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Contemporary Fiction Romance


              “Follow that taxi.” You’ve just seen a ghost.

              “Wha-Which one?” The driver in the front seat is shaken from his slumber. He’s an obese, mountain of a man, so big that sitting is his natural state. The cab smells like cheeseburgers and cigarettes.

              “That one, pulling out, two down. Hurry.”

              That hurry was a tad desperate. He eyes you for an instant, assesses whether you’re a stalker with a razor, or indeed, a normal person. Sweat drips down the rolls on the back of his neck. He puts the car in gear.

              “Good,” you think. “You’re still capable of appearing ordinary to strangers.”

              Or maybe he trusted your cleavage, plunged to a careless depth, that you only notice now. Either way, the vehicle is in motion, nestled into the monolithic traffic of the city’s congested streets.

              Your ghost is a half-block ahead, weaving between lanes.

              You’re not crazy. You know what you saw.

              That’s a common refrain that you recite often in the bathroom mirror. You’re not crazy Sam. You. Are not. Crazy.

              It’s been a tough few years.

              You’ve been to this city, lived in it actually. Remember that? God. That trash heap of a place on the East side that you occupied out of college, a two-bedroom sub-divided into four that you packed into with three other girls that had no money either. The shower was a closet that leaked into the kitchen and more than once a mouse crawled out of the burner on the gas stove. You always wondered if there were charred remains in there, scorched skeletons of vermin that flew too close to the sun of your food scraps. You never lifted the top to see; better to not know. But the girls were nice and there was a Chinese restaurant on the corner that did dollar sake bombs after midnight.

              That feels like a million moons ago.

              “A friend of yours or something?” The driver’s voice wrenches you from booze-soaked nights in your twenties to the sticky leather of the back seat.

              “Oh, yes,” you stumble. It’s not untrue. It also pierces your heart with a fishhook.

              You got your first job here. You learned liberal arts degrees are worthless, that the opinions you spouted vociferously in classrooms amount to nothing at all. You took a job as a barista while you pursued certifications online. It barely paid the bills, but it was a fun thing to do while you trained for a big girl job.

              Plus, everyone loves the hearts and trees you can still etch into the foam of lattes.

              The ghost is not alone. There’s a second head in the back seat, bobbing up and down with the occasional jolt of a jagged pothole.

              The streets sound as they did on the day that you left – the honking cars, the hammering construction, the endless parade of bustling comers and goers, businessmen and dog walkers, stoners, and loopy, loping tourists. They’re shouting into cellphones.

              “Yes mom, I’ll be there.”

              “I’ll have it on your desk, end of day.”

              “I’m on my way now, there’s nothing I can fucking do about it.”

              Birds sing songs and we curse through silicone.

              The cab halts at a red. Streat meat sizzles on grills at the corner; the aroma wafts through the cracked window, infiltrates your nostrils and returns you to the lazy summer night when you fell in love.

              “What are you, too good for a sidewalk hot dog?” He’s got two in his hands, beaming that handsome grin, the smile he knows is a weapon. It’s 1:00 am, but the city never sleeps and neither do you when you’re together.

              The electricity flutters you, still, now, in the back seat. You’re warm down there.

              He is playful but serious. Smart, not arrogant. He’s generous in a non-flashy way, tips the cart man with a ten for eight bucks of food after trading non-serious insults. He goes to museums by himself and gets blitzed drunk if his team is on the tube above the bar. You met at the party of a friend-of-a-friend. He was telling jokes and rousing people he didn’t know, making himself at-home in an unfamiliar place when he spotted you in a black dress and a bra that told fabulous lies. He asked you out when you told him your favorite author was Margaret Atwood.

