by N. D. Coley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
When Ian scanned his head to the left, he saw a pair of knuckles gently tapping, and he looked past the knuckles and up the arm they were attached to and saw the takeout window, and in the window was large, heavy-set African-American male. He wore a company branded baseball hat. He studied Ian for a moment.
Ian lowered the window and returned his best confused look.
“Mister,” the man said, “I have your order.”
Ian shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “My order? What order?”
The man laughed. “You, sir, look as lost as I’ve ever seen. Long morning?”
“Yes,” Ian said. “I... What day is it?”
He immediately remembered that when he’d left the house that morning, he wasn’t quite sure what day it was.
“Wednesday, yes. Hey, can I ask you a question? Where’s Megan?”
“I don’t know her last name. She was here a moment ago. Umm. No. Forget that. I was just... I used to talk to her sometimes. Is it her off-day?”
The man’s face went stern as his eyes closed and opened. He let out a sigh. “Oh, man. I’m sorry. She’s gone. Megan passed away.”
Ian felt cold.
“Here, the man said,” sliding a rolled-up flyer with Ian’s usual order. “It’s all here. There’s some cars behind you, so... I’m sorry. There’s a GoFundMe ending soon. See right there, in the flyer.”
Ian nodded, rolled up the window, and moved forward to the closest parking spot. He opened up the paper: a grainy image of Megan, one that looked at least 10 years younger than the last time he saw her, appeared over a pink backdrop. Her arms were around a little girl.
The girl smiled a kid’s smile. Cartoonish-looking teeth were spaced in a way that would add charm to a child but make an adult look ugly. She wore a “Hello Kitty” shirt. Her hair, brown, dirty, and styled in pigtails, fell and rested on her cheeks. She was perhaps 5 or 6, and looked very much like Ashlyn, Ian’s own daughter, had at that age. He suddenly missed his teenage daughter deeply.
Below the photograph, the flyer noted that Megan, a single mother, had recently become another statistic in the long and tragic story of domestic violence. Her long-time off-and-on boyfriend had inflicted injuries that put Megan in the fight of her life, and after several days in a coma, proved to be fatal.
Friends and family had requested $16,000 for basic funeral expenses. They added a stretch goal of $80,000 to cover education for her daughter. To date, three thousand dollars had been cobbled together, and donations had slowed. The flyer begged its holder to distribute to anyone and everyone.
Every part of Ian felt heavy. He sat straight up, suddenly afraid that his insides would all sink and mix together into a giant, useless blob of organs and membranes. The flyer said that Megan was only 30. She looked like an easy 40 the last time he had seen her, which was... When, again? Ian let the flyer rest next to his food. The pile of old bags and wrappers obscured the seat almost completely now. How long had he been making this mess?
Ian reached for his phone and took a closer look at the screen, and there they were, missed call after missed call. Voicemail after voicemail. He pressed a button marked play all and let the messages run.
“Ian, where are you? Ian, you were supposed to pick up Ashlyn from Cheer practice at 6. She called me, cold and crying....God, I’m sorry about the fight last night. Ian, I was wrong, too. Come home... Ian, please come—”
“Marcus here. I don’t get your sense of humor, but this isn’t amusing to me. This is the third time this month you haven’t met. I’d hate to change suppliers and all but, hell, if you’re leaving me a choice—”
“Daddy, Daddy, are you coming to get me? I’m cold, Daddy. Daddy, I’m sorry if you’re mad at me for getting between you and Mom. You just scared me—”
“Ian, dinner’s ready. I made your favorite again. Should Ash and I eat alone? I don’t know why I set three places anymore.”
“That’s it, Ian. Bye now. I don’t know how they don’t brick up your cubicle with you in it. This is Marcus, signing off.”
“Hi. Hi Daddy. I know you’ve been super busy. You’re always busy. That’s okay, but I landed the part I wanted in the musical. I love Oklahoma! so much. Remember when you and Mom took me when I was little? Daddy, I get to play Laurie Williams. Can you believe it? You don’t have to come to all the performances. Just one. Gotta go.”
“Bye.... Ian, I haven’t asked for much lately, have I? But good God, she walks in cap and gown next week and you haven’t said a thing about it. Your daughter. Our daughter. Would it help you if I sat in another row?”
“Daddy, are you there? It’s been so long. Daddy—”
“Goodbye, Ian. Don’t come home this time. We won’t be there.”
