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tagRomanceThe Six Feet Between Us

The Six Feet Between Us

byjoeyjax©

Author's Note: I had originally planned on submitting this story to the Love the Ones You're With story contest, but life happened and I didn't finish it in time. But here we finally are: the story has been finished!

Many thanks to 29wordsforsnow, Anahiya, and YDB95 for your beta-reading/editing efforts. The story is so much better for your insights and I'm very grateful.

And without further adieu, on to the story!

THE SIX FEET BETWEEN US


For the longest time, I felt as though I'd lived but a small portion of my actual breathing life—The Middle, as it were.

Most nights as a child, I'd lie awake in bed staring at the ceiling and wondering if a 'tolerable' life was worth aspiring to, and if it wasn't, what was I waiting for? Perhaps, I should just cut to the chase and put myself out of my misery. Of course, I'm telling you this story, which means that I didn't, and I'm glad I persevered. But such was my life before The Middle.

After The Middle, was another miserable period, nearly as wretched as The Before, just in a different way. In The After I watched helplessly while the poorest excuse for a life form threatened to take away all that mattered most to me—what matters most to all of us, I imagine—life, freedom, and the prospect of love. It was a cruel time.

Ah, but The Middle. I learned how to live in that beautiful Middle!

I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. Many of the best things in life are middle things—like the heart of a story between the covers of a book and the creamy white filling of an Oreo cookie. And without my own Middle, I might have breathed the last bit of air for my allotted years on earth and checked all the boxes of a typical human life, only to disappear silently at the end, having never truly lived at all.

THE BEFORE


It should go without saying that I was born in The Before. I breathed for the first time. I cried and pooped my diaper. I learned to crawl and walk and say my first words. Don't remember any of it.

I grew to a toddler and then a small child and remember none of that, either—except those memories with a photograph attached to them. The photos never seemed authentic, though—more like counterfeit replicas of someone else's memories. Someone else's childhood.

Of course, the boy in those pictures had to be me—I couldn't possibly deny it. But whoever said 'the camera never lies' has never taken part in a family photo, have they? The kind where Mom declares the need for a holiday propaganda photo and every smile is coerced with a "Smile... or else!" threat from a maternal tyrant. And while no one wanted to find out what 'or else' meant, how could she expect the end result be anything but a forgery? The photos felt like that—photographic lies.

To this day, most of those snapshots merely trigger the sparks of memories—like when you strike the back side of a knife blade against a flint rock and the tiny flash of light teases the possibility that fire could follow. But a spark is not a flame, and I sensed these pictures only hinted at how life could have been—how it might have been—not necessarily how it was.

The sparks themselves were only kept alive by reinforced storytelling, when my mother would pull out the shoeboxes, spread their contents on the floor, and explain the still-life images into the night until one or both of us fell asleep. It was always just the two of us and she would ask, repeatedly, if I remembered any of it. I never did, but she never stopped trying to fan those embers.

When the shoeboxes came out, my father would conveniently disappear, just like he did in the photographs. And when he did, he always took a particular shoebox with him—the one with a giraffe sticker on it.

I suppose those memories, or at least the stories of them, were my 'good old days.' I'm glad I have them. They just never seemed real.

++++++++++


Then I became a pre-teen. Hated it.

It didn't help that I was, and I suppose still am, a military brat—dragged all over the country, never staying in one house, town or even state, long enough to set down roots. I was once 'the new kid' three times in one school year. Let that sink in for a moment.

It also didn't help that I loathed my father, and the constant moving was the least of the reasons why. Far more significant was his heavy hand that frequently met my cheek, followed by him crying like a child, begging forgiveness, and then heading to the bar. (That sequence of events, by the way, was 'an episode' according to Mom. And just like on television, there seemed to be a new one every week.) And yet, even that wasn't the worst of the reasons. No, the ignoble 'top' spot was reserved for one simple fact: he hated me first. The kicker was that I didn't even know why, though my father swore I did and he'd 'be happy to remind' me, if it weren't for my mom.

