Five Letter Word
By Crystal Lynn Kamm
A man is sitting in a diner. A fish taco stand on Front Street near the beach. His head is bowed low over a crossword on the back of the newspaper. It’s an old paper, crunchy from getting wet on the tables and grimy from being handled by an entire day’s worth of patrons. The man wields his pen over the blank squares and is surprised that no one has done the puzzle yet. Golden light halos the paper, shining through the lens of his water glass. Sunset. He looks up.
A mirror. Usually he knows where all the mirrors are and carefully avoids them, but this one takes him by surprise. It’s only a few inches wide, wedged in the little space between two windows. One could look at it and fail to see it at any other time of day, but when the windows are glowing with sunset, the gray streak of mirror in the middle is impossible to miss. The man catches his reflection in it, spotlighted by the probing fingers of sunlight that seem to enter with the sole intent of exposing him. It’s the face that has cleared the place, relegating the only remaining customers to a corner booth far behind him. He looks away quickly, wanting to avoid his face as much as they.
37 Down. Seven letter word for Freak.
“Alex Trebek,” the man whispers. “Who is Charlie?”
He writes the word in the seven blank squares. Carefully. One letter at a time.
“Who is Charlie?” he asks again, this time an actual, existential question.
He raises his face again to catch his reflection in the strip of mirror. Hold. Don’t look away.
13 Across. Five letter word for Without Another.
He throws down the pen. It rolls to the middle of the newspaper, rocking in the crease between the pages. He picks up the remainder of a fish taco in his right hand, but his fingers tremble and he drops it back on the plate. The thing falls open and the lettuce flops wetly across the table and onto the floor.
“You’ll never use your left hand again,” the doctor had told him. “Fortunately, your right hand will be relatively functional with some physical therapy. You are right-handed?”
“No,” Charlie said, keeping his voice low. As if not saying it out loud would make it less true.
“Well,” the doctor said, leaving it at that.
That was when people were still shooting him sympathetic smiles. Bandages still covered his face. The extent of the damage wasn’t obvious at a glance. There was still hope.
“Are you ready for your check, sir?”
The waitress stands at his elbow, just outside his field of vision. He turns and looks her right in the eye, just to see her quail.
“More coffee, please,” he says, even though he doesn’t want any more. I’m cruel, he thinks. She practically runs to the hot plate, but she’s taking her time coming back. When she does return, she drops the check facedown beside his cup.
The shell-pink over the Gulf is fading to gray beyond Sunset Key when he steps outside. He has the rolled up back page of the newspaper in his right hand. Maybe he’ll finish the crossword. Or maybe he’ll fold it into a paper boat and drop it off the pier.
Of course he won’t do that. You can’t fold a paper boat with one hand.
He stuffs it into his back pocket. The long, pale roll sticks straight up and catches in his shirt. He walks slowly even though he doesn’t have to. It’s a miracle, the doctor said, that your legs weren’t affected.
Miracle. People throw that word around. It’s a miracle you’re alive, Charlie. That you get to live the next fifty years as a shell of your former self. 13 Across. ALONE.
When he reaches the path that meanders toward the pier along the highest dune of the beach, the sun has dropped to the edge of the horizon, floating behind an orangey film, dulling its light, the Gulf swallowing its reflection. There are still plenty of people on the sand—tangled legs on beach blankets, sandy hair, and string bikinis. Key West, the land of lovers. As they’re heading back from the beach, swarming like ants over the grassy dunes, he’s going against the traffic, cleaving a path through them on his way to the pier. Its sea-bleached rails rise ghostlike over the waving grasses. He’s almost there.
He pushes off the sand with each step. Push a little harder, and maybe you’ll take off. The earth will release you and you’ll be gone.
On the twilit shore, he becomes a shadowy figure. Nameless and faceless, but he likes it that way. He isn’t a monster anymore, just a silhouette on the beach. A salty breeze sweeps in off the Gulf and there’s a note in it that catches in his good ear. An acoustic sound that reminds him of a song he used to like. His eye twitches involuntarily. The one he can see with. A grain of sand, or perhaps the angle of the wind.
A mist is forming on the surface of the water, rolling onto the shore. A single street lamp sends a white spotlight onto the pier. He aims for it. He’ll cross the circle of light and plunge again into that dim obscurity: a cloud of mist over a dark sea where no one will see him. The lure of darkness is stronger now that he has tasted it. The wood makes a soggy clunk clunk beneath his feet as he walks, quicker now. The rhythm of his steps soothes him with its normalcy.
A couple, kissing under the light, separate when they see him. His hunched posture, his averted gaze. Their receding footsteps as they head back to the beach. A peal of female laughter. He passed with them to his right, so they hadn’t seen the disfigured portion of his face. If they had, they might be frightened rather than amused.
Her laugh sounds familiar, if foreign. Her laughter. Emily’s. She was always laughing, even at the end.
Outside the circle of light, he leans heavily on the railing, staring down into the swirling sea. A bit of foam bobs on the surface, pulling apart, riding the slopping water, and washing up on the sand.
