At the end of the last track, the record spun continuously on its turntable, silent but for a faint, almost negligible hissing. Over the sound of her own laboured breathing, it was barely there, barely a sound at all. But what had been playing on the old vinyl record earlier – that had disturbed Bénédicte deeply. Round and round, the LP had spun, emitting the same hysterical laughter, over and over, the sound of it high and garish, almost painful, as it struck off walls and reverberated around the room she was imprisoned in, her wrists bound together with a heavy nylon rope, knotted painfully tight; her mouth left free, ungagged, as though whoever it was who’d taken her, who’d holed her up in here, intended on holding a conversation with her.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end at the thought. She didn’t consider herself to be in any way cracked or insane right now, but if she ever made it out of this alive, she had a strong suspicion that she’d never be the same again.
Yesterday, the thought would have brought tears to her eyes, but now she blinked them back for fear that whoever was holding her captive here, tied up like she was, may just find provocation in her anguish, in her tears, and lash out.
She didn’t want that. She didn’t want that at all.
She wanted to live.
The single bare bulb overheat began to fuzz oddly and Bénédicte became afraid that it might break and shower her with glass, and then she became afraid of something else, too – darkness – suddenly, deathly afraid. What if the last thing she saw before the end was nothing, just darkness? What if she died in abject fear and there was not a single comforting thing to cling to for those last few seconds, those last doomed heartbeats? What if, at the moment that she finally died, she found she could not recall the colour of the world, of light? The warmth of it?
She did not want to die!
Goosebumps peppered her skin and her breathing seemed unnaturally heavy, so very loud, the smell of old dust overbearing, as thoughts hurtled through her mind at breakneck speed, each more terrifying than the last. And then the light failed–
And darkness swallowed her live, whole.
* * *
Traffic shuffled steadily by on the road outside the familiar little café, the choking fumes of passing vehicles banished by sweet, burning incense. Bénédicte and Lauriane sat at their usual table beside the window, the early morning light falling just so upon Bénédicte’s warm cheeks and upturned nose. Bénédicte, relaying the details of her dream to her longest, most cherished friend, her voice trembling a little on the ending, sighed slightly, clasping her glass more tightly in her small, slender hands.
Lauriane, true to her nature, beheld a natural confidence, and so just smiled, so sure that everything would work itself out in the end, everything for the best, in the end. She wore her neat blonde hair pulled up into a stylish, simple updo, secured with a large, antique brooch, and the picture she presented was both stunning and cool, but when she looked into Bénédicte’s earthy brown eyes and placed her warm hand over hers, the ice just melted right out of her guarded blue eyes. “Ma cher,” she purred softly, ever so gently, “you must desist from this habit.” A smile quirked her tart, red lips. “You are always looking for the negative, darling; never looking for the positive. You must laugh, ma cher. Laugh at these hurtful things, make them stand back and see you. Why are you laughing for, lady? Are you acting a crazy woman? You must give them pause, and then you make your escape, you decide your own fate, darling. Do you see? You are always looking for the negative, but you must not only see those bad things; you must not only look for those things which conspire to bring you down. You must believe there will be good times, and there will be things that bring you up, that make life so worthwhile, so good. Yes, darling; you understand?”
Bénédicte’s lips trembled when she sucked in a small breath, but she shrugged her shoulders, sighing softly. “It was just a dream, Lauriane,” she told her friend. She laughed a short, brash laugh. “Yeah, I’m over it. It’s done, it’s gone. Today’s a new day, eh?” She laughed a bit more, gathering strength to herself as she took in the deep, strong sound. Yeah, it was just a dream. Hadn’t meant anything particular. Just a dream.
Lauriane took her hands from hers, reaching for her own cup, sipping her hot black coffee shortly. “A dream is never just… ‘Ah, pff! A dream!’ ” Lauriane told her, surveying her with cool, sure eyes. “There is always some quiet meaning; possibilité, it is deeply hidden, but it is always there, non?” She nodded, smiling jubilantly. “Argh! Yes, the meaning! What can it be, ma cher? I see that you wonder. You like to know, also.”
Bénédicte shook her head, dislodging locks of wavy auburn hair tucked safely over her shoulder and sending them spilling down about her warm, red winter coat. She held up her hands, palms out. “I don’t want to know! Listen, I’m telling the honest truth! I don’t want to know, Lauriane. It just darned chilled me to the bone – but I don’t want to know!”
“A girl cannot help but be curious, Bénédicte,” Lauriane said, smiling back at her devilishly, her eyes sparkling. “It is our nature.”