The wandering with no sense of home was one thing and the bruises quite another. But seeing that he couldn't look at me without a glare was a wound far deeper. Fathers should love their children. Period. Mine could barely tolerate me.

I suspect certain fates from those formative years are forever inescapable—like a stellar black hole that swallows its own light. And no matter how much longer I have breath in my lungs, I might never escape the gravity of that early emotional damage.

++++++++++


I lived to be a teenager so, of course, I hated that, too. Though, at least by then, the 'episodes' waned and I slowly learned to stop fearing the man.

Eventually, there was college and things got more interesting. Not extraordinarily better, mind you—just different.

I discovered a proclivity for math and a fondness for puzzles, a peculiar hobby by most college students' standards, but at least I had something. The best part was that I could do them alone. Sudoku and logic problems became my go-to's for recreation. They occupied nearly all of my non-study time while my classmates engaged in more 'edgy' activities, like parties and drinking and sleeping around.

I did try, once, to fit in with the crowd.

Shortly into my freshman year, I was invited to a late-night pool party at a frat house, but I chickened out and left when I smelled the chlorine and saw the blue-lighted water. Mom swore I'd been a good swimmer at one point, but that just sounded like one more of her fabrications. To this day, water freaks me out. I never went back to that frat house or to any other party.

While my classmates poured shots, I poured myself into my studies until eventually, without any fanfare, I graduated with honors. No one in my family attended my graduation, not that it mattered. I didn't go, either.

I received my degree via the mail the same day my first student loan payment was due. I stared at it, studied it, and felt its weight. They printed my name on it, in fancy letters on fancy paper with the fancy seal of the University embossed to make it look extra fancy. They probably even used fancy ink. But I couldn't decide which it resembled more—a memento or an invoice.

While I felt good about what I'd accomplished and the things I'd learned, I worried about what was left-out of my fancy education—so many things they neglected to teach me.

Friendship? A foreign concept.

Community? Just an overused word.

People use certain words way too much, you know. And like any other living thing, words can only handle so much. Suffering too much abuse, their 'reason-to-be' wanes until there's nothing left but syllables of dust. Words like 'community' or 'soon' or 'do you have enough room for your father and I to visit?' Once they've lost their meaning, you can no longer grasp them. They just sift through your fingers like fine-grained sand.

And Love? Ha! Well, that was just something people dreamed about, not all that different from winning the lottery. Of course, that didn't stop me from still trying... the lottery, that is.

With my first real job, I found my latest 'hometown.' I'd lost count how many times I'd moved by then, but it had to be near thirty. This time, at least, I did all the packing and moving by myself and for only myself. It would be a stretch to say I enjoyed the process, but the efficiency of it was refreshing.

Like my graduation, there was no fanfare when I bought my first home—a quaint Tudor Revival house from the 1930s, all-brick with doorways and windows trimmed with stone. Its steeply pitched gable roof and fancy chimney pots reminded me of a gingerbread house.

I hoped it was the kind of home a future bride could see herself living in—not that there was much reason to expect to find her any time soon. Don't you typically need to have a girlfriend first? And before that, maybe some friends? How about just one? I couldn't even justify an open house since I had literally no one to invite.

Still, even if I ended up hating my new 'hometown,' I was tired of the vagabond lifestyle I'd grown up with. I was planting my roots, dammit! Or attempting to, anyway. With my hopes set high, I set out to untangle life's mysteries, one at a time—like 'How to fall in love' and 'How to make a friend' and 'How to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.'

All things my expensive college education did nothing to prepare me for. So, yes, I googled them. No, I'm not kidding.

A GIRL NAMED RAY


How to make a grilled cheese sandwich? 432,000 results.

How to make a friend? 202,000,000 results.

How to meet a girl? 5,190,000 results.

Based on these preliminary findings, there was a significantly smaller body of knowledge on how to make a grilled cheese sandwich than a friend. Clearly, the higher the number of Google hits, the more difficult the task. Just like that, a crude working theorem was formed.