“I know who you are.” A voice from off to his right.
“It’s a small town. Everyone knows who I am,” he says without turning. It’s always startling to him when he speaks out loud and the unfamiliar ring of his voice meets his good ear. Everyone knows me except for me.
“Charlie Throne,” the woman says. “I read about you.”
He leans farther over the railing. It’s his habit to turn his face away. He isn’t used to being addressed on purpose and doesn’t know how to respond. She lapses into silence but he can feel her presence beside him still. He turns quickly and looks right at her. She’ll see his face. She’ll leave him alone.
She’s leaning forward, forearms on the railing, chin on her arms. She looks back at him steadily. He watches her eyes, the corners of her mouth, waiting for a reaction, but there isn’t one. She looks bored. He breaks eye contact first. He hasn’t been the first one to break eye contact with anyone in two years. He keeps track. Lately, there’s no eye contact at all. Even the doctors, though he’s pretty much done seeing them now.
There may be something a surgeon can do, a friend had said. His eyes were trained on Charlie’s chest, his hair, out the window, anywhere but on his face. “For a cosmetic surgeon I know,” he said, slipping a business card into Charlie’s hand. The good hand, of course, though he didn’t touch it more than necessary.
“Can he raise the dead?” Charlie asked. He hasn’t seen that friend in a long time.
It was strange at first, that awkward looking away, but it’s expected now. It’s the prolonged eye contact that’s the strange thing. When he looked at himself in a mirror, he couldn’t understand how anyone looked at him at all.
“It’s not easy, is it? Living like this.” She had been staring at the disfigured mask of his face, but she isn’t looking now. Her arms are dangling over the edge as if she’s reaching for the sea. He glances at her left hand. No ring, but the indentation where possibly one once sat.
“I don’t want your pity,” he says coldly. It comes so quickly to his lips it’s like it had been forming in the back of his throat since the beginning and he finally let it out. He breathes out. A sound like relief.
“Why not?” she asks. Her voice is the coo of a dove. “I would.”
He looks at her sideways. She’s younger than she sounds, maybe his own age, with blonde hair curling around her shoulders. It shifts in the salt air and veils the side of her face. She has that sad expression that many women wear in the gray region between their late-twenties and their mid-thirties. The period where they haven’t yet reconciled to growing into women and haven’t yet given up being girls. Emily had that look.
He presses his chest to the railing to feel the pressure on his lungs.
The cool air reminds him of that night. He and Emily had met for dinner downtown, right near the taco place where he was tonight. They both worked in the Historic Seaport area of town, but this one time they had driven separate cars because Emily had been running late in the morning. Funny how a little impatience and a decision like that—Charlie deciding he couldn’t wait for her that morning—becomes a turning point. When he thought back to that day he barely remembered how important he had thought that meeting with his newest client was for his career, he only relived the way he grabbed his laptop and tossed her keys on the counter. “Sorry, babe, I’ve got to go without you. I’ll meet you after work.” They planned to come to the pier for a moonlight walk after dinner but at the last minute Emily changed her mind, said she wanted to get home. No reason given, and he never knew what it was. He followed her, listening to an acoustic album he loved. Bon Iver. A sad album all about heartbreak he felt drawn to, but couldn’t fully grasp. Not then.
He never could remember exactly why he hadn’t seen it happen. He must have zoned out, let his mind drift into the wordless obscurity of the music, dropping farther and farther behind her. When her car streaked suddenly across the two lanes of the Overseas Highway, it took him a second to register that it was her. He swore his heart stopped as he watched helplessly: her car rolling down the embankment and righting itself as it landed, rocking in the crease between the road and the narrow strip of land. The water’s edge only a few feet away. It happened like a dream. Slow motion. Silent. Its cause unclear.
The woman on the pier reaches over and rests her hand on his. He stares at it. The soft, white skin of her hand on the mottled flesh of his own. She wraps her fingers around his. Two years, he thinks.
He slammed on the brakes and skidded onto the shoulder of the highway. Ran down the embankment, tripping and sliding on the sand and gravel. Wasted how many seconds rushing to the driver’s side to find it crushed shut. He wrenched open the passenger door and she was there, her limp body leaning over the console. Her eyes filled with terror like a trapped animal. Stuck in her seatbelt.
She reached for his hand. It was the last time someone held his hand for the sake of holding his hand.
“It’s going to be okay,” the woman next to him says. Pulling him out of his memory.
“It’s not going to be okay,” he says, wrenching his hand back. He’s instantly sorry. “You’re trying to make it seem like it isn’t that bad,” he says.
“No. I’m not,” she says. The thrumming of the waves counted out three beats. “It is that bad, isn’t it?”
“It’s worse,” he says.
He waits ten seconds. Thirty seconds.
Doctors telling him everything was going to be fine, even though nothing was going to be fine. Family members pretending to pat him on the back but not touching him, telling him he should move on with his life. Emily would’ve wanted that. But Charlie wonders whether Emily would’ve wanted him if she was still around. Who would? He wouldn’t have blamed her.
