Short Stories 3rd Place: Don’t Turn the Light On by Iva Bezinović-Haydon
She knew it was polite to call before showing up at someone’s door, so she phoned from the airport as soon as she landed. A woman’s voice answered. It sounded sleepy and confused. Hana hung up and called back and finally, Sam picked up.
Hana was ready for a hug, but Sam seemed taken aback as he opened the door.
“Hey, there,” Hana smiled. “I missed you.”
“Hana. It’s two in the morning… What are you doing here?”
“You said I could come…”
“Claire was worried about you.”
A petite woman in a dressing gown appeared behind Sam.
Maybe this was a mistake.
“Come in,” Claire smiled as she took Hana’s bag. Her front left tooth was slightly chipped.
Sam inhaled deeply. “Claire made a bed for you upstairs. We’re going back to sleep. See you in the morning?”
Claire briefly showed Hana where the kitchen was and invited her to help herself to anything. She was friendly and pleasant. Hana tried to be friendly and pleasant in return. She complimented Claire’s ugly slippers. She said “Thank you” a lot. She smiled a lot. Her face hurt from smiling.
Hana lay awake for a few hours on a pull-out sofa in the guest room, adjacent to Sam’s bedroom. Knowing Sam was on the other side of the wall was almost too much. She had to breathe deeply.
Breathe in for five seconds, hold your breath for five seconds, and breathe out for seven. What was it Doctor Brown suggested? He called it “grounding”.
“Find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This can help when you feel like you have lost control of your surroundings.”
It was too dark to see and the house felt very silent. Breathe, Hana.
The kitchen clock said five fifty-seven. Hana wrapped up tightly in the horrendous robe Claire had lent her. Why would anyone willingly wear fleece? So unsophisticated. Although she had only accepted it to be polite, she was grateful for it now. Sam’s house was unpleasantly cold. It was still too early for the heating to come on. She regretted turning down the fuzzy slippers. She had seen Claire put them back in the shoe cabinet, in the hallway. Could she take them now? No. That would be too intimate.
You’re not there yet.
The kitchen window was foggy. Hana wiped it with a palm of her hand and looked at the back garden. Empty and neglected, covered in snow and ice. Everything was dead. With the sun just about to rise, the kitchen was still dark. Hana didn’t even think about turning the light on.
“You should never allow artificial light to mix with sunlight,” her high-school teacher had once said. Hana had thought it absurd then. Still, out of some irrational fear, she internalised it as one of her life rules. Most of her adult life, between sunrise and sunset, Hana had never turned the lights on. Bad things are bound to happen if artificial light were to meet the sunlight.
She needed coffee. Black, one sugar. The cupboard was empty. All the cups were in the sink, none of them clean. The counter was covered with plastic containers, leftover food, piles of papers, handwritten notes, receipts. Hana was surprised by the disorder.
No washing-up liquid or sponge in sight. Hana reached for the cleanest-looking cup in the sink. It was bright yellow with The World’s Best Boyfriend! spelt in bright red letters, framed by a heart made of hearts. The other side of the cup read From My Heart to Yours. Hana smiled and rinsed the cup. She imagined Sam pretending to like it after receiving it as a gift.
While waiting for the kettle to boil, Hana started to load the dishwasher. Only half of the dishes fit, so she left the rest in the sink. She began tidying up the mess on the counter but stopped when she realised what she was doing might be interpreted as intrusive.
Alright. She put her dirty teaspoon down on a Post-it Note that said “Thanks, you’re the best, xxx!” She couldn’t find a bin anywhere anyway.
With the cup of coffee in her hand, she explored. Abstract drawings, black and white in thin black frames, hung on the walls. Their simplicity appealed to Hana. Sam must have chosen these. And those gaudy paintings of colourful flowers near the front door must have been Claire’s choice.
Behind a shut door, the lounge. The door handle was wobbly. She could fix it tomorrow. She’d enjoy working around the house. She pulled the heavy carmine curtains open. It was lighter outside. The road glistened with a thick layer of fresh snow. There was no one on the street, but the lights were on in the house across. Hana looked away.
The lounge was small and simple, but cosy. In the corner, next to the window, a tall, narrow bookshelf. Cookbooks, travel guides, self-help books. Claire was making herself comfortable here. Hana pulled a book off the shelf. “The Art of Positivity”. How banal. She tore out a few pages, scrunched them and stuffed them into her back pocket before she put the book back. Did Sam keep his books in his bedroom? He probably liked reading in bed.