Ian put the phone in his pocket and let the messages play on, unable to listen further. He picked up the flyer again and looked at the date. His eyes widened. He wasn’t off by a few days, or a week, or a month or two. He was off by... He looked again. No. It couldn’t have been that long, and yet it was. He reached up and yanked the rearview mirror at an angle. His brown hair, short and brown, had grown shaggy and grey, and his cheeks, once immune to wrinkles, were dry and shriveled.
He pressed the button on the glove box and reached for a flask, one he kept there for emergencies, but it was gone. An empty travel-sized bottle of vodka rolled in circles.
Ian hit the gas and sped into the plaza parking lot, and around him he noticed that the shopping center didn’t look slightly aged, but abandoned. The grocery store was covered in the graffiti of a neon green message from Bubba D. A few stray shopping carts lay on their side, half-littered with plastic bags. Two burned-out cars kept the carts company. The letters for the store sign were smashed out. One dangled to the side.
The sign for the gym, the old location for the department store, had been completely removed. It left an old outline of where it had been, which sat over the old outline of the department store’s sign. Ian wondered what sign would go up next, and when it would come down again.
Grey clouds gathered above the Plaza. Two birds flew from the right to left, darted down as if to rest, and shot up again and disappeared from view. There was no noise, save for the idling of car engines backed up in the drive-thru behind him.
Ian spoke and asked Siri to call home.
Calling home, the robot voice replied. It sounded strangely warm and more like a human than an algorithm. The line picked up, and Ian choked out a hello.
“Hello?” he asked. “Rebekah? Ash? Anyone there?”
“Who is this?” The deep voice of a man replied. It sounded old and agitated, and drunk.
“I’m calling for Rebekah. Rebekah Paulson. My wife. This is her home number. Our home number.”
“Check your dialing, ya loon! This is my home and has been for seven years.”
The call went dead. Ian thought about the date on the flyer, and in his head he heard the man on his home number repeat the same words. Seven years. Seven years. Seven years. Seven years.
It wasn’t true and it was, and in that moment Ian decided that his argument with apparent reality was not so useful. He drove on, through the empty parking lot, defying the lanes and driving over the painted lines. He pulled closer to the old department store and looked on, and that’s when he noticed that the building was not completely boarded up.
There was a piece missing, a whole piece, and he knew that it had to be in the same spot that he and his friends had kicked out all those years ago as they raced away from that store and the dark and the monster in it. As Ian stared into the vacant square, it was as if the rest of the world had fallen away around him; the restaurant was gone and so were the parking lots and the cars in them and the old men in the cars. It all just fell away, like those pieces of the world had been on a timer, and when the timer buzzed it was time for a road here and a structure there to fall without noise, into a void, as nothing had ever been there in the first place.
Now it was just Ian and his gaze on that space, that opening, into that building, the only building left in the whole world. As he stared into the opening, he heard a sound that was something between static and a wind and a whisper. The voice took form and, for a second, Ian was sure that it was the voice of a little boy, a scared child who had only asked help from his friends and was given a monster instead.
And suddenly it wasn’t a little boy but a girl, a young girl that seemed to say, “Play, Daddy, play with me. Please, Daddy, please.” And then it was something older and sad, not the voice of a girl but a woman, a bride, and the voice spoke through tears and then it was someone else, a different girl, saying something that sounded like help me, help me, help me.
Ian got out and stood in front of the opening, looking to see what was inside, and for a moment he flinched and nearly turned around. But he knew that, if he did, there would be nothing to see, no restaurant or parking lot or car or road out of here. It was only him and that building and the way inside.
Ian raised his leg, and as he did so he thought he heard the whispers again. Who was it? Who was still in there? He brought his foot up, and then down, and the other followed him behind and into the dark. In his pocket, a final message played, muffled by his pocket.
“Hey. Hey, is this Mr. Paulson? Hi. It’s me, Megan. I’ve been trying to reach you. Haven’t seen you in a few days, but it’s gotten bad and I don’t know who else to call. I’m real scared, Mr. Paulson. You said you could help, and I believe you. I really do, and I normally don’t ask for help but, see, I have to now. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t have the need. If I did something to make you mad. I’m sorry, I really, really am. I’m not mad at you for not callin’ back, and I just wanted you to know that. You take care now. Goodbye, Mr. Paulson.”
Copyright © 2020 by N. D. Coley