Birthday Song
by Nicole Clevenger

Adrian Monk is dreaming.

He is dancing, gliding across a smooth glass ocean of a polished ballroom floor. His shoes slip over the black and white tiles without hesitation, without distraction. There are no invisible lines here, no patterns to plan around or trip over. His eyes are closed, yet he is unafraid.

He has Trudy in his arms, and sure footing seems nothing short of guaranteed.

Her head is on his shoulder, her breath soft on his neck. Her long fingers wrap intimately around the outside of his hand, and her thumb traces feather light circles on the skin of his palm. This is something she always does, his Trudy - so often so that he suspects that she's long since ceased to notice the habit. But Adrian notices. Adrian notices everything.

The air around them is thick with laughter and music, clinking dinnerware and overlapping conversation. It swirls around him, but it does not settle. He is not weighed down by it. He is protected from it. He is part of it.

Trudy shifts against him, a contented humming bubbling up from her throat. Adrian's eyes blink open.

If he relies only upon this one imperfect sense, then he and Trudy are the only two people in this high-ceilinged room. Empty tables weighed down with food, empty floor gleaming to perfection. The ghostly soundtrack rises and falls to fill the room with life, but it appears to him as if they spin together alone. He notes this; he dismisses this. Adrian closes his eyes, and the moment wraps itself again in a bubble of sightless sensation.

His other hand rests on Trudy's back, fingers brushing skin where her long black gown dips low on her spine. Her other hand is on his arm; he can feel the gentle pressure there even through the layers of his dress uniform. She smells like soap and perfume and poetry, familiar warmth filtered through a vague sense of loss that he can't quite pin down. She sounds like laughter and memory and a promise of forever, humming inside her and out through his fingertips to seek its way under his skin and into his blood.

She tastes like sunshine. Like freedom.

When their song ends it ends slowly, notes fading past one another until only the noise of the invisible diners remains. They stay as they are for another moment - then two - reluctant to break this waltzing embrace. He feels safe with Trudy, comfortable in a way he's never known in all the years that came before. In the glow of her perfection, he can, perhaps, learn how to be imperfect.

An entire lifetime spent stumbling, working his way toward her without ever knowing where she was. In a world of misdirection and outright lies, this holds the truth of fact. She is the only thing that can make him whole.

Time shifts, wavers -

(a life of colorless shadow) (an emptiness tasting of rust)

- and an unexpected surge of panic slams into him, his arms tightening around her like a spasm. With the lightning flash clarity of pure dream understanding, Adrian knows that if he loses her now, he will be losing her forever. In a place without words, he knows how important it is that he not let go.

"Shhhh," Trudy whispers into his skin, and he feels her lips against his neck as they move into the curve of their accustomed smile.

"Shhhh," Trudy whispers into his heart, and he feels himself relaxing again in the steady circle of her presence.

She steps back, the smile brightening her face like shades of a fresh new sunrise. Her hand slides down his arm to find his, and they stand there, intertwined by the connection of their fingers and the glow of her smile.

Adrian leans in to kiss her, and the smile passes itself from her lips onto his own.

Now Trudy leads him out of the grand ballroom, to the foot of an epic marble spiral staircase. The noise from the room behind them wafts through the tall open doors; when Adrian looks back over his shoulder, he catches a glimpse of an entire room filled with moving people. A brightly colored skirt drifts in and out of sight on the dance floor, winking its way through a sea of black and blue.

He turns back to his waiting wife. Trudy is looking up the endless staircase as if she knows exactly what's at the top, and when her eyes fall to meet his he can see their excited sparkle. She tugs his hand, pulling him toward the first step. He follows. He does not ask what or why. Still, try as he might, he can't help but count the stairs as they start to ascend.

Up and up they go, and Adrian ticks off each step in his head. The higher they rise, the fainter the ballroom noise becomes and the farther away sinks the floor. He feels a recognizable anxiety begin to press in, blurring the distance as it buzzes in his ears. But Trudy seems to sense it, and she eases his fears with a squeeze of her hand. He can feel her thumb moving against his palm. He fixes his eyes on the back of her neck, on a freckle just under the clutch of her upswept hair.




Finally they reach a landing, a wide carpeted rectangle of hallway in front of a single closed white door. Adrian steps up beside Trudy, stopping there when she makes no further move forward. The question in his eyes is plain. Its only answer is another smile, another gentle squeeze.

This time, though, the smile doesn't really make it into her eyes.

He opens his mouth to wonder why, but she stops his words with her fingers on his lips. They're cold, these fingers; Adrian brings his own hand up to cover them, wanting desperately to make them warm again. He kisses her fingerprints, trying to commit them to memory. He does not know she is leaving, and yet he is already seared raw by her loss.

Trudy moves in closer, arching her neck so that her mouth rests against his ear.

Adrian closes his eyes and listens to her breathe.