“Well, I’m not curious!” Bénédicte replied adamantly. She was just pleased that the dream – or should that have been nightmare? – was over; just glad to be here, in this little café, with her most favourite person in the world, her best friend, someone who made her feel good. Even the little glimmer of inquisitiveness in Lauriane’s blue, blue eyes brightened up her day today.
She took a little sip of her latte and laughed, the sound strong and true, defiant. Yeah, she was done with that silly dream. She was done with fearing the darkness, and somehow craving it all the same. She had the morning, she had her friend, she had these good things – she didn’t need the bad things to remind her of all she had, it was all right here before her eyes. She could see very clearly what she had, and she knew how lucky she was to have it. She did cherish it.
Right now, as she sipped her latte, she cherished the familiar, easy taste, delightful, in its way. If her dark dream had meant to remind her of all she had, all she stood to lose, it had certainly done that. She saw the good things in her life and she meant to take good care of them.
“Look, I understand what you’re getting at, Lauriane. And I do! I do see the positives.” She waved a hand expansively, indicating this table they were sitting at, they two, and the whole of the little café, the funny, busy street, this whole world. “I get it! I just–” She shook her head, eyes bright. “I’m probably just restless. I’ve got to start running again. I’ll go for a walk before bed, slowly work up to running again. I can do that. If it’ll keep the bad dreams away, I can do that. And, hey,” she laughed, shrugging, “it won’t be hurting the figure, either!”
Lauriane nodded properly, her eyes shining with friendly support. It would not hurt at all.
Bénédicte let out a short sigh. Oh boy, she was glad that little hurdle was behind them now. That awful dream had had her worrying herself over it from the moment she’d opened up her eyes this morning and rolled out of bed. Now that she knew what the problem had been, or had a fair inkling, at the least, she felt much relieved.
She could get back to being herself and living her life, and enjoying spending time with good people, her friends.
The day was just blossoming, and just because it was cold now didn’t mean it wouldn’t, couldn’t, be a good one, a beautiful, vibrant one.
She had faith that it would all work out all right in the end, as Lauriane had earlier said.
She waved her hands, shushing. “Go, go,” she said, speaking more loudly, her tone surer. “You’ll be late for work.”
“I am never late for work!” Lauriane denied vehemently, but stood, collecting up her trendy shoulder purse from the back of her chair, and smiled. She stopped to drop a kiss on Bénédicte’s cheek as she walked to the door.
Bénédicte waved her off, playing up the cute factor. Sure, never late. She could believe it, too. If she’d been braver, she’d have stalled for time, found some way to hold her friend up, just to prove her wrong. Nobody was always on time for work – or always on time for anything, come to that. But somehow, she sensed how petty that would be, in the end. Lauriane’s job was important; much more so than her boring, old office job, she suspected.
If only she’d had such an important, exciting job!
She stifled a sigh. Well, she wasn’t doing so badly, she thought. Her job wasn’t that awful, and it was a job. It paid the bills – and for those helpful little extras, too. She could whine and pick-pick-pick all she liked, but she loved her little extras dearly. And she wasn’t very sure she’d be able to handle the speculations of Lauriane’s job description, anyway. She admired and respected her friend tremendously, but one thing she’d never truly understand was her choice of career.
They’d been friends forever, they’d gone to all the same schools growing up – save for that one year Bénédicte had spent in the U.S. on a student exchange program – and still, Lauriane had chosen a life of enforcing the law. With her stylish good looks that came naturally, and her cool thinking and temper, Lauriane could’ve done anything, could’ve been anything.
Thinking about it, Bénédicte was actually quite glad to have her boring, old office job. Yup.
And she was a little proud, a little glad, Lauriane was the one who’d always be there to protect her and uphold her rights and those of all the good citizens of fair Paris.
* * *
After a hard day’s work sadly featuring a distinct lack of natural light, crammed into an unappealing cubicle with only the fluorescent glare of her computer screen for company, the jangle of an incoming telephone call that frayed on her nerves, Bénédicte was looking forward to relaxing at home, maybe kicking back with a good crime novel and a couple glasses of affordable, palatable red wine. As she waited for the lift, she contemplated the best time to take her evening walk.
Hearing her name, she turned away from the lift doors which she’d been staring at intently, barely seeing them at all, lost to her musings. She smiled, seeing who it was who’d called out to her. Alain was a funny, easygoing guy who worked in the same office as her. They got along just fine, most days. He was really quite funny, and never offensive with it, the way some others were. She actually thought he was a good guy. But right now his eyes held a strange, almost nervy look she’d never seen in them before. She felt unaccountably uncomfortable, she felt like fidgeting with something, anything close enough at hand, like looking away.
