He was the sort of person who lathered, rinsed and lathered again - just because it said to on the bottle. She, on the other hand, often crossed at the traffic lights when the red man said not to cross. It was inevitable that things would eventually explode, but both ignored - or were ignorant of - this fact until they were so far into things that it was too late to change.
"Yes?" he said. The word hung in the air, impregnating it with impatience.
She paused, searching for a suitably delicate way to say what needed to be said. "There's been a... misunderstanding."
He looked up from the newspaper, fixing his intently-grey eyes on her face. He said nothing. Waited.
She hunted through her mind once more for another non-incriminating phrase, but her words failed her - he was the crossword one, not she. "Listen, Damien, about the rent... Ms. Myers says there's been a problem... says she didn't get paid." Although she didn't say anything more, the accusation was in her doe-brown eyes.
"You know as well as I do that money's tight right now," Damien said, although if money was tight, it had nothing compared to the tension in his voice. "Can't you just bake her some muffins or whatever. Get some extra time." He looked away from Sarah as he pulled the tab of another beer, pushing five empty tins aside as he did so.
"No, Damien, I want to know. Where's the money gone? Don't sit there with your beer and tell me there isn't any." This was the first time in ages that the petite brunette had attempted to contradict her husband, and although she held her chin high, her fingers nervously twisted a button on her jeans.
Damien slammed a fist on the plywood table, trying to a justifiably indignant expression. "Sarah, don't start with me. I've been working all day to try to get us out of this dump, and I don't even get to enjoy a cold one when I get back?" By the time he had finished, the cups on the table had settled back into their saucers.
But it's not just one, Sarah thought. "Well, what do we do?"
In the next apartment they heard their neighbour begin his daily sobbing, and it only infuriated Damien further. "Sarah, I don't need this. I-don't-fucking-need-this. I come home looking for peace and quiet, and all I find are more problems!"
The table shuddered as he got up, almost as if it mirrored Sarah's desire to get away. She drew back slightly, her timidity the last straw for Damien. "Don't wait up," he snapped, striding across the apartment and slamming his way out the door.
Even as her eyes misted - Damn the man! - Sarah still listened to her husband, simply by habit. His angry tread in the hallway, his curse - "Get out. Bloody drunkard." - his retreating footsteps on the stairs. And even as she collapsed against the thin wall to join the widower next door in his sobs, letting out several month's worth of bottled stress, all she could think about was that it was cold outside, and that he hadn't taken his coat. Maybe they shouldn't have married so young. Maybe they weren't even that compatible. Maybe. They'd had arguments before, of course, but this one was worse than usual - he'd sworn. "Last refuge of the person with a limited lexicon," he'd always said. An impending storm outside. Another in Sun Vista.
Damien, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his camel-coloured pants to keep the air from biting them. The air was almost electric with a storm to come, almost as if the city held its breath. Damien, kicking a tin can off the pavement and into the gutter as he walked along, mood as dark as the sky above. A city, holding its breath, Damien breathing heavily through his nose, muttering angrily inside his head. Has no right to tell me what to do, he snarled, but was rebutted by his conscience: She is your partner in all things. Stupid conscience, always having to be bloody right, always correcting. So, the money was gone, not all of it. They'd scrape through the month, as long as they cut a few costs here and there. I earn the money around here. Mine to spend. What does she do to help? Conscience: Holds you at night. Holds you whenever you hurt, even when she is not actually there. Complements you through her differences. Door clicks behind Damien. Friday night, and the regular crowd is in the half-lit bar, 925. Nine-to-five, if you will, and the bad name reflects the clientele it attracts, tired workers who only wish to commune with a drink, and the like-souls in the room.
"Usual, Damien?" It's the barkeep, John. It's always amused Damien, somewhat: John the Publican. Like something from the middle ages, but instead of laughing at John, who's also known as Big John, and never even needs to employ a bouncer, he simply nods.
"On the tab, John. Cheers," he adds, as a wet glass of beer is placed before him. John has the perfect tap style, when it comes to filling a glass, always achieving the perfect ratio between liquid and head, but somehow the glass always gets covered in the drink. Little matter.
"'Bout the tab..." John says, leaning forward on the bar to speak conspiratorially with Damien, or at least attempt to do so. No such luck.
"Yeah, I know." Damien's shrug is far more eloquent than his words, and John gives and understanding smile in return.
"I know you're good for it," the giant of a barkeep says, never one to aim for conflict, not that he's ever needed to, "So just when you can, yes?" He doesn't even wait for the nod he knows will be coming, but turns to serve the next worker.
Damien stays in 925 for an hour, not speaking to the other patrons, and quietly nursing his beer in the knowledge that Sarah was right - they can't really afford too many right now. She was a French teacher, although out of work right now, and his perfectionistic leaning had led to a job at the bank on Main Street. It had been a wonderful building in its day, white columns and imposing, but now it was being renovated, like most of the city. "It's the twenty-first century now, can't stay in the past forever," or so the council kept saying. By the time that the clock ticks over to seven pm, Damien's bad mood has evaporated, despite the rising wind and dropping temperature outside.
