The Gift of Fenice
by James Finn
“I hope you don’t mind me bringing you out here,” Fenice said, exhaling a cloud of blue cigarette smoke into the sea breeze. “It’s just that this was Frank’s favourite place. And what better day to visit than on his birthday?”
Charlie looked out at the sea, towards the seemingly rigid horizon; watching the surf come crashing down onto the seaweed covered sand. The beach was empty except for themselves. Taking one last drag on his own cigarette, Charlie stubbed it out in the sand between his legs. “No, not at all,” he said. “I just hope it doesn’t upset you, being out here.”
Fenice slipped off her sandals and burrowed her toes and feet beneath the sand. The evening air felt cool and somewhat refreshing, as it nearly always did when the sun was going down and the tide was coming in. A sudden breeze came in off the sea and ruffled her summer dress. She pushed her hands down onto her lap to stop it blowing all the way up.
“No, it doesn’t upset me any more,” she announced. “That part I’m over; though I’d be wrong to say that I didn’t feel anything at all, because I do. I still love him, always will. But I suppose that’s because our parting decision was made for us, it was so unexpected, him being taken like that. We were still deeply in love at the time. And then... and then... ” Fenice broke off, lowering her head.
Charlie put his arm around her and pulled her close against him. “It’s all right. I’d like to say that I understand, but I’d only be lying. But in a way I’m also glad I don’t understand. I don’t think I could have gone through what you’ve had to and recovered.”
“I guess I’m not totally over it, after all. For the past five years I’ve been coming out here, to his favourite spot, wishing him a happy birthday. He’d be thirty-three now. We were going to have a baby when he was thirty. If it had happened two years later, we would have.” She looked up at Charlie, eyes glazed with the emotion of loss and its memory, features taut with the strain of not letting go, not giving in to her inner feelings. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, it’s not fair on you, I’m sorry.”
Charlie held her face and lightly kissed her nose. “It’s all right. If it helps, then that’s fine by me. Besides, you’ve never really spoken about it before. And I’ve never wanted to push.”
He began to idly flick sand over his stubbed cigarette; she flicked her own away. “So, tell me what kind of guy he was. I mean, he must have been special from what I gather. I only hope that I can be as special, too. Perhaps not take his place, but be up there with him.”
“You are, Charlie. You are special in your own way and that’s what I love about you.”
“So,” he said, getting to his feet and brushing the sand from the seat of his shorts and backs of his legs, “go on, tell me what he was like. I mean, I’ve seen a picture of him: quite a handsome guy.”
Fenice patted the sand. “Sit back down and I’ll tell.” Her voice lowered a notch and became solemn, “But only if you’re sure?”
Charlie sat, kissed her lips and said, “Sure, I’m sure. I want to see what I’m up against.
Need to know the competition.”
“Well, he was everything you’re not.”
Charlie looked up, stung by her remark. “Thanks! Don’t hold anything back, shoot from the hip.”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that. Look, maybe I should stop; I’m not very good at these sorts of things.”
“No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted you. I do want to hear, really I do.” He gave her a big, cheesy, winning smile to prove that he did.
She pushed him away jovially.
“No, listen, I’m sorry, I really to want to hear this.”
“Stop saying you’re sorry. You see, Frank would never say that.”
“Say what? ‘Sorry’?”
“Yes. He’d rather be skinned alive than apologise, even if he was the one in the wrong. It just wasn’t him. You see, you’re loving, you show affection: the soft side of yourself. You’re a gentleman. You open doors, give me your coat if I’m cold, make me breakfast in bed. You know what I mean, all that kind of stuff. Frank, he would never do anything like that. He was the kind of guy that would let the door swing shut in your face, or take your coat if it got too cold. And the closest thing I ever got to breakfast in bed was the previous night’s cold pizza.”
“Gee, sounds like a charmer. No wonder you loved him so much.”
Now it was Fenice’s turn to look stung, but also hurt.
“Ah, shit. I didn’t mean it like that. But if he wasn’t a romantic, what was the attraction? Surely it wasn’t looks only? I mean most girls I’ve known would’a run a mile if they came across a guy like that.”