Footsteps shuffling in the bedroom above. Hana stood still for a moment, listening. Someone hurrying down the stairs. She quickly sat down on the sofa, expecting Claire or Sam to storm into the lounge. She’d hate for Sam to think she was being nosy. But no one came in. Instead, she heard the front door slam.
Through the window, she watched Sam rushing down the road in his pyjama trousers, untied snow boots and a bright, red jacket. She stopped breathing until he had turned the corner and she couldn’t see him anymore. With her eyes closed, she counted to sixty-seven. Her lucky number.
If he comes back by sixty-seven, you are meant to be together!
Hana smiled. When she opened her eyes in expectation, he wasn’t there.
Back in the guest room, her head was foggy.
Stay calm and breathe.
Five things Hana could see: pale wallpaper peeling slightly in the corner of the room, a grey pull-out sofa, her unpacked bag on the floor, her reflection in the window, snow on the tree outside.
Four things she could touch: a woven carpet, white cotton sheets, rough edges of the wooden cabinet, condensation at the bottom of the window.
Three things she could hear: knocking sound of the heating, water running in the bathroom sink, Claire humming.
Two things she could smell: washing powder, Claire’s shower gel.
One thing she could taste: soap underneath her fingernails.
Things were not going the way she had imagined. She should leave. Come back another time.
As Hana got off the futon, she heard the front door opening again. Sam shouted, “I’m back!” and Claire exclaimed, “Thank you, love!” as she rushed down the stairs. Loud peck, front door slam. Claire’s probably gone to work.
There you go, relax, he’s back.
They needed to get out of this house. She could suggest a brunch in town. They could visit a gallery afterwards. Then a drink. Or two. They needed to re-connect. It would be alright then.
Downstairs, the lounge door was open. Sam was sitting in the armchair, his eyes focused on the wall in front of him. He didn’t look up.
“I saw you go out this morning.”
“I went out to clean the snow off Claire’s car before she left for work.” It was impossible not to detect the irritation in his voice.
“That was nice of you. Is Claire too precious to do it herself?” Sam glared and Hana hesitantly sat on the edge of the sofa.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Claire seems nice.”
“Claire’s great. She’s amazing,” Sam stood up. “What are you doing here, Hana?”
“I wanted to see you again.”
She hadn’t been able to get him out of her mind for the past six months. Sam’s stripy green and yellow socks. His relaxed face as he drank black coffee with one sugar out of a white porcelain cup. His hand on the small of her back as he waved down a taxi for her. Sam’s gentle kiss on the forehead when she asked him never to leave.
“Hana, we agreed nothing was going to happen between us.”
What’s he talking about?
That day Sam had whispered in her neck: “I like you, Hana. There’s something different about you.” She knew he meant it.
“Who did you tell Claire I was?”
“A colleague from abroad. I said you had missed your flight home and you didn’t know where else to go. She felt bad for you.”
“So, you lied to her?”
“What was I supposed to say?” Sam raised his voice.
Hana sat up straight, hands in her lap. Shouting made her ears buzz. It blurred her thoughts.
“Listen, Hana,” Sam tried a softer approach. “I got carried away that night in Prague. I know it seemed as if we had a connection. I was stressed about Claire moving in, and I was under a lot of pressure at work, and… It felt good to flirt with someone. But I have a serious girlfriend.”
“You were going through some stuff yourself, you said. I thought we were on the same page. That evening was fun, but we don’t know each other.” He paused. “We’re not friends.”
“Right.” Hana didn’t know what to say.
“This is incredibly awkward, Hana.”
Two steps forward, turn. Two steps forward, turn. In his brown slippers, Sam seemed a lost boy, storming around after having been put in time-out.
“I’ll find you a room if you need to stay in town. I can pay for it. I’ll give you some cash.” He looked at Hana expectedly.
Why is he saying this?
He’d pay her to leave him alone. Was he scared of his own feelings? Was he worried Claire might find out?
You aren’t welcome here.
“I’m sorry I bothered you. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Hana searched for the words. “You’re right. We don’t even know each other. Coming here was a mistake. I should go.”
“Yes.” Sam stepped towards the door. “Thank you.”