              He takes you to an indie-alt show, a band you don’t know but can tell is groovy from the first guitar stroke. He wears a cream, denim jacket, a thing that must be pulled off but that he surely does without realizing. The music is druggy-buzzy; the one beer you promise to stick to becomes three. He puts his hand on your hip, firm, exactly when you want him to. You sway with the rhythm, and though neither of you can dance, you dance, and for some reason you move well together, like one-plus-one is two, and bad-plus-bad is good. When you glance up, his eyes are in yours, sharp, inviting, asking permission. You tilt your chin slightly.

              He kisses you. You kiss him. The beat detonates as your lips touch, tingle and move. Your hands are draped around his neck. You want his hands to stay on your waist forever. They caress, make your nipples hard.

              It seems hackneyed. A movie scene to scoff at in company but devour privately, hoping that one day it will be yours.

              It was yours.

              The taxi ahead zips through the intersection. Your stomach twists. You’re not going to make it. An agonizing second. The light turns yellow.

              “GO!” It just bursts out of you.

              The driver, startled, jams his foot on the gas, elicits aggravated horns from other vehicles as you speed through the red light. He’s rasping, scanning you like a crazy person for shouting him through an intersection in such a precarious position.

              Maybe you are.

              “Sorry”, you mumble, “I’m visiting my friends - I don’t want to lose them. I don’t know my way around and my phone is dead. They would worry.”

              That quells him. Barely. It disturbs you, how easily you lie.

              You stumble out of the venue and to a pub for one more. It’s a shot of Jameson (he makes a sour face when you suggest fireball). You clink glasses and toss it back. The liquor pulses in the back of your brain stem; both of you cough your lungs into the back of your hands. The water in his eyes make them bluer, frosty like a chilled windowpane.

              He walks you home and holds your hand the whole way (minus the five-minute hotdog excursion). He tells you that he likes life, but he’s not sure what to do with it. “There are so many things. I’m always wondering, am I in the right place? Am I doing what I should be doing? Am I sacrificing something that I can’t even see?” His grip tightens when he says this, scaring himself with scrolling thoughts. He wants to know what you think about too.

              You open your mouth to begin and realize you’re standing outside your building’s front door. You’re too shy to ask him up; you’ll say yes if he asks. Please ask.

              He fires that smile at you, holsters it. He kisses your cheek so delicately it’s amazing you feel anything at all. Your toes burn beneath you, all the air in your chest is compressed into a tiny cube.

              “You’re a special girl, Sam.”

              You. Are not. Crazy.

              He turns to leave, takes three steps and spins around once more.

              “And I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

              Companion leans on ghost in the back seat, head-to-shoulder. They fit well together.

              A year goes by. Two. You grow into each other. You make love and memories; you can still feel his breath on the nape of your neck, his tongue on your collar bone, teeth on the tip of your ear, fingers sliding down your thigh, between your heaving legs and –

              The car jerks right; the taxi driver lays on his horn. “Asshole!” he curses. You’re shivering in the back seat.

              Your friends are his friends. You rescue a bulldog, Ben, a silly, lazy thing more chub than dog. You wonder what a wedding will look like. It doesn’t matter, as long as everyone you love comes and the dance floor rocks.

              It hits you, eyes peered forward at your ghost and this other person, that it was four years ago, today, that you left.

              Their right turn signal illuminates. They’re stopping.

              “Behind them?” Your driver asks, applying his own.

              “No!” It escapes you before you can soften the edges.

              He studies you, perplexed, sure now that he’s made a mistake, and you are, indeed, a psychopath pursuing some unknowing prey.

              “No, it’s just, I promised I’d get the ice on the way. We’re having a get-together. Would you drop me at the Duane Reade, there on the corner?”

              Your last shred of believability is being stretched to its maximum. He shrugs, deactivates his bullshit detector that is shrieking bloody murder, so close to collecting his fare.

              You pay him and pop into the drug store, not for ice, just to breathe.

              You. Are not. Crazy. You know what you saw.

