David has been published in O:JA&L, Crack the Spine, Firewords, Treehouse, Glassworks, Eastern Iowa Review, Peregrine Journal, the tiny journal, and won the Microfiction Honorable Mention Award from San Antonio Writer’s Guild.
PLACES WE HAVE NEVER BEEN
No worldly individual would succumb to dying behind a locked door—especially not Terrance—but the knob didn’t turn and the door didn’t budge. Planes were grounded and the trains stopped as if they knew he was gone. The snow fell sideways, a brutal storm that would last for weeks. He must have been so cold, alone with his things. From the side window I could see the framed atlas above his desk in the study, with red pushpins clustered around Eurasia, South America, and Africa. Ice began to stick to the woolly earflaps of my plaid trapper hat. It was time to call Marty.
Marty told me not to call the police. He said Terrance needed time. Time?! I yelled. He’s dead, Marty, how much more time does he need? What Marty meant was that Marty needed time: time to understand the gravity of the situation, to react both loudly and quietly through weighted grief; perhaps even time to see it for himself. So I waited in my car with the heat blasting for him to arrive.
Terrance wasn’t supposed to die like this. I’d pictured him running out of oxygen on top of a mountain, hang gliding into an abyss, or surfing a death wave into the barrier reef. I think he tried to move faster than the disease, but it came with him, wedged maliciously between the supplies in his daypack. The whole thing was maddening, not sad or sullen. Marty would be sad, though. It was his job to be sad. He’d hung on to the idea of Terrance ever since he was a kid, partly due to his own aversion to risk. Marty was the antithesis of Terrance; he always wanted to be the superhero, but ended up half-sketched in a comic book, never to come alive in color. The crew will get together and honor Terrance’s memory by re-telling his stories about destinations far away, I thought, but Marty will remain forever broken, and eventually be too down to invite to things.
When he showed up, Marty was more panicked than he’d been on the phone. He put on ridiculous yellow dish gloves and tried to retrieve Terrance’s house keys from his pants pocket. I buried my frozen hand in his pocket and fished them out. I hadn’t even known Terrance had keys; he was the guy who invited adventure, even in the form of danger, right in without knocking. I started to put the key in the knob, but Marty scooted me out of the way and finished the job with his dishwashing hand. He removed his winter boots, leaving them propped up in the accumulating snow by the entryway.
“Stay put, and don’t touch anything,” Marty scolded.
I huddled in the doorway to capture any heat coming from inside. He tiptoed through the house and disappeared into the back bedroom. He emerged several minutes later holding a silver gift box. With one rubber-gloved hand on the lid and the other supporting the bottom, he held it so tight I thought he would crush it. He ushered me out of the doorway, stepped out backwards into his boots, and closed the door gently with an outstretched, yellow pinky. He ushered me off the steps and down the walkway, raking any evidence of our footprints with the side of his boot like cleaning up a sand trap after a bunker shot.
“Now you can call the police,” Marty whispered.
The crew got together weekly at the coffee spot: Abbie, the aspiring painter with crescent eyes; Robbie, the entrepreneur with nothing to preneur; Vance, a corporate kiss-up; Terrance, the traveler; Marty the mope, and me. When Terrance missed one of these soirees it meant he was somewhere wondrous, and he’d be back next week to tell us about it. In his usual spot at the booth was a wet pile of winter coats and hats.
“What was it like to find the body?” Robbie asked.
“Dude, really?” Abbie judged.
Marty got up from the booth and shuffled to the bathroom.
“Marty went in,” I replied. “It was only right. He had the key, and...”
“I miss him, man,” Vance interjected. “I just miss the vibrancy. It’s like this whole place lit up when he was here. Remember he used to ask for Tibetan tea in Tibetan?”
“Knowing damn well they don’t have Tibetan tea here,” Abbie chimed in.
“Every time. And who the fuck speaks Tibetan?” I joked.
We laughed the way you laugh when you are alone at home looking at the ceiling and thinking of a connection between a thought and how the universe was created.
Vance was the first to break the long, empty silence. “Where was he going next? Fiji? Chile? I can’t even remember now.”
“I wonder what his new destination is like,” Robbie said. “I wonder if it’s all the places he’s been all wrapped up into one, and he’s like this tour guide guru for the newly initiated.”