She had no idea why.
And then Alain shrugged, trying his hardest to make it appear casual and cool, and forced out the requisite words, “So, I was thinking, maybe you and I could go out for coffee sometime, Bénédicte?”
Her eyes widened slightly but she forced herself not to stare, not to gape, slack-jawed, at her obviously nervous co-worker. She didn’t feel much like going for coffee with him, yet she couldn’t bring herself to just blow him off completely. He’d always been more than wonderful with her. And she also couldn’t see herself opening her heart to him and just spilling it all, explaining that after her most recent breakup she had no desire whatsoever to date again so soon, to plunge back into that pit of vipers and suffocating expectation.
Her skin prickled uncomfortably and she felt very much like bolting, like forgetting about the lift altogether and just running – but that would be unaccountably cruel – so she returned his nervous smile and nodded her head. “Sure, Alain. I’ll just jot down my number for you here,” she lowered her eyes from his to rummage in her handbag with badly shaking hands, hoping he wouldn’t notice if she just kept smiling, and finally came up with a pad and pen, “so you can contact me with a time that’ll suit both of us.” She scribbled down her mobile phone number, ripped off the small page, and handed him the note, still smiling. She knew he was going to see his mother tonight; she was sick and had been hospitalised a couple months back. Bénédicte really felt for him. She couldn’t have just turned him down flat.
Her heart thudded loudly, painfully in her chest, as she watched him take her note and fold it, patting his hand against his leg nervously, or perhaps in farewell, offering her a thankful, boyish grin.
She laughed spontaneously, scarcely believing herself of such gaiety under such pressure, and waved. “Good night, Alain.”
“Thank you, thank you – and do… do have a good night, Bénédicte!” he all but pleaded with her, his eyes bright and beseeching.
She nodded good-naturedly. She knew he meant well. She would try her very best unto that ends. She watched him drift back, swaying vaguely in retreat, and a bubble of nervous laughter burst out of her throat. She clapped a hand over her mouth, wetness glimmering in her eyes. Oh! Oh, how silly! They’d shared the same lift for as long as she’d worked here and tonight was no different. Where was he going, the silly thing?
She laughed harder, waving him over, and told him, through tearful eyes, “Come; come back here, darling. We’ll wait for the lift together.”
* * *
Outside, in the cool evening air, the heat in her cheeks positively burning, Bénédicte thought about ringing Lauriane. Lauriane was her very best friend, her confidante, the one person she trusted implicitly in this world. When she’d broken up with Guy, Lauriane had been there to offer a good, strong shoulder to cry on, a comforting embrace. Lauriane hadn’t judged her, hadn’t tried to analyse the relationship to death and pick out all the instances she’d messed up, all the things she’d done wrong.
After Guy, Bénédicte had made a promise to herself. She’d promised herself that when she got to a place where she was comfortable just being herself, she wouldn’t push herself too hard, she’d just enjoy life. Lauriane had been there for her when she’d been right down, she’d seen her at her very worst, and she’d loved her in spite of it; she’d appreciated her, loved her, all the more. Bénédicte was so very glad to have such a great friend, and she was also aware that truly great friendships didn’t just happen, they grew. You had to work on them. And if she wanted to keep Lauriane, she would have to put something into the friendship also, would have to give something back to the cause.
Right now, she was focussing on that. She was okay without a man. She couldn’t fathom what had earnestly possessed her to give Alain any impression as to otherwise. It was mean, terrible – and she’d feel just as terrible when she had to sit down and have that conversation with him, when she had to tell him honestly she wasn’t looking to find a man. She was where she wanted to be now, right where she wanted to be.
She was happy.
She shook her head vehemently. No. No. Lauriane had been good, so good to her, but she couldn’t just call Lauriane up and gush her woes out to her whenever she felt blue. Lauriane had her own life, her own worries. She would only be dampening her friend’s mood, and if Lauriane’s work wasn’t enough to do that already, Bénédicte was determined that she would not be, either.
It was a small matter, really. She could handle this herself.
She would have to.
* * *
The walk had helped calm her nerves some, had tired out her muscles very nicely, until she closed her front door on the dark, chilly night and found the walls of her familiar, homely apartment suddenly too close, too restrictive.
