This week, as the mercury plummets and the nights are at their longest, Killings is revisiting some of the best fiction from the past six years of Kill Your Darlings to warm the cockles of your heart. For more winter warming stories, join us around the fire this Wednesday night for a Midwinter Nocturne, part of this year’s Emerging Writers Festival.
Sonja Dechian’s ‘The Architect’ originally appeared in Kill Your Darlings Issue 5, April 2011. For more great fiction, subscribe today.
When the phone rang Adrian figured it would be one of those international call centres people were always complaining about. No one else phoned him at home anymore. He picked up and waited for the telltale pause as the call clicked over to a salesperson. Instead, a deep voice asked for him by name.
‘Yes,’ Adrian said, still expecting a spiel about a personal insurance plan. ‘That’s me.’
Beside him, his wife drained a saucepan of hot water into the sink. Kate grimaced as pasta tumbled out and steam poured against the window, curling up towards her.
The voice on the phone went on. He said he was a doctor. Somebody had been in an accident.
Adrian watched as Kate scraped the inside of the pot with her fingers. He’d told her before that if she’d just put a bit of oil in the water the pasta wouldn’t stick.
‘Mr Sullivan?’ the doctor said. ‘Do you understand?’
‘I’m sorry.’ Adrian focused his attention on the call. ‘Who’s that?’
‘Leisel. She’s been asking for you.’
It took a moment for the name to make sense. Adrian watched Kate rinse the empty pot under the tap. Sensing the change in the conversation’s tone, she looked over.
Leisel had been Adrian’s first girlfriend. It was years ago, at school. There had to be some mistake, but the doctor said it again: Leisel was asking for him.
He recounted the conversation to Kate as best he could. His bowl of pasta was almost cold by the time he’d told her as much as he remembered.
‘Were you close?’ she said.
‘I guess. We were back then.’
Adrian and Leisel used to skip school to hide out in the old caravan behind her mother’s place. They’d papered the walls with drawings of the house he would one day design for them. By the end of their first year together they must have had fifty or sixty different versions of their future home. There were houses on stilts, houses dug into hills, houses that were seventeen-storeys high. They lost their virginity looking up at those sketches of their future. Then, a few months later, she broke it off without warning – God, it was years ago. He remembered Leisel had been livid when, just weeks after she’d dumped him, he’d turned up to her eighteenth birthday party with a new girlfriend.
‘But why is she asking for you?’
Adrian shrugged. The doctor hadn’t made it clear whether there’d been any actual, physical accident. Or had he said incident? Was it a euphemism? Adrian hadn’t had time to ask.
‘She must be in love with you,’ Kate said. ‘Or making amends. Perhaps she’s really sick and wants to reconnect? How awful for her.’
He’d taken down the address of the hospital. Kate suggested he drive over on the weekend. Leisel had been asking for him.
The doctor wasn’t so intimidating in person. He was serious but friendly, with narrow shoulders and an oversized shirt. The hospital wasn’t quite what Adrian expected, either. Kate had hugged him sympathetically that morning, and they’d shared their misgivings. They’d pictured barred windows and human distress, but in reality it was all automatic doors whooshing open as he was led to a bright meeting room.
The doctor explained Leisel had forgotten a lot of things. ‘Try not to inundate her with too much information,’ he said.
‘Are you sure it’s a good idea for her to see me? I don’t want to make things worse.’
‘Just don’t expect her to talk too much – she’ll get confused if you push her. We must be patient.’
‘And this will help?’
The doctor led Adrian down a long corridor. He warned that Leisel was still adjusting to life in hospital and to large amounts of medication, which would probably not cure her, but might help numb her anxiety.
‘Her delusion might be permanent.’
Adrian retraced the steps he’d taken since his life had diverged with Leisel’s. He tried to imagine where the reversal of all that time might have left him. The doctor said Leisel believed she was still seventeen.
He saw her from the back. Even with her hair cropped to her shoulders Adrian recognised her. Leisel must have known he was coming because when he entered the television room she smiled without surprise.
She was thin, probably thinner than she had been sixteen years ago and that made her cheekbones more pronounced, her face drawn. Adrian was hesitant to touch her, but Leisel swivelled in her armchair and reached to hug him. The faded cotton of her red T-shirt was soft under his fingers. He could feel her sharp shoulder blades, but when she pulled away her eyes were distant. Leisel motioned for him to sit.
‘Mum says I’ll only be here a few days,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. It’s so embarrassing.’
Adrian shook his head. ‘No, it’s fine.’
Leisel looked shyly at the others in the room. ‘Want to come for a walk?’ she asked.
He nodded and reached for her hand. Leisel smiled and the skin near her eyes creased a little. She slipped her hand into his. Adrian was glad he’d come; it wasn’t as strange as he’d expected. He imagined telling Kate, ‘I don’t know what we were so worried about.’
