Lockdown Fiction: Burning Love

Here’s another little story, written to fill the Improbable Press prompt on 23 April.

Burning Love

When Meredith’s girlfriend dumped her right at the start of their fifth anniversary date, her share house didn’t provide a lot of comfort. Caitlyn’s lunch dishes were still on the coffee table and her sewing project covered the sofa, the armchair and a footstool.

‘Least you could do is tidy up when it’s your turn,’ growled Meredith. Her mood for several months now had been at odds with her childhood nickname of Merry.

‘Time got away from me,’ said Caitlyn, trying to soothe. ‘I’ll put it away now.’ She bustled around, tidying up.

Meredith slumped on a kitchen chair, face in her hands. Her tear-wrecked kohl smudged over her palms. ‘Sorry, Caitie. Oh god. I’m such a mess.’

‘You’ll be all right,’ her friend reassured her.

Meredith suspected Caitlyn was right, but that wasn’t helpful. She didn’t like to think that her Great Love had not been such a great thing after all. ‘Thank god I didn’t tattoo her name over my heart.’ This had been a plan, of sorts, in year one. If they made it five years, Merry ♥ Nadia would have been inked on her pale skin forever.

Earlier in the week, Caitlyn had upset Meredith by suggesting she wait until after the anniversary dinner before getting inked. ‘It’s more a gift for you than Nadia,’ she’d suggested. ‘Get her some flowers and have her go with you for the tatt.’

Wise Caitlyn. Bloody irritating Caitlyn. Now Meredith would have to call Black Heart Ink and Piercings to cancel Tuesday’s booking.

‘Did you know she was going to dump me?’ Meredith demanded.

‘No. But you haven’t been happy,’ Caitlyn replied.

Now Meredith was waiting for Caitlyn to say I told you so. Caitlyn didn’t, and that only made Meredith sadder and angrier. She went on the attack.  ‘You should have said something.’

‘I tried. You couldn’t hear it. You wanted her to love you.’

‘She did love me.’

‘She did. Once. She’s been making you miserable lately.’

‘Like you know me so well.’

‘I do, Merry. I’ve been your flatmate for three years. I know you well enough to know she made you miserable.’

Meredith folded her arms on the table and sank her face into them. ‘She did.’ And she sobbed.

‘Let me make you dinner,’ Caitlyn said, a plea rather than an offer. Meredith’s tears obviously made her uncomfortable.

‘Don’t go to any effort,’ whispered Meredith.

‘It’s no effort at all, Merry. I want to.’

Meredith first went to the bathroom to wash her panda eyes. Fresh towels were out. The tiles gleamed.

She then retreated to the living room; she slumped on the sofa, head tilted back. She regarded the newly cleared spaces. Underneath the pieces of patchwork quilt and plate, the room had been impeccably tidy. The bathroom shone. The kitchen, too.

Poor Caitlyn. A good flatmate, a good friend, even when unfairly bearing the brunt of Meredith’s wounded heart. Why on earth did she stand it?

Meredith found the remote control, launched Spotify and proceeded to play tragic love songs at top volume. Maybe This Time. All By Myself. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Nothing Compares 2U.

Caitlyn brought her a glass of wine. A plate of cheese and crackers.

‘I know you didn’t get to eat. Nibble on those while the veggie pie is baking.’

‘You’re making me a pie?’

‘I had the ratatouille already. I’ve just put a puff pastry lid on it and a swirl of goat’s cheese through the mix.’

Meredith gazed at her with mingled gratitude, apology and self-deprecation. ‘Thanks, Cait. You’re a good friend.’

‘So are you.’

‘I’m not, sometimes. I don’t know why you put up with me. You must love me a lot.’

Meredith laughed softly and then did not laugh at all at the look on Caitlyn’s face. ‘Shit.’

‘I’d better get back to the kitchen.’

Caitlyn fled. Meredith hesitated long enough to realise several things.

Caitlyn is my best friend.

Caitlyn loves me.

Nadia is nothing like Caitlyn, but for months I’ve wished she was.

Perhaps that’s why Nadia had dumped her tonight. Perhaps Meredith had been making Nadia miserable too.

Meredith stood at the kitchen doorway. Caitlyn, stricken, wrung her hands and looked for escape.

‘It’s okay,’ said Caitlyn shakily. ‘You don’t have to love me back.’

‘But I do,’ said Meredith.

‘Don’t say that.’

‘It’s true, though.’

‘You’re my friend. You love me like a friend.’

‘I love you like a friend,’ Meredith agreed. ‘I love you like a best friend. I love you like a co-conspirator. I love you like a soulmate. I love you like the sun. You’re the one I run to tell my happiest news to. You’re the one I want to cry with when the news is bad. You’re the one I come home to because you’re the one. You’re the one.’

Caitlyn cried. ‘You’re on the rebound.’

‘I’m an idiot, but I’m not that much of an idiot,’ said Meredith. ‘But it’s okay. I understand why you don’t believe me.’

She walked slowly to Caitlyn and touched her twisting hands.  ‘You’ve been so patient. I can wait. I’ll wait till you believe me, Caitie.’

Caitlyn blinked tears away. She met Meredith’s earnest, smiling gaze. For the first time in a long, long time, Meredith looked… Merry. Caitlyn leaned towards her friend, magnetised, drawn by the pull of her long unspoken love, until their lips met.

Their first kiss was soft, sweet. A bit wet from the crying.

It smelled of heat, of baking, of fire, of smoke…

And then the smoke alarm went off.

A dinner meant to offer kindness and care was a burnt offering, but that was all right. Merry said, for years and decades after, that it was fitting that their love be heralded by a noble sacrifice.