There was nothing about the morning that Albert liked. Every day his house was like an engine in winter, struggling to get started. He preferred things run smoothly. Instead, Ellie woke up wailing an hour before his alarm would have gone off, and Sophie grumbled that it was his turn, so he had to drag himself out of bed and across the hall to her room. She never stopped crying for him, even though he tried everything. He pulled his ears and made a monkey face, he made a door with his hands and played peek-a-boo, he gave her his keys, even his phone, anything to appease her. But no matter what he did, she screamed, almost defiantly, in his face. Could babies do that, be spiteful? He was suspicious that she considered him as nothing more than another tenant in the house, a nuisance even. He gave up, as he always did, and went into the hall. Once he was out of her doorway, she reduced to a quiet sniveling. Maybe she could feel the tension he brought to the house.
“What the hell,” Albert said. He scowled and stomped back to his room. It wasn’t fair. He tried much harder than Sophie ever had to, and Ellie still loved her and hated him.
“What are you doing?” Sophie asked.
He had kicked the nightstand, which had knocked off the tacky pink lamp and woken her up.
“Fine. Great.” He looked at his wife. Her white, glowing skin had once captivated him, but he was used to it now.
“Okay. Want breakfast?” she asked.
He didn’t answer, instead dropping onto the bed and pulling the sheet over his face.
“Al,” she said, reaching for the lump in the bed. “She’ll come ’round.”
“She’ll come ’round,” he said into the pillow.
Albert gasped awake, sitting up quickly and groping for his glasses on the nightstand. He turned stiffly to look at the clock. 9:00 already. “Shit,” he said under his breath. He looked around but couldn’t find his glasses anywhere. He swung his legs off the bed one at a time, expecting to find his slippers with his feet, but instead there was only the cold wood floor. Surprised, he looked down over the edge of the bed but the slippers had disappeared.
“Cold feet it is,” he said. “Cold and blind and late.” He paused, thinking about this, and then smiled. “Ah, I like it.” He opened his drawer and found a yellow lined notepad and a red pen. He clicked it and started to write cold, but the pen just made a little imprint on the page, no ink. He shook it up and down and tried again. Still no ink would come out. He made a swirl in the corner. Still none. He rolled the pen between his hands like he was starting a fire, trying to warm up the ink. He wrote Albert at the top and Albert was red. Pleased at his success, he counted down one, two, three, four lines to write, but he found he had forgotten.
“Damn it all to hell,” he said. He flung the pen and pad on the floor, then decided that wasn’t vengeful enough. He picked them up again and threw the pen at the wall, a tiny red tick made upon impact. He took the pad in two hands and tried to rip it in two, but it was too thick, so he ripped the top page and threw the rest across the room. All he wanted now was a drink.
He pulled on an old pair of jeans that hugged his belly a little too tightly and a lumpy green sweater that swallowed his frame. Out in the hall, he peeked in Ellie’s room which was dark and silent. Her absurd amount of toys were scattered around the room in piles. He moved on down the hallway and went downstairs. Everything was still and quiet. Albert looked in every room, waiting for something to move or scream. He began to hear the silence, a constant high tone in his ears. He cleared his throat just to hear the “ahem.” It helped a little.
Albert decided that today was the day. He was finally going to finish his story. He opened the sliding glass door to the patio and walked down to the edge of the backyard, where a small shack stood tucked between two fat yew trees. It was a dingy place with plastic curtains and an old wingback armchair, but the only place he could ever get any writing done. He could hear the memories of voices well up inside. When are you going to get a job? Sophie said. Wake up, Albert. Honestly, will you ever do anything? his mother asked.
What Albert didn’t realize was that he wasn’t a writer at all, not really. Since his eleventh birthday he had obsessed over the idea, or rather the image of being a writer. He imagined himself with a fuzzy mustache and loafers, scribbling notes everywhere he went, the constant aroma of coffee engulfing him in a sweet cloud. Since that time, he kept this image of the man who lived inside, who went by Bert and chewed on a pencil. Despite his obsession, he had taken twelve years to write his first story, a short novel he called The Great Sleep. He had sent it to his mother when he’d finished it three years ago, waiting with a knot in his stomach to hear what she had to say. She wrote him back, through the post, only one sentence: It’s rather dull, darling. He reflected later that there had been a time when this reaction would have made him pinch himself hard as punishment. Instead he set fire to the manuscript that night.
