Flash Fiction Challenge: Must contain three things

Each Friday, the estimable Chuck Wendig posts a new Flash Fiction Challenge over on his blog, Terrible Minds. Because I haven’t done a lot of writing since I finished The Truth About Melbourne, I’m going to use Mr. Wendig’s prompts to help push myself back into it.

This week’s challenge is to randomly select one item from each of the three lists here. And what I got was this:

A talisman. Public drunkeness. A cave.

If Brian hadn’t been so drunk, he would never have walked so far.

But sobriety just wasn’t an option. Not that night. Not many nights at all, for the last five years, but that night, that anniversary, in particular.

Five years to the day since he had last seen Yvonne. Five years since he had carefully planned a picnic dinner by the river, and rehearsed how he would propose to her. Five years since she handed him a key and promised to come back for it as soon as she could. Five years, almost to the hour, that she had told him that if she didn’t come back for the key in five years’ time, she wouldn’t be back at all.

Five years that Brian had spent trying everything he could think of to find her.

The house she had lived in where none of the people – people who had been Yvonne’s friends and Brian’s too – remembered neither of them.

The university that had mysteriously managed to lose her records so entirely that there was no official proof she’d ever studied there, despite the fact that Brian had first met Yvonne when a tutor had paired them on a shared assessment with three other students.

The shop where she had worked, selling handmade toys for a charity, which now was a dry cleaners – and which had been for at least a decade.

The photographs, faded, lost, damaged by water or fire, or just missing her entirely.

Every street Brian walked down, he saw in double, what was there now and what he remembered. Sometimes it got so bad that he doubted his own sanity, and no time was worse than each year as the anniversary got nearer each year. And so he took to drinking. Beer first, then whiskey, then absinthe, his drinks getting stronger as his need for the truth grew stronger over the months and years.

And each morning, after drinking, he would wake up the same way: with an orchestra of carpenters tuning up in his head, tears still leaking from his eyes, and his hand clenched hard enough around the key Yvonne had given him, the key he now wore on a chain around his neck so that he might never lose it. Aside from the memories, it was all he had left of her.

And although his friends would tell him to move on, to let go of it all, he never could. Yvonne had been like nothing else. She was strange and wild and true in a way few people ever were, and she made him feel like he could be the same way. She made him believe in forever, and then she left him to endure it alone.

Not that he blamed her. Brian had never once spoken her name in anger these last five years. He trusted her implicitly, trusted her, not blindly, but so greatly that he surprised even himself. She had told him that she did not want to leave, that she had to, and that she would be back if ever she could be, and he had believed her all three times, and worried for her on the last.

She had wished that there was time to explain more to him, but there was not. He had spent every idle moment for five years wondering what it was that had dragged her away. What could possibly have such a claim on her soul, as great or greater than the claim she held upon his.

Today would be the last day, one way or another – but Brian was sure it would be one way. He had awoken around midday, and stumbled about his daily routine in a state of heightened tension, a mingling of fear and excitement. Today, he told himself. She will be back today.

The sun sank, and the shadows lengthened into twilight, and Brian began to drink. The first one, he told himself, was just to relax him a little, but the alcohol worked its familiar liberation upon his emotions, and his fear and anger came pouring out, equally with the drinks he kept pouring in.

After the moon rose, Brian was seized by the urge to return to the site where it had all gone wrong. It was a ways to walk, but he was too drunk to drive and besides, he felt like some exercise. He strode through the streets of the city, singing aloud all the songs they had shared in the days of their love. Songs to ennoble, or to inspire lust or laughter, or to make promises of the heart. Some of them were the songs of the golden oldies radio, some of them b-sides by bands who never recorded a second single. They were the soundtrack of their love, and Brian knew every word and every note of them.

It was nearly midnight when he finally reached the park. Even now, he still remembered the exact tree that they had sat beneath, the very angle that they had looked out across the waters from. So many times he had returned here over the years, to stand or sit, to wonder or rage or sorrow. He knew it by heart at any hour of the day or night.

He stood there, where he had knelt five years before, and wept unashamedly.

A fit of rage came upon him then, a fury at lost time and a wasted heart, and he ripped the key from its thong and made to throw it into the river. Finally, he told himself. Finally, let it be over.

On the opposite side of the river, a flame flared into life, then another. They moved apart, and Brian realised that they framed a small cave. One part of his mind told him that there had never been a cave there before, but he ignored it.

The flames did not seem forbidding, but rather, inviting. They flared warmly, lighting the metal gate that barred the entrance to the cave, and Brian started walking towards it before he even realised what he was doing. Only later would it occur to him that he had walked across the river without so much as wetting his feet. For now, the key in his hand drew him to the gate.

The key slipped into the lock as smoothly and satisfyingly as consummation, and the gate swung open. Brian, past all questioning, stepped inside and walked into the darkness.

After many steps, he saw a light ahead of him, and presently, he emerged into daylight. Yvonne was there, and she smiled to see him.

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