The box was heavy. What the hell was in it anyway? At least it was the last one.
Bobby had spent the day moving his ancient crap from his parents’ house — their sold house — to his apartment. And with this final carload and this final cardboard dumbbell, it was over.
He stooped to set the box down and it slipped from his tired hands. It landed on its side and the loosely tucked corrugated flaps flew open. The contents flowed like water onto the hardwood floor: worn paperbacks, sheets of loose-leaf covered in tidy handwriting, and a few cassette tapes.
“Fuck,” Bobby said as he crouched to inspect the mess. He picked up some old college class notes and resisted the urge to sit back and glance through them. That would be trouble; he’d end up wasting hours being nostalgic. And the dull ache in his neck wouldn’t make it that enjoyable anyhow. He twisted his shoulders and turned his head side-to-side, trying to work the kink out.
One of the cassettes from the box caught his attention. Ballpoint pen strokes coated the paper insert. Little blue hearts and music notes covered the columns marked Side A and Side B. There was a phrase written along the spine; it was what had caught his eye. Written in large block letters was LOVE IS ETERNAL. He picked it up. Below the main title, smaller but still legible, was Rachael and Bobby Forever.
“Oh, God.” He almost groaned. Rachael. How many years had it been since he had thought of her? Not enough. The mixtape — what else could it be? — did not surprise him at all. She had been clingy, needy and just plain crazy. Though he didn’t recall her ever giving him a tape. Most likely he had tossed it aside and never listened to it.
He surveyed the other tapes. They were old mixes he had made from the radio, mostly Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. It was the soundtrack of his youth, an old friend. He selected a couple at random and scooped them up.
Rising he crossed to his bedroom, tapes in hand. He dropped them next to his thrift store stereo — it featured a double tape deck — and started to undress. The strewn contents of the box and all the others he had moved would be fine until morning. It had been a long day. Hell, a long few months.
Months since his parents’ accident. Since their deaths. The mental fatigue, the anguish was still there. Having to say goodbye to the house he grew up in was almost as hard as saying goodbye to his parents. Maybe change was good but lately he didn’t understand that saying at all. His mother and father were dead. It was the biggest change of his life. There was no good; there was pain and emptiness.
Bobby sighed. He needed sleep, needed to collapse and escape for a while. Pulling off his socks, he crossed back to the stereo. Some music, a few happy lyrical memories, would help him drift off faster. He popped the two tapes into the tape decks, hitting play on the first and pushing in play and pause on the second.
Bobby flicked off the light and slid into bed as Paul McCartney and the Fab Four started in on Let It Be. He had a brief thought that, yeah, he should let everything go. Let it be. Then sleep claimed him.
He awoke to a high-pitched female voice. “I hope you like this, lover. Think of me, always.”
The room was pitch black. He blinked in the darkness, trying to find out where the sound was coming from. And that voice, it was… familiar.
“Shit.” Had he put that tape into the player? He was sure he hadn’t but, he reminded himself, he wasn’t sure of much lately. Oh well, might as well see what the psycho bitch had said. Might be good for a laugh.
“I wanted to show you how much you mean to me, how much our relationship means to me.”
Relationship? Fuck, they had only gone out for a few months. Had he even told her he loved her? Probably; he had wanted to get laid after all. He stifled a laugh — Tiffany started to pop along with I Saw Him Standing There. He was sure Lennon was rolling over in his grave.
Tiffany faded into, sweet Jesus, Mandy Moore. First Kiss echoed through the room. Man, this was too much. Bobby didn’t think Mandy Moore had been around back then though; maybe Rachael had been an early adopter. It seemed like something the loon would have liked.
A crackle and momentary silence followed the song. Then Rachael’s voice cut back in. “I remember our first kiss like it was yesterday.” Her voice sounded different than he remembered, deeper, scratchier. “It was in your dad’s car, on that deserted road, with all the trees around. And the full moon was out, like in a painting. It was amazing. I love you.”
That was with her? He thought that had been where he had kissed Marie for the first time. Bobby felt a flicker of remorse, as if he should at least remember that much. It had been a good kiss, he recalled that.
She continued to drone on about loyalty and love between a few more tunes. Her, rather obvious, ear-stabbing picks included Whitney Houston screaming I Will Always Love You, and Bryan Adams drowsily professing Everything I Do, I Do It for You. This particular set in the countdown from Hell ended with You’re Still the One, delivered with enthusiasm by Shania Twain.
He hoped it was only a 60-minute tape, though he was pretty sure it had been playing for more than 30 already. “Come on!” Bobby called to the empty room. “You must be gonna shut up soon. Hasn’t it been 45 minutes yet?”
Apparently not. “Bobby, I’ve never felt like this about anyone before. Never ached inside like this.” Teenagers, always so damn dramatic. “Never felt the way you made me feel… inside.” Oh, God, not this, anything but this. He knew what was coming; knew her, and her type, well enough to know what song she was going to play next.
