Erzsika looked into the water of the Danube as it flowed under the bridge and saw empty brown eyes stare back at her until they became distorted by ripples caused by her tears. She went to her aging apartment and sketched the image that she saw. The ugliness of it horrified her and she tore it into pieces then threw them out the open window. They fluttered into the street and disappeared into the darkness like the happiness of her life.
The Budapest Hospital offered no relief as she listened to complaints all day long. Then she saw Stefan as he offered financial advice to a foreigner in the bank he worked at. "Erzsika," he called out. She tried to ignore him but he chased her. "I'm sorry about last night. I was just upset from work. I've been under a lot of stress here."
She looked into his blue eyes and felt her heart beat quicker. She wanted to walk away but her feet froze. "It's okay," she said without thinking.
"Great, I'll see you later." He returned to the client when she looked back.
"Nurse," someone yelled. She hated how weak she became. When he saw her talk to another doctor he became mad and hit her when he got home. She became an expert at using makeup to cover the bruises.
She walked home through downtown and stopped at the Terror Museum. She took out her sketch book as a group of short-haired men gathered. They seemed angry and she became afraid. Then one of them pointed at a man across the street and they ran toward him. The man appeared to be a Gypsy and they yelled at him. He turned and tried to walk away. They attacked him and knocked him down. Many of them kicked him. The violence caused her to panic. She covered her eyes and chills went up her arms and the bruises on her faced stung.
It became quiet and Erzsika hoped it was just some kind of daytime nightmare. Then she heard moaning and saw the man on the ground. The hoodlums left and other passersby walked around him. The nurse in her awoke. She ran to him and gasped. Blood ran out his nose and ears. His face was badly bruised. She tried to calm him and called for help. "Your name?" he asked.
"You're an artist."
She realized she still held the sketch book. "No, a nurse."
Help arrived and they took him to the hospital. Upset she walked straight home without finishing her sketch of the museum.
The apartment overlooked a park and she enjoyed the serentity there often. She knew not far away her grandmother died fighting the Russians in 1956. Died for a short lived freedom that she thought was senseless and accomplished nothing but many deaths.
Her phone rang and Stefan said, "I'll be home late. Busy day here."
"Okay," she said. Then she heard the drone of the unconnected line. No "I love you." If only she had the strength to leave him.
The next day the hospital seemed empty. So much for his supposed busy night. The patient in the first room she went into startled her. The Gypsy she saw get mugged was in the bed. He looked bad with many machines hooked up to him. "Marta, how is he?" she asked the other nurse there.
"Not good. He can speak but just a little. His head injuries and trauma are worrisome."
He raised his hand toward her, "Hello artist."
"You know him?" Marta asked.
"Maybe," she said afraid to tell her about watching what happened and doing nothing.
He waved her to come closer. "Don't worry. Let me see your smile."
She couldn't. She read his chart. "Pali, how do you feel?" A dumb question, she thought.
"Wonderful." He smiled.
She just stared back. He asked, "What's your name?"
"Can you draw me a picture?"
"A picture of what?"
"What's inside of you? Why you don't smile?"
"No. I can't draw that."
Who was this man who she watched get mugged while she did nothing? Why is he not mad at her?
"Erzsika," Stefan shouted. She shook. Pali watched and saw her fear.
"I'm sorry I got home after you were asleep. Lots of late night transactions in the bank," Stefan said.
"That's okay. Today I need to go clean out my mother's apartment." Her mother died a few months ago.
"Okay." His phone rang and he walked away while talking. She looked down at the penetrating eyes of the Gypsy.
"Bye," she said. He just made the motion of drawing.
Her mother's apartment was in the Buda section of the city. It smelled moldy and dust covered everything that remained. There wasn't much there but old memories. Her father died when she was six years old. Her mother became stagnant and isolated. She moved in with Stefan to escape the isolation she felt. In the remaining boxes she found some photos. One showed a girl with blonde curls holding a machine gun. She looked so pretty but at the same time showed a fierce glare that she envied. On the back was her grandmother's name. How she wished she had the toughness she showed. Her grandmother was a freedom fighter.