Six months and seventeen days ago, Sam had thanked her for an amazing and unforgettable night as he kissed her goodbye. Now he was thanking her for leaving him alone. How to say goodbye this time? Should she shake his hand? Hug him? Simply get up and leave?
“I’ll see you around, I guess,” Hana shrugged.
“Right.” Sam chuckled uncomfortably.
Doctor Brown had described Hana as delusional. Funny coming from someone who should’ve retired twenty years ago. He said she was too quick to idolise and to attribute people with qualities she wanted them to possess. Apparently, Hana tended to imagine a romantic connection where it didn’t exist. Whatever. He got it all wrong.
She hadn’t been stalking Oliver, Oliver had wanted her around. The police were just incidental. His stupid girlfriend got hysterical. Always dramatic, overreacting, needed to be the centre of attention. Hana had only shown her the knife as a joke. It had all gotten a bit much for Olly. Poor Olly. So sensitive.
Hana was starting to think that her doctor might have been right about one thing, though.
Maybe you aren’t such a good judge of character, Hana. You thought Sam was gentle, kind and thoughtful.
He is clearly none of those things.
Five things she could see… Five things: a blue vase with fresh red roses on the coffee table. A black and white photograph of Claire kissing Sam’s smiling face on the wall…
Hana couldn’t do it. Sam had lied about liking her. He had made Hana fall in love with him. And now he wanted her out of his life. Out of his perfect, cosy house, with his perfect, chipped-tooth girlfriend. Blood rushed to her head. She had trouble breathing.
“I’ll just grab a glass water,” Hana headed towards the kitchen. “If that’s okay.”
“Sure,” Sam followed her, eager for her to leave. “Anything else you need before you go?”
“I’m fine, thanks!” said Hana, perhaps a little too loudly. Without thinking, she flipped the light switch next to the door. Copper pendant lights above the counter turned on. Sunlight mixed with the artificial light.
“What’s this cup?” Hana turned the cup over in her hand. The World’s Best Boyfriend! From My Heart to Yours.
“It was an anniversary gift. From Claire.”
“It’s hideous,” Hana smashed it against the counter.
“What the—?” Sam stared in surprise.
Hana glanced at the sharp edges of the piece still in her hand before she quickly swung the point through the air, into Sam’s neck.
That’s right! He deserves this!
There was a look of surprise and terror in Sam’s eyes as he slid to the floor, holding his neck. Low gurgling noises.
So unattractive. Look at him, wriggling like a worm.
Hana leaned against the kitchen counter for a second before she turned the light back off. Admittedly, she had lost control a bit. She’ll give grounding a try. Breathe. Here we go.
Five things she could see: Claire’s navy dress over the back of the chair, a bowl of biscuits on the table, frozen bushes in the garden, snow. Her own blurry reflection in the window.
Four things she could touch: the kitchen counter, shattered glass, the kettle, the sink. She wouldn’t want to touch anything in this filthy house.
Three things she could hear: the kitchen clock, the rubbish removal truck on the street outside, her own breathing.
Two things she could smell: spilt coffee, Sam’s strong aftershave mixed with a pungent metallic smell.
One thing she could taste… She’d have to make another cup of coffee.
Hana was feeling sad and lonely. Her heart just got broken. And she needed to look out for herself, to guard her heart. Even if that sometimes meant hurting others. She needed a break. She deserved some peace. Maybe she could go somewhere warm? Lay in the sun, have some cocktails, read a little, relax. Treat herself. Get some sleep, finally.
You’re okay, Hana. Just breathe.
She’ll meet someone new. Someone genuinely kind and gentle. She’ll take her time to properly get to know him. She’ll do better this time. She’ll learn from her mistakes.
The kitchen light came on again. Lost in thought, Hana was startled by a scream. She looked up.
See. Five things. Claire’s chipped front left tooth in her wide open mouth, red metal garbage bin in Claire’s hands high above her head, induction pots in the open lower kitchen cabinet, soles of Sam’s slippers, grey tiles splattered with blood.
Touch. Four. Bread crumbs on the floor, bright yellow shards of porcelain, a tooth near Sam’s foot, hair sticky with blood.
Hear. Three. Claire screaming, a buzzing in her head, her own groaning.
Smell. Two. Coffee, rusty iron.
Taste. Blood. More blood.
Close your eyes, Hana. Get some rest at last.
Hana wanted to tell Claire to turn the kitchen light off. Bad things happen when artificial light meets the sunlight.