By Dan Leicht
It was three in the morning when he returned home. She was already asleep, sprawled out in the middle of their bed. He peeled off his clothes and tossed them to the floor, poured himself a glass of orange juice, drank it, and passed out on the couch. In the morning he woke up to find her gone. There was a note on the refrigerator door, attached by a magnet right beside their wedding date.
PICK MY LITTLE SISTER UP FROM SCHOOL AT 3
He looked at the clock. It was almost noon.
He took his time eating breakfast, or brunch, and took his time showering. At two he left the studio apartment, locked the door, and waved to Mrs. Wheeler, his neighbor, who opened her door every time he opened his.
“Won’t you join Robert and I for some tea?” she asked. “You must be awfully lonely.”
“No time today. Apologies.” He rushed down the stairs.
Once he stepped outside it started raining. Thunder gurgled in the distance. He got into his car. On the way to the grocery store his phone vibrated in his pocket. He kept one hand on the wheel and pulled his phone out with the other. His attention traded between the bright screen and the glistening asphalt.
Red lights shown brightly in front of him.
He slammed his breaks.
Horns blasted behind him.
He stopped in time, jostled forward, then slammed backward, but the person behind him didn’t. He was pushed into the car in front of him, crushing their bumper like an accordion.
Smoke arose from the hood of his car. He got out to assess the situation. His bumper matched the car in front of him.
TAP. TAP. TAP. TAP.
The window he addressed was too dark to see through. He hoped the car in front of him would at least roll their window down. He looked behind him, there was a stream of cars, but no one was getting out.
TAP. TAP. TAP. TAP.
The car behind him lay dormant as well. He made his way down the line of destruction only to realize each car was empty. He looked around, scratching his head, other than his accident the road was barren of any other cars.
He knocked again on the window of the car behind him. No response.
It took a few minutes but he located his phone tucked under his seat and dialed the police.
The phone rang for what felt like an eternity until he gave up and hung up. Not knowing what to do next he got into his car and pulled away from the accident, steam still leaking from under the hood. He drove to the grocery store and pulled into a spot far enough away so as he could take another look at his car.
He popped the hood and took a step back. He shook his head in disbelief, what he was seeing seemed out of an acid soaked dream.
Where his engine should be pulsed a giant blue heart. Extending away from the heart were various tubes, all of which squeezed gelatinous muck from the heart and into the car.
He slammed the hood and walked away, nervously combing his hand through his hair.
By the time the automatic doors of the supermarket opened he was drenched. His shoes squished as he walked from one isle to the next, glancing up and down from the meager list in his hand.
He looked at the price of the avocados and moved on. Then rolled his eyes and turned around. He placed four into his basket.
On his way out there was no one at the registers. He left with the basket and placed it into the passenger seat of his car. It was still raining. He turned the key and his car coughed. He tried again and it sneezed. He got out and popped the hood. He was ready to release his frustration on the beating heart, but when he looked down it wasn’t there. Instead he saw a sad smoking engine, one that’d given him four more years of life that it should’ve. He took the keys from the ignition and grabbed the basket from the passenger seat. He began walking.
When he arrived at the school the rain was letting up. He pulled his phone from his coat pocket and checked the time. Three. Moments later she exited from the main doors and walked up to him.
“Where’s your car?” she asked.
“It’s dead,” he replied.
“What’s in the basket?”
“Groceries for your sister.”
“Did you steal them? They should be in bags.”
“I’m looking out for the environment. Come on, let’s get walking. Your sister will be out of work before we make it to your house, maybe she’ll be able to pick us up.” He took his phone from his pocket and began looking through his recent calls for her number. As he searched a raindrop struck his phone. He looked up into the sky and the drops began cascading downward. He looked to where she was standing beside him and there was no one there. He sought refuge under a tree. A trembling finger swiped through his recent calls, he hadn’t called his fiancé at all. How is that possible, he thought. He removed the list from his pocket, it was written on the back of a copy of their wedding invitations. The invitation said their wedding had come and gone, three years earlier. He stuffed the paper into his coat and stepped out into the rain, let it wash over him.
He dropped the basket and ran back towards the supermarket. There his car sat, unharmed. He got in. The engine started right away. He drove home. Walked past Mrs. Wheeler.
Inside his apartment he saw her lying there on the bed and he gasped.
He took a step backward and back out into the hallway. Mrs. Wheeler rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Is it still happening?” she asked.
“Wha — what?”
“You’re still seeing her aren’t you?”
“What do you mean? She’s right there.” He pointed to the empty bed.
Mrs. Wheeler peeked inside. She placed her hand onto the swell of his back and ushered him towards her apartment.
“Robert and I will fix you up. It’s never easy to lose someone close to you. The mind has its ways of making it easier, but sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what’s real.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, his heart racing.
“Your sweet Abby died in a car accident three years ago. She was picking her sister up from school, oh you must remember. You’ve told us time and again how you were supposed to be the one to pick her up. Do you still have the list?”
He pulled the list from his pocket.
“How about we throw this out?” she asked. “Hmm? I think it might help you.”
He pulled away from her and stuffed the list into his pocket.
“No,” he said. “It’s all I have left of her.”
He closed the door to his apartment and put the list back up on the refrigerator. He then removed his phone from his pocket and looked at the message. It was an alert he’d set years before. Don’t forget flowers for anniversary.
He opened his door and Mrs. Wheeler stood waiting. He followed her into her apartment, where Mr. Wheeler was preparing a pot of tea.