A bottle of wine. Two chairs. Two glasses. One for him, and one for her. Roger at the Village Merchant had suggested a new brand of Riesling, but Oliver chose the 14 Hands like he always did. It was her favorite.
Work had been busy for both of them as it got to be for most people eventually. Time went the way it did, slipping and sliding over the horizon without a fuss. Tonight was to make up for it. Tonight was for something special.
Their two-bedroom apartment was small, but they’d always managed. The kitchen was a nook, or as Oliver put it: a literal hole in the wall. So they turned the living room into half a dining room as well, but tonight wasn’t for eating in front of the TV. Before leaving for work, Oliver emptied one of the bedrooms and in the middle set their small, circular table.
His heart matched his feet, beating against the sidewalk as he made his way home. It had been so long since they’d had real time together. Sometimes when that happens, the bridge between hearts can get lost in a fog until you start to forget it was ever there. Moss can over grow it; make it look foreign by the time the fog clears.
He felt jumper cables on his ventricles—something live traveling through them. It had been so long he’d forgotten the last time he’d felt this way. Maybe the day he met her. Yet here it was again.
Oliver held the list out in front of him, his bag of stuff under one arm. He looked it down and made sure he had everything. Check, check, check. His eyes flitted down the instructions.
1.) Begin at Night
Oliver shoved the list back in his pocket and got on his way.
When Oliver got home he checked the apartment for anything that wasn’t supposed to be there. No spiders. No flies. No mice scuttling through the baseboard. When he was satisfied he turned off all the other lights in the apartment and went to the bedroom with the table in it and closed the door behind him.
He set the two wine glasses on opposite sides of the table in front of the chairs and placed a candle in the center between them. Next to it he deposited a box of matches and the bottle of wine. He checked his watch. The sun was supposed to set in twenty minutes. His face grew red with the thought of her being home so soon.
With nothing to do but wait Oliver pulled the list back out of his pocket and triple-checked. Everything was as it was supposed to be.
He reread the disclaimers. Follow these instructions to the tee. If anything does not go according to the instructions, abandon immediately.
When the shadows in the room grew longer he got up and went to the bedroom window and grabbed the inner edges of the curtains. His fingers made them tremble. Outside things were the way they’d always been. The sun sat fat and orange in the evening sky as it sluggishly disappeared behind the horizon. People bustled along the block below. He looked out for a moment longer and then pulled the curtains shut.
Then he crossed the room, turned the lights off and locked the door. The room was dark now. Somehow it felt bigger. Like there were more corners. He sat back down and tried to ignore it. He picked up the wine bottle, pulled out the cork, and poured two glasses.
He grabbed the matches at the center of the table and pulled one out. In the dark the candle and the bottle of wine could almost pass for each other. He tapped the match head against the rough pattern on the box and the tick-tick sound it made was closer to the clock dial winding down on a time bomb. He struck the match anyway and watched the angry flare throw light around the room before it calmed down.
Light glinted off the unoccupied wine glass across from him. If this was going to work he was supposed to stay focused, but the memory it brought him was too strong. It overwhelmed him the way smelling salts will open the eyes of a sleeping man and there she was again. Like a skipping record finally coming unstuck. The light glinted off the ring he’d just slipped onto her finger.
His eyes flitted to the wedding pictures on the wall. The candlelight danced on their glass frames, too. His eyes fell back to the unoccupied glass.
He went over the list in his head.
– Set the table.
– Seal the curtains.
– Turn off the lights.
– Lock the door.
– Pour the wine.
– Light the candle.
– Make a toast and take a sip.
He closed his eyes for a moment and then swallowed hard. When he opened his eyes
he grabbed the wine glass in one fluid motion and lifted it up to the center of the table.
“To you, Elizabeth. To never really being gone,” he paused for a moment and then added, “And to coming back.”
