Milo’s grip faltered as he stepped into the dining room. The champagne bottles he’d been carrying clattered as they hit the tabletop. One wobbled wildly, but remained upright. The other fell on its side and rolled a couple inches toward the center of the table, then stopped. The liquid inside the perturbed bottle bubbled furiously, not unlike Milo’s gut.
He chewed his bottom lip as Sylvie, unfazed by Milo’s movements, continued to light candles on the table with a struck match. Her hands were fluid, steady, sure of themselves. Inside the ring of evenly spaced tealights, a skull grinned at Milo.
“Isn’t that a little morbid?” he asked.
The dancing flames illuminated Sylvie’s blond curls. “It’s ambiance.”
Milo stared at the skull on the table. “Ambiance.”
“Yeah.” Sylvie smiled at him. She raised her matchstick and blew out the flame, her work done.
Milo righted the fallen champagne bottle, his eyes glued to Sylvie’s unorthodox centerpiece.
He didn’t like the skull. It was too realistic. The grooves of the replica were intricate, the bones colored in such a way to resemble various stages of decomposition, and some sort of material resembling either dirt or moss was sprinkled across the skull.
There was something about the macabre display that made him want to run. To pump his legs as hard as they’d go. To get as far away from it as possible.
“Have you decided what you’re letting go of tonight, my sweet?” Sylvie asked.
The New Year’s Eve party had been Sylvie’s brainchild. She had this grand idea of inviting friends over not to watch the ball drop and exchange kisses at midnight, but to sit around a bonfire and participate in a kind of cleansing ritual. Everyone was encouraged to bring an item that symbolized something they wanted to let go of, to leave behind in the past.
“It’s about shedding what you don’t need anymore,” Sylvie had stated proudly. “Starting fresh.”
Though he and Sylvie were hosting the party, the assignment had left Milo stumped. He didn’t have regrets. His memories were mostly sweet. He didn’t feel a need to start anew. He had a blank piece of notebook paper in his pocket, which he planned to sacrifice to the flames. He’d make up an elaborate story about it when everyone arrived.
Sylvie must’ve read the hesitation in his features. “It’s okay. I took care of it for you.”
Milo frowned. “You did? You have something for me to burn?”
Sylvie moved closer and started tearing the foil off the bottles of champagne. “Uh huh.”
“Great. Uh, thanks.” Milo shoved his hands in his pockets. He tried to focus on Sylvie, but a creeping feeling that the skull in the center of the table was…observing him…slithered through his consciousness, leaving coldness in its wake. “So, what is it?”
Sylvie chuckled and inclined her head over her shoulder.
Milo frowned. “You want me to burn that poster?”
“No, silly,” Sylvie said. “The centerpiece.”
“The skull?” Milo asked, puzzled. “Why would I do that?”
Sylvie moved next to Milo and nuzzled into his side, her arms around his waist. Out of habit, Milo pulled her close. Sylvie’s hair smelled earthy and sweet, a mixture of her coconut shampoo and the outdoors. They both gazed at the skull.
“You don’t recognize her?” Sylvie asked.
Milo squinted. She was asking if he recognized the skull? Had they seen it out shopping recently?
“Costume shop clearance bin?” he asked, hoping the answer was that simple.
Sylvie squeezed Milo tight and sighed. “I got it while I was running errands earlier.”
“Okay…” Milo said.
“I got it from Whispering Meadows.”
A flash of adrenaline shot through Milo. His hands slipped from Sylvie’s shoulders. His stomach turned. She’d been to Whispering Meadows?
“You talk about Lily all the time, my sweet,” Sylvie said. “To be honest, it hurts my feelings, how much you used to love her.” She sighed. “Sometimes, I feel…like I’m a third wheel to her memory.”
Milo stuck his nose in Sylvie’s hair and sniffed. There it was, the smell of fresh dirt, ripe and pungent and so very real. Milo stared at the skull, realization coursing through his chest like poison.
“Don’t you think it’s time? Grief can be so heavy. And I want us to be closer.”
“You…you…?” The questions, the accusations, the screams were caught in his throat.
“Yes,” Sylvie said. “I did this for you. For us.”
He’d loved Lily fiercely. Continued to love her fiercely. She’d been taken from him in a snarl of fire and metal in a busy intersection five years prior.
Milo’s eyes swept from the freshly excavated skull of his ex-girlfriend to the golden crown of Sylvie’s head. He was trembling wildly, partly from fear, but mostly from rage. In the light of the dining room, Sylvie’s blond hair resembled bright, white-hot flames, the kind that seared and scalded.
As those flames snuffed out the love for Sylvie he’d previously held in his heart, an idea took shape. Fighting through his growing disgust, he encircled Sylvie in his arms. He gripped her desperately, but no longer out of love.
“Thank you,” he said into her hair, “for showing me exactly what I need to let go of tonight.”
Yes, excellent! GOOD LUCK with placing it soon.
That was terrific!!