Their first visit didn’t last long; less than an hour. Leisel was tired after a short walk around the ward, and Adrian helped her back to her room. There, she curled up on the bed and motioned for him to join her. He was careful not to get too close, but when she reached for him, he wrapped his arms around her in an unselfish embrace. After a few minutes he thought she’d fallen asleep so he started to shift, but Leisel felt for his hand. Adrian relaxed and allowed her to lead his fingers to her stomach, winding them under her T-shirt. He spread his fingers, tentative. Her skin was smooth and warm – unchanged. He held his hand against her, nervous as she breathed and the softness of her small breasts shifted so close. He tried not to make the comparison, but it came. He thought of his wife’s body, with curvy hips and heavy breasts. Adrian heard Leisel’s breathing change as she slept, but he didn’t move his hands. Sometime later he heard footsteps grow loud along the hall.
‘It’s so sad,’ he told Kate that night. ‘She seemed lost. I might visit again, I don’t know. I don’t see it can make much difference.’
Kate had made dinner reservations but she’d offered to cancel them because Adrian had looked so troubled by the afternoon’s events. She had changed into her slippers to show she was perfectly happy to stay in. Her day had been busy, too, she had her question-and-answer slot on the radio, when people called up to ask about infectious diseases. He told her he’d forgotten to listen.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said.
‘Don’t worry,’ Kate shook her head. ‘I’ll be on again. I can see you’re shaken up about this poor girl. It was nice of you to go.’
‘I’m sure it helped,’ she said. ‘But you should be careful about getting involved. I mean, this problem or whatever with her brain: it sounds serious. What if she stays like this?’
‘I know. I feel like I should go back, but I don’t want you to feel threatened.’
‘It’s not that.’
‘It’s okay, I won’t go.’
‘No, I don’t mind. I’m worried about you, about what she expects. You should feel okay about deciding not to go. She’s not your responsibility.’
Adrian didn’t reply. He’d lied about forgetting her radio show. At three o’clock he’d been on his way home from the hospital. He’d thought of Kate and the special radio voice she put on to answer questions about influenza or meningococcal disease, and decided to pull the car over and take a walk. He’d used the toilets at a service station and not washed his hands, a major factor in the spread of pathogenic microbial agents. Back at the car, he realised he’d already decided. He’d go back to the hospital the following week.
‘Let’s think it through,’ he said to Kate that night. ‘You’re right. I’ll be careful.’
Over the following weeks Adrian returned to the hospital three or four times. He guided Leisel on increasingly long walks around the ward. As she grew stronger they were allowed outside to sit for periods on a bench in the hospital grounds. She was still very tired, but soon opened up about the life she remembered from before. She talked about her younger brother and her mother and their visits on alternate weekends. One afternoon she slipped her hand into his, leaning self-consciously against his side.
‘One day we should go away together,’ she said. ‘To a beach, or a resort somewhere. Do you think?’
‘Of course.’ Adrian didn’t want to discourage her.
‘You don’t think I’m crazy do you?’
‘I know you’re not.’
‘I can tell.’
‘But how?’ She smiled and he searched for the right tone of reassurance.
‘Well, I sat next to a crazy man on the bus once and he was shouting and dribbling. I’ve never seen you dribble.’
Leisel laughed. ‘You should sleep over sometime,’ she said. ‘Then you would.’
He put his arm around her. ‘I don’t think your mother would approve.’
‘I wish you could. I just hate it here. I hate crazy people.’
‘You’ll be out soon, I know you will.’
Leisel sighed and leaned close. She reached up and kissed him. He parted his lips and let her tongue touch his.
The doctor explained about delusions. ‘Sometimes you can trick the brain out of a delusion by forcing two beliefs into conflict. In cases where the brain is physically scarred, say by an accident or infection, the damage to a person’s way of thinking may be permanent. The delusion becomes the person’s way of life.’
‘But what if I don’t play along? What if I tell her I’m breaking up with her, or if I never come back?’
‘It’s likely she’ll block it out, not hear you. Or if you don’t visit she might believe you’re coming tomorrow or that you were here yesterday. We all hold on to certain delusions, things we don’t examine because they’re difficult. Leisel’s not so different to you or me.’
There didn’t seem much hope that things would change. Adrian could only do his best to help, visiting more often, encouraging Leisel to keep up with her homework and write letters to her school friends, which he took but never posted. Leisel was frustrated with her lack of progress and freedom, as he presumed a teenager should be. He worried he wasn’t doing enough.
They were in Leisel’s room. She showed him the horse she’d painted in her sessions that morning. Leisel hated the classes in anger management and relaxation, but she didn’t mind painting. They had a choice of four ceramic animals: kitten, dog, dolphin or horse.