Catching Big John's eye and tipping his head in a nod of thanks, Damien slid off the barstool, wishing that he had taken a jersey with him. Stepping back out into the pewter-skied evening, Damien suppressed an anticipatory shiver as dead leaves blew around him in eddies. Storm's a-comin'. Even though he had told her not to wait up, assuming that he would be back late, Damien decided to return to Sarah, to tell her the truth about the money, about how the small debts he had created everywhere kept adding up. 925 being no exception. Shoving his hands deep into his pockets once more, Damien tucked his chin down into his collar, trying to trap what little warmth his body had created, and swept along the pavement in a long-legged stride. Past the bank where he worked, and an old delicatessen nearby... past clothing stores, cafés and restaurants. Home. To Sun Vista. To Sarah.
She sat at the kitchen table, elbows pressed against the wood, hands pressing into her closed eyes. Sarah didn't want to look around her, at the depressing sight of the home that she and Damien had forged in this part of town. Oh Damien, why? I don't understand. They were so different, maybe this whole thing had been one big mistake...
Sarah didn't look up as the door moved, nor when gentle fingers trailed across her drooped shoulders. It was only when they continued on their path, finishing under her chin and tilting her head up, that she opened her eyes. He's back.
"Sarah..." For once, Damien's usual eloquence failed him. He wasn't very good at apologising, didn't do it very often. "Listen. I'm sorry..." He glanced away, buying time to think, and took the seat opposite her, catching her hands in his own. A pair of brown eyes and a pair of grey eyes, magnetically pulled towards each other. Sarah didn't try to pull away, and nor did Damien.
"No, I understand," she replied softly, pressing her smaller fingers against his palm. "It's just- I can't handle this place much longer. And I need something to do during the day. I can't stand living here, the bubblegum blue walls, knowing the private lives of the neighbours through sound." She indicated a hole in the wall near the door, one that almost went the whole way through. "I'm sorry," she finished weakly, knowing she sounded like a child. She wanted to work, to contribute, but she hadn't yet found a position, and they had only just moved here. Damien's job was a starter salary, barely enough to cover the rent and necessities of the week.
"No, no, don't apologise. I'm the one who's sorry," Damien replied, a wry smile flickering to life on his lips. How very like you, Sarah.
The woman on the other side of the table gave a watery laugh, then stood to begin cooking.
11pm. No animals make noise; people in the corridors walk faster than usual. The wind has dropped in intensity, but grown colder, more deadly. Snowstorm.
Damien's eyes were open and unmoving in the dark room, shining in the light of the bedside clock. Red digits, burning in the cold night. Sarah shifted against his side, snuggling in further, seeming to seek protection from the cold. Neither of them could sleep - too much noise from next door.
"It's not like him," Damien said softly.
"No," Sarah agreed, just as quietly. "Do you think something's wrong?"
The old man next door was a considerate neighbour, always making sure that his television was turned off by nine o'clock, knowing how well sound travelled between the walls. And now... eleven pm, and still the couple could hear canned laughter, clapping, musical advertisements.
"I'll go check," Damien said, slipping his arm out from around Sarah, and sitting up in bed. Cold air hit his bare chest, and he sucked in his breath, reaching blindly for the nearby chair where he knew he had left a jersey. Padding softly out of the room, Damien made his way through the night-time gauntlet that was the apartment, and out the door. He suppressed a smile at the quiet snores emanating from nearer the stairwell - drunkard had made himself at home, it seemed.
Stopping at the neighbouring door, Damien ran a hand through his dark hair, neatening it slightly, then knocked. Three times, exactly.
Knocked again, twice.
Still no reply.
Hand hovering momentarily over the doorhandle, Damien made up his mind to open the door, just a crack. "Hello? Are you alright?" The television laughed at him in return, but there was no other sign of life from the apartment. Pushing the door open further, Damien navigated his way into the room, following the light emitted by the screen. A flopped hand, almost on the ground. Eyes drawn towards the hand, knuckles scraping the carpet - asleep? Damien approached cautiously, one foot in front of the other, and cleared his throat so that the old man didn't get a heart attack when he realised that another person was in here, since the back of the chair faced the door. "Sir?"
It only took one look at the older man's face to realise that there would be no reply.
"You're cold," Sarah said, running a hand across Damien's goosebumped chest, and wrapping her arms around him to share her warmth.
"I didn't even know his name," her husband replied, pulling her even closer, saddened at the night's discovery. He let out a sigh, then placed his chin above Sarah's head so that she could tuck into his neck. Neither of them spoke, but lay still, listening to the storm outside.