He went inside, walking for the first time that day with his back straight. He felt so cozy in here, surrounded by books piled on the floor like a little city, the walls covered in photos, drawings, and notes. He went to the cabinet for the brandy and a glass so he could start writing, but the bottle was gone. He looked by his armchair and at his desk, but couldn’t find it.
After searching everywhere in the shack, Albert walked back up the hill toward the house. It was a grey day, cool and bright, and it felt like it should be foggy but instead the sky was one solid block of slate. Albert looked to the left at the graveyard and saw a young woman crouching by some lost person. He stopped to watch her. Her dark hair made a curtain that hid her face as she bent over the grave. She didn’t move for a long time, except for her hands. It looked like she was fiddling with something. He wondered if she was praying. People do that a lot in graveyards. Maybe she thought she was talking to whomever she had lost. Albert felt sorry for her and wanted to go over there, but decided to keep going to the house.
He went to the kitchen and opened the top cabinet where they kept the liquor. There was no brandy, just a little bit of Apples, which he hated. He looked in the fridge but there was no wine. He decided to just pop into town for a bottle of brandy, then he’d come straight home and finish his story. He went to the front door for the keys but the hook was empty. Where had he put them? He checked his coat pockets and the counter and his coat pockets again. He tried to remember where he had put them last.
“Ellie!” he said. He took the stairs two at a time, careful not to misstep. He looked in her crib and the floor around it, but the keys weren’t there. She must have held onto them when they left this morning. He was stuck until Sophie came home, but he couldn’t write without the brandy. “Damn it, Bert, what do I do now?” he said to the inside man. He went outside and looked at the graveyard, and jumped a little when he found the girl was looking at him. He gave her a stranger’s half-smile, but her face didn’t change. She was pale and blank, looking at him unblinking with the darkest eyes he had ever seen.
Albert started crossing the yard toward her, and she sprang up like a fire was under her and ran away out of the graveyard. He was surprised when his feet met the cold ground, his toes squelching in the mud.
“Hey, wait!” Albert said. He started walking faster, wanting to catch up but not willing to make a scene about it. After a few more strides, he decided to give up. She was long gone. He went back and stopped at the grave she had been visiting. It read, Stanley Archibald Beames, Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why. Albert thought about this, and smiled. Then, realizing he couldn’t write it down, the smile vanished. Albert didn’t notice how fresh the grave was.
“Get away from there,” a tiny voice said from behind him.
He twisted around without moving his feet and saw the girl. Her white dress and red coat played off each other like a painting. Everything about her looked new and calculated. “Why?” he asked.
“None of your business,” she said. Her eyes were still dark but he could see that they were also swollen from crying.
Albert turned back to the stone. “I like it,” he said, pointing.
“Fuck off,” she said. “You fucking idiot.”
Albert smirked, hardly put off. “Do you have a scrap of paper?”
“I want to write it down.”
“What are you, a graveyard tourist? Go fuck yourself.” She sighed. “And anyway, it’s from his favorite book. Slaughterhouse-Five.”
“I don’t know it. Why’d you come back?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Why were you chasing me?”
“I wasn’t chasing you. You were crying. I was coming to see if you were okay.”
“You looked like a crazy hobo or something.” She crossed her arms, looking past him at the grave.
“Who was he?” Albert asked.
“No one,” she said. She let her arms fall and started walking away.
A white string in her hand caught his eye. “Come on, I care, really. If I didn’t care I wouldn’t‘ve come over here.”
“Eh, you’re just nosy I bet.” She squinted at him, looking for a reaction. They kept walking down the lane of the graveyard, and when he said nothing, she sighed and stopped. “Why are you still here?” she asked.
“I’m interested,” he said.
“C’mon, what do you want?”
“Did you drive here?”
Her car was a Land Rover decorated with dents, scrapes and road dust. It was in worse shape than he’d expected her car to be based on how she dressed. She had finally introduced herself as Bea. When she cranked her car it groaned like it had been awakened from a deep sleep, and the music picked up where it had been cut off. Albert didn’t recognize the song, some sort of pop or country. A woman twanged the lyrics, Ooh, ooh, Johnny B., you could’a been a lover but instead you’re free. He was thinking about this when he realized she was talking to him.
“What were you saying?” he asked.
“What? Ugh, were you not listening that whole time? Jesus. Never mind.” She drummed her long fingers on the steering wheel, pat-a-pat-pat.
