I Think You Should Leave Now

John Abbott

John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, Georgetown Review, upstreet, Underground Voices, and many others. He lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
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His house was the only one on the block still lit. Besides the streetlights and the occasional porch light there was nothing, not even a hint that any of his neighbors were awake. He had expected to see the blue glow of a television set or perhaps an upstairs window curtain, backlit from a lamp kept on by a child too afraid to fall asleep for fear of what they might dream. But it was as though the whole neighborhood had gone to bed, leaving him to do as he pleased. He could have walked, unnoticed, through backyards and alleyways, snatching up anything people had been too careless to put away.

Not long ago he probably would’ve grabbed a few things but right now this opportunity didn’t interest him at all. He was too caught up with what he was doing now, standing at the end of his curving front walkway and looking at his house, counting how many windows he could see and how many lights he had left on. This is how my house looks at night, he thought. For some time he stood there, arms folded tight against his chest, his longish hair sweeping across his vision whenever the breeze picked up. It was cool out, especially for May, and to Reece it had the feel of early autumn. Only the faint scent of lilac in the air confirmed that it was spring.

Before too long Reece found himself yawning and he knew it was time he got to bed. He had been up since five a.m., packing his few belongings and then moving them here, to his new house that no one, including himself, thought he could ever afford. His arms were sore and his mind could only complete the most basic thoughts and yet he wasn’t ready for the lights to go out. Although it didn’t make sense he felt that the house would disappear or cease to exist and he would wake up in the foul smelling apartment he had shared with a variety of transients, junkies, and thieves. Also, he knew it would be hard to fall asleep in a new environment and the thought of lying awake the rest of the night scared him a little.

So he walked through the tall, dewy grass – he would need to mow it soon, once he bought a lawnmower – and around to the back of his house. The smell of lilac was stronger now although he didn’t remember seeing any bushes when he was outside earlier, checking out the condition of the yard, exploring the boundaries of what was his. Short, thorny bushes which he didn’t know the name of lined the edge of the house and he made sure to avoid these on his way. When he reached the backyard he came within sight of the small, one car garage and a light positioned above the door lit up in the same moment he noticed it was there, as if the light existed purely because of his will. My garage has a motion light, he thought. He stared at this discovery for some time, letting it sink in, wondering how he hadn’t noticed it before. At some point he turned his head toward the rest of the backyard. Toward the farthest edge, where a chain link fence separated his yard from a neighbor’s, he saw something which he didn’t quite believe at first; a woman sitting by herself on a low bench made of black wrought iron. He hadn’t noticed either one of these sights earlier. The possibility that this woman could have brought the bench with her and placed it under the sycamore tree seemed almost more unbelievable than the fact a woman was in his yard.

Before he could really try and make sense of it all, she called out to him.

“Hey, babe,” she said, her voice hoarse and strained like she had been running. “It took me a while to find you.”

He walked through the tall grass, the moisture soaking the cuffs of his jeans, until he reached where she was sitting. She sat with her legs folded under her butt and her hands gripping the arms of the bench like she might fall off otherwise. The motion light had switched off but the lights from his house were enough for Reece to see the track marks on her pale, skinny arms.

“You didn’t say you were going to leave the lights on for me,” she said. “That would have made this a lot easier.”

He folded his arms, shook his head, and asked her what she was talking about.

“I don’t know who you are,” he said.

She unfolded her legs and let go of her grip on the bench. After laughing for a moment she stood up and walked close to him. They were now less than an arms length apart. She smelled strongly of clove cigarettes but even these couldn’t mask the unmistakable smell of someone who hadn’t washed in days. He remembered this from his days at the apartment when it was a rare thing to have running water, rarer still to have water that didn’t feel like ice against your skin.

“Is that how you want to do this?” she said. “Pretend we’re strangers so that everything feels new again?”

Her breath as she spoke caused him to take a step back. It was a sweet, putrid smell like decaying flowers.

“I said I didn’t know you.”

Reece pointed in the direction he thought she had come from and told her she should leave. She laughed again, a high, piercing one note blast that Reece feared would wake somebody. When she was through she told him that she had nowhere she could go.

“Don’t you remember what that’s like?” she said.

He looked all around to see if any lights came on nearby but all the houses, except his own, were still dark. Overhead the sky seemed a shade lighter, suggesting morning might be closer than Reece had thought.