The horses were twenty-five centimetres high and stood on hind legs. Leisel’s latest had a yellow flower around its left eye and a trail of branches and blossoms circling its body.
‘It’s lovely,’ Adrian said, reaching for the horse and tracing his finger over its black eyeball. ‘You’ve done a really good job with this one.’
‘It’s stupid,’ Leisel screwed up her face. ‘It’s so boring in here. I wish we could get out.’
‘It won’t be much longer.’
‘Be careful.’ She reached for her horse. ‘The paint’s still wet! ’ Adrian withdrew his hand and studied the smear of black on his fingertip. Leisel sighed at the damage he’d inflicted. She started to cry. He wiped his finger on his jeans and then he took Leisel in his arms.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
She sobbed against his shoulder. He felt her tears on his neck. He held her tightly because he knew that she wasn’t really crying about the horse. She sank her fingers into his hair and kissed his neck and cheeks. He kissed her in return. He didn’t want her to cry. He cupped her breasts through her T-shirt and then Leisel didn’t cry anymore. Adrian took off her jeans and her underwear.
He wondered if Leisel would notice the differences in him. He flattered himself that maybe this would be the thing to break her delusion, maybe it would happen right as he entered her; unfamiliar and no longer the teenage boy she expected. He was aroused and guilty at the sight of her almost naked. He knew the nurses rarely interrupted visiting time, and Leisel, with her closed eyes and gently prodding fingers, seemed to have forgotten her sadness. He pulled up her T-shirt so he could see her breasts.
Adrian spread Leisel’s legs and pushed into her slowly. He was gentle, as if it was her first time – he was unsure whether she believed it was. She was a teenager. He didn’t stop, but he tried not to hurt her.
She groaned his name.
‘What are we supposed to do with that?’
Adrian had taken one of the horses home. It was finely painted with vertical black and red stripes. The horse was the reason for the argument.
‘It was a gift,’ he said, shrugging.
Kate took the animal and inspected the paintwork.
‘Leisel always wanted to be an artist,’ he explained.
‘So did she ever?’
Adrian didn’t know. Kate considered the gift, then placed it in the back of their bedroom cupboard.
‘Why do you have to see her every week?’ She was still in her work clothes. She sat on the bed and pulled off her knee-high stockings as she spoke.
‘It’s not every week,’ Adrian said. ‘What can I do? She thinks I’m her boyfriend.’
Kate sighed. ‘And I think you’re my husband. I wonder who’s more deluded?’
‘Kate. Please don’t.’
‘Well, it’s true, isn’t it?’
‘I’m just trying to do the right thing.’
‘By her. By Leisel.’
Kate unzipped her skirt and let it fall. She unbuttoned her blouse and took off her bra. When she stood right in front of him, so close her breasts touched his chest, Adrian instinctively ran his hands over her waist. She rested her palms against his stomach. He knew it was meant as a caress, a truce, but his fullness was embarrassing. He’d always been much thinner. She undid his pants and tried to tug them down, but Adrian reached a hand to stop her.
Kate withdrew. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘If that’s how it is.’
Things started to change with Leisel. They stopped taking walks around the grounds and instead closed the door to her room and spent long afternoons exploring one another’s bodies like teenagers.
After, she would lie against his chest and talk about their future.
‘I’m so glad you’re here,’ she told him. It was late one afternoon.
Leisel fell quiet.
The doctor had explained how the medication would calm her and over time begin to regulate the chemicals in her brain. A side effect was that Leisel put on weight; her face grew rounder, filling out the lines around her eyes. Adrian watched for these changes, the soft curve of her belly and the difference in the shape of her breasts. She still spent a lot of time in silence, but the remote look in her eyes didn’t take her away as often.
‘When I’m out of here, maybe we can live somewhere together,’ she said.
He looked along her naked back and at her limbs strewn across him. ‘Of course we can. Where would you like to live?’
‘In an apartment. One of the ones where you have to press a button at the entrance so someone can buzz you in.’
Adrian laughed. ‘I think we can find one of those,’ he told her.
‘And when you’re an architect you can build us our house.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘If that’s what you’d like.’
Leisel ran her hand into the hair on his chest then traced a path downward. He held his stomach in, though it made no difference to the way she saw him.
‘You really can’t tell, can you?’ he said.
‘You haven’t noticed anything different?’ Leisel lifted herself onto one elbow. ‘What?’
‘My hair. For a start, it’s thinning.’ Leisel shrugged. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I know you can’t see it, but I’m a thirty-four-year-old man, Leisel. I am an architect now. Have been for a while.’
She looked on.
‘For the last six years I’ve had the same job, but to be honest, I’m mediocre at it.’
