which is awesome. They want to talk about developing another one if ‘The Wraith’ does well.”

Marty just couldn’t help himself. “Do you really think it’s gonna do well?”

“Don’t you?”

“Now, don’t get touchy. It’s just that comic sales aren’t what they used to be.”

And smaller. “I’ve got a good publisher. You know that. If they’re optimistic, I’m optimistic.”

“I’m just saying that the industry is struggling…”

“Are you in ‘the industry’?”

“No, but…”

“Okay, then. Just let me and my publishers worry about the sales, okay?”

“Fine. I was just saying…”

“I got it.” Harley could no longer look at Marty, all of her optimism squashed as she tried not to disappear into her chair.

Marty covered his discomfort by charging blindly into familiar territory. “It’s a good thing I introduced you to comics.”

“You didn’t really introduce me…” Harley corrected him.

“You didn’t really read them before we got married.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Not regularly. And not the good ones.”

Harley couldn’t help herself. She laughed. “Good ones?”

Marty gave up civility at this point and reverted to exactly what Harley remembered. “You wouldn’t have found Frank Miller if it wasn’t for me showing you the ‘Sin City’ books. Those books defined your whole style.”

“Well, I don’t know about that…” Harley tried to defend herself but Marty was just louder.

“I do.”

“I did have something to do with developing my style, I think. There’s also a deco influence in there, a little Tamara DeLimpka thrown in. Some Russian propaganda…”

“Yeah, but you didn’t -” Marty never did know when to stop, Harley thought.

“Drop it, please.” Harley had almost completely disappeared. For once, Marty seemed to notice the impact he had on his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

“Anyway…” Marty couldn’t find anything else to say.

“Anyway…” Harley couldn’t either. Marty gave in and signaled for the check.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It didn’t get any easier as Marty walked Harley to her car after the disaster that was dinner. When they got to her car, Harley decided to choose to be gracious. “Thanks for dinner, Marty.”

“I just wanted… I don’t know. To see you.”

Harley weighed his words, looking into his eyes. There was no deception there, just honest emotion. She let her guard down a bit. “I wanted to see you, too.”

He stepped closer to her, slight bands of energy reaching out to her. “I thought there were things we needed to talk about.”

Harley’s energy reached back cautiously. “Me, too. Talking is good.”

For a moment, there was hope. Hope they could be what Harley remembered they could be. Hope that they could find their way back to something. Hope.

“I gave notice on the apartment,” Marty informed Harley, pulling his energy and emotion back from her like a bungie.

“The one I’m living in?”

“I figured you weren’t gonna stay there. I mean, you don’t make that much between the comic book and teaching.”

As small as Harley became in the restaurant, she suddenly returned to her normal-sized self. Maybe even a bit bigger.

“You didn’t think to talk to me about it before you did this? I was trying to find a roommate.”

“My name’s still on the lease.”

This pattern was familiar. Marty demanding and deciding and berating, Harley left to defend herself uselessly. “And I’m still living there. And I thought, eventually, we would…”

“And I filed the papers.” Marty took away all of the hope with that single sentence.

“What?” Harley could barely get the word out.

“I should have them in the next few weeks.”

“But I thought… I just needed some time. I never said I wanted a divorce.”

The distance between them might as well be miles as Marty continued. “My mother hired me a lawyer. Because I can no longer be fiscally responsible for you.”

Harley barked out a harsh laugh. “‘Fiscally respon…’ That’s how you’re gonna end this? ‘Fiscally responsible'”?

Marty just shrugged, a momentary flash of shame and sadness touching his face. But it didn’t touch Harley. She opened the car door, barely able to control her anger.

“Fine,” she snapped through clenched teeth as she got into the car. “Let me know when you get them. Or have your mama call.”

“Harley, wait…” But Marty’s plea was too late. Her taillights lit his face red and hid her face so he never saw the tears begin to fall.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ben worked through some chords on his guitar, stopping to make notes on the sheet music. His apartment would be shabby chic if it weren’t so shabby. But like a typical musician, his first consideration was for his equipment and his instruments, not trying to duplicate ideas from the Pottery Barn.

A knock on his door stopped him from his practice. Frowning, Ben checked the time and cautiously went to the door. He looked through the peephole and immediately opened the door.

His energy wrapped up Harley even before the door finished opening. His big, comforting arms wrapped her up the rest of the way.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Harley Jackson began clearing the kitchen table immediately following dinner, because that’s what one must do when one’s husband was like hers. Her tousled auburn hair kept getting in her eyes as she tried to balance everything. The room was weirdly dim, however, and the number of plates seemed to be growing, to the point where Harley could barely hold on to them. As she desperately tried to juggle the rapidly increasing number of plates, she heard a weird thrumming sound, like something large and creepy and medieval.

