This story was published in the Rockford Review and won the Editor’s Choice Award.
The couple’s laughter came to an abrupt halt when the wife said, “Barry, what is that?”
Arms entwined, she dragged him back a few steps as her words had also halted her walking.
“What is what?”
“That,” she said, pointing, “On the sidewalk. There. It’s so…dark.”
As her husband glanced to the walkway ahead, she peered behind–into complete darkness. Not a single light was seen or reflected in the barred storefront windows that lined the street. No sound or sight of a passing car. Where were they? How far had they walked from the crowded restaurant? Five blocks? Ten? Their anniversary celebration, dinner, drinks and dancing, seemed just around the last corner. She scanned the other side of the road; a broken sidewalk edged a razor-wire topped fence guarding some old warehouse or factory. No lights, no people, nothing.
“I can’t tell from here,” Barry said as he pulled forward intending to walk on. “It’s nothing. Probably just some old bum’s blanket or a discarded trash bag.”
“What are you doing?” Fear edged her words, sharpening her tone. “Barry, don’t–”
Now he took a turn looking behind them, wondering how they could have walked down this path and not noticed the swallowing darkness.
“Laurie,” he said, “we can’t turn around, it’s pitch black back there. Look at this neighborhood—not some place you want to get lost. The light is ahead. Light is good, right? See, there’s a bar on the corner. We’ll stop in there and ask for directions. Heck, we’ll call for cab back to our car if we h—“
“Barry,” she shrieked, clutching the cuff of his best suit. “It moved!”
He focused on the mound as it seemed to quake. He tried to shrug out of her grip. “C’mon Laurie, we have to see what it is.”
“No we don’t. Can’t you feel it?” Her eyes were glassy with the threat of tears, reflecting the corner street lamp, they glowed eerily. “Something’s wrong, Barry. Let’s just turn around.”
“Honey,” he said, extracting his arm and turning to face her. He gripped her hands in his, “You’re being sil–”
“Shhh,” she spat, rocking to the side to look around his broad shoulder. “Was that a cry? Is that a baby?” Suddenly Barry was restraining her as she tried to run to the thing on the sidewalk.
“No! No. Probably just a cat. Shhh, just wait a minute.”
She blinked and a large tear created a trail of light down her cheek.
They stood in silence, struck by shadows falling from the posts supporting the overhang. Desolate sidewalk behind them, promise of light ahead, mysterious feel-bad in between. In unison they wished someone would emerge from the corner bar. A stumbling drunk, a third-shifter heading to work, the owner closing up for the night. Someone, anyone.
A vague tremor caught the corner of his eye as he willed the bar door to open. They couldn’t stand here all night. This was crazy. The thing on the sidewalk didn’t take up the whole path. They could walk around. The bar was right there—not even half a block away.
She shivered beneath the weight of his protective arm. He shrugged off the suit coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. Looking straight into her eyes, he said, “You stay here. I’ll go ahead and check it out. Once I’m past, you come and I’ll buffer you.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “It’ll be okay, I promise.”
A sob escaped and she held his hand until he was out of reach.
Into and out of the light he traipsed, one steady stride at a time. He slowed when he was within a few steps, angling to the left, creating an arc. This close, he felt silly for all the drama. It was clearly nothing, just some old rags or a puddle of thick liquid or…why couldn’t he tell what it was? Certainly not a person or an animal. No sound or movement escaped the thing now. The murky alley to his side seemed to repel his body as curiosity attracted him. He took a step closer to the pile.
He made another hesitant step; hands at his sides fluttered her to shush.
From the safety of the overhang, she sobbed louder, pulling the jacket taut to her.
As he went to nudge the mystery heap with the tip of his shiny shoe, he looked at her and put on a reassuring smile. “It’s nothing,” he called, dipping his toe.
The moment he touched it, her husband of ten years to the day, became a figure of smoke. Dark and swirling, he was sucked into the mass. “Nooooo,” she screamed, tossing off the coat and running to the spot where he had just been. She put her hands out, trying to catch the cyclone of wisp as it spiraled down. “B-b-barry,” she cried, slamming fists into her hips, hips he had guided on the dance floor a lifetime ago. Sounds gurgled out of her. It may have been “I love you,” or more likely, “I told you,” but through a mouth wet with emotion and rigid with fear, the words were indecipherable as she pressed an open-toed black stiletto into the pile. Upon contact, she too, became nothing.
The sound of laughter exited the bar a beat before the handful of revelers. They staggered out into the striped light and shadow.
Eyeing the heap down the sidewalk, someone asked, “What the hell is that?”
Turning the well lit corner, another replied, “I’m sure it’s nothing.”