She reached out and flicked her finger over his nipple. Adrian took hold of her hand. ‘I have a wife,’ he said. ‘I’m married. We’ve been trying to have a baby. It’s been a year now – I guess something’s wrong.’ Leisel rolled onto her back and ran her hands along her naked stomach.
‘Leisel?’ he said.
She turned to him and smiled. ‘I think one day I’d like to have children. But I haven’t decided how many.’
Adrian sighed and put his hand on hers. ‘Why don’t we just wait and see?’
‘Come here, you.’ He pulled her to him.
There was no way to hide the increasing frequency of his visits to the hospital. Instead, Adrian gave Kate brief but essentially accurate reports on Leisel’s progress: she’s stable, she’s improving, she’s having a tough day. Kate responded with practiced concern.
It was Adrian who provoked the confrontation.
‘Do you have to be like that?’
‘What do you mean?’ Kate said. ‘I’m being sympathetic.’
‘You’re so patronising.’
‘I’m not sure why it bothers you.’ Kate was sorting through a box of old papers, searching for something she’d written at university, something she needed.
‘She’s an actual person,’ he said. ‘She’s someone who matters to me, and she’s going through a tough time.’
‘So I suppose I can expect to meet her soon?’ Kate looked over. ‘I can tell you’re in love with her.’
He let the words hang in the room.
‘Kate,’ he said finally. ‘She’s a child.’
‘She’s a thirty-four-year-old woman! ’
‘Yes, but she thinks she’s a child.’
‘And you’re, what? Her high-school boyfriend?’
‘I’m her friend.’
‘I’m not blind,’ she said. ‘You’re in love with her.’
‘Is that what you want to think?’
‘And what? You want me to wait patiently while you carry on with this girl? It’s all over your face.’
They looked at each other in silence.
‘You’re fucking her, aren’t you?’ Kate said.
‘For God’s sake. She’s sick. She needs me, and I can help.’
‘Oh, she needs you?’ Kate dumped a stack of papers back into the box. Adrian turned to leave.
‘I really don’t know which of you I feel more sorry for,’ she said.
He enjoyed the ritual of arriving at the hospital. It was a part of the secrecy and anticipation of it all. Adrian would spell her name at the reception desk and they’d buzz him right in. She’d be dressed and waiting with some story she’d been saving all morning, for him.
‘I’m sorry,’ the nurse said. ‘You’ll have to wait today.’
It was a Tuesday afternoon. He’d left work the same time as always.
‘Is there some problem?’ He began to spell Leisel’s name, but the nurse pointed to the waiting room and lifted the phone.
He flicked through a newspaper. A hint of panic started to stir. He wanted what was best for Leisel – maybe there was news? But what if her delusion had lifted? What if she was someone new? He tried to imagine the changed woman who might greet him. Would she remember what had passed between them?
The nurse gestured to him.
‘Sorry for the delay,’ she said. ‘Leisel had a difficult night. I wasn’t sure if she was having visitors, but you have the all-clear.’
Leisel was sitting on her bed, dressed and ready. She looked just the same and Adrian was relieved at the recognition in her eyes.
‘I have to tell you something,’ she said.
‘You can tell me anything.’ He was reassured by her childlike tone.
‘Okay,’ she hesitated. ‘I’ve been thinking that things aren’t the same.’ He sat beside her on the bed. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m so sorry,’ Leisel said. ‘We’ve had a lot of fun. We’ll always be friends.’
He reached a hand to comfort her. ‘Relationships have their ups and downs,’ he said gently. ‘We’ll work through this.’
‘You don’t understand,’ she continued. ‘I think I need to be independent, I need to start thinking about university, my future.’
‘That’s okay. I don’t mind if you want more independence.’ He rubbed her shoulder supportively. ‘We’ll talk things over. We’ll come up with a plan.’
Leisel drew away. ‘I think we both need this,’ she said carefully.
‘But you’re not well. You can’t make big decisions.’ He took her hand. ‘Here, let me.’
‘I’m sorry, but I think you should go.’
The worn cotton ofleisel’s T-shirt clung to her thin shoulders and chest. He followed the freckles that ran across her arms until the trail disappeared under her sleeves.
‘But I love you,’ he said.
Leisel turned and opened the drawer beside her bed.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘I made this for you.’ She lifted a blue horse with both hands. There were clouds painted across the body and head but the left side was all sky, with one soaring bird. He thought about what Kate would say when she saw it, the adolescent motif. Oh God. That poor woman.
‘Please go now,’ Leisel said.
Adrian took the horse and left. As he walked the hospital’s corridors his heels clipped hard against the floor, their echo swallowed by the long hallways that stretched behind. At the exit he paused to find a bin, but by the time he spotted one he’d changed his mind. He’d keep it. He thought again of Kate and her pity, her forgiveness. He laid the horse on the passenger seat beside him, and he drove the highway home.