She found it hard to get to sleep that night, her mind heavy with thoughts of Alain and his sickly mother, thoughts of Lauriane working long into the night, alone.
When she finally drifted off, she dreamt of suffocating, hopeless darkness. She was back in the darkened room, alone but for the sound of her own frightened breathing. Even the grainy hiss of the record seemed to have quietened, as though suddenly stilled, without power. She started to panic, to truly panic. She thought suddenly that she could die here, in this room, black as tar, she could die all alone. Tears she was helpless to stop flowed from her eyes. She was alone now. Truly alone. It wouldn’t happen now, it wouldn’t happen quickly, but she would die. In the end, she would die.
As despair took hold of her, flowing as easily into her being as the darkness had into her thoughts, into every distant corner of her mind, she heard a sound. Soft, so soft.
Someone at the door.
She woke drenched in sweat, her heart beating furiously fast and shaking all over.
Damn that dream!
* * *
Bénédicte didn’t feel up to sharing the details of her dream with Lauriane that morning; Lauriane couldn’t stay long, she was giving evidence in a court case across town and she absolutely couldn’t be late. Bénédicte sipped her latte silently, soaking in the comforting sounds and scents, mentally preparing herself for when she would have to face Alain later. When she would have to tell him straight; she wouldn’t be able to go out with him for coffee.
She wished, more than anything, for Lauriane to sense her quietness, to sense her deep unease and make comment, but Lauriane’s mind was preoccupied with thoughts of her upcoming court appearance. As she watched her hurry away, sensible dress shoes clacking dully, Bénédicte ached for her friend’s comforting arms, ached to let her tears spill down her face and feel no shame, in the warm, soft arms of someone she loved and trusted.
She ached for Lauriane to turn and offer her a smile, the tiniest of smiles, over her shoulder. To silently say: You know, kiddo, it’ll all be okay.
But Lauriane did not turn.
Bénédicte left the cooling, fragrant remains of her latte and stood on shaky legs, wandering out of the café soon after, her mind abuzz with heavy, depressing thoughts.
* * *
Bénédicte did not see Alain that morning in the office, unease gnawing painfully at her stomach, and when she heard someone say his mother had passed away last night, her eyes filled with hot tears. Oh, how awful she was! How horrible! And now his mother was dead.
She buried her head in her hands for many long minutes, trying her best to fend off the tears fighting to break free from her eyes and rollick happily down her cheeks. The weather report on the evening news had promised cloudy skies but no rain. She hadn’t worn her waterproof mascara. If she broke down, if she let just one tiny tear free, she’d come out the other end looking truly horrific! She’d scare people.
She took slow, steady breaths to calm herself, and then, quietly, swiftly, it struck her that keeping up appearances had suddenly become more important to her than caring for those who cared about her, and her breath froze in her chest, her heart turning to ice.
Oh, oh God!
Her delicate veneer cracked, at last, and tears flooded her face in torrents, soaking through her fingers when she dropped her face hopelessly into her fiercely trembling hands.
Why hadn’t Alain called her? If he’d thought to do something to himself, to hurt–
Across the room, a terrified scream wrenched from a throat, sending the entire office into uproar. There’d been an explosion at the courthouse, a suspected bombing, they were saying on the news.
All thoughts of Alain and his deceased mother evaporated clean out of Bénédicte’s thoughts – that was the courthouse Lauriane had said she’d be attending for the court case! Bénédicte leapt to her feet, no longer caring about how she must look, or the terrifying sight she would present, and ran. Just ran.
* * *
“I am sorry, madame, but you cannot–”
Bénédicte hardly heard the man’s protests, all she felt was his hands on her arms, holding her back, and it was almost too much to bear. She was here, but she couldn’t get through. Lauriane could be injured, dying even, and she couldn’t get to her, couldn’t comfort her. She needed to know! She just needed to kn–
“It’s all right, Jean-Pierre…” a familiar voice spoke, loud and clear over the hubbub of panic and desperation, of milling, anguished people, and Bénédicte’s heart skipped a beat.
She was alive, unharmed!
Bénédicte’s heart sung out in joy and she moved instinctively towards the voice, as though blind, and so very relieved, and then she was wrapped tightly in Lauriane’s comforting arms, surrounded by the familiar scent of cinnamon.
She snuggled closer to Lauriane, drinking in her solid warmth, her life, and closed her eyes. If she just existed in this moment, here, now, with Lauriane, she didn’t have to think about almost losing her best friend, she didn’t have to hear the screams, the sobs, she didn’t have to catch the scent of burning and destruction floating on the breeze. It was just her and Lauriane; Lauriane, safe. Safe and warm, so, so warm.