              He’s been moody for a week; you figure it’s just work. He’s irritated, scolding you for nothing, then apologizing. He’s fidgety in bed. He doesn’t notice, two nights in a row, when you slough a strap of your nightgown over your shoulder, expose a breast for his palm, mouth, anything. He’s out the door in the morning before you wake. It’s the same when he returns.

              You’re worried.

              You return from a walk with Ben. He asks you to join him on the balcony. Something’s wrong.

              You’re watching him through the glass. They’re entering the outdoor plaza. The cashier eyes you suspiciously.

              “You gonna buy something or just stand there?” she asks, irritated. “No public bathroom or outlet, even for a pretty little white girl like yourself.”

              “Oh, sorry – no”, you garble, doing two things at once, memories prying themselves out of you like hatched turtles from the sand.

              Tears stream down your cheeks.

              “Why?” you gush. “Why don’t you want to have kids?”

              His face is pained. This is what he’s been hiding, turning him into somebody you don’t recognize. 

              “Sam, I didn’t plan this. He grimaces, places his hand on the back of his head. You wonder if he’s been tearing out locks; there have been more strands than normal in the sheets. He bends down, wipes the tears from your face. “I thought it was something that I’d get over one day. One day I’ll wake up and boom, it will hit me. I’m ready. It’s time to have kids.”

              His voice trails. His grip on your hands softens. You glance up from your lap, the spot your eyes have been for twenty minutes. You let them crawl into his. They’re swollen and red, two bruised plums.

              “…But it’s not there Sam. It’s just..not…”, he thumps his chest with a closed fist. “…There.”

              You plead with him. You swear at him. You pummel his chest, demand to know where his heart his. It’s nauseating, like hovering over the edge of a cliff, vertigo on solid ground. You shatter a lamp. A glass picture frame. You lock yourself in the bathroom and bawl, scream at him to get away when he knocks. When he finally enters, your head is in your knees, hands clutching your forehead, rocking in the bathtub.

              “I love you Sam.”

              You love him too. You shout he’s selfish. He’s stupid. He’s wrong. He’s fucking wrong. How could he not want a son with that smile? Or a little girl with those piercing eyes? How could he deprive his parents the joy of grandkids?

              “Don’t you want to hold them when they’re small enough to fit in your palm? Hear their first words? Watch them take their first steps? Don’t you want to make notches on the doorway as they grow? You don’t want to know what they would do? What they would dream? You want an empty home with walls full of pictures of meaningless things instead of your own children?” Your words are mushed together by the end, undecipherable, like the leftovers of peas and mashed potatoes smashed on a plate.

              He holds you for thirty minutes, both of you weeping. He kisses you on the top of the head and exits.

              “I’m sorry Sam.”

              You cross the street and head towards the plaza.

              You love him, but you can’t be with him. You try for a few weeks, but the daffodils have disappeared from the field. Folding the laundry, you suffer a debilitating panic attack, one that makes you grasp for the Xanax bottle for the first time in years. Because these are the only clothes you’ll every fold – your leggings and his corduroys, various sweatshirts, all sized for adults. No little booties. No custom onesies. No t-shirts in toddler and then children and then youth and then finally adult. No soccer uniforms or graduation gowns. No dirt stains or jelly on white fabric. You cram two down your throat and slide down the wall, praying that your windpipe will recover. Their voices echo in your mind, the laughter of the kids you will never have.

              A week later you’re loading Ben into the Honda with your things. He’s begging you to stay, but you can’t – not even in the same city because you’re too heartsick.

              After all of the questions, all the anger and disbelief, the shouting and pleading and reasoning, it’s just you two, lost in each other’s arms sobbing. When you can hold no longer, you cup his cheek in your palm, and finding the deepest grace that exists inside you, you say:

              “Thank you for telling me the truth.”

              You watch him disappear in your rear-view like a tiny figurine with the gravitational pull of a planet. You want to yank the steering wheel around, run back to him and take refuge from the wilderness of the world. He fades in the mirror, the love of your life, a ghost that you can still see.

