Iconic

His head sank between slight shoulder blades, and he went silent, seemed stuck on some barb of memory. Just then a buffet of wind struck the shelter and from a crack between the wall and its loose-boarded roof came a skirling of snow that drifted down on his shoulders like fairy dust. When some flakes touched the skin on his slender wrist, he began talking again, not looking at me, his voice low and strained.

He shook himself, almost a shiver, and when he spoke a moment later, his voice was softer than ever, as if it had been drained of energy, the words coming in little fits and starts.

“We knew the bailiffs were waiting at the house for us, knew that we were going there to take with us some belongings, but as we drove along in the bright whiteness of an autumn day, my father began to cry. That’s the last thing I remember before he drove the car off the New Jersey causeway into the Chautauqua Lake.” Santini paused again, then turned to me, and I was struck by the lucid green of his eyes, wet-rimmed and delicate like marble in ice.

“I remember the fall through the blue air and the sound of glass breaking and the rush of water, but mainly I recall my brother pushing me out of the car through the icy water. I reached my hand back for him, touched his fingers, but panic took hold of me and I kicked for the distant light. I don’t know why he didn’t make it out, or my parents, but I have often thought since then that I should have held him until we both either died or reached the surface. My fingers brushed his, the same way I… I grazed Batt’s hand just now as he fell. I… I don’t have the ability to save it seems.”

Santini tensed, as if he had thought of something. A flutter of fingers in the hollow of his throat, as if he were trying to touch something beneath his shirt, then the slender hand fell back to his side. He shook himself, almost a shiver, and when he spoke a moment later, his voice was softer than ever, as if it had been drained of energy, the words coming in little fits and starts.

“…took this job — my father had lined it up for… for my brother — I’m here where he should be — here and they are not — I… I can’t…”

I leaned into the long silence that followed this winnowing away of words, and I willed him to continue. The clanging of an ambulance bell drifted up from the streets through the downward muffle of snow, its sound a small rupture of the space between us.

I leaned into the long silence that followed this winnowing away of words, and I willed him to continue.

Santini said one more thing. One more thing that made me colder than the weather that was now swallowing the swaying pinnacle of building on which we stood.

“I’m finished, with everything — surviving is just too difficult, at least… alone.”

Two eyes shone and sparked at me in the dull light of the shelter, a single fleck of snow clinging to a dark lash. I wanted to tell him he wasn’t alone, had a deep urge to shove aside the pain I saw in the wan face floating in the murk before me. Yet, I said nothing.

He stood and went to pass me. I don’t know how I knew it, but I suddenly sensed the surge of some dark and deliberate determination in him. I grabbed him by his jacket, and I felt the lightness of him, saw his leaf-green eyes look at me in shock, as if they had been awakened from sleep, as if they had been informed of some new message in the depths of the night. However, a second later he shook his head again, that slight shivering motion of dismissal he had used earlier.

Then he did the strangest thing: reaching up and touching my cheek, a gentle caress of palm on the bristle of hair and bone, as if he were holding a chalice or a valuable piece of artwork. Nodding, he allowed his expression to shift into that smile of his, before he went back to where he had been crouched before. We sat in silence for an hour until the bosses declared the storm had passed, though it clearly hadn’t.

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