It was a cold November evening in Kalkaska, Michigan. The northern part of the state was known for being significantly colder than the south. On this particularly icy night, the air was crisp and the snow even crisper. In fact, you knew it was especially cold when the snow under your feet sounded like Styrofoam being rubbed together when you stepped on it. The trees were naked, giving no protection from the snow flurries currently striving to blanket the already white ground, or the occasional biting wind. Other than the few street lamps, the large moon and the sky-full of stars gave the town a subtle glow.
Kalkaska was quiet at night. Unless you were working down at the Meijers grocery store or had errands to run that couldn't wait until morning, there was no excuse to be out in the frigid hours of darkness. Sid, on the other hand, enjoyed the cold. Often nights he could be found sitting down on the bench in front of the city council building watching cars go by. He was often accompanied by either a cup of coffee or a bottle of whiskey. It all depended on how his day went at the auto repair shop. Tonight, an unopened bottle of Wild Turkey sat next to him. He had been sitting there for about thirty minutes trying to decide if he should open it or just go home. Hell, he thought. It's too cold out not to drink. He reached for the bottle, but stopped as a voice in the night startled him.
"Hey, mind if I sit here a bit?"
A gorgeous angel of a woman, wrapped in a purple parka and lavender colored scarf and gloves stood next to the bench, moving in place so as to keep warm. A burgundy beanie with light blue flowers covered her head. Radiant blonde hair flowed out from the bottom, shimmering in the pale light of the street lamp near by. Sid was at a loss for words. Basking over her beauty, he was also baffled as to where this woman had come from. He had been sitting there for a half an hour after all and hadn't noticed anyone on the street around him. If she had been walking near by he would have seen her. Someone as beautiful as her would not have gone unnoticed, he thought, whether you were drunk or sober. The city council building had been closed for a couple of hours, but if she had been an employee there, he would have known. It was a small town, and he knew just about everyone in it. He didn't know them well, nor did he care to, which was how he preferred it, but he knew enough to know that he didn't recognize her.
"Um, yeah. Sure. Have a seat." he replied, with a small stutter in his voice. He wasn't sure if it was the cold or the woman's presence that caused the stutter. He slid over to make room on the wooden bench.
"Here, I warmed up this spot for ya'," he said.
"Thanks!" she replied as she sat down. "It's absolutely freezing out here! Are you waiting for someone?" her voice was like silk. Sid wanted to wrap himself up in it. He shook his head to bring himself back to reality.
"Waiting? No, just sitting."
"Out here? But you can just sit at home, you know, where it's warm."
Her rosy cheeks glowed as she spoke. She was smiling. She had been smiling from the moment she arrived. Sid couldn't keep is eyes off of her lips. They were a darker pink, probably from the cold. They looked soft, pleasant even. He tried straining his gaze back up to her gorgeous green eyes, but resorted to looking down at his snow covered boots.
"Home," he said. "Yeah, eventually I guess."
He clutched the bottle of whiskey and slipped it behind him.
"Sid," he said, extending his hand and shaking hers. "Nice to meet you."
"Sid, huh. Is that short for something?"
"Nope, just Sid."
"Well, 'Just Sid', how long have you been sitting out here?"
"Too long," he chuckled. "What about you?"
"Well," she said with a smile, "Seeing as how I just got here, I'd say about a minute or so."
Sid let out a laugh that led to a short cough as he realized what a stupid question he had asked. The cold air in his throat made it interesting to communicate, especially since he'd been sitting there silent for so long. Stacy never stopped smiling, which Sid marveled. Maybe her face is stuck like that, he thought. Like Jack Nicholson's Joker in that one Batman movie. He smiled at the thought.
"So, are you new in town?" he asked.
"Kind of," she said. She paused for a moment as if to collect her thoughts. "I, uh, just moved here; today in fact." Stacy laughed and covered her mouth with her gloved hands. "I don't know what I was thinking moving here though. This weather is almost unbearable."
"Oh it's not that bad once you get used to it."
"People get used to this?" she exclaimed.
Sid laughed and wiped his cold nose with a gloved finger.
"Where did you move from, if you don't mind me asking?" he asked.
"California, where currently I'm sure it's sixty-five degrees and there's no snow on the ground." She shuddered as a crisp wind blew.
