Horror and Thriller Fiction posted July 10, 2015

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Gone? Or Not?

And Just Where Have You Been?

by Stacia Ann

And so she was gone. Forever. It was over.

Her presence still clung to the house. He would walk into the living room with its sleek and clean lines and swear--not that he actually heard her voice, but that she was about to speak, that he was about to hear her. In the kitchen once, he'd felt, actually felt, her come up behind him, brush against him, murmur something in his ear. He hung onto the edge of the sink, waves of horror, of grief, rolling over him. Her scent, tinges of lavender and musk, hugged the sheets, the upholstery, the drapes, permanently bonded.

The sting of tears, tightness in throat, were always present. 

But this was the day, he'd determined on getting up and looking at himself in the mirror, his unshaven face, bloodshot eyes, that'd he'd at least try to get it together. People had been kind at work, telling him to "take as much time as you need"--time for what undefined--but they'd be expecting some progress soon, of some sense he was getting back to "normal," that he'd return to work and function.

He'd start by getting rid of her things. Her clothes. Take them all out of the closet, put them in bags, and haul them down to Goodwill. A necessary step in facing she was gone and not coming back.

Halfway through the morning. after two cups of coffee, sitting on the bedroom floor and sorting through a pile, he realized he knew a lot more about his wife's clothes than he'd thought. The pink shift she'd worn to the beach all of last summer. The lacy blouse she'd been wearing at the bar where they'd first met. The blue slip of a dress she'd slipped out of the night they first slept together. Funny, he had memories attached to all of these little bits of silk and linen that somehow didn't add up to a whole. He'd thought of her as a woman who spent her days in jeans and blazers, but looking at these clothes, he realized that wasn't true. Strange how your perception people got distorted over time. By this time next year, he'd probably remember her as someone completely different.

He'd have then really lost her.

He dumped the clothes out of the bag and threw each piece back into the closet, one by one, breaths coming short and fast. He'd get around to hanging the clothes back up later.

That left the problem of what to do with the morning. He wasn't going to Goodwill, as planned, obviously. And he couldn't stay home, either.

He'd go to their favorite place for a last time, where they'd swum, skied, and gotten engaged on a picnic lunch on a beach over wine and hard-boiled eggs and chicken sandwiches. 

He drove up to the lake in the Sierra Nevada foothills twenty miles outside their home.

He pulled up in front of the restaurant, parked, walked around to the beach, and stood looking back at the patio. Couples there lingered over their drinks, laughing and talking.

He took off his shoes and walked across the sand, feeling Jennifer's presence next to him, walking beside him. Hiking was one of their shared hobbies, and they used to walk like this, for hours, across beaches, through woods, along hiking trails and up mountains. They rarely talked, were just content in each other's presence.

It wasn't too hot today, not overcast. A nice day, he guessed. A few families, not many, had their towels and swim gear dotting the beach, flags of bright color against the sand.

How conventional his and Jennifer's life really had been. He'd just realized that. He'd always thought of them--her, in particular--as at least minor free spirits. They were still pretty young. They had no children. They took off for the ocean or mountains when they wanted to.

But they'd also dated, gotten engaged, and then married in a predictable order and reasonable time period. They both had jobs, families, friends. Had their lives continued together, they certainly would have had children.

He strode on, looking down, loss reverberating through him.

Her being taken from him had deprived him of that, that conventionality that they'd both despised but now seemed so sacred. He'd scoffed at the lives of those couples sitting on the beach, or up on the patio, at one time--couples mired in the endless details and routine of kids, parents, schools, mortgages, insurance, whose topics of conversation consisted of golf clubs and new cabinets.

He had been cheated. They had been cheated. Cheated of a life of blessed ordinariness that was their God-endowed right and given in return a nightmare of one year of IVs and radiation and chemo and hair loss and final gasping of her last breaths in his arms.

He continued toward the parking lot and beyond, the loss tearing through him, now a spear of fire.

At the lot's exit, he swung, raised his fist, and punched the stop sign.

And the fire still didn't abate.

He turned and got in his car.

Once on the road, he heard his own breath regulate. The loss of Jennifer and the relationship had also, in its terrible way, freed him. He didn't now have to worry about what people would think. He could punch signs, raise his middle finger at the guy honking behind him in the SUV, and not care. Not care if his rabbi, dentist, or neighbor saw him. He could move away tomorrow. Or most likely, they'd think, "Poor Steve. He's lost his wife. Let's give him a break--be kind to him."

He could go on without her. He could do this. He'd eventually meet someone else, and they'd probably walk on beaches, through woods, and up mountains together. Jennifer's presence wouldn't leave him---he was also sure of that. It would cling to him forever, maybe fainter as time rolled on, but still there. He'd think he'd forgotten her, and then one day, her laughter would ring in his ears, or he'd catch sight of a piece of her skirt as he turned a corner, and then she'd be standing there, fully present, her ironic smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. And just where have you been?

Something was wrong. The road ahead curved again, but this time up, as in a roller coaster, and there was a rough thunk behind him. A dull pain in his back, and then all went black.

When he came to, he knew at once he was off the road. He'd rolled the car. He had been so distracted, thinking about Jennifer and the whole thing, that he'd missed a curve he had been navigating for years--he knew just which one, too--gone off the road, and rolled the car at least once.

Gingerly, he wedged his hands between the seat and his back, feeling for broken bones in his vertebrae and ribs. Nothing hurt. He could still feel his legs and feet, his arms, everything. Everything, miraculously, seemed in order.

He sat for several minutes, considering the unlikelihood of that. He knew people who had gone off these roads, heading back from casinos on the Nevada side, missed a curve, and not lived to tell about it. He was very lucky. For once.

He opened the car door and stepped out, one foot at a time, testing his legs. Then he turned to look at the car, afraid of what he'd see.

It was the same car he'd driven up to the lake in. Several years old, one long scratch from the parking lot on one door, the opposite bumper bearing a dent from the light pole outside his house.

He had gone off the road and rolled the car one 360-degree turn. He knew it. He'd seen the road coming up to meet him.

By rights, this car should be totaled. He should be dead.

Well. He drew in his breath and climbed back in the car. His legs were shaking. Maybe God figured he owed him one.

When he got home, he pulled up into driveway and started to drive into the garage. But something told him not to. He cut the engine, set the brake, and got out. He went up to the porch.

She was waiting there, sitting on the top step, wearing jeans and a dark blue blazer. Her handbag was slung across her shoulder. Her chin was propped on her hand, elbow resting on her knee. She didn't look bored, just as if she'd been waiting for him. Forever.

She looked up as he approached. An ironic smile twitched at her mouth. "Hi," she said. "And just where have you been?"

Ghost contest entry

Really meant to be more about loss than ghosts, but it got creepier as I wrote.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by Contests at FanArtReview.com

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