“That’s why I loved him so much, and I knew he loved me; even though he didn’t show it publicly N only in the bedroom.” Charlie looked offended. “I’m sorry. Too far. What I meant was, that it was the only time I saw the real side of Frank Barker. It was like when the bedroom door closed he became this completely different person: extremely passionate and intense, savage even, the only time he’d open up. The bedroom was his place, where he felt comfortable, had dominion. I can’t explain it was like he was otherworldly.
“When I very first met Frank I thought he was a complete asshole. He was obnoxious, arrogant, rude. In fact, the first time I met him he made me cry. I was working as a library assistant and he came to my desk wanting to check out a load of books. All to do with weird stuff. Books on the occult, alchemy, and various forms of medical magic. I thought he was one of those new age people, you know.
“Well anyway, the maximum number of books anyone could take out at one time was five. He wanted to check out eight. I hadn’t been working there very long, and of cause as you do, you try to do everything by the book, not wanting to make a mistake. So I told him of the limit and that he’d have to return the ones he didn’t really want.
“His response was unexpected and brutal. He slammed the books down on my desk (of course everybody looked up) and leaned forward so he was mere centimetres from my face and said, ‘Look, you ignorant cow. If I didn’t want all of the books I wouldn’t have brought them here to check them out. I don’t want to return any of them because I want them all, is that so hard to understand? Not four or five, all of them. Now, you’re going to be a good girl and check these books out for me, okay?’.”
“Of course I tried to compose myself and speak with a calm and assertive tone, but the simple presence of him turned me to jelly. I attempted to speak up, but he put a finger to my lips and said, ‘Sshh, don’t argue. Be a good girl and do as Frankie asks.’ By this point the tears were rolling and I’d lost all control. So I did as he said, he thanked me and walked out.
“A week later he returned the books and asked if I like to go out on a date with him. Well! I thought I was dreaming. Here he was, this insulting man whose behaviour had resulted in my tears, asking if I wanted to go out on a date.
“At first I stood there gobsmacked. Then when I was just about to tell him where to go, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pendant on a chain. A funny looking thing: the pendant was silver and shaped in the figure eight, but where the holes should have been were what looked like two glass eyes, one red and the other clear.
“He handed it to me, and said, ‘Look, I’m really no good at asking women out on dates, this is the best I can manage, so, yes or no?’ He still had that air of arrogance in his tone. I took the chain in my hand without really knowing what I was doing (I guess you could say I was still in shock), stared at it, then him, and said yes. And it went on from there really.
“Four years we were together. I know this is gonna sound corny but they were four happy years. And do you know something else? We didn’t have a single argument, not one. We never disagreed about anything. Strange, huh?”
“Surely you must have had one, a lovers’ tiff somewhere along the line?” Charlie asked.
“Nope. What one did, the other was happy to follow, and vice versa.”
The weather was turning colder, the sea breeze becoming a little harsher, the waves crashing with a thunderous percussion. The air heavy with the taste of salt.
“The pendant?” asked Charlie, “What was it?”
“Frank said it was symbolic, like a ring when a person gets engaged. Only he said a ring captures the spirit of one person, as the pendant held two, and therefore had more meaning, more power. He said the two spirits could never part as long as the circles were complete. He also said it had great healing powers.”
Charlie suddenly thought back to a time when she’d cut her hand and how he had been amazed to find it had healed in less than three hours. Surely it couldn’t be that powerful?
“What about the glass eyes, what did they represent?” he asked.
“He said they were what held the spirits in place. You see, when he gave me the pendant one of the eyes contained his spirit: the red eye was full of his blood.”
Charlie looked at her questionably. “I know how it must sound, me only knowing him a short time, and already he was doing deep things. But you would have had to have been there. Everything felt right, as strange as it sounds.”
“Strange is definitely a word I’d use,” he uttered.
“Anyway, on the night of our first date he asked me to fill the second. I said no way!
“But he insisted it was harmless. I said it was creepy. His response had been that if anything began to happen to me when I did, I could break it. Of course I agreed and he gave me his knife and told me to cut my thumb and when the blood begun to run to let it drop onto the eye.
“I did, and what happened next was creepy. The eye seemed to draw in my blood as though the glass was absorbent, porous or something. I mean, I didn’t see any holes in it, but my blood filled it. And like Frank said, it was harmless, nothing weird began to happen ( though I didn’t really know what I’d expected to happen in the first place, but still ) so from then on I wore it constantly. So I guess you could have said that we were engaged.” She ducked her hand inside the dress and pulled the pendant out and let it hang out for Charlie to see.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed it before, but have never given thought to ask you about it. Should have really, considering the time with been together. How long have we been together now? Eight, nine months, is it?”