"Be happy," she says, and her words are breath itself.

He tries to grab hold of her as she moves away, but she slips through his urgent fingers like another one of those spirits dancing in the room below. She inclines her head in the direction of the door. He does not look. He can not look. His eyes are on hers, caught in the light reflecting off of unshed tears.

Trudy smiles again, and she pushes him playfully in the direction of the door.

Adrian stumbles a step, reaches out for balance... only to have his hand land on a doorknob that's now inexplicably close. A look back shows her to be irrationally far away - it's as if the hallway has somehow grown between them, without even so much as the whisper of stretching carpet. Adrian pauses, aches to start toward her across the expanse. But his feet refuse to move, and the doorknob has other ideas.

It twists under his hand. The door opens into the pristine whiteness of his living room.

He finds he can do nothing but step inside, can't even manage a glance back over his shoulder for one final look at her. He stops just over the threshold, hears the door click closed behind him. This time when he closes his eyes, he sees her image shimmering behind his eyelids. In his memory, she will always be smiling.


Adrian opens his eyes, and Sharona stands before him. She too is dressed for the evening, wrapped in low cut strappy red satin that tickles her thighs and strokes its fingers over her curves. Sharona standing in the middle of his empty living room, her heels teething indentations into his carpet. Her curls spill themselves over her bare shoulders. He is completely adrift. He wonders what those curls would feel like against his skin.

She is smiling. She is waiting. As the notes of the song fade their way back into existence, Adrian takes a step to close the distance between them.


Adrian Monk is awake.

A piece of paper curves its corner a half inch away from his eye. Someone is trying to take off his shoes.

He sits up too quickly, and it takes another second to orient himself through the sudden blood rush. He's at his desk, documents and photographs spread over its surface, and his arm is numb from the elbow down where his resting head cut off the circulation. His eyes flicker frantically over the scattered mess, the darkened windows, the familiar walls... and land on Sharona, kneeling on the floor beside him.

"Hey," she says softly. Like she's still trying not to wake him.

She pulls off his second shoe and gets awkwardly to her feet; Adrian averts his eyes as her short leather skirt creeps its way farther up her legs. She leaves the room, and Adrian knows without asking that she's going to put the shoes in their proper place in the line on the floor of his closet.

Still unfocused, he automatically begins sorting the items on his desk into the right order in the correct piles so that he can put them all away in their file. He's done this so many times in the last seven years that he could - should he ever need to - identify half of these papers simply by touch. There's a pin hole through the top of a picture of the garage, a half centimeter closer to center than the one through the picture of the on-duty security guard. One of the photos of the nearly unidentifiable bomb fragments carries a slanted scrawl of an indentation, an echo of another paper that was signed while resting on top of it. The report from the first EMT on scene had a staple removed. And the coroner's report has a tiny tear on the right side, just below the corner.

His eyes land on a black and white police image of the destroyed shell of a car, and time freezes itself into sharp crystals of ice in his lungs.

"I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner," Sharona says behind him. From the angle of her voice, he understands she must be looking over his shoulder. Adrian blinks, clearing his throat as he continues with his clean up. His mouth tastes thick with emotion and sleep.

"I wanted to," she explains. "But Benjy hurt his wrist at practice, and I had to take him to the emergency room."

This unexpected piece of news jars him, lobbed without warning into the context of the scene on the desk. Until he recognizes that she wouldn't be here if the accident had been too serious; the boy comes first with her, something that - when he's able to get enough distance - he's always respected.

Still, he finds he has to ask anyway. Has to be sure. He opens the top right-hand drawer, adding a pencil to the others waiting inside. "Is he okay?"

"Just a sprain." She's moved, and out of the corner of his eye he sees her shrug. But her casual tone belies other body language, body language that hints at remnants of her fear. "You know kids - he's upset because it means he didn't get to get a cast."

But he doesn't know kids. Doesn't even know Benjy, really. Not in a way that makes sense. Adrian neatly moves the paper piles into one stack, evening up the sides and placing them in the exact center of the file folder with the left edge flush with the inside crease. He tries not to look at the picture of the car.

"Guess he won't be playing baseball anytime soon, huh?" His attempt at small talk ends abruptly when his voice warbles and cracks at the end of the question. Trying to get back some kind of control, he reflexively begins realigning the other items on his desk, most of them moving only a fraction one way before being moved the same fraction back. He shifts the lamp an inch to the left. Two centimeters right. He can't get anything to where it should be. Nothing lines up.

"It'll be a little while, yeah. (those pencils might not all be the same length anymore - he should check) He can't play video games either (and when was the last time he vacuumed this carpet?) so maybe he'll pay more attention to his homework inst- " Sharona grabs his wrists, abruptly stilling his motion. "Adrian, stop."

