It always rains on Juliet's side of the road. The shoes she likes never come in her size. The pay rise promised to her is postponed yet again. The friend she wants to meet has made other plans. 'Let me out of this world,' she screeches, when her work phone goes off at four o'clock in the morning. Her umbrella never stands a chance.
Nor is solace to be found in cyberspace. Worms frequently attack her e-mail. Six times in the past year, hackers have taken her Visa numbers. Last Wednesday, she Googled her name and discovered that very night she was to be executed by lethal injection at a correctional facility in Texas.
Cycling home from work in the rain, I often receive a text message: Play the Lotto - You are luckier than me. When she finally gets home herself, her drenched expression says it all: Life is disappointing. For some reason, she puts me in mind of the little boy let down by his Christmas trip to Lapland because Rudolph didn't have a red nose and throwing snowballs was forbidden.
Since Juliet made friends with misfortune we have been going to bed early. There is never anything on television. We've listened to all our CDs. Some time ago, we threw out our board games. We may as well be in bed as anywhere, we concluded, raising our eyebrows at each other.
In the bedroom, we draw the curtains, slide inside the covers and turn on our bedside lamps. Juliet watches a moth dance in the glow, absentmindedly files her nails, wishes awful things upon her boss. From time to time she swears tomorrow is her last day. I pull out my locker drawer, flick through my collection of bookmarks, peek inside my Credit Union book to remind myself I can get through tomorrow. From time to time I contribute gruesome methods to seeing off Juliet's boss.
Occasionally I read to Juliet. Occasionally she reads to me. I read from Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Juliet reads from 1,001 Things to Do Before You Die. I find Juliet's pre-death experiences utterly terrifying. She considers my rendering of Edgar Allen neither mysterious nor imaginative. So we put down our books and pop a Love Heart.
'What does yours say?' Juliet asks.
'Hug me,' I say.
'Fat chance,' she replies, showing hers.
We started popping Love Hearts last Halloween, just after we moved into our new home. Lots of others had moved out this way too, and Juliet bought a bumper bag of treats for the Halloween children. But on the night, they didn't knock on our door.
We were a little disappointed, as we had prepared ourselves for a long night of fun. Right inside our front door we placed two kitchen chairs. And between the chairs rested a large fruit bowl, into which were heaped the contents from the bumper bag of goodies. To ensure a level of comfort throughout the night ahead, Juliet even puffed up a pillow and placed it on her chair. While in the hallway, I fitted an evil-green light bulb and hung a Frankenstein skeleton to promote the seasonal mood.
Just after dark we sat into the chairs and waited for the first callers. We were sure it was just a matter of moments away. We could hear their giddy footsteps taking them from door to door, their trick-or-treat homilies, their shadowy rustlings. But, when our turn came, the children skipped silently across our driveway.
Contributing to our disappointment was the entertainment we had missed out on. I'm quite keen on the masks and scary death make-up the children put on. Juliet had been looking forward to a haphazard song, a bungled trick, a budding witch's cautionary tale.
'They're afraid of you,' I said to Juliet, gathering up the bowl of goodies.
'You look like the devil,' she replied, taking the bowl from me.
'There's always next year,' I offered.
'I'm going to bed,' Juliet announced.
Upstairs, she tipped the fruit bowl's contents onto our bed. It made quite a spectacle. Fruity Pops. Double Lollies. Chewy Drumsticks. Fizzer Kebabs. Our open-mouth looks said it all: The children had missed out.
We wasted little time. Initially, I was quite taken by the Fizzer Kebabs' explosive tang, while Juliet couldn't seem to taste beyond the Double Lollies' gummy stubbornness. Soon we were swapping sugary descriptions, teasing one another with newly discovered flavors, nibbling from each others selections.
Then we happened upon the Love Hearts. As soon as we did everything else became a minor consideration. And we started going to bed a little earlier.
What is wrong with me? Juliet often wonders, and I jump in with my answers. I tell her she is like that Christmas child returned from Lapland, a delicate flower that has been trampled on, a girl with a crush kicked down the stairs. A comment she makes at the end of a working week lets me know I am on the right track.
'Pieces of me are breaking away,' she claims. 'At this rate there'll soon be nothing left.'
'There's no need to be like that,' I say, but she just shrugs and offers a prayer parts of me do not start breaking off too. In all likelihood this prayer will be ignored.
Secretly, however, I think Juliet invites hardship. She thrives on the fact that hers is the shopping trolley that always jams. The lily that never blooms. The flip flop that gets caught in a moving escalator. After crumpling in a heap she will drag herself back up the stairs and ask to be kicked down again. And though she is convinced she is employed by the stupidest man in the country this perception never prevents her setting her alarm clock.
'You need to stop chasing difficulties,' I tell her, letting my secret out of the bag.
'I can't,' she sighs. 'There are countries on my shoulders.'
'I thought you were falling apart.'
'I'm a girl,' she answers. 'I'm allowed hold two views at the same time.'
Into the bedside stereo I place a new CD - some piano sonatas by Beethoven. The timeless harmonies of the music I am sure will melt away the land masses dragging down Juliet. However, we may as well be listening to fresh air. Besides, now that she has countries on her shoulders she'd rather check out some of the 1,001 things to do before death.
