a light left on

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part one

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"So this is how it ends," he thought distantly, "after a lifetime thrice the size of theirs!" Beaten to death on a fairly deserted street by money-hungry kids, hungry, tired, old, hurt, and with wounds so deep not even cave spelunkers could plumb the depths... He thought that the stars had never looked so beautiful. Orion, Sirius, Pisces, Taurus, infinite combinations of old. But hadn't he felt that way before about her? That there was nothing as beautiful as her smile? Pearly white teeth, full, pink lips; black hair and a chocolate grin in her eyes. Ah, there was his girl. Bold as brass down the end of the alley now, as he lay there detachedly aching on the sidewalk. So many good memories, so many bad memories. So many things about her that, once he died, would never be remembered again.

He was in love with the girl, hated the woman, and was repulsed by the old maid, and she didn't even care. She was always ungrateful. Even after he came back from the jungles, shrapnel studded, she fussed over him for all of a week and then sunk back down. Was it ungratefulness? Was it depression? Was it loathing? Was it something that he couldn't put a name or a price tag on? Oh, she loved those price tags. The more she took from their bank account, the better she seemed to get. Not that he cared all that much.

He was bleeding from the mouth and temple now; she waltzed down the alley towards him.

"Charlie," she called, "what's wrong? Come on, tell me, sweetie. Let me take care of you."

And Charlie dreamily smiled, and thought of the first time they met.

---

It wasn't some great romantic comedy, Charlie and Ella. They met for the first time when her father brought her in to the mechanic's shop where Charlie worked. He recalled the way she was so disgustedly familiar with the machines. It was obviously the family business that she had to be in. Apparently, her father had some business with the owner of the shop, because he walked into the back room straightaway, and greetings boomed through the hard glass.

She was sitting down, mindful of the grease, and was inspecting a new engine that had something wrong with it. He got up and walked over to her, perhaps with a bit of shyness, but nevertheless - "Hello, miss. My name's Charlie. Might I ask yours?"

She smiled a bit; responded, "Well, nice to meet ya then, Charlie. I'm Elisabeth, but you can call me Ella. Everyone does."

He stated, grinning a little, "Well, not everyone knows your name. There are quite a few people in the world. I wouldn't think that all of them knew who you were."

Her smile grew a bit broader, and she straightened the skirt of her navy blue dress. "Alright, then I guess I'll be Ella to you, and 'hey you girl' to everyone I haven't met yet. Sound good?"

---

The redwood walking stick he carried thwacked into his shin, wielded by some street kid, and it knocked him out of his reverie. His girl down the alleyway frowned. "Oh, Charlie. You shouldn't let them beat ya like that." He tried to shrug, I'm sorry, this is the best I can do, but found he couldn't move his left shoulder. Why weren't they just taking his money and leaving? He didn't understand. He was just an old man, out for a walk, minding his own business.

Something hit a piece of shrapnel still in his leg and he grimaced, not because of the pain, but of the memory of pain.

---

Sweat. Blood. Harsh breaths. Skin caught on thorny undergrowth; torn. Bugs in the eyes, nose, mouth, any exposed inch of skin. Crawling on his belly through some damp loam and vegetation, Charlie hustled next to his best buddy, Joe. They didn't talk; besides the fact that the enemy could be anywhere, they were too exhausted to do anything but push their bodies further.

Charlie and Joe were young, but not too young to be in the Phillippines in the Army. They'd both got girls back home; Ella and Joe's wife, Claudia. Charlie and Ella had just been married when he was shipped out. It was sort of last-minute, yes, but hell, he was going out to war, for Christ's sake. They had to hurry. He just hoped he didn't make her a widower at such a young age.

Suddenly, a bomb exploded at his side. Bits of Joe were filling Charlie's vision, and he screamed out in pain from chunks of metal embedded everywhere. It felt like he was burning alive.

