Something brought her out of sleep. A scream, she thought. It was guttural, near inhuman, and seemed to stretch out into the expanse of night and recede into the dark. She couldn’t tell if it had been real. She didn’t move, tried to stay quiet, listening for something to tell her. The only sound was the steady lope of the ceiling fan.
The red of the alarm clock cast an intermittent, shallow light about the bedroom. Most of the room, though, remained in pitch. Her heart hammered in her throat, and her breath was cut short. She couldn’t escape the feeling that she was being watched — the feeling that eyes burned into the back of her head as she lay there on her side, so near the edge of the mattress. She tried to calm herself and slow her heart, but she could not. Her nails bit at the sheets pulled tight in her fist. She couldn’t summon the will to roll over to prove to herself that nothing was there. She stared into the light of the clock. The blinking “12:00 AM” told her the power had stuttered yet again. Every night, it seemed.
There was a cold indentation opposite of her where husband used to sleep. He wasn’t dead, as far as she knew. Just gone.
Two years ago he vanished — plucked right out of existence. It was four days before his fifty-eighth birthday, she recalled. He was happy because he’d never grown a thing in his life, yet his herb garden sprawled green and lush in their backyard. They lay down together. He read until she was ready to sleep, then he switched off the lamp and brushed his fingers down the crook of her neck. That was the last time she saw him or felt his touch. She never felt him slip away, never felt the bed shift. It was as if he’d waited until she was dead asleep and walked away into the night with no more than his shorts. His car remained. His keys. His clothes. Even his glasses still sat on the nightstand next to the book he’d been reading that night. Some sun-wrinkled crime thriller. The red bookmark still protruded from the yellowed pages, a thin forked tongue.
She still hadn’t moved anything. If he walked back into his life those years later, he might only find that his herb garden had died and that his wife’s hair had finally gone gray.
Even with the relics of his life surrounding her, she couldn’t bring herself to think of him for very long. Her mind would wander, as if trying to escape the memory of him. Then, a gentle pain would grow in the back of her skull, changing into a hammer with every beat of her heart. In a way, she thought he might slip away completely if she put his things up — condemned them to some cardboard box in the attic. So she kept them around, like anchors to keep him with her.
Anticipation drove the pain deeper into her. To hear his footsteps in the hall, to playfully bicker over nothing too important, to hear his laugh from another room, to take comfort in the rhythms of life with which they’d attuned. That comfort went with him when he drifted away into the void — replaced by stillness and silence. She ached to feel him again, to feel warmth exchanged, skin on skin.
She closed her eyes, squeezed them shut, felt his lined face slipping away again but tried to hold on. The room had gone cold despite the warmth of the summer night. She knew that no one was watching her in that lonely house. She knew she was alone. She took a deep breath and rolled herself over to face that cold spot in the bed where her lost husband used to rest, and opened her eyes again. She could see little. The light of the clock continued to give a dim blink, casting a near-light about the room. She gazed out into the void in front of her. Her chest and throat tightened. She resisted the urge to whisper his name to the dark, knowing it would only summon tears. Summer rain pattered on the tin roof and against the curtained window.
More became clear in the lurid rhythm of the clock’s light. Murky shapes began to take hold in her vision, and she began to suspect that something lay before her on the bed. Yet, the darkness existed at a perfect precipice in which shapes would appear to swim within it, so difficult for the eyes to grasp.
Lightning struck, a brief illumination followed by a ripple of thunder, and cemented in her mind that something was there. The rain started down hard and the wind howled and beat at the walls.
Then, a scent met her. The smell of breath, warm and faint, nearly deniable. Her heart lodged like a stone in her throat, and her hand began to reach forward before she could think to remain still. She stopped, hand hovering over the crinkled sheets before her. Her sense of being watched resurged with near certainty. She reached forward, a crawling pace, fingers extended. She could swear that the blink of the red light glistened in a set of eyes across from hers. Her trembling fingers stretched through the bank of darkness. She could feel the radiation of body heat. Her fingers stopped against something — traced the surface of warm flesh.
“You’ve come back to me.”
Silence answered her.
Alexander Parker writes in the rural pine countries of Alabama. Sometimes he is a mechanic and, at times, a locksmith, but he is always a writer.