He noticed the little string was woven through her fingers.
“I was trying to tell you that you can’t go to the store yet, it won’t open til one since it’s Sunday.”
Albert looked at the clock. It was almost eleven. “Hmm. You can just let me out anywhere then.”
“I have to stop somewhere,” she said. She turned down a road he always passed but had never been down. It winded around like it was trying to make people carsick. Albert had expected fog earlier and now he was getting it, a lot of it. It was so dense he expected a noise when it hit the windshield. Although the road was only visible for a yard in front of the car, Bea drove like she was being chased.
He didn’t realize how distressed she really was. “What is that, then?” he asked, pointing at her hand.
She pulled her hand close to her chest. “It was a gift. He … Stanley, he gave it to me. I visited him the day before he died. He told me a story, an ancient Chinese proverb. It says that everyone is connected by the string of fate.” Bea glanced at him, tears gushing from her eyes. “Old bastard,” she muttered.
Albert didn’t really know what to say. “So, you have it with you now to … remind you we’re all connected, huh?”
“I never give rides to strangers, you know.” She sniffled one big sniffle, shook her head to banish the thoughts, and gripped the steering wheel tighter. Her foot became determined again, pressing relentlessly on the gas pedal.
“Shouldn’t you slow down?” he said, gripping the handle above him.
“No, I know this road. It’s fine.”
“Roads can change,” Albert said. Suddenly he remembered that he was supposed to go to the psychiatrist that morning. He had meant to call and reschedule. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“Just a quick stop,” she said. Her eyebrows pinched together. Bea turned to look at him, still driving as if in a race. “Have you ever lost someone?” “Sometimes.” Albert watched the fog roll around them.
She couldn’t help thinking about him. It had all gone bad so fast. “Do you,” she paused, “do you believe, you know, we see people again? After they’ve gone?”
“Wouldn’t that be worse than them dying?” he asked. “Waiting your whole life for them to come round?” His mother’s voice appeared in his head, a recurring plague. Hold your shoulders up, Albert. No one will listen to a hunchback.
His thoughts were interrupted by Bea screeching, then the tires screeching, then a thud. Albert was propelled forward from the quick stop and his seatbelt took the breath out of him. He had been so lost in thought that he was disoriented for a few minutes, gazing at his feet in a daze. He realized the fog was around him, not just around the car but actually surrounding his body. He wondered if he was dead. He raised his hand up into the fog. It felt cool on his skin, and moved away as he moved the air. If angels had come up to him then he wouldn’t have been surprised. It was as if he was under a spell, captivated by a magic fog.
He looked over to the driver’s seat but Bea was gone. This surprise snapped him out of his trance. The windshield had a spider web of cracks all across it. He wondered what had caused that to happen. He unbuckled and got out of the car. When he walked around the hood, he saw a shape lying ahead, a silhouette in the thick mist. His stomach told him a feeling was there, something like dread. He walked towards the figure and saw it more clearly.
Lying there was a stag, a large beast that he guessed had been the cause of the accident. It wasn’t dead, and Albert didn’t actually see any blood, but it was clearly hurting. He thought deer were silent animals but the stag was wheezing out a small wail that sounded like air escaping from a balloon. It was the worst sound Albert had ever heard. He didn’t know what to do for it, so he went closer and knelt near the stag. It tried to get up, raising its front legs, but it couldn’t stand. He backed away from the beast, afraid of its spiked head. Albert thought it probably had a broken back and was bleeding on the inside. Albert wanted to help the animal, really he did, but there was nothing to be done.
He looked around, woods to the right and a field to the left. A shroud of fog softened the borders of everything. He moved slowly, giving the deer plenty of space, and went to his side of the car. He was afraid of breathing too loudly and breaking the thin serenity he had created for himself. He looked for his phone to call an ambulance but couldn’t find it, of course. Now he couldn’t even remember if he had brought it at all. He pressed his forehead against the glass of his window. Its smooth, cool surface made him feel like he was waking up, but when he turned back to the front he saw a red dot up the road.
Albert swung his feet out of the car, one at a time, and walked towards the red dot. He noticed that the sound of the stag crying was gone. The dot hadn’t moved, but as he got closer he affirmed it was her. Her red coat had led the way. She trembled. Finally, he moved her long black hair away to look at her. Her young face looked frozen in time like a wax doll. The eerie beauty of it made Albert feel empty and tired.
