By: Morgen Knight

As he jogged by, he gave a simple wave to Chad, the noise of Chad’s lawnmower intruding on the Shagtronics playing in Jeff’s ear. The iPod was turned all the way up, edging on the point of distortion. That was how he liked to jog. It enveloped him, that way. If pushed out the world not passing beneath his feet or rolling through his head. He didn’t really even hear the music, anymore, but he didn’t hear the dogs’ barking, car horns, children playing or most anything else, either. The guitars, drums, and half screamed lyrics created an insular buffer.

It was evening, dancing toward night, and the street was still busy; a group of kids were playing touch football in the street (and it looked to Jeff like Mr. Reynold’s Ford was being used as an end zone marker, again); two girls were on their knees down the sidewalk, drawing squares with yellow chalk; a small red car with the Pizza Shack sign on its door drove by. Tonight was going to be a beautiful summer night. As Jeff slowed to walk and turned toward his house, he thought about breaking out the grill. He could smell that someone else had already had that idea.  Steak, he thought.

Jeff wiped at the sweat on his brow with his palms, knocking the front door closed behind him with his heel. The front windows were barely parted, prematurely darkening the living room. There wasn’t much sunlight left, and it was falling on the far side of the house, but it looked much later in here. His eyes held that gauzy haze, adjusting, as he went to the kitchen. The ear buds to his iPod hung over his shoulder.

There wasn’t much for him to drink, he noticed, standing in the cool hands of the open refrigerator, the light hitting his legs and spreading across the tile floor. He chose the carton of orange juice, unfolding the lip, and drank until he couldn’t hold his breath. A line of sweat still lined his brow, he could feel, and Jeff was deciding what to do after his shower as he walked back into the living room, carton in hand. He could feel the coolness of the liquid inside of him.

The idea of grilling had already been dismissed as he’d stood in the kitchen, drinking from the carton. Maybe go out. There was the bar. Maybe over to Steve’s, he considered. That would exempt him from–

Jeff stopped. There was someone standing in the corner, near the front window, where the shadows overlapped like weaving. He wasn’t sure at first, but the shape was too solid and outlined to be just a shadow. The darkness was inconsistent, folding around a form. His mind ran for a hundred things in the second his head turned and his eyes noticed, as his hand reached over the lamp. To turn it on, yes. But, perhaps also to throw it.

“Not yet, Jeff.”

Three words. That was all that it took to stay his hand, to make it tremble the slightest bit.

He was looking at his wrist, the hand cut off by the lampshade. The switch wasn’t an inch from his fingertips, but he wasn’t thinking about the light. Not the lamp light, anyway. There had been another light, but . . .

Three words. Three syllables. They gleamed in his heart like stolen gold, their wealth darkened by the repercussions of their theft. Jeff knew that voice. More importantly, his heart knew it, and it coveted that dark gold with the avarice of a miser’s strength.

“Gloria,” he said, looking at the shape. His hand dropped to his side. The open orange juice container was set on the end of the table, its corner hanging off the edge. He didn’t even feel himself doing this as he stepped forward. Curiosity, worry, surprise, joy—these were the lines that made up his brows bed.

“Wait, Jeff. Give me a moment. I want to look at you.”

There was no more light in here for her to see than him, he thought. But he was not standing in the dark corner, either. His eyes went to the minimal separation of the curtains. The light had taken on that last gray note before it fails. Something flashed by–a car, he guessed.

They had almost been married, once. Well, that wasn’t precisely true. Jeff had almost asked her to marry him. Did that count? The ring had been in his pack, wrapped up in his old football sweatshirt, where Gloria wasn’t likely to check or stumble across it. He had the words.  And how many times had he heard himself saying them since then? A thousand different nights, he’d constructed the scene the way that it should have been. Every detail was there until his heart ached, until his fingers burnt for the touch that they couldn’t feel. He knew how it would have gone–the very words she’d say, the tears, the way that her arms would wrap around him, the love that they would make on the hard ground in the middle of that grassy field. All of it, and more.  Every day, every month, building to every year from then until now. It was his comfort, helping him to sleep at night. That should have been.

He was a copywriter, then. It had taken him four months to save the money up to buy that ring, and even then it had been modest. By then, Gloria had moved in, and their accounts had been joined, so he’d had to open a side account, stashing the secret money away to buy the secret ring for his secret plan. And it was still open, holding a balance of over twenty dollars–that sum of interest on the change left over from his purchase. He still had the ring. He still had all of her things, packed up in boxes, finally, and stored upstairs.

“Talk to me,” he said, and his voice wasn’t far above begging. But did he really want to know? Of course, he thought. But then, why did he feel so afraid?

It was the light, he knew. But it was more than that.

They had met in a record store in Conception six years ago. She had been standing there with headphones on, her hips gently swaying to her music like a single stalk of wheat in the summer breeze. And Jeff remembers almost hearing that music, an interior tune translating those movements into sound. Right or wrong, it was enough that he had hummed it, smiling, knowing that he had found something that he had to have. When she had taken the headphones off, he had approached her. That became dinner. Dinner became breakfast. Breakfast became a ring. He knew that it was a simple story, but every time he thought back on it, he could still feel something. Isn’t that how you know it was real, the lasting feeling?

“What do you want me to say?” she asked.  Her outline had not moved. In fact, as darkness set, she had become indistinct. A direction, no, instead of an object. “I’ve missed you.”