'We can drive a motorbike across Mongolia,' she says. 'Take a combine harvester through the African jungles. Live in an igloo for three months.'
The igloo really appeals to her. She likes the thought of being away from everybody, ice-fishing with the Eskimos, at one with the unremitting elements. She's even starts talking about canoeing an isolated stretch of Arctic Waterway.
'Edgar Allen says the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic topic in the world,' I tell her.
'And your point is?'
'Don't look to me when you fall out of the canoe and are bitten by a king crab.'
'Oh, good! You're coming too. I'll navigate. You can paddle.'
I take this opportunity to remind her that she cannot swim. Neither of us can. Something we discovered the other night, as it happens. 'Let's go skinny-dipping,' Juliet announced on our way home. Straightaway she stripped off and galloped into the ocean. Tentatively, I followed. Ahead of me, I could see Juliet - throwing her flimsy physique upon the onrushing waves. 'Further,' she bellowed, gesturing me towards her. 'Further.' Soon her words changed. 'I'm sinking,' she now shrieked.
When I reached her she was way out of her depth, thrashing the water as though possessed by unnatural spirits. Without warning she leaned a hand on my head and pushed me right under. 'How was the view?' she asked with a glint in her eye when we eventually scrambled back to shore. Then we popped a Love Heart.
'What does yours say?' she asked.
'Be Mine,' I answered.
'Forget it,' she replied, showing hers.
'We could bungee jump over the Angel Falls,' she says.
'More water,' I reply.
'What about trekking the deserts of Basra.'
'War zone,' I say.
'I'd love to visit the museum of deadly spiders.'
'It says here visitors displaying appropriate composure are allowed bunk up with the furriest spider. I suppose that would be a tarantula of some sort.'
'Juliet,' I say in my calmest voice. 'You are afraid of green flies. Two of them hopped out of our basil plant the other day and you ran upstairs. How will you cope with tarantulas?'
'Apples and oranges,' she replies.
To distract her from 1,001 things to do before death I show her a print of Van Gogh's Irises I picked up from our local gallery. The liberating colors I hope will unbind her from the restless whims assailing her.
'I've never seen a real iris,' she says, setting it down on the floor again. Instead she discovers fighter jets. In Lithuania they allow non-pilots fly them for thirty seconds.
'The price includes a certificate for bravery,' she remarks.
'How are you going to fly a fighter jet,' I plead. 'You can't even drive a car.'
'I was misunderstood,' she claims.
'That's always likely if you hold two views at the same time,' I tell her.
In fact neither of us can drive. We were both called to take the test on the same day - just a couple of Mondays ago. Juliet tried first. She looked right when she was turning left and a pedestrian had to duck for cover. Several minutes into my turn the tester asked me had I ever been to America. 'Why do you ask?' I answered, curious that he would question my travel habits at such a tense moment in my life. 'Because you like driving on the other side of the road,' he replied.
Juliet was devastated. 'There must be something wrong with you too,' she concluded, frowning deeply. I was so disappointed for her I enrolled us in the Last Chance Driving School. After a week of mounting kerbs, crashing gears, bickering and tears they ran us.
At the sweet shop beside the test centre we popped a couple of Love Hearts. Too Bad mine said. Get a grip said hers.
'Take an art appreciation course,' I suggest. 'Or wine tasting. Beginners Spanish perhaps. Bruising is kept to a minimum.'
'I don't have bruises.'
'If you go for a walk around Basra you will have. Not to mention permanent scarring.'
'Any scarring I have is invisible,' she says.
'I hear soul collage is very good for that.'
'We should stay right here,' she decides, pulling up the duvet. 'Underneath the covers. Just the two of us. And never set foot outside the door again.'
So there it is. One moment she wants to traipse across the Tundra and move into an igloo. Plunge dive a fighter jet. Hop into bed with tarantulas. Now she dare not ever again step beyond the bedroom door. Which is it to be? Then I remember what she said about the number of views girls can have at the same time.
I have her try several local remedies. Drinking. Watching golf. Walking up a mountain without shoes and socks. Upon the mountain we hunt butterflies and lapse into trances of mutual-preservation. But any relief is temporary. So we return to the bedroom.
In the bedroom, we draw the curtains, slide inside the covers, turn on our bedside lamps. For a time Juliet watches the moth dance. Switching attention to her nails she discovers there is nothing left to file. Meantime I open my Credit Union book and discover I am broke. Again I read to Juliet. Again she reads to me. Her depictions of life before death remain completely terrifying. My rendering of Edgar Allen still lacks mystery and imagination. So we put down our books and pop a Love Heart.
'What does yours say?' she asks.
'My doll,' I say.
'In your dreams,' she replies, sticking out her tongue.
About the author:
Alan McMonagle lives in Galway, Ireland where he recently completed an MA in Writing. His work has appeared in Irish journals including Southword, The Cuirt Annual, West47online and Crannog. He took second prize in the 2006 Sean O'Faolain short story competition and has been short-listed for others including the Fish International Short Story Award. More recently his fiction was chosen for inclusion in the Windows Publications Authors & Artists Introduction Series for emerging writers.