It followed, I surmised, that the degree of difficulty for meeting a girl must lie somewhere between grilled cheese and friendship. This also seemed plausible and I doubted my university professors would argue the assertion too strongly.

In case you're curious...

How to live on Mars? 1,140,000 results.

Now that was indeed disconcerting. So, falling in love could be five times more difficult than learning to live on Mars? I hoped my theorem was wrong.

The day I moved in, I had just enough kitchen utensils unpacked to attempt a first meal, but no food. And so, my quest to solve the first great riddle of life was afoot.

Like Shackleton or Columbus, I left the comforts of home to chart a new course, explore new lands, and return with a bounty. The goal? All of the ingredients for the perfect grilled cheese!

I set off by foot in the direction of the main road, where I'd passed several storefronts on my way in. The first shop I came to was a swimming pool sales and service shop with an 'Opening Soon' sign in the window. Ha! Wouldn't be needing that—ever.

Next door to that, and still in the same building, was a consignment shop. Meh. It wasn't my thing. Besides, I was on a mission.

The last shop in the building showed some promise. Its front door was set diagonally at the corner of the building, so that it faced both my little side street and the main four-lane road. The windows were caged with wrought-iron bars and the glass so dusty you could hardly see in. But a neon Lotto sign convinced me—I had a small grocery not even fifty yards from my house!

The first thing I saw upon entering the store resembled a plexiglass zoo exhibit—its one captive, a sad-looking human female, sitting alone on a barstool by the cash register. She wore a hand-knitted cap over wavy brown hair that escaped from the bottom. Her bangs were squished flat against her forehead, almost, but not quite, hiding her eyes.

She was alternately swiping and typing on her cellphone behind the three clear walls with a cutout at the counter. She looked bored out of her mind.

My first thought was She's cute—my second, Where's the cheese? I picked up a half-loaf of generic white bread, some no-name butter sticks, and a package of 'pasteurized processed cheese food' and set them all on the counter.

"Oh wait, I forgot something!" I exclaimed, though there was actually no need, since she hadn't even acknowledged my existence yet. I returned a moment later with a gallon jug of lemonade.

She finally looked up and I was struck right away by how pretty she was—a cute button nose, freckles on her cheeks and hazel colored eyes that reminded me of a highly polished semiprecious stone.

"All set?" she asked.

"Um, yeah, I suppose," I answered without much conviction, as I tried to think if there was anything else I'd need, while also trying not to stare.

"Hot dinner date?" she quipped after setting her phone down and seeing what I was buying.

"Um, no. Just me."

"Wow, that's kinda arrogant," she replied flatly, but with the tiniest hint of a grin.

"Huh?" Her response confused me.

"Never mind," she said curtly, clearly disappointed I hadn't joined in her banter.

"Oh! Now I get it!" I blurted, when her joke finally registered. I chuckled nervously. "And no, I'm nobody's 'hot date' either."

"Hm," she mumbled as she ran my debit card and reached it to me. "Well, good luck, Mister..." She quickly pulled the card back to read it, "Durant."

"Oh god, no, please. It's just Paul." This time she let me have my card back. "Thanks, uh..."

She could tell I was trying to read the nametag she had attached to her blouse. She pulled it away from her chest so I could read it better, not realizing the gesture also exposed more of her cleavage for me to notice and get even more tongue-tied over.

"Oh! Um... thank you... Ray?" I gave her a dubious look, skeptical that could possibly be her real name. Probably an alias, I told myself, and figured I should respect it. Though, she still could've picked a better name than that.

I grabbed my groceries and, unable to wave, nodded to her before heading for the door. She nodded in return with a subtle, pleasant, smile. Fortunately, another customer just happened to be entering as I was leaving and held the door open for me, an older woman wearing an apron, like she'd come straight from a kitchen.

"Thank you, ma'am," I offered politely—my manners being one of the few positive things I owed to my childhood, though I often wondered if I sounded like a cowboy from the Old West.