The next thing he knew, he woke up in an American base hospital, and had to be flown home. Ella played the perfect wife, crying, then straightening up and trying to do absolutely everything for him - "Oh, Charlie, baby, I'm so sorry, please let me help you, if there's anything I can do let me know," but he should have known something was wrong. At the end of the first week he was on his own, and Ella became more distant. What happened to his cheery, loving woman he married before he left for war? What happened to his doting wife who had cared for him when he came home, injured and disfigured? What had happened during the months he was away?

---

He brought her candy and flowers; she screamed in his face. He always tried to bring her tokens of his affection, to show her he cared all the time, to be a good husband, but she wasn't having any of it. Charlie came home, with a red rose between his teeth and a heart-shaped box of chocolates under his arm, and she began to yell about how he was late, how he only got her chocolate and flowers because he was planning on being late, and didn't he care that the dinner was cold, goddamn it, and the baby was really fucking sick and couldn't he have let her know, because that was just common courtesy?

What she didn't seem to care about was the fact that the reason he was late was because he figured she could use a pick-me-up, what with all the drama recently, so he went out of his way to do something good for her. Go figure.

In the end, the rose wilted, the dinner tasted like shit, and baby Jack died by Wednesday next. The funeral was a somber affair, Ella didn't cry but Charlie did, the coffin was tiny, and the flowers were definitely not roses. They were lilies, which it seemed like the little coffin was trying to hide behind.

Jack had been only two at the time, and had been walking around shakily, gurgling and laughing. Ella didn't really seem all that affected by his death, at least not as much as Charlie was, not at all. The only reaction Charlie ever saw out of her in relation to that incident was when she found Jack's beloved stuffed duck behind some furniture, and even then, it was a private moment she didn't intend on sharing with anyone else.

The only real thing that really happened in direct correllation to Jack's death was the fighting. And boy, could they fight.

---

They got separate beds, then separate rooms. Charlie worked harder and harder at his job, eventually rising to manager, and stayed out later and later. He told himself it was for their own good, but really it was just because he needed something to focus on other than despair and hurt. Yeah, he was manager, and he had war wounds, but he still worked down in the factory with the guys. What else could he do?

The irony didn't escape him that the only time Ella acted like she cared after Jack died was when Charlie himself tried to die, and this time she cared for all of a month. He guessed that a war was nothing to her, compared to killing herself. But she still didn't get the message.

They grew old, and shared a bed once more, in an attempt to become closer together in their last few years. But now, whereas they had once been strangers in two rooms, two beds, they were strangers sharing a bed, which seemed stranger to him than being strangers.

He supposed he hardly knew her at all, and now he hardly cared to know her.

And he took a walk, every night, just like tonight, to clear his head and to get away from her, no matter how bad his legs hurt. He felt like he'd walked all over the city by this point. And he hardly ever ran into any problems.

---

Stars were exploding behind Charlie's eyes now, not in the sky anymore, and it felt like a symphony was roaring in his head. What happened to going out with dignity? Why hadn't he just followed through when he was younger? What happened to choosing one's own death, what happened to pride, what happened to fighting back? Apparently, he thought, what happens is getting the shit beat out of you on a side street. Regret filled his head, as it did most days, and sorrow and hurt.

Ella-down-the-alley laughed and laughed at him. "Poor old Charlie, laying there dead already. Why don't you just cut the shit and die already?"

As her features slowly warped, and he hurt even more, Charlie thought of the afterlife, and how he hoped in a million different worlds, she was smiling and dancing, and he was just sitting and watching, and they never had to talk or hurt or scream ever again.

Ode to Joy mixed with the sounds of gunfire and the jungle in his ears; Orion's belt seemed to crack before him like a whip, and his last thoughts were of her, twirling and twirling and twirling to the sounds of his heartbeat.

He finally drew his last breath and lay still, and she just laughed and laughed and laughed, as if it were the funniest thing she'd ever seen, an old man dying, beaten, on a dark street.