The words were there, but he couldn’t say them. A single bead of sweat rolled down his face. He still hadn’t cooled off from his jog; his heart still beating as though he were jogging.  Of course, he had missed her, but it had been four years. Some of the jagged tips had been dulled, and pain had given way now to curiosity.

Gloria had been pregnant. Jeff hadn’t known that until after. He had been sitting on the edge of the tub, shower running behind him, steam building, trying not to cry, when he’d seen something sticking out of the trash. It was the pink color of it that had interested him. Wrapped up in a tissue, save the tip, Jeff had pulled out a home pregnancy stick. There was a plus sign in the display window. Losing Gloria had been bad enough; this . . . seeing this was a whole new wing of Hell.

A child? Jeff had sat at the edge of the bath, feeling sick. The ring was in his hand, and his blurry eyes kept following the curve of the perfect circle, endlessly. It was in the gleam of that ring that he had seen his lost life, a window to the future he could not ever live. A wife, a child.  When he slept, it was the memory of that gleam that he sought–the only real peace that he knew was in imagining what should have been. Never what was.

“What happened Gloria?” He asked.

That’s what the police had wanted to know. They had pulled Jeff in for interview after interview. His picture had been in the paper as well as hers. Reporters had shoved microphones in his face, their cameras capturing his every expression. And the questions had never stopped.  Did you kill Gloria Hoberock? Where is her body? Do you fear that the police are going to arrest you?

Jeff had tried to answer the questions that he could. Twice, he had made public appeals for information about his girlfriend, knowing that he was playing for an audience. No one watching was going to know anything. There wasn’t a soul out there that would understand what he really had to say. So he lied, keeping that truth packed neatly away along with the information about his unborn child and eventually all her belongings. The police must have sensed that he was lying. The detectives had screamed at him, holding him in their tiny rooms, slamming their fists on the table, grabbing him by the shirt, lying. They had told him about a witness hiker.  They had told him that they had found her body, and that he might as well confess, to tell the truth, to take responsibility and show the judge remorse. That was the right thing to do, the only thing that could help him–bullshit, all of it. They had told him about blood they had found.  They had told him about fingerprints. They had told him about DNA. All it would have taken was one wrong word from him, and he would be in jail. When they didn’t get it, they finally told him he could go.

Jeff had been lying, sure. But his lie was simple and built with stones of truth. Nothing to mess up, nothing to forget. He couldn’t tell the truth. It was something that not even he understood and he had borne it witness.

“They came for me,” she said, simply.

He had never put up flyers or drove the streets in search of her. He had driven north and walked the woods near the ridge. That was where they had been camping, hiking all weekend.  Alone, outdoors. He had held her by the campfire, listening to the battery powered radio, sleeping to the serenade of owls and crickets. Awakened to bird calls. It had been exactly what he had planned, until the light had come.

Bright, from the sky, it had fallen around them. Jeff had covered his eyes, looking up.  There was no sound, only this large circle of intense daylight. Gloria had screamed, and that was all that Jeff knew. Everything went black after that, until he’d woke up the next afternoon. The campfire had long burnt itself out. There were no tracks, no trace of Gloria except for the gear that she’d brought. So, after scouring the woods, calling out her name, after calling the police, he had just told everyone that Gloria had left him. They had gotten into an argument, and she had stormed off. Maybe a bear got her, maybe she was fine.

No one had ever believed him, but no one would have believed the truth.

“Who came for you?”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” she said calmly.

Jeff couldn’t see much at all, now. His hand found the lamp, turning it on. For a second, as his fingers rolled the switch, he was afraid to turn the light on. Was it irrational? More than anything, he wanted to see her. But, at the same time, what did it mean? And, what if the light proved that she was not there?

She was. The lamp was not bright, but it easily pulled her from the darkness. She had the same brown hair, the same soft face. There was no difference that he could see–she was wearing the same clothes that he had last seen her in. It was like time hadn’t touched her at all.

“I can’t believe that it’s you.”

“It is, Jeff,” Gloria said. For the first time, she moved, coming slowly forward.

“Where have you been? What happened to you?”

“You don’t have to worry about that.”

“But I am,” he said, his confusion trying to find anger. But the best that he could do was confused anger. “I want to know what happened to you. Your family blamed me, Gloria.  Everyone did.”

“Forget about that. I am here for you, now.”

She was arms-length away. Everything about her was so beautiful. “What about the child? Why didn’t you tell me?”

This made her pause, blinking at him. Then the trouble cleared from her face, and she was up against him. He could smell her; it was almost what he remembered. But there was something off.

“Don’t worry about it,” she soothed him. Her hands went around him. Her touch made him quiver. His own hands held her, feeling her.

It was her eyes that grabbed him. They weren’t right. None of this was. There was even something off in her breath, hitting him. “Wait,” he said, as her mouth tried to find his. “Wait!” more sternly. He tried to push her back, to extricate himself from her hold, but he couldn’t. She was too strong. Much stronger than she had been. “Wait, Gloria. Let me go.” Struggling to free himself, he knocked the orange juice container over, spilling it to the floor.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “You’ll never have to worry again.” From between her full lips, two small, green tentacles emerged, their tips pointed and dark. She held him solidly, pushing her mouth against his. Jeff could taste his blood as they pushed past his tongue, and down his throat. Gloria’s eyes were closed as her mouth pressed against his, as though this were their first kiss. Jeff’s eyes were wide open, his body rigid as he tried to scream. Outside, it was dark. In here, his body began to tremble as his throat began to burn.




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