Trudy's picture is crooked; he must've nudged it with his head when he fell asleep on the desk. His fingers flex, wanting to reach for it. "Just let me..."

"It's fine," she says, and it sounds like a sigh. Sharona moves around to sit on the corner of the desk, her hands still holding captive his wrists. "Adrian, look at me."

But he can't take his eyes off the picture, its frame looking more angled by the minute. His fingers jump again. "It's crooked."


He looks at her, but he doesn't see her. He sees Trudy's smile. He sees a framework of twisted and broken metal.

His eyes sting; blinking fast, he looks back to the photograph. But the wreck is there, too, there in her frozen eyes. It isn't going away. It's a solid thing, a smoldering tangle at the end of a world. There are arms holding him back and a ringing in his ears, and he can't see for all the smoke. Someone's screaming, on and on and on, a hoarse, chilling sound. His chest is caving in, crushed under the weight of -

"Breathe," Trudy whispers. "Just breathe."

He's bent over, his head between his knees, and her hand is cool on the back of his neck. No, not her hand - Sharona's hand. Sharona holding a paper bag to his mouth, keeping it in place as it crackles against his slowing breaths. Sharona's calm voice in his ear.

His face feels tight, his skin tingling. He doesn't want to, but he opens his eyes.

"Better?" she asks as the bag is taken away.

Adrian doesn't answer, doesn't lift his eyes from the carpet between his socks. His thoughts are sluggish now, dragging in the wake of fading adrenaline. He doesn't try to fight it. To push past it would mean brushing up against the self-loathing lurking at its fuzzy edges.

Seven years.

Seven years standing still.

"Come on, it's late," Sharona says, pulling gently on his arm.

He doesn't realize he's gotten to his feet until he finds himself back in the chair, head buzzing. If he had any self-respect, he'd tell her to leave him there. Tell her to leave.

If he had any self-respect, he would've ended this half life a long time ago.

He can't think about that now. He's on his feet again. Sharona's leading him to his bedroom, and he's trying very hard to think of nothing at all. It isn't something that comes easily to him, especially not today. She leaves him sitting on the edge of his bed; Trudy's here too, on the nightstand, and they wait together for her to return.

When she does, she presses a glass of water into one of his hands and a tiny white pill into the other. "Ambien," she tells him, turning to his dresser. Adrian swallows it, grateful for the rare promise of a night of uninterrupted sleep. He feels useless, hollowed out. A black and white image of the shell of a human being.

He takes the bed clothes she hands him and goes into the bathroom to change. He avoids looking in the mirror as his fingers fumble with the buttons. The drug is already fast catching up with his exhaustion, and he has to brace himself against the sink as he brushes his teeth. Flossing is a half-attempt at best, and difficult to do without referencing his reflection. By the time everything is returned to the medicine cabinet, he's completely lost track of time. Adrian shuffles back into the bedroom, running his tongue over his teeth and trying to remember if he got them all.

He hates these drugs, this muddled lack of self. Like walking through a strange room with his eyes closed, picking up things only to drop them a moment later. He can't keep track of things like this. He can't be sure he won't simply disappear.

But, sometimes, the only thing to do is to stop. Stop thinking, stop tracking, stop running. Sometimes he just can't do anything else.

He gets into bed, lies facing Trudy's picture. She's beginning to blur a little, but the medication has temporarily numbed the wreck away and her smile is as clear as ever. He can almost hear her humming, can almost feel her hand in his. He's drifting; his eyes close. Trudy's weight settles on the edge of the bed.

His eyes open slowly; his sleepy smile shifts from confusion to a vague kind of understanding at the sight of Sharona sitting there. How he hates these drugs. This loss of sense and stability.

"You know, maybe it's time to try something else," she says, switching off the bedside light. The only light in the room comes from the hallway now, and her voice has softened as if to match. "You could find a way to celebrate instead."

His eyes don't want to stay open. "Did celebrate..." he mumbles, his tongue clumsy around the words. "...had dinner."

"I know. I saw the candles." In her pause, he thinks to ask her to put them away. He wonders that he forgot to do it himself. He considers getting up and taking care of it now. But then her words come again, and all thoughts slide away as if they'd never been.

"I just think that she'd like it if you went out," Sharona says. "I'm not talking about like going dancing or anything, but -"

They were gliding across a ballroom floor, the only two people in the world. It feels like a memory, and it makes him smile into the pillow. "Dancing... We were dancing. And she was so beautiful..."

Trudy takes his hand, sliding her fingers over his skin. Her thumb smoothes a faint path over the bumps of his knuckles, lulling him into the dreamy rhythm of their waltz. She is here. She is safe. And if the song doesn't end, he doesn't have to let her go.

He's nearly asleep when he lifts her hand to his lips. He kisses her palm, all that she is to him condensed into this simple gesture.

"Happy birthday, Trudy," Adrian whispers in the dark.


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