              You drive home to your mother because you need a shoulder to cry on that is not his. You pull off to the overlook on the one when the pain burrows too deep and your vision is blurry. There’s a half-a-fifth of Jack poking out of a bin jammed under the glove box in the passenger-side seat, wedged between some clothes and a coffee maker you haven’t used in years. You guzzle it in a single, unbroken pull and dial your mother, piss-drunk, an hour north of home, to come get you.

              You know what you saw.

              You enter the plaza and scan. Where are they?

              It was easier for him than you. To be fair, it was over a year before he had another woman in his life. He stayed in touch initially, told you he loved you. But those calls soon grew sparse and eventually stopped. Pictures of him and his girlfriend started popping up on your social media, so you removed them from your phone. Last time you checked, they were still in the city, recently married. It took you a year to leave your mom’s; you found a job on the East coast that offered a pay bump and three thousand miles from your hurt.

              It’s the first time you’ve been back. Work put the assignment on your desk and there was nobody available to delegate. Besides, it’s your relationship with the client and there’s no way you’ll run into him. It’s been four years and you haven’t spoken in over two. You have a mortgage to take care of. Condos with brick interior are expensive when you buy them alone.

              You. Are not. Crazy.

              You started a new life. Made new friends. Flew your mother out and gave her a tour of your new neighborhood; the coffee spot, the bookstore down the road, the pedestrian bridge you walk over on Sunday afternoons because the sunlight dances in such a way that the river bleeds fireworks.            

              You freeze. They’re sitting at a table in the concourse. She’s fussing on the bench; he’s got ice cream from the cart twenty yards away. There are three cups in his hand.

              There’s a stroller at the table.

              Turn around. His brother had a baby; that’s his nephew, he’s watching him for the week. Turn around and leave right now before he sees you. You are not crazy Sam. Do not throw away the progress you’ve made.

              The voice in your head can’t prevent your feet from moving. There’s a crushing pressure in your sternum. Turn around.

              He scoops the child into his arms, sits down and delivers a spoonful into the toddler’s mouth. You arrive as the two turn. They discover you simultaneously.

              He is stunned. She is confused. You’re in shock, pummeled by what you see.

              His eyes betray him, but you already know. Those are his dimples and blue eyes with her auburn hair and round cheeks. Ice cream dribbles down the girl’s chin; she squeezes her fists up, pleads with her daddy for more.

              The pain is searing. The nausea is churning, like you’re trapped in the circular motion near the drain.

              “Sam…”

              You turn and run. The world cascades around you. The plaza blends into an incomprehensible gelatin, one you must escape.

              “Sam!” he shouts. You don’t look back. You’re suffocating.

              Thank you for telling me the truth.

              You tear through the plaza and burst into the city street. You lunge into the first cab you see and tell him go, just go.

              You don’t look back. You imagine an empty reflection and a mirror with him in it.

              You’ll never know which you hoped to see.
















January 27, 2023 23:06

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4 comments

Wendy Kaminski
01:01 Feb 01, 2023

Wow, that reveal was heart-breaking. You portrayed the main character so well, I really felt her panic and bewilderment (and eventual collapse). This was really well-done, Sean, great story! Good luck this week, and welcome to Reedsy!

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Sean Packard
16:30 Feb 03, 2023

Appreciate the kind words Wendy!

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Hannah K
14:19 Feb 03, 2023

This was truly an exquisitely written and breath taking story! The emotions were so real and so raw. Sadly, heartbreak like this is a right of passage for so many of us. We give of ourselves to someone, open our hearts to let him/her in, only to be rejected and emotionally devestated. But we pick up the pieces, heal, and God willing, eventually find the one we were actually meant to be with. I found the passage where you wrote about the MC's experience folding laundry to be particulary emotional. It really helped me to put myself in the sho...

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Sean Packard
16:32 Feb 03, 2023

Thank you Hannah! I look forward to reading some of your work as well!

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