I tried not to overthink it, but the cute store attendant was the first woman I'd spoken to in weeks, not counting the gold-digger realtor who helped me find my new home—she only talked to me for her cut of the six percent commission.

The shop attendant, on the other hand, was cute. Did I mention that already? She had no reason to go out of her way to be pleasant. But since 'Ray' clearly didn't want anyone to know her real name, I just chalked it all up to a friendly interaction, but nothing more. Still, for my first encounter with another person in my unfamiliar neighborhood, I left feeling optimistic about this new chapter in my life.

A GIRL NAMED AMÉLIE


The short walk home took all of three minutes and I soon found myself shredding and mangling four slices of bread with the cold hard 'butter', adding two slices of 'cheese' per sandwich (sue me, I'm a lush) and throwing them on a skillet. In short order, the first sides were grilled to golden brown perfection—ignoring the holes in the bread, of course. I flipped them over, then opened the window above the sink which faced my new backyard, the brisk March air was crisp, but tolerable.

It's true the yard needed some work. A rickety old birdhouse mounted on the back fence would have to go for sure. And speaking of fences, a privacy fence would do better than the old chain link that was there. I spotted some unkempt rose bushes along the garage, getting strangled by weeds. In fact, 'weeds' seemed to be the theme of the previous owner. Still, it had the bones of a great entertainment space, with a little bit of labor.

I started daydreaming of a patio with lawn furniture on it and maybe half a dozen people—friends, of course, not merely acquaintances—mingling and laughing, having a good time. I would volunteer someone else to man the grill while I'd man the ice chest, snagging myself a cold craft beer and surveying my new life—a life that finally had other people in it. In my mind, of course, the scene would be idyllic—the warmth of the sun, the sound of laughter, the smell of the grill and food being burnt.

"No!" I quickly turned back to the stove and turned the vent on the hood up to its highest setting. The fan screeched like it hadn't been used in years, so I quickly turned it back off. I flipped the sandwiches, but that only confirmed what I already knew. One side was indeed golden perfection, but the other, charcoal failure. I tossed both sandwiches in the trash, turned the burner down, opened the window even wider, and started over.

Soon, I heard the sizzling of butter again as sandwiches number three and four hit the hot skillet. I turned back to the window, mostly to breathe some fresh air, but also to start admiring my new home again.

Beyond my back-fence line was, of course, a neighbor. I wondered what they were like and when I might meet them. I considered making contact first, but wasn't sure how. My decision was made for me, at least, in part, when I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye. A child was waving at me from the window, directly across from mine. I smiled and waved back. She quickly disappeared, her curtains falling closed.

I took the opportunity to flip my sandwiches before they had a chance to burn again, then gazed out my window some more. The girl was back and holding a whiteboard up to her window pane. It was a little too far for me to read, though, so I shrugged my shoulders emphatically, hoping she'd understand. She disappeared for a few seconds, then came back with a new message—a single word, written in large letters: Amélie.

Her name? Yeah, it must be. I was about to try finding a piece of paper of my own and something to write with, when I smelled an odor that was already too familiar. "No!"

I turned to see new smoke rising from the skillet. "Not again!" I yelled as I quickly turned off the burner and started fanning the smoke out of the kitchen window. The smoke alarm started blaring, so I grabbed a broom and used its long handle to swat at it until, finally, it stopped its squawking. Two more sandwiches landed in the trash.

The kitchen was now filled with smoke and I'd embarrassed myself with my new neighbor (it doesn't matter that she was a child.) But worse, I quickly realized, was that I was once again without two critical components of grilled cheese—bread and cheese!

I looked out the window once more. Young Amélie was gone, but she'd left her whiteboard in her window, with another new message: You're funny!

The little brat! I thought to myself, though I couldn't help smiling. I set a box fan in the kitchen window hoping to extract the smoke from the house while I set out again for the corner store.

TAKE TWO

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