Lauriane rubbed her back comfortingly, speaking in soft tones. “Darling, I am fine. You see. I am fine. I am happy to see you. I am so happy to see you. But I must leave you. Soon, Bénédicte. I must return to work, ma cher.”
Bénédicte allowed herself a single moment more, a single moment more to be in Lauriane’s arms, just, safe, and blinked open her eyes, gazing back into Lauriane’s watery blue eyes. Her fair hair was no longer sunny and full of life, her skin was smeared with soot, her cheeks grey. Lauriane touched her cheek, delicately. “Please do not worry for me, darling.”
Bénédicte felt a tight fist lodge itself in her throat, her chest panging painfully. Lauriane’s sooty fingers softly caressing her cheek felt so good. She didn’t want Lauriane to go; she was afraid she wouldn’t see her again, worried something bad would happen, if she left. She gazed up into Lauriane’s sure, steady blue gaze.
“It will be okay,” Lauriane told her feelingly, and Bénédicte felt her heart slowly breaking. If it was not, she didn’t know what she’d do. She didn’t know how she’d ever–
Lauriane’s fingers trailed down her cheek to cup her chin, lifting it lightly. Bénédicte’s thoughts scattered, floating away with the breeze. Her heart felt too light in her chest, and suddenly warm, so warm, as if she’d just swallowed a star, or the sun.
Lauriane’s face came closer and she captured Bénédicte’s mouth with her own, kissing her tenderly, and suddenly everything made sense. Like a flower blooming for the very first time, Bénédicte’s mind flew open and understanding rushed in, sensation, warm and sweet as honey, filled her to the brim. Lauriane found her hand and held onto it, intertwining their fingers.
And then Lauriane had gone, Bénédicte’s hand falling back to her side, cold and alone.
Slowly, her lips still tingling from Lauriane’s gentle kiss, certain that her cheeks were glowing with warmth the way her whole body was, zinging with a new, exciting vibration, Bénédicte turned and walked away.
Suddenly, it all made sense. The dream, the terror of the darkness, of being so blind, of never seeing, the desperation, the hollow feeling inside, the sound at the door that had frightened her so badly – it was Lauriane, it was always Lauriane. Lauriane, come to save her!
And all she had to do was open her heart, finally stop being afraid.
She smiled, a cool breeze ruffling her auburn hair, bright in the midday sun. The clouds had blown away and the sky was a dazzling, brilliant blue. As she walked, Bénédicte thought she’d never been more happy to know the weather report had been wrong, she’d never been more happy to see clear skies.
It was all so unexpected, but so very welcome, she realised.
With Lauriane, the winding path through life would be worth it. The tears and heartache, the smiles and joyful moments, would all be worth it. And if the skies got cloudy and the wind blew up, strong and cold as ice, she’d always have Lauriane’s arms to keep her warm, to keep her grounded, she’d always have Lauriane’s eyes to remind her of the beauty of clear skies, the beauty of love and unshakeable friendship.
Sensing someone approaching the table, Bénédicte lifted her gaze expectantly, hoping to see the waiter with her morning latte, and found Lauriane standing there instead, smiling broadly.
Bénédicte raised an eyebrow. “Good morning,” she greeted warmly, wondering why Lauriane hadn’t already taken a seat across the table. Once she’d realised that Lauriane would be late this morning, most likely tied up with the explosion at the courthouse yesterday in which, thankfully, nobody had been killed or seriously injured, she’d ordered her usual black coffee for her, no fuss.
“Good morning, darling,” Lauriane returned sweetly, making no move to sit.
Bénédicte crossed her arms over her chest, her brows wrinkling in a frown, and just then, Lauriane took a big bunch of red tulips from behind her back and presented them to her, grinning like a fool.
Bénédicte was genuine taken aback, and slightly stumped. She blushed. Tulips were her very favourite flower.
“For you, ma cher – for our first date!” Lauriane laughed. Her eyes twinkled beautifully.
Bénédicte stared at her for a long moment, her lips slowly curving up into a smile. She leapt up out of her chair, launching herself at Lauriane, so very incredibly happy. She flung her arms around Lauriane’s neck and pulled her close, inhaling the delicious scent of cinnamon, her heart hammering softly, delightfully, in her chest. “You don’t have to bring me flowers,” she breathed, close to her ear, “just bring yourself – and your delicious kisses.”Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in