“Why did you do that?” she asked. She inched away from him. He didn’t notice the growing anxiety in her eyes.
“Do what? I told you you were driving like a maniac. There’s a shitload of deer around here.”
“Albert?” she paused, the strangest look on her face. He couldn’t figure it out. “Give me the keys back.”
“I don’t have them,” he said, surprised.
“You do. You fucking do. I don’t know what’s wrong with you but I need you to give me the fucking keys.”
“I swear, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I woke up and you were gone, you just left the car with that,” he took a breath, “that deer lying there and I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought you disappeared but I saw your coat.”
Bea started to walk away, and he grabbed her arm. “Let go of me! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She shoved him and he let go.
“You can’t just, just leave me here!”
“You’re the one stranding us here, you’re the one playing some stupid game, and I’m done. I’m done with you. Just stay away from me.”
“Bea, I’m not — I swear …” he started.
“You fucking grab the steering wheel out of my hands like you want to kill us both,” she spat. “You practically hunted that stupid deer with my car, my car’s probably totaled now. And then you fucking steal the keys. And all the time you’re cackling like a, like an insane person.”
He was stunned. Albert looked at Bea, bewildered and full of pity for her. She must be crazy with grief. “I’m sorry you’re upset,” he said, as calmly as he could.
“Upset. Upset! Jesus, you are insane. The one time I give someone a ride, they had to be off it!” She spun around and walked away briskly.
Albert gave up. It would be no use to try to reason with her now. He watched her red coat disappear into the fog. He sat cross-legged on the white line, waiting for a car to pass, but after a while he couldn’t stand waiting anymore. Everything was still, as if time had stopped around him and he was the only man left on earth. Albert suspected no one would come down this road for a long time.
He got up and, after pausing to think a moment, ran toward Bea. “Bea, Bea, Bea,” he said. He stopped.
There was nothing to do. Albert started walking back toward the car, heel to toe on the white line. He realized he had been taking small, shallow breaths since the accident, as if Death had been strangling him slowly. He let his lungs fill with cool air, then slowly pushed it out through his lips. The fog made it impossible for him to know where he was exactly. The road curved at a much slower pace than before. He reached out his left hand to touch the tips of the weeds. Without even the sun as a guideline, he lost all sense of time.
After a while, he started to hear the swishing of cars passing on the main road. He didn’t know where to go next. “The liquor store, or home?” he asked himself. He decided to stop and think a while. He didn’t really have to be anywhere. He sat in the grass by the road, running his hands back and forth across the dewy blades.
Suddenly a memory came to him, something he thought he had buried. He was playing with his cousin in the woods on a sunny afternoon. He noticed the dotted pattern of light on the ground, coming between the leaves. His cousin went to a wilder part of the woods than Albert ever would have by himself. Albert watched him tramp ahead, climbing over logs and parting bushes to get through. Suddenly, he saw his cousin’s back stop. “Shush, Al,” he said, raising a hand. He pointed ahead of him, and Albert searched for what it was. A few yards away a cardinal perched on a small tree.
Albert was amazed. He had never seen one so close before, and its red was brilliant against the never-ending green of the wood.
“Shoot it,” his cousin said.
Albert hesitated, looking at him hopelessly.
“Do it,” he said. “Do it.”
Albert took his bb gun and aimed it at the bird. He had never shot anything before, and his hands shook. He straightened his arms all the way and shot. He hit the bird under its wings and it dropped to the ground. Both boys ran to its tiny body where it lay chirping and twitching.
Albert instantly broke down, his heart aching like a new bruise. His mother was going to kill him.
“Step on its head,” his cousin said. “Put it out of its misery.”
Albert shook his head, sobbing. He tried to scoop it up but his cousin kicked his hand away, then stepped on the bird. The beauty of its outside was now stained by its disgusting inside. Good red covered in bad red.
“See, it’s better now,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Albert got up from the roadside and started walking into town. He needed a brandy, and he needed to get home to write before he forgot it all. He made it to the store and bought a fifth. The shopkeeper put the bottle in a brown bag, looking down his pointed nose at Albert with a slight frown.
“Thanks, Tom,” Albert said, waving out the door.
Tom gave his usual grunt in reply, his transaction with Albert complete.
Albert opened the bottle and started to take swigs of it as he walked home. The burn that followed each sip was cozy and relaxing, a blanket around him.