“Eight and a half actually.” She looked at him smiling. “It’s a good job someone’s keeping track.”
Charlie stood again, but this time put his hand into the pocket of his shorts and took something out before sitting back down.
“What did you just do, and what’s in your hand?” Fenice enquired.
“I’ve been waiting for the right moment to do this.”
“Do what... ?” Fenice had a sudden look of knowing.
He smiled and brought up his hand revealing a gold diamond and emerald ring. “If what Frank said is true, then I guess it isn’t worth much, but it’s the best I can do. And as you say, I’m not like Frank.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Fenice, awed.
“Will you marry me, Fenice? Maybe this isn’t the right place to propose, but I thought that it will now remind you of the two most important people in your life. Of two people who love and loved you.”
It was Fenice who now stood. “Yes, of course I’ll marry you.” Then kneeled down and hugged him tight.
Charlie slid the ring on her finger. “I just hope we never have a disagreement from now on.”
“We won’t, I promise. Though there’s one thing I do need to tell you. It’s important to me and would mean a lot if you would hear me out.”
Charlie held her hands. “What is it?”
“How Frank died. I know it sounds morbid, but I’ve told you so much already, now I want to get this last bit out, okay?”
“He died in a fire. I had gone out late night shopping, Frank was reading more of his weird books, as I used to call them, because he hated shopping. And when I returned our house was burned to the ground.
The fire chef said it was a gas explosion, apparently a main gas pipe had split. The ambulance men said they could only find bits of him, said the heat was so intense that it must have burned most of him away. As you can probably imagine, it devastated me.”
Charlie hugged her tight. “I’m sorry, Fenice, I really am.”
“It’s fine, really. I’m not upset, at least not any more.” Looking around and seeing that the beach was still empty of people, she said, “So, shall we do it then?”
“Do what... oh! You mean the birthday cake. Yeah, sure, why not? It seems to be a waste though, all that cake.”
“Well, I’m sure Frank won’t mind if you have a piece yourself. He wasn’t selfish.” Fenice turned toward the cake box next to her and opened it. One solitary candle stood from the centre; around it words had been written in white icing: ‘Happy Birthday Frankie. I’ll love you always’.
Taking a lighter from his pocket Charlie handed it to her. Lifting the cake out, Fenice lit the candle. The wind beat against the flame, it flickered and almost went out before a small gust finally extinguished the flame. “Make a wish, Frankie,” Fenice whispered. Her eyes were closed, head turned up towards the deep blue sky.
The surf rose higher and more tumultuous with the insistence of the increasing wind. The sky was bruising as dusk gave to the oncoming night. In the east, stars had already begun to appear.
Charlie leaned against her and asked, “Are you ready? We must be leaving, it’s getting late and cold.”
“No, not just yet, we have to wait.”
“Wait for what?” he asked, frowning.
“For him to receive his gift.”
“His gift, what gif... ” Just then Charlie felt a scalding pain sear across his right shoulder and arm, causing him to jump back. Looking he saw that his T-shirt was smoking and his arm was red and burned. He looked across at Fenice.
She was staring at him, all emotion gone from her face. “He has to have it,” she said. “He has it every year.”
Just then her dress started to smoulder, tendrils of smoke rising up. It then began to burn away. Beneath, her skin started bubbling up in savage blisters. She leaned back and lay on the cool sand. Her clothes had now burned away completely, though small pieces of scorched fabric clung to her flesh like ash.
Charlie could see parts of her body turning an agonising red, blisters weeping, thin strips of skin peeling away. Two hand impressions burned down onto her chest and she let out a scream. Whether it was agony or pleasure Charlie did not now, he was paralyzed to the spot, amazement and fear both holding him hostage. Red lines burned into her skin as though hot pokers were being drawn across her body, raking at her flesh. Her body buckling in reaction to the fiery touches.
Fenice brought her arms up in a receiving embrace. And as she was met by the touching entity, she cried, “Happy birthday, Frankie, and many more to come!”
Terrified and running up the beach, Charlie thought, for him there’d be no more to come. This was the beginning of the end.
Copyright © 2005 by James Finn