Steel, Tears, and Everything in Between
Olivia Ehrle

I kept your sweater til the scent was gone
Wrapped up in my hands
When the days were long
But I’m still sniffing
I walk alone on concrete with the living
Third Eye Blind, “Palm Reader”

Bardot Bentley’s eyes avoided the stars as she treaded through downtown Chicago, cradling her MP3 player in the palm of her hand. It was nearly one in the morning, but she didn’t care. No one was waiting by the door anymore, eager to see her face come smiling through it. A toothless hobo on the corner cried out to her as she walked past, “Change!?! You got change, Pretty Missus? A woman like you got to have change.” Not the kind of change she wished she had.
She threw a dollar in his cup, even though she had several tens in her wallet. Her heart was as cold as the snow that dusted the hard city pavement beneath her feet, and she knew it. She flinched as a memory swept her away with the wind. Her mind was paper thin, it didn’t take much to blow it backwards to the past.
Just last winter she had been strolling by a homeless man with Aidan on a bitter night like this. Aidan had refused to give him cash, but instead went into the nearest pizza joint and bought him the largest pepperoni pie he could carry. Had that really only been last year? It felt like centuries ago.
It was his scent that haunted her most. Sometimes she would walk into their closet, where his sweaters, suits and pants still hung and a surge of Old Spice would fill the air. A few times she had even turned and expected to see his arms outstretched. She would lean into him and squeeze her arms tightly around his waist, their nightly ritual, only to nosedive into the carpet. He wasn’t there. He wouldn’t ever be there again.
“There’s no need to claw at me, Woman.”
Those were both the first and last words Aidan Bentley had spoken to her. Bardot’s freshman year of college at NYU, she had an affinity for fake nails. She also couldn’t seem to kick her habit of tripping on a daily basis. On a freezing November day, leaving the library with piles of books in her hand, a friend called out to her and as she turned to respond, gravity bested her for the umpteenth time. She tripped gracelessly into the person walking toward her, her nails getting caught in his maroon sweater, pulling him down on top of her, her books falling from the sky like rain.
“Ah!” He exclaimed, in evident pain as Bardot’s nails pierced through his skin. “There’s no need to claw at me, Woman!” He began to laugh, and she began to sob as she removed her hand from his sweater. His gray eyes examined her in a mix of horror and amusement, “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
She exhaled shakily, “My back . . . hurts like hell.”
She had landed on her back, and pain was searing through her body at an alarming rate. He sat up swiftly and his voice softened, “I’m gonna lift up your shirt, okay? I promise I’m not feeling you up. I want to make sure you’re okay.”
She nodded, and he peeled her shirt upwards. “That can’t be good. Your back is bleeding profusely, you probably need to get to the hospital.”
Another bout of pain shot through her, “Thanks for the prognosis, Dougie, can you get me to a hospital or not?” She snapped.
“Whoa there, Tigress. No need to pounce on me, I’ve got your back. Ha, ha. Literally.” She laughed through her tears. He picked her up, and began sprinting towards the parking lot. He stopped in front of what appeared to be a black, broken down, child-molester van and opened the door.
She clung to his shoulder. “I’m not riding in that thing. It’s not sanitary.”
He sighed, “I’m working on it. It’s my junker of the month. I buy cars, pimp them out and then sell them on Craig’s List. This vehicle is in terrible condition right now, I’ll give you that. If you had decided to nearly kill yourself next month rather than today, you’d be happy to ride in this beauty. But right now, this van is your only option. Other than paying four hundred bucks for an ambulance or bleeding out. What do you say?” Bardot began to sob even harder.
She needed to throw up. Her stomach began to lurch as the agony pulsated through her back. “I can’t ride in that! Is it even drivable? It’ll probably collapse on the way there!”
He rolled his eyes and laid her down gently in the back seat. She screamed as the seat rubbed up against her wounds. “Shh! Sweetheart, shh.” He knocked his fist against the side of the van, “This is 100% pure steel. Did you know that steel doors are fireproof? Come rain, come fire, this van will get you where you need to be. I’ll get you where you need to be. Come rain, come fire, I promise I won’t let us go plummeting to our deaths. Consider me steel.”
Bardot groaned as her tears continued to slide down her face, “Consider me tears, because all I can seem to do at the moment is cry.”
He chuckled, as he leaned in to close the door, “A few more falls like that, and I promise you’ll be steel before you know it. It only makes you stronger, beautiful.”
Aidan stayed with her all night at the hospital as the doctors stitched her up. Two years later they were engaged, four years later they married, and six years after that she stayed with Aidan all five months he was dying of cancer.
The doctors tried to heal him. They failed. The night he died, he took her hand and kissed it. She crawled into the hospital bed with him and buried her head into his chest. “Don’t leave,” she begged.
“I have to. You have to let me go. It’s your turn to be steel, Babe. I can’t be it for you anymore.” He wheezed and wiped the tear cascading down her cheek.
“I can’t live without you.” She sobbed, fully aware of how desperate and clichéd she sounded.
“If you really think that, then I’m glad I’m dying. If my strength is gone from this world, you’ll have no choice but to find your own. Bardot, you have to let go. I love you. Let go of me. Let go of me, Babe.” She dug her fingers into his shoulder blade, like she had when he had carried her out to the van twelve years before.
He closed his eyes, and barely caught his breath, “There’s no need to claw at me, Woman.” So she let go of him. He flatlined an hour and twenty minutes later.
Now, after a year, she was still nothing but tears, walking down this ghost of a boulevard. This morning on her way to work, the street had been full of life but was desolate and empty now that the business day was done. A small dark haired man crouched in the corner by the liquor store, staring at her.
She quickened her pace. “HEY! DO YOU LIKE ART!?!?” He called after her. She ignored him and continued up the street, slowly reaching for the pepper spray in her pocket. “I’VE BEEN WORKING ON A MURAL! I NEED INPUT! PLEASE! NO ONE ELSE IS AROUND THIS TIME OF NIGHT! IT’S MY FIRST TIME WORKING WITH STEEL AS A CANVAS!” Every instinctual bone in her body screamed for her to keep moving, but her heart was begging her to stop. Steel?
She dug around in her purse and pulled out her pepper spray. “You can show me, but if you try anything, I have 9-1-1 on speed dial and plenty of chemicals in this bottle to put you in misery for hours on end.” Her voice didn’t waiver.
The man nodded and motioned around the corner. “Yes, Ma’am. I understand. It’s back here. Follow me.”
Keeping the pepper spray steady out in front of her, she followed him to the back of the liquor store. An old, dented black van stood tall and proud in the alleyway, it’s paint swirled with deep red and gold A’s—on the passenger side of the van in bold cursive, it read “Let go.” She dropped to her knees and glanced backwards to thank the artist for his work. He was gone. She rose to her feet and dried her eyes. She was steel.