Marty came back from the bathroom and saddled up behind Robbie. “Or it’s just darkness,” he said. “I can’t do this, guys. The snow is getting worse, and this ain’t working without Terrance.” He grabbed his coat and hat from the pile. “And, Robbie, have some fucking class. We just lost a man we were blessed to call a friend. He’s gone. And you’re here. That’s what it’s like.”
Once Marty left, I turned my palms up and shrugged my shoulders at Robbie. We all knew Marty wasn’t coming around anymore. Abbie showed us a new painting of a hybrid sun-moon collapsing into a cyan ocean. I asked Vance if he had any work trips coming up and he whisked his napkin from his shoulder to the table like a dying plane. Coffee was finished hot, and we all went our separate ways into the storm.
I didn’t tell the crew about the yellow gloves or the silver box. Sometimes I would call Marty late at night, but I would hang up after a few rings. He knew it was me, and he never called back. For weeks, I would wake up early in the morning and run to the mailbox, hoping that one of Terrance’s final postcards had arrived so I could have a last story to tell.
The winter storm blasted through February, turning to cold, pelleted rain by March. Everyone else moved on with their lives, getting back to a routine that did not involve living vicariously through Terrance. When the crew did get back together, our once lively discussions had turned mundane; lacking in substance. As expected, Marty stopped coming around. I ran into him at the grocery store and he mumbled something about switching medications and seeing a new therapist, but he looked frail. His eyes were caves and the corners of his mouth were incessantly dry. He was nothing without Terrance.
The curiosity turned to frustration, stealing sleep. The more I told myself I didn’t care and it was none of my business, the bigger and bigger the silver box became. I got out of bed, dressed up in all black, and slipped into the night like a thief. I leapt fences, dodged floodlights and stumbled in and out of shadows until I made it to Marty’s. I crept into the backyard and checked the first floor windows until I found one cracked open. Once in the house, all I could smell was stale time. I thought I’d have to rummage through closets and spare bedrooms to find it, but it was right there sitting on the kitchen table. Like it was waiting for me. Like I shouldn’t be fucking surprised.
I lifted the silver lid as if diffusing a bomb. My tactical flashlight at its dimmest setting rested uncomfortably between my teeth; I could barely make out a stack of postcards and some stamps. I picked up the silver box and moved it to the window, inspecting the contents by moonlight. I took off the rubber band around the stack of postcards and squinted.
The first one was Marrakech, with an image of a famous souk and its tanneries. When I flipped it over, Terrance had dated it May fourth, a full month and a half away. I ran my finger across his handwriting:
Greetings, Abbie! Marrakech is breathtaking, with its mosques, cacophonous smells, and fresh orange juice from the street vendors. I was pestered by a leather salesman and eventually folded, buying a handbag made of goat hide. More when I return. The Atlas Mountains are calling, and I must go! Love, Terrance
Another, with a sweeping, overhead view of The Great Blue Hole in Belize, dated for later this summer:
Hola, David! Writing fresh from twenty meters underwater in full scuba gear, encircled by Blackfish shark! The diving here is unfathomable. Tonight: Crazy Canucks Beach Bar in San Pedro. Thought of you in your Maple Leafs cap with your poor, imported beer choices! Catch up next week when I’m back in town. Cheers, Terrance
I realized I was wearing the very same cap, pulled close to my eyebrows. I fingered the stitching on the maple leaf. Terrance had always made fun of the Canadian beer I ordered. He liked “true imports,” as he called it: Tiger Beer from Singapore, where he’d met a tailor with only one hand that could sew better than his mother; Delirium Tremens from Belgium, where he’d shared a beer and a shot with the oldest living man in Europe. The stories had been magical.
Elaborate rubber stamps and postage from all corners of the earth were organized neatly next to the stack of postcards. I wondered if he’d ever gone anywhere. Perhaps during each “trip” he would instead stay in his house with the curtains drawn, researching places he’d never see, pushing pins into places he’d never go. I envisioned him desperately finger-nailing price stickers off the bottoms of pseudo-indigenous artifacts. How sad he must have been. How exhausted.
I returned the box to the kitchen table, snuck out the same way I’d come in, and walked around to the front of the house. Marty’s bedroom light was on, curtains spread open, his back turned to me, most likely admiring a postcard from a place we had never been.