“We met when you were homeless,” she said. “We were both standing in line at the mission. I remember when we first saw each other there was this look we shared that shamed us both. We were too good for that place and yet there we were. When we looked at each other it was like we both swore we’d never stand in one of those lines again.”

He took another step away from her and looked at the bench. It was still there. It looked very solid.

“I don’t remember that,” he said.

She closed the distance between them and touched his arm. Her fingertips felt cold and dry.

“Well, I guess you were kind of strung out then,” she said. “I suppose I was too.”

He backed up faster, taking long strides that took him within range of the motion light again. The sudden beam against his face made him feel like a burglar caught by someone in the house. He desperately wished he could turn it off.

“But you’ve done well for yourself,” she said, still following him, matching him step for step. “You look good, not as skinny as before. You’re eyes still look hungry, though. It’s hard to change that.”

He took a few more steps so that the light didn’t catch him directly and, after his eyes readjusted, an idea came to him.

“What’s my name?” he said. “If we were really together you’d know my name.”

She laughed and shook her head.

“Names never mattered with us,” she said. “We were in love. It was the two of us against the world but then you left me.”

He turned his back to her and kept walking.

“I’m going inside,” he said. “Don’t follow me anymore.”

He was running now, the thorny bushes clawing at his jeans as he ran alongside the house. The smell of lilac had disappeared and all that was left was her. He ran faster, his lungs swelling and leaping with his every step. Before long he had gained the front porch by jumping up the three steps in one bound. Without looking back he shut the door, locked it, and leaned against the wall to recover his breath. He wanted to turn off all the lights but he wasn’t sure if he was ready for the feelings that would bring.

“I’m still here,” she said.

It sounded like she was on the porch although he hadn’t heard her walk up the steps. If the front window wasn’t left open partway – he did this to air out the musty smell in the house – he might not have heard her. He flipped one of the three switches without knowing what it controlled. The light above his head went out. My foyer is dark now.

“I just need a place to crash,” she said. “I’m coming down pretty hard.”

He flipped another switch and a light in the next room shut off. The dining room is dark too. He told her that he was going to bed now.

“You fucker,” she said, her voice strangely quiet. “Don’t leave me alone like this. I’d never do this to you.”

He hit the last switch and the porch went dark. He heard a flickering noise from outside and saw the streetlights go out. The sky outside his front windows was purple-black turning gray toward what must have been the east. It seemed impossible that morning had almost arrived. Had he really been wandering around his house and yard for that long?

“Do you remember the first night we slept together?” she said.

Her voice was still quiet although now it had taken on a reflexive quality that reminded Reece of how children talk to themselves as they play, whether or not anyone is listening.

“Afterwards I told you about this dream I always have on the nights when I’m clean. In the dream I suddenly realize I don’t have to live the way I’ve been living. I can change and I don’t have to hurt anyone ever again.”

He heard the porch boards creak like maybe she was lying down. Soon enough someone would be coming to deliver the paper and they’d see a junkie sprawled out on his porch.

“The feeling wasn’t like anything else I’d experienced. It was better than shooting up. It was kind of religious I guess, but without someone preaching at you. And for a couple hours after waking up I’d walk around feeling like a damn saint or something, smiling at everything and everyone like I knew something they didn’t.”

Without meaning to he yawned, a really big one that she probably heard. He expected this to piss her off so he started walking up the stairs.

“Wait,” she said. “I haven’t gotten to the good part yet.”

Her voice sounded closer, like she was inside rather than on the porch. The ripe smell of her body seemed close too but he didn’t want to turn around to see if she was there. He couldn’t seem to keep climbing the stairs either, despite the fact that the second floor, lit up like it was, seemed very welcoming.

“Do you remember what you said about my dream?”

When he didn’t respond she repeated her question again and again, pleading with him to say something. Finally, when her voice got to where it made his throat get tight he spoke up.

“No,” he said. “Because I don’t even know you.”

“You smiled at me and said, “You have that one too.” And then I laughed and held you and I knew we had something good. Something real.”

His chest felt tight now and he was suddenly very warm. He wanted to yank off the long sleeved plaid shirt and let the cool air wash over him.

“I wouldn’t have said that. That doesn’t sound like me at all. I would have said that it was just a dream.”

Before she could say anything else Reece hurried up the rest of the stairs, fumbling with the buttons on his shirt as he went. He turned off the lights in the hallway and in the bathroom, finished taking off his shirt, and walked into his room. And as he hesitated with his finger on the light switch, the one that would make his house completely dark, he hoped that what he had just said was true.

© John Abbott

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