Suddenly, her husband, Marty Lloyd, was in front of her – dark, menacing and pissed off. You know, his usual self. He was soundlessly yelling at her, his mouth matching the rhythm of the weird noises that filled the room. Ugly bands of energy in angry colors emanating from him wrapped around her, binding her tightly.

As she tried to not let him see her flinch and as she battled to hang on to the plates, he started to grow. And grow. And grow. Very quickly, Marty was looming over her – giant, frightening and Alice in Wonderland disproportionate to her. His eyes became black and his furrowed brow was deep enough to plant crops in.

As Harley finally lost control of her delicately balanced platters, Marty’s jaw unhinged and he plunged over her, swallowing her whole.

 * * * * * * * *

 Harley woke from her dream disoriented. Echoes bounced around the bedroom as she rolled over in the bed. The other side of the bed was decidedly empty, despite the ghosts of Marty looming everywhere.

 ____________________________________________________________

Harley stood in the middle of the room from her dreams. Whispers faded in and out as she turned slowly around. Despite the space having only a few pieces of furniture left, images of the life she lived here with Marty flashed before her eyes. Where her drawing table sat was where the dining room furniture was not so long ago. The single cheap Swedish chair took the place of a couch and table and other things. So much that was once there was now gone and only their echoes remained. Echoes mixed with snippets of her life with Marty – some good and fun and just what they should be. Others, dark, mean, cruel and bordering on violent. In all of them, Harley was left alone and battered emotionally.

Harley walked to her drawing table, touching the artwork on it as though this somehow would ground her to the space. Pages of her comic book in various stages covered the table – a dark, edgy book with a noir feel to it. A copy of the comic book, “The Wraith of Love”, was on the table, featuring a cover with a woman whose face was covered by a low-slung hat and the high collar of her coat.

Marty walked into the room, breaking through the past and bringing Harley back to the present. In the light of day, Marty was just a guy – middle-aged, hairline getting higher by the day, a few pounds extra around the middle. Weak bands of dull-colored energy tried to connect to Harley but they almost short-circuited as they struggled to reach her. The once-couple stood apart in the empty, finally quiet, space.

“I’m just about done,” said Marty, as he picked up the last two boxes and left again. Harley followed him out the door, leaving the past behind them.

Outside, Marty loaded the last boxes into his car. He slammed the trunk shut harder than necessary, causing Harley to inadvertently flinch. For a moment, years of apologizes crossed his face before his usual scowl returned.

As the two stood there, trying to find the words to say after all of the words have been said, a battered Mustang pulled up across the street. Ben Christopher stepped out of the car, watching his best friend try to say good-bye to her husband. Wisely, he chose to stay by his car and give them the space they needed.

“You got everything?” Harley could barely look Marty in the eyes.

“Yup.”

“Okay.” Now it’s her energy trying to reach out to him but it fell at his feet. “I’m… I’m sorry, Marty. I just need some time to…”

“Yeah, I got it.” Marty slammed the door to the car, leaving Harley with her heart straining from her chest to go after him.

As Marty’s car pulled away, bands of warm-colored energy reached around her and wrapped her up as Ben joined her on the sidewalk.

“Hey, you,” he whispered as he put out his arms. Harley turned into his burly embrace, bursting into tears.

Back in the apartment, Ben took the chair as Harley settled on the floor near him.

“How’re you doing?” he asked as she pulled herself together.

“After ten years, I thought there’d be more.”

Ben slid off the chair to sit next to her, putting his arm around her. His gentle energy wrapped around her as she leaned her head on his shoulder.

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” Harley sighed as she looked around the almost-empty apartment. “End a bad situation, create a better one. But is this better, Ben?”

“You know what would make this better?”

Harley could only shake her head.

“Cheap Chinese.”

* * * * * * * *

It’s one of those places where you can get anything for only a buck an item. Packed and noisy, Ben and Harley were oblivious to the chaos around them as they consumed their plethora of dollar foods.

Ben gestured emphatically with his chopsticks as he talked. “That’s when I decided it would be better to get dressed and leave rather than to try to defend myself against a naked woman wielding a potato peeler.”

“Good choice,” Harley replied.

“Lesson learned. Never go home with a drunken woman during Mardi Gras.”

Ben held up his chow mein-laden chopsticks. “To lessons learned.”

“Lessons learned.”

But Harley put down her chopsticks without partaking of the chow mein goodness. Ben’s stormy green eyes watched her for a moment, trying to decide how to proceed.

“You want to talk about it?”

Harley pushed her food around on the plate before answering. “Not much to talk about. Ten years of emotional abuse. Crippling depression. Suicide attempt.”