She went home to the apartment and took out her sketch book. She thought of Pali's request. She took out a black pencil and drew a small girl holding a doll with scars on its face.
Stefan came in as she finished. "Are you drawing cartoons?" He crumpled it up.
"I'll show you feelings." He grabbed her waist and pulled her into the bedroom.
"Not tonight," she said but he forced her into the bedroom and had his way.
In the morning she saw Pali. He looked worse but smiled when she approached. He insisted in seeing the sketch. She smoothed it out and showed it to him. He pointed at the girl. "You?"
She nodded as a tear welled up in the corner of her eye. He put it aside and asked, "Do me one more favor, please."
"Sketch me a picture of what you want to be like."
"Please." She saw the look in his eyes of a man who didn't have long to live. How could she resist?
"Okay." He closed his eyes. She left the hospital later and thought about his request. That night as Stefan slept she sketched for hours. She left before he was awake and brought the sketch to Pali.
He awoke when she came in but he couldn't move his hands. "Show me."
She unfurled the sketch. He gasped. "My God. It's beautiful. The sketch resembled the picture of her grandmother.
"Stunning," he said. "It's you."
"No. My grandmother."
He shook his head. "No. It's inside you."
She shook her head. He stared at the picture and shook his head. "I see that inside you."
She walked to the bank and saw that Stefan's door was closed.
She sat and waited until he came out. When he opened the door he was holding hands with a lady with blonde hair dressed in a blue dress. He kissed her on the lips.
He gasped, "Erzsika, what are you doing here?
"Who is that?"
"This is Sofia. She's new. I'm just showing her around."
She turned and ran down the halls and out the doors. She passed the Terror Museum and reached her apartment then fell onto the bed and cried. She packed clothes into boxes.
Stefan arrived later. He saw the boxes and became furious. "Where are you going?" He threw a box down and she saw the picture of her grandmother. He approached her slowly.
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am." She grabbed a knife off the kitchen counter.
"You won't use that."
Fear gripped her but she thought of her grandmother. "Stay away from me."
He kept coming and she noticed his fists were clenched. Her cheeks stung and screamed in anticipation of pain. He came within a foot and she caught a whiff of perfume that wasn't hers. His arm rose. She thrust the knife forward until it hit softness then she pushed harder. His fist met her eye as she tried to step back. Blackness filled her vision but only for a second. She hit the floor with a thud but hurried to her feet. He slumped to his knees while clenching his stomach as blood flowed onto the floor. "Help me," he cried.
Her eye swelled up as she blinked back tears. She called the police and waited outside. She moved into to her mother's apartment.
With a swollen black eye she went to see Pali. She squeezed his hand and smiled. The next day she walked toward his room and Marta called her, "Wait, Eriszika."
"I'm sorry but he passed away last night."
Erzsika ran into his room saw the empty bed. On top of it were her sketches. She collapsed on them and tears flowed onto the pictures causing them to become distorted.
After the memorial service she went to the bridge over the Danube. She looked at her reflection and saw a smooth clear face. Then she looked closer as a face appeared next to hers. She stepped back. It looked like Pali.
A man with an uncanny resemblance to Pali stood in front of her. "I'm Pali's brother. I saw you at the service and the hospital. Before he died he said to give you these." He handed her a box of brightly colored pencils. "He said only you brought him the colors of life while darkness engulfed him." She looked down into the Danube and for the first time saw the clear reflection of her own smile.
BIO: William Falo lives in Southern New Jersey with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has appeared in the Northwoods Journal, 55 words, Zapata, Pens on Fire, Brilliant, Bewildering Stories, Long Story Short, The Greensilk Journal, Yellow Mama, Shalla Magazine, Skive Magazine, ShatterColors Literary Review, Sage of Consciousness, Delinquent, Mississippi Crow, 34th Parallel, Frame Lines, eMuse, and Shine and is forthcoming in Delivered, Bottom of the World, and Conceit Magazine.