He isn’t used to someone giving him the truth. Treating him like a fellow human being. Then again, she’s standing to his right, the side that hadn’t taken the brunt of the fire. From there she could see a perfectly normal ear, the smooth skin of his neck, and if she focused on that, she would barely even notice the melted flesh on his cheek and the reconstruction of his nose, nostrils reformed so he can breathe. Whatever pleasure he feels in the moment, he doesn’t feel like delaying the inevitable. So he turns, facing her head on.
“Look at me,” he says. “Really look. I dare you.”
Her arms are lying again on the top rail of the pier, and her body hunched over. She looks up. Raises an eyebrow. “What’s wrong?” she asks. No grimace, no turning away.
“Look at me.”
“Doesn’t it make you sick to look at me?”
She stands up straight, looking him right in the eye.
“Does it make you sick looking at me?” she asks.
“Of course not,” he says.
“Well,” she says. Leaving it at that.
A tear is running down her cheek now.
“May I hug you?” She says it softly like she’s afraid to ask for such a great favor.
They are staring into each other’s faces and he swallows. His mouth is dry. It’s a side effect, and this time something else.
“I . . . ” he says, but something catches in his throat and he can’t finish. She doesn’t wait for an answer. Wraps her arms around his waist and rests her cheek on his chest. Something swells there in his breast. Something he hasn’t felt for a long time. It all comes flooding back. The feelings. The memories.
He climbed into the passenger seat and grabbed the buckle of her seat belt. The smell of gasoline burned the back of his throat. Pulled on the buckle with his left hand. It wouldn’t give. The left side of his body faced her. She whispered, “Charlie,” and he turned partway toward her, her name on his lips. She laughed. A what-the-hell-have-I-done laugh. And then a flash of blinding light. He tried to call to her.
That was it. That was the memory. He awoke from the coma three weeks later and finished shouting her name through the slit cut into the bandage for his mouth.
A tear tugs at the corner of his right eye. He can’t cry much, but the tears pinch his eyelids and threaten to form. Sometimes he wishes they would. The woman is still holding him, cradling him against her even though his own arms are at his side. Slowly he raises his right arm and runs his hand over her shoulder. She begins to sob. Great heaving sobs into his shirt.
“I understand,” he says. “My face makes me sad too.”
She only cries harder.
“I’m not crying because you’re ugly,” she chokes. “I’m crying because you’re beautiful.” She presses her palm against his chest. “Here. And you’ve forgotten it.”
Charlie laughs. Then he stops, startled by the sound of it coming from his own mouth. His voice sounds different, but his laugh the same. It feels the same, the way it vibrates through his chest and tickles the inside of his mouth. It feels good to laugh. Like coming home.
“I’m sorry,” she says, stepping back. “I didn’t mean . . . ”
“It’s okay,” he says.
He smiles, but follows it quickly with a frown. He’s seen the effect a smile has on his face. It’s not a real smile. It’s a gaping wound.
“It’s nice,” he says, but he doesn’t finish. Being touched, he means. Kindness.
“It’s hard sometimes,” she whispers. “Being alone. I saw you and I thought you might understand.”
She isn’t looking now. She’s staring at a spot between their feet, so he stares at it too.
“I don’t think it ever stops hurting,” he says. It’s not the right thing to say maybe, but it’s what he thinks. It’s the truth.
“That’s heartbreak, Charlie,” she says. “You walk away scarred. Everyone does. You just got the worst of it. You wear your heartbreak on the outside too.”
He stands still. Waiting. This is a turning point. At the restaurant, he didn’t know, but when he reached the pier he had crossed a threshold into another lifetime. Like when he jumped from his car on the side of the highway. The last moments of one life before the start of another one. Another consciousness.
“Wait,” he says. But she hasn’t moved. She looks up.
“You miss her,” she whispers, touching her fingertips just under his chin. He flinches at the unexpected touch, but doesn’t pull away. “But you miss you too,” she adds. “And that’s okay.”
She reaches into his back pocket and pulls out the newspaper. Scribbles something on the corner of the sheet, and in the center of the crossword. She presses it into his hand.
“Will you do me a favor?” she asks. “Please.”
“Anything,” he says. He realizes that might be true.
“Remember this,” she says. “Everyone is sadder than you think they are.”
He searches her eyes. Searching for the subtext.
“You’re not alone,” she whispers. Stretching onto her toes. She presses her lips gently to his cheek. A place where he has enough feeling to recognize the action. “You’re not alone,” she says again.
“Who are you?” he whispers.
“Call me,” she says. “Please.”
She’s written her phone number on the edge of the newspaper, and her name, Olive, printed in five squares of the crossword. Meeting Charlie’s name at the “I.” He brushes his finger over the square. Carefully, he folds the paper and returns it to the safety of his pocket. He gazes over the darkening beach, watching as her figure fades into the night.