This stopped Ben cold. “What?”

Harley was silent for a moment. Ben watched her closely, willing to wait for her to speak.

“That’s when I knew it was over. When I… well… I don’t know if suicide attempt is the correct term. Suicidal consideration, maybe. I had a very dark night about a year ago where Marty was out, left me alone. I was very depressed and lost. I took everything I had – scripts, drawings, art supplies – and divided them into piles. Things to go to the church, things to give to friends, things to throw out. I was determined to give up everything if it was going to make him happy and save our marriage.”

With perfect timing, the waitress decided to choose that moment to refill their water glasses. Harley took her time sipping the water before continuing.

“I went through the house and put together all the pills we had, intending to take them and drink them down with a big glass of that god-awful cheap whiskey he likes. But I didn’t think six five-year-old Vicodin, a half a bottle of Tylenol PM and a bottle of vitamin C would quite do the trick. And he had the car so I couldn’t even go out and buy something stronger. And all I could think about was how angry he’d be when he found me on the floor, not dead, and how he’d hold it over my head that I couldn’t even manage to kill myself properly. And god forbid if I managed to just put myself in a coma or something. I’d never hear the end of it and I’d be a captive audience as he lectured me for the rest of my life about what a failure I was. That was when I knew I had to do something. Otherwise, the next time I would do it right.”

Even with all of the people around them, there was a long silence between the two best friends. Slowly, Ben’s energy wrapped around Harley’s hand a moment before he actually did reach out for it.

“I’m glad you’re still here.”

Harley squeezed his hand back. “Me, too.”

The rest of their dinner returned to the type of intimate conversation that best friends have once the heavy stuff is out of the way. Their laughter mingled with the other noise and cacophony around them, enveloping them in the simplicity of life.

After their feast, they headed out to their cars in the parking lot. They were as close as they could be without touching. A ghostly image of Harley’s hand reached out and closed around his, but then faded away quickly.

“Well…” Harley stopped beside her car.

“Well…” Ben responded, waiting for her to unlock her door. “You gonna be okay tonight?”

“Sure. Tonight. Tomorrow night. The night after that. Cuz I have you.” Harley stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. For a moment, time stopped as their energies mingled. Finally, Harley moved away.

“G’night, darlin’.”

“G’night,” Ben said as she got into her car. He shut the door, placing his hand on the window. Harley smiled and placed her hand against his on the other side of the glass. He gave her his sweetest smile and walked away, his hand leaving a frosty imprint on the window. Harley didn’t move her hand as she watched him walk away. The impression finally faded and Harley let go of it. She finally started the car and headed home.

_____________________________________________________________

At her art table, Harley took the impressions for the night before and turned them into a blue line drawing on a comic book page. She made one last flourish and then put down her pencil, admiring her work.

She stretched and rose from the table, going to the fridge and grabbing a drink. The room was completely devoid of sound, save the sound of her own breath.

Harley sat on the rickety Swedish chair, looking around the almost-empty space. This time, no ghosts greeted her, only the blank walls. Out of the corner of her eye, a shade of Marty hovered but never quite manifested.

Overcome, Harley fought back the tears. The silence pushed against her, suffocating her.

Finally, Harley let out a deep breath and the silence broke, bringing back the gentle sounds of the world around her. Pulling herself together, Harley moved back to her drawing table and put aside the page she was working on, pulling out a clean layout board. She put her head down and began to draw again.

The light in the room grew darker as Harley drew, finally lost in her art. She reached out instinctively and turned on the light without missing a beat. Finally, as the night was almost ready to give way to the morning, Harley put down her pencil and got up. Shaking out the stiffness of sitting for so long, Harley made her way to the bedroom.

After getting into her pajamas, Harley sat on the bed, grabbing a small notebook off the barren nightstand. She flipped through a few pages, re-reading some of the handwritten poetry inside. She settled against the headboard, taking a fountain pen off the stand and thought for a moment. Once again, the emptiness of the room and the sound of silence consumed her. She put a hand on the empty side of the bed, and for a moment, the sheets seemed to take on the shape of Marty, his back to her, almost breathing. But then the sheets went back to being sheets and Harley was once again alone in the bed.

She finally put pen to page and as she wrote, the words floated around her head, taking on a life of their own. “I grieve for/the life I’ve left/behind/that could have been/but wasn’t.”

A chime from her iPad startled her. She put down the book and pen and checked her email on her iPad. It was from Marty.

“How are you? I was just thinking about you. Found a few things of yours. Thought maybe we could get together so I could get them back to you. And maybe we could talk.”

Harley studied the email for a moment, long enough for the screensaver to turn the screen dark. Instead of answering it, Harley returned to her poetry, filling the air with her words