Vaughn measured his life in stops and starts corresponding to the women around him.
His life stopped during grade school when his mother died of a long illness, and it didn’t start again until he met Natalie in high school.
It accelerated with their daughter’s birth, and ground to a halt when she was killed in a car accident at age twelve. It limped along until four months ago when, exactly three years to the day of the accident, Natalie killed herself.
Vaughn was left alone. No women in his life. No reason to start moving again.
He went through the motions, of course. He drank enough to get dressed, to drive to work, to eat the casseroles left after the funeral. He drank to fall asleep at night, or sometimes as soon as he got home from work.
Lately he’d been drinking there as well. The first week after the funeral, he’d closed his door and taken carefully controlled sips from a flask in his briefcase. Now he left the bottle on his desk, in full view of anyone walking past.
Like the guy standing in his doorway now. Vaughn scrunched his eyes shut and scrubbed at his face with his palms, trying to remember the guy’s name. Or maybe to make him go away. Make all this go away.
“How you doing?”
What’s-his-name had been by after the funeral, taken some shots with Vaughn. Drinks were good. Thinking was not. He pawed around for the bottle on his desk and took a swig.
“Yeah. Still rough, huh?” The man paused as if Vaughn had responded, then continued. “Listen, you’re probably pretty lonely right now. Maybe it’d be best to get your mind off what happened. My wife’s sister is willing to go out to dinner. Not as a replacement, of course not, no one could ever replace Natalie.”
Vaughn croaked something. He meant it as shut up, get out, but the man took it as agreement.
“Great! We got you a table at that new Italian place downtown. I’ll email you her address. Pick her up at seven on Friday, okay?” The coworker disappeared from the doorway, then popped back in. “And maybe take a shower first. No one’s wanted to say anything, but you’re looking pretty rough.”
“I don’t want to go,” he told Natalie’s picture when he arrived home. “I can’t do this without you.”
Natalie smiled at him from the frame.
“I can’t be here, without you. Alone.” His knees buckled and he crumpled to the living room floor. Through his tears, her blonde hair glowed like a halo. “Help me find someone, Nat. A stranger, an angel; I don’t care. Someone to take me away from all this.”
Come Friday, Vaughn somehow managed to shower, shave, and end up at the right house, only ten minutes late. The woman must have been briefed on his condition, because she barely scowled when she opened the door. A good sign, if Vaughn wanted to take things further with her. Which he did not.
“Have you been here before?” she asked as they looked over the menus, at a corner table lit with candles.
“No. Natalie wanted to, but we never got the chance.” He shut his eyes to get rid of the image of Natalie lying on their bed, the bottle of pills empty beside her, but it only made the scene clearer. She’d asked him to take her out, but he’d been too busy at the office. He’d ignored a lot of little things.
The woman patted his hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Billy told me about it. It must be so bad for you.”
Vaughn nodded, although bad didn’t begin to describe it. Bad was when your basement flooded. When your dog had fleas. When the Bears blew another winning season. What had happened to him wasn’t bad; it was terrible. Devastating. Soul-shaking, lose-the-will-to-live awful.
He signaled the waiter for a bottle of wine.
The woman tried to keep up a conversation, and Vaughn tried to annihilate his liver. After he ordered the second bottle, she focused on her food. After he ordered the third, she stood up.
“I’m sorry, but this isn’t working.” She leaned in, kissed his cheek. “Thank you for dinner. I’ll take a cab home.”
Vaughn blinked. The room blurred, then refocused, all except for a golden spot at the bar. He grabbed the bottle of wine and walked over.
A woman materialized. Indeterminate age, pretty in a subtle, classic kind of way. He thudded down on the stool next to her.
“My date went to the bathroom and never came back.” She smiled at him, a smile tinged with a sadness he could understand. Natalie had had that smile, towards the end.
“My date left me too.” He took a drink directly out of the bottle in his hand.
“I think you have the right idea.” She nodded towards her glass. “But you have a head start.”
“Four months’ head start.”
Vaughn found himself pouring out his story: his daughter’s death, Natalie’s, feeling like he was on autopilot. The woman nodded sympathetically through it all.
“This is going to sound really lame,” she said when he’d finished. “Could you give me a ride home?”
Vaughn shrugged. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do.
It took him four attempts to start his car.
“I shouldn’t drive,” he said as he watched the pavement markings dance.
“You’ll be fine. Turn here.”
Vaughn did as he was told, wincing as the car was abruptly stopped by a tree. He brushed shattered glass off his arm.
“Leave it,” the woman said. Maybe it was the blood in his eyes, but with the streetlight behind her the golden aura was back.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She smiled, a happy smile now, and helped him over his body and out of the car, to where Natalie stood. He took his wife’s hand, and together they started down the road home.
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.