‘With and Without’ by Isabel J Wallace

It was impossible to pinpoint the moment that time broke, but to be fair, that was the nature of the beast. Murphy was in the last two weeks of grad school, then she was seven and the bus was late, then her bones were sun-bleached in a petrified forest to the north, and then Elise was holding her hand and saying, “I need to tell you something,” in the backseat of a rental car.
           In one moment, her city was a mishmash of three million lives; in the next, it was on fire, and everyone in it was dead and alive and dead again.
           Elise was always holding her hand. It didn’t matter if the world was being born or persisting or dying. That couldn’t be taken from her.
           “How many scoops?” the man behind the counter asked.
           “Three,” Murphy answered. “It’s that kind of day.”
           “Isn’t it always,” he said, dry as dust.
           “Sing it.” Murphy took the ice cream with more than a little reverence. She downed two quick spoonfuls, back-to-back with Elise’s shade. Today her wife was anchored to a distant future. An unlivable heat poured through their connection, but being in the ice cream parlor helped.
           “How are you people just sitting here?” A woman burst through the doors with a split lip and a blazer coated in ash. “It doesn’t stop! It never stops!”
           Ice Cream Guy made a sweeping gesture at the counter. “Would you like your existential crisis with ice cream or without it?”
           “Choose ‘with it’!” an elderly woman against the far wall suggested, clearly well-informed.
           The woman did not choose with it. Her knees buckled, and she sank onto the floor, back bowed. The sound that escaped her had designs on a scream, but it came out choked. Several people in the shop stood, made abortive motions towards her. Murphy didn’t. There wasn’t any point. She could already feel the pressure in the air that meant—
           Elise’s studio was bright and intact.
           Wool scratched Murphy’s cheek as she sat upright on the couch, wrapped in a blanket that had survived three moves and a Rottweiler with separation anxiety. For a few breaths, she just watched Elise work. Then, soft as the morning light bleeding in from the window, she asked, “Are you here?”
           Elise didn’t answer, but Murphy hadn’t expected her to. Her wife’s shade was still at her back, their little fingers twined together. This version of Elise in the studio was a memory, uninhabited. Beneath Elise’s hands, another clay face was beginning to take shape. The wall behind her was lined with them: friends, family, strangers, all aware of each other, caught in a dozen permutations of conversation.
           A laugh broke from Elise’s mouth. “Is that why she didn’t go?” she asked with the brief twist of a smile.
           It wasn’t a thread Murphy could follow. If she went completely slack, let her focus disperse, she might be able to go on autopilot. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes she could immerse herself in moments she had lived and repeat them by rote. That was one of the only ways to rest.
           “Murphy,” Elise admonished, but her expression didn’t match the tone.
           She’d never go on autopilot for memories like this. She couldn’t.
           The air was starting to feel heavy. Murphy got to her feet, blanket tight around her shoulders, and crossed over to Elise’s work table. She leaned in and pressed a kiss to her temple. Elise didn’t react; this hadn’t happened then, and she wasn’t here now. Still, there were details Murphy could carry with her: the smell of the clay, the frogs playing violin around the edges of her blanket, the simple domesticity of a shared pot of coffee—
           Pavement crumbled beneath her feet, and she tipped sideways, which really wasn’t a fair introduction to a new moment. At least she wasn’t that one lady she’d met in Canada who had phased into an occupied bear cave.
A hand caught her elbow.
           “Babe, what did we say about walking on the shoulder?” There was a pause and then Elise’s voice climbed an octave. “Wait, are you here?
           Murphy’s heart caught in her throat. Desperately, she felt for the shade at her back, but there was nothing, and that could only mean…
           She swept Elise into her arms before the thought was even fully realized. There were several truths she’d gleaned since time unspun: that people were far more likely to inhabit moments from their own lives than they were times pre-birth or post-death, that it was nigh impossible to discern whether history was being altered, and that inhabiting a moment at the same time as a loved one was incredibly rare. Murphy buried her face in Elise’s shoulder and held on.
           They were two figures in a river of people, covered in ash, walking down a road to a destination none of them were sure of. In the crowd, Murphy could hear declarations of, “oh look, they’re concurrent” and “I hope they get a long while”. She didn’t pick her head up, but she felt an overwhelming surge of fondness and gratitude for the strangers around her.
           “Murph, Murph!” Elise pulled back, kissed her mouth, the corner of her eye, her forehead. The ready energy of her was contagious, absolute attention, a precision beam of light and intent. “God, I don’t know where to start.” She scanned Murphy’s face. “You’re here, you’re looking back at me.”
           The response to that was obvious and easy to give. “I’ll always be here.”
           Elise brought her hands up to frame Murphy’s jaw, the edges of her helpless smile. There was a decades-old confession of love in her eyes, as clear as it had been that night with the rain beating down on their car’s windows. “We never really let go, do we?”
           “Never.” They were knit together too closely.
           An explosion sounded in the city, miles away now, but near enough for the ground to shake. Elise tensed but didn’t stop looking at Murphy. “There’s so much I want to tell you about,” she said. A laugh broke from her mouth, an inch to the left of hysteria. “I just saw a spinosaurus!”
           “I love you, you enormous nerd. I don’t even know what that is,” Murphy said, and she pressed in close until their foreheads touched. The pavement beneath her feet still shook; she chose to ignore it. The conversation was new, but its backdrop was not. Right now, the only important details were those etched by Elise. She was laughing too, and this was who they were.
           “I saw my dad,” Elise said with a hairline fracture in her voice. “The day before the fire. And… I think I saw the world after it died?”
           “I know,” Murphy said, clinging tighter. “I was right behind you.”
           In a whisper, Elise repeated the words. “I was right behind you…”
           Above them, there was pressure, and that pressure meant that there was no time, and yet there would always be time.
           “It’s about to pull us apart,” Elise said, soft but steady, suffused with the strength that made Murphy fall in love in the first place.
           Murphy felt something inside herself sharpen, defiant. “It’s about to try.” And that was the crux of it. Birth and death, what came before, what came after, with form or without— they’d still be hand in hand. Murphy offered hers now, two parts comedic showmanship to brighten her wife’s expression, one part so sincere it made her bones ache.
           “God, fine,” Elise said as the air became too heavy to ignore. Her smile was golden and tragic and alive. “I’ll hold your hand, you sap.” I love you.
           Murphy blinked. It was winter, she couldn’t have been more than four, and her dog had just knocked her into the snow. The fine blend of humor and concern threading through her mom’s voice was a familiar ghost.
           At her back, she felt the solidity, the promise of Elise’s soul. Murphy laughed, in memory and inhabited. The world had ended in many meaningful ways but never in this one.

Isabel J Wallace is a queer writer and surgical nurse working in the wilds of North Florida. The swamp has left her predisposed towards ghost stories and the certainty that something is always lurking just out of sight. She’s been published in Malaise: a Horror Anthology, a collection of horror short stories by queer authors, as well as in Smitten: this is what love looks like, an anthology of poetry by women for women. Follow her on Twitter @izzyjowalls

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