I turn into the park grounds. The grass stands at attention, rendered stiff with a coating of frost. It crunches beneath my tread, and with a childish urge, I glance back and see my footprints. Looking forward again, I spot Zeb sitting on the bench, huddled inside his coat, one much like a quilted sleeping bag. He lifts his head at my approach, and his eyes sparkle beneath the peak of his woollen cap. My tummy flip-flops.
"Hello," I say and peer at the bench. He's dusted off the frost.
"Hello," he says, pats the space beside him.
I sit and stuff my hands into the opposing sleeves of my coat for warmth. "How's your--"
"Gone?" What a silly answer, Jerry. Top marks for stupidity.
"I'm sorry." I squeeze my forearms, a rhythmic comfort.
Startled, I stare at his profile. He's looking at the sky again, at the moon and the stars and the thin grey clouds. I gulp and ask, "What?"
His wry chuckle indicates his grief, and he lights a cigarette, inhales so deeply I fear he'll swallow his lips. "It's for the best. He was...in a lot of pain near the end." Smoke billows out with each word, dissipating in the chill breeze. "He...he, umm, wanted to go before Christmas. So I could," he swallows, "be free for the festive season."
His laugh is full of bitterness, anger, and...guilt?
I don't know what to say, so opt for the usual platitude. "At least he's at peace now."
"Yes, there is that." He sighs, loud and weary. "So, you got out for another evening, then." His cigarette end glows and reminds me of the ember nuggets in a bonfire.
I smile a little. "I got away for good, like I said I would last time we met."
His eyes widen, and he faces me. "You did?"
"I did." My smile hurts my cheeks, and it feels so wrong to smile when he's grieving, so obviously full of pain.
"That's wonderful!" My news appears to have perked him up. A blush--or is that a wind chill burn I hadn't noticed before?--suffuses his cheeks, and his mouth stretches wide. His eyes, though, they narrow, and a frown births two deep grooves between his eyes. "Did he...did he hurt you? Did he cause trouble?"
"Surprisingly, no. It took all my courage to tell him, and I waited for the slaps, the kicks, but they never came. Instead, he cried. A lot."
Zeb grimaces. "Did that make you feel bad?"
I tilt my head and consider his question for a second or two. "No. No, it just got on my nerves. I sound mean, but if you--"
"No need to explain. I understand. My mother...endured a man like him."
I squeeze my arms again. "Oh." I rush on. "I'm so happy I could burst, yet I feel bad about it because you're--"
"No need. You deserve happiness. Besides, awful as it may sound, I'm happier than I've been in years too. I'm struggling with the guilt of that, though."
"I bet you are."
He lights another cigarette, offers me one. I move to take it, then remember my hands are stuffed in my coat sleeves.
"Oh. Daft bastard." I pull one hand free, my cheeks burning, and take the cigarette. "Thanks."
We smoke two cigarettes each, neither of us speaking, the silence a comfort rather than being awkward. Just to sit beside him, it seems, is enough. How can I feel this way after three meetings? How did I feel like this after two? One? I don't know. Some things just happen. Just are. No explanation.