Mourners filled The Dug Out. Buoyant country rhythms and laughter played counterpoint to Sandra’s sorrow and emptiness. This was Kyle’s restaurant and Kyle’s friends. She felt divorced from them. No one knew what to say to her. The smell of barbeque sauce and coconut was making her queasy. Or maybe it was the four pina coladas she had downed.
Sandra squeezed through the crowd to the ladies’ and splashed cold water on her face. Then she stopped by Kyle’s portrait on the wall by his table. He was leaning against his Mustang convertible, his cowboy hat pushed back on his head. As his blue eyes pierced her from the portrait, she smelled his cologne, felt his touch on her shoulder. She spun around but no one was there. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled.
She found Emily at end of the bar. “Em, can you tell everyone I said thanks for coming and goodbye? I gotta get out of here.” She tried to keep her voice steady.
“No problem. Let me know if you need anything.” Emily moved toward the flip top section of the bar. Sandra pretended not to notice, and made for the door. She couldn’t deal with another hug.
Out of the corner of her eye, as she hurried to her car, Sandra thought she saw a man in a jean jacket and cowboy hat sitting on the bench under the tree. It was where they would sit when Kyle could take a break from the demands of his restaurant. But when she turned her head toward it, the bench was empty.
When Sandra was twelve, her dad died in a car crash. For months, she expected every man she saw from the back, with his build, his hair, his walk, to turn around and be her dad. Now at thirty-three, she knew Kyle was gone for good. So why do I look for his face in every crowd wherever we’ve been together?
Two months later, Sandra returned to The Dugout for the first time since Kyle’s memorial. She pushed the heavy door open. The smell of barbeque sauce and wood smoke brought a flood of memories.
Emily smiled at Sandra, her eyes radiating love and sympathy.
I shouldn’t have stayed away, Sandra thought. Em always reminded her of her favorite aunt. Same age, same fire-red hair and Texan accent.
Emily came out from behind the mahogany bar and patted Sandra on the shoulder. “Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes, darlin’. Sit wherever you like. I’ll have Ramon bring you a chardonnay.”
Why did they have to do that? People, who were never touchy-feely before, suddenly want to touch me. Why can’t they act normal? But I’m being fickle. I want everyone to go on about their business but I hate them for doing it. Tears welled in her eyes. Shit. Not now.
Scanning the room, her gaze landed on Kyle’s portrait. The table underneath it was empty. Why not? She pulled out the chair and angled it toward the wall. She sat down and thought at the portrait, Why did you have to leave me?
A tap on her shoulder startled her. Ramon handed her a glass of wine.
“Thanks.” She attempted a smile and took a sip.
Ramon crossed his arms and admired the portrait. “He’s still here, you know.”
She almost choked on her wine. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You’ve seen him too, haven’t you?” Ramon’s brown eyes fixed upon her.
She didn’t know what to say. Is he serious?
“I told him you’d come back,” he said.
Then she remembered seeing Ramon at the wake, a beer in one hand, the other hand against the wall as he faced the portrait. Like he was talking to Kyle. She figured he was. But she never imagined that Kyle was really there to hear. Did Ramon?
“I shouldn’t have come. I can’t… I gotta go.” She stood and stepped around Ramon. Walking toward the car, she thought she saw Kyle on the bench. No. Don’t look. You can’t. He’s dead. There’s no one there.
Alone in her car, she broke down and bawled. After a while, she heard someone else crying and breathing hard between her own sobs. A chill shot through her and she held her breath. Closing her eyes, she willed the sound away.
“Sandra. Look at me.”
She opened her eyes. Kyle was sitting in the passenger seat, wearing the same clothes from the portrait. Because that’s the only way I can remember him? Or because this is some alien or demon borrowing that particular image of him?
He raised a shaking hand to touch her face, then let it drop. Sandra’s whole body shook and her heart pounded in her chest. She wanted it to be him — needed him to be there. But how could he?
She gazed down, avoiding his pleading eyes. He leaned toward her and kissed the top of her head. When she lifted her chin, he shimmered into a small, glowing orb with a tail, like a miniature comet. It soared through the windshield, flashed brighter and there stood Kyle, ten feet in front of her car. Or what was left of him. Kyle had been thrown out of his car when it hit a guardrail at sixty miles per hour, his face becoming so much mangled flesh from skidding face-first on the gravel shoulder. He took off his hat, raised a hand to the lower portion of his lipless face and threw her a kiss. Then he was comet again and soared skyward.
Sandra let out a long slow breath. She sat, motionless for another ten minutes, still not sure if she could believe what had just happened. Then she straightened up and started the car. She looked in the rearview mirror. Her hair on the spot where he had kissed her had turned snow white. From his goodbye kiss.
Ann Wilkes‘ first book, Awesome Lavratt (2008, Unlimited Publishing), is a tongue-in-cheek space opera with mind control, passion and adventure and lots of puns. Her stories have appeared in online zines and two anthologies. She lives in California’s wine country with her husband and youngest son (19). She says writing is almost a biological imperative. She writes SF because she’s very interested in peoples and societies: “I get a kick out of building alien worlds.” She writes mostly first contact and sentient non-humans pieces. Visit her on the web at www.annwilkes.com.