I Touch Myself pummeled him for a three and a half minutes before finally fading away. He was almost happy to hear her voice again, though it still sounded different somehow. Had she just been elated on the night she had made the tape, all those years ago?
“I made you wait, but I wanted you inside me for so long. I wanted you to take me, to make me complete. You were my first, my only. I’ll never forget that night. It was perfect.”
Bobby put his pillow over his face, trying to block Chris Isaak from his ears. The singer was killing him softly with Wicked Game. It was no use. Finally, he flicked the pillow to the side and lay there, letting the lyrics and memories flow over him. He had hurt her after this, had tossed her aside. He had been a teenager, a child. It was what guys did at that age. But she had been crazy too, he reminded himself.
Chris Isaak ended and was replaced by Rachael’s altered voice.
“I know you can feel it now, baby. You can see how much I love you and always will. We were one and we will be forever.” A chill ran up Bobby’s spine; all this talk of forever. Had he ever said such things to her? As if in answer she continued. “I know you feel it too, you told me you’d love me forever, always. We’re going to be so happy together. Love is eternal.”
Another chill and a pause in the audio.
“We had hard times. I know you didn’t mean it. You were just young. But now we’ll be happy again.”
That was… odd. Had they had a fight? Was that why she had made the tape? He couldn’t remember, it had been so many years ago. Celine Dion, dear lord, started singing It’s All Coming Back to Me Now. And it was. He remembered Rachael, recalled the time, short though it was, that they were together. He wished he could tell her he was sorry for breaking up with her without warning. But, fuck, she had been so damn clingy. She had needed to grow up. Hopefully, she had since then.
Celine was almost through torturing him when something occurred to him. When had that song been released? The nineties, sure, but what year? The late nineties. That was impossible, he and Rachael had been together in the early nineties, ‘94 at the latest. The Mandy Moore song was later still. He was certain.
Bobby sat up in bed. Beads of cold sweat ran down his naked back. What the fuck was this? Some sort of joke?
“I love you.” Rachael was back. “It’s okay baby. I’m here for you, here to make things okay.”
It was her voice; he was sure of it.
He wanted to get up, to turn the damn thing off. Wanted to rip it from the stereo, tear the strands of tape from their spools and burn them. But he couldn’t move. She was speaking to him, not just recording a mixtape in the early nineties. Not with fucking Celine Dion ranting about things coming back to him. She was speaking to him now, not from the past.
It wasn’t possible.
It was crazy.
She continued. “I will always be yours. And you will always be mine.”
Her words faded into another song. He didn’t know it, but he knew the voice. It was Anastacia. Anastacia who, Bobby was sure, hadn’t become a hit until at least 2000. Anastacia who was now telling him I Belong to You. He screamed. It did nothing to help the situation. What the fuck was going on? He screamed again. He continued, again and again, pausing only to breathe. He had to block the sound, had to keep from hearing the paradoxical audio onslaught.
Anastacia stopped professing her undying vow. Rachael’s undying vow.
“I know you were singing along to that one, honey.” He realized now what he had missed before about her voice. She was older. That was the difference. When he had known her she had been so young. Now her voice was thicker as if years of smoking had taken its toll. “Because, while I do belong to you, you belong to me too.” A pause. “Always. Love is eternal.”
Her voice trailed off and was replaced by another. It took him a second to place it. Then he had it. Coupled with his terror was now the weirdness of hearing his own voice. “I’ll love you forever, always.” His own teenage voice.
“I’ll love you forever, always.” It repeated. Again. Again.
Bobby jumped from the bed and went to the stereo. His fingers fumbled over the keys of the tape decks in the dark, pushing them from memory. The line continued, over and over. He had pushed stop; he knew he had.
“I’ll love you forever, always.”
He tore the stereo from his dresser. Sparks flew from the outlet as the plug ripped free.
“I’ll love you forever, always.”
His words continued, thrust at him like spears.
Then it stopped.
“Thank you, God!” Bobby called into the darkness, as he slumped to the floor and dropped the stereo. Sweat, tears and terror flowed over him. He sobbed aloud.
It wasn’t over. Impossible or not, the unpowered speaker crackled.
“I’ll always be watching you… always be with you.” A pause. “Even death can’t keep us apart.”
Her voice stopped. Static, like a radio station tuned improperly, started. It continued for a few seconds before a male voice — not Bobby’s own — cut in through the static. It sounded like a newscast.
“The body of a 43-year-old woman was found today, an apparent suicide. The woman did not leave a note. Police did find an audio cassette. It was addressed to a man, most likely a former partner. Police are still trying to locate the man in question. It appears the woman led a solitary life over the last several years. It’s possible she suffered from depression.”
Bobby hardly heard it.
He was standing at his bedroom window, gazing at the street several stories below. She was always going to be watching. Forever, always. From Hell.
Bobby opened the window, letting in the cool night air.
Was it high enough?