Oliver brought the glass to his lips. His tongue caught the wine. When he lowered his glass things were different. There was something else in the room. His chest turned to a pistoning engine that generated cold instead of heat. His skin went sweat shined as if he was just coming down with a case of something common and unpleasant.
He focused on the script. “Say aloud the words, ‘I wish to parley with you.’ Listen carefully. If the presence agrees, ask a question. If they wish to continue they will ask you one in return. You must answer each question truthfully; however you do not have to answer each question fully or completely. Guard you secrets, for giving them up could result in disaster.”
“I—I wish to parley with you.”
For a long time nothing happened. The script said to shut down the ritual if there was no response, but he couldn’t accept that as the result. He had tried prayer, a séance, gone to a psychic. None of it had worked. This was the last chance and deep in his heart, down in the gravel-ridden soil of it, there was an insistence that long ago convinced him their time wasn’t over yet.
The shadows in the chair moved suddenly. They swirled like smoke caught in a glass tube. From across the table came one word: ask.
He licked his lips and wish for water. Despite the chill on his skin the room felt warm.
“Is it really you?”
The swirl again. It was taking on a form he couldn’t recognize yet.
“It is, Ollie.” The words came like a rustle of leaves, toward him and then behind him and away. She was the only person he’d ever let call him that.
“What would you do to see me again?” came back across the table. His mind was a bouquet of neon flowers that lit up the darkest corners of his consciousness. After everything she was here. She was back. Without thinking he responded.
The swirl picked up speed.
“Where have you been?”
“Where all things end up. Between the cracks.”
He almost disrupted the order, which the script said was a very big mistake. There had to be more to the answer than that. His mouth opened to speak, but her question came first.
“Have you missed me?”
The bottoms of his eyes blurred as they began to fill.
“I think about you every minute of every day. I try to hear you laugh in my head, but it’s never the same. When you went, it felt like whatever heart the world had was gone. Everything feels so empty without you here. I feel so empty without you here.”
He wiped tears from his cheek and swallowed hard again. He looked away as if to hide his crying from someone. When he did she was the light coming in from beneath the curtains. The script came back to him. He’d forgotten a step. He was supposed to seal the window so no light came through. What he saw leaking from the edges was an ashy blue; dingy, but somehow glowing and alive. In his confusion a thought occurred to him: it looks the way you’ve felt this whole time. When he looked back the swirling had taken a shape. A spiral. Wide at the edges, pulling to small curves until it pin pricked at the middle.
“Can I make you stay?”
The spiral circled faster. He had a hard time looking from it.
“Yes,” from across the table. “Are you willing to do what it takes?”
“Yes,” he said with no hesitation. The script came to him again. He was supposed to sip the wine after every question, but his glass was still full. Across the table he noticed the glass was half empty. But it’s still working. Must not be an exact science.
“What do I have to do?”
From across the table the answer came. Oliver’s face didn’t change. He merely nodded. The spiral spun so fast it looked like a pinwheel in a hurricane. Barely more than a blur.
Even though the script said not to stray from the ritual—that changing anything at all could have dire consequences, that opening something didn’t mean you’d know what came through it—Oliver stood up from the table, unlocked the door, and walked to the butcher’s block on the kitchen counter. He pulled the largest blade from it. Then he walked to the front door and out into the hallway of the apartment building.
Minutes later there were knocks on doors. After that there was a scream.
The thing across the table that was not Elizabeth laughed and poured itself another glass of wine.
Just Buffalo teaching artist Benjamin Brindise is the author of the chapbook ROTTEN KID (Ghost City Press, 2017), the full length collection of poetry Those Who Favor Fire, Those Who Pray to Fire (EMP Books, 2018), and the short fiction micro chap The Procession (Ghost City Press, 2018). He has represented Buffalo, NY in the National Poetry Slam in 2015, 2016, and 2018, helping Buffalo to place as high as 9th in the country. His poetry and fiction has been published widely online and in print including Maudlin House, Trailer Park Quarterly, and Philosophical Idiot.