Before he realized it, he was back in his neighborhood, almost home. As he rounded the corner to his street, a clunker passed. A boy lowered the window and shouted at him, “Bum, old bum!” At first Albert thought he had said bug, and he thought about this. He imagined scuttling on the sidewalk with six legs, a cockroach chugging brandy. He smiled.
Albert swung open his front door and two-stepped into the living room. “Hello, house,” he said.
Sophie walked in from the kitchen and saw Albert sitting on the couch with the brown bag. “What the hell is that?” she asked. She came across the room and tried to take it, but he pushed her hands away.
“None of your business,” Albert slurred. He got up and went into the kitchen. Ellie was still in her car seat on the floor, gurgling. He took a long sip of brandy and went back to the living room. Sophie was sitting at the far end of the room, perched on the arm of her homely pink lounger.
“What do you think you’re doing, drinking out of a bag like that? Where are your shoes? God, you’re disgusting,” Sophie said.
Albert laughed a bitter, unsmiling laugh. He took his lips to the bottle. “I like it and it likes me,” he said.
“And what a lovely relationship you have,” she said. “You should tend to Ellie the way you do the bottle, you’d be father of the century.”
The room was buzzing. He turned his back on her, walked through the kitchen past Ellie, and slid the back door open. Albert went out and walked down to his shack, still cradling the brandy.
Finally, he was ready to write. He set his brandy by his armchair and found his lap desk. He set it up with a thick notepad and pen. He sat with all his supplies, and found his glasses between the pages of a poetry book. He decided to read over what he had written so far, but when he had stared at the words for a while he found he couldn’t. He kept rereading the same sentence over and over again. For thirty years I hid, from someone. For thirty years I hid, from someone. For thirty years…
Albert set the desk down with everything on it and put his head in his hands. “Damn it, Bert, how has this happened?” he asked the writer. He got up and stared at his wall of papers. They were a timeline of his work, his life events, every word or line or photograph he had thought meaningful. He reached in his pocket and found the little white string, his newest trophy. He pinched it between thumb and finger and held it close to his face, letting it tickle his nose. Then he found a tack and carefully stuck the string to the wall. She’d probably noticed it was gone by now.
I wonder where she was going, he thought. Wonder if the car’s still sitting there.
He heard her small voice, Do you believe, you know, we see people again?
Albert heard a thud on the door. “Albert, come out now and talk, you can’t just leave and say nothing,” Sophie said, muffled through the door. Albert froze, and when he didn’t reply, she said, “You’ll have to come out sometime, and when you do, you’ll have to talk to me.”
After a minute, Albert could hear her retreating back to the house. He still didn’t want to move. He didn’t think about it, but somewhere deep inside he knew he didn’t love her. Maybe he never had. When they had married years ago he had tumbled over her beauty. The best you could ever do, his mother had said, the closest thing to a compliment she had ever given. So he had taken it. It was easy to see now that he would have done better alone. There were already enough voices in his head, between his mother’s, Bert’s and his own. Too many strings were being tugged on inside of him, as if he had become a marionette.
Afraid to leave through the door in case Sophie noticed, Albert opened the back window and wriggled out legs first, leaving the bottle inside. The shack was at the edge of their property and behind it was a bit of woods. The trees looked thin and dead in the fog, the bare limbs stretching at the sky like they were grabbing at the air. He crossed over from the mown grass to the shelter of the wild.
“There’s nothing left here, Bert,” said Albert. His words were surer than he actually felt. He started weaving between the trees, vaguely noticing the tenderness of his feet as they stepped on rocks and brush. The fog of the brandy kept him warm, and the fog of the day kept him hidden.
Aren’t you afraid? asked Bert. What if she was right all along? What if you really are nothing?
“If that was true then you wouldn’t exist.”
Maybe I don’t.
Albert smiled. “You always were a devil, weren’t you.” He stopped and turned to see how far he had gone. He was surrounded by identical, bald trees, the shack and the yard too far away to see. Albert turned round and round in circles, his arms swinging loosely behind, until he got dizzy. He looked around at the trees towering over him, dreary, silent guardians. He didn’t really know which way to go anymore, which made him feel better. Now he could be lost on purpose. He continued walking through the woods, feeling more relieved as time passed. It would be dark soon, he realized.
And where are we going? Bert asked.
“It’s not where we’re going that matters. It’s what we’re leaving behind.”