"This is absolutely insane!" she cried. "You sure you're alright? How can you just sit out here? I mean-I can't even feel my fingers or toes!"
"Yeah, I'm good," he replied. "I like the cold." He turned and looked up at the moon. "I get the cold."
"You get the cold?" she asked as she raised her eyebrows at him.
"Yeah, I guess," he chuckled. "I mean, look around. Everyone is inside their nice warm houses, bustling over a meal or fighting over what channel to watch, completely unaware of what's happening out here in the world right now."
Stacy continued to smile; her eyes were locked on Sid.
"Out here," he continued, "the cold is alone. No one wants to be out in it. They just, deal with it." Sid looked down at his boots. "I guess I get it because I can relate to it."
"Wow. That's deep," said Stacy with a chuckle. "Deep and sad."
"Eh," Sid replied, shrugging his shoulders. "I do like it though; what the cold nights have to offer."
"And what might that be?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
"I think you've lost it," said Stacy, shaking her head and laughing. "You're brain's been frozen over."
"I'm serious," Sid said, cracking a half-smile. "Just look around. It's so peaceful. I can sit here in my own thoughts and just, I don't know. Just, not be bothered by the world."
"Oh, I apologize. Am I bothering you? Because I can leave," Stacy said; her smile bigger than ever.
"No, no don't leave," he replied, grinning equally as large.
"Alright already, tell me why you're really out here then," she said.
Sid looked her in the eye and fell entranced. He couldn't figure out what it was about this woman that made her so intriguing. The fact that she could see right through him was captivating enough. There was something about her. The way she smiled constantly, her snow-white teeth beaming at him; or the way she moved her legs back and forth to keep warm, even the intricate formations her breath made in the cold as it exited her beautiful mouth and tiny nose. Like a Rorschach inkblot. If she were any other girl from town, he thought, they would have left my ass sitting here a long time ago. Who the hell is she? Where had she come from? He couldn't shake the thoughts.
"Well?" she insisted,
"Well," he finally stammered, "If you must know, I was planning on getting drunk and stumbling to my house in hopes to sleep off the horrible day I had. There, I said it."
"Oh you poor baby," she said. Her eyes were wide like a cat's while begging for food; her bottom lip pouched and her gloved hands placed on the sides of her face.
"Are you making fun of me?" he said with a smile.
"Me? Make fun of you, a total stranger? No of course not. It's not everyday that someone has a bad day. Rare in fact," she said. Her pouty face turned back into her charming smile.
"Very funny," he said.
Stacy laughed and as her laugh trailed off, they both sat in awkward silence for a few moments. The snow flurries thickened a bit around them and a subtle, biting wind began to pick up. Not wanting to heighten the awkward point of the conversation, Sid grabbed the bottle of whiskey.
"Um, care for a drink?" he said, holding up the bottle.
"Thanks but, I don't drink," she answered hesitantly.
"Ok then," he said. He didn't even want a drink himself, but he couldn't decide on what to say. Stacy began to shuffle a bit in her seat.
"I think I'm gonna go," she said timidly.
Sid's hands began to get clammy, his heart raced and his breathing quickened. He didn't like the idea of not talking to her anymore. It was an odd thought really. He was sure that he would have the opportunity to see her again. It's a pretty small town. I'm bound to bump into her at some point. No, you idiot. Do something. Say something!
"Wait," Sid said quickly, standing on the brink of desperation.
"Yes?" she replied, a small grin curved over her face.
"I gotta ask. Why did you move here? California weather alone seems like an excuse enough for anyone not to move way out here."
Stacy looked away from him. Her smile slowly faded away as she focused on the snow-covered ground. Sid suddenly felt cold inside. He hesitated to even ask in the first place. He just didn't want her to leave. After a second or two, her smile slowly returned.
"Would you mind walking me home?" she asked while still looking at the ground.
Sid was taken back. He was perturbed that she avoided his question, but was excited at the idea of spending more time with her.
"I would be honored," he said as they both slowly stood up and began to walk away from the bench. Sid slipped the bottle of whiskey into his jacket pocket.
"I'm sorry if I said anything-"
"No, no it's not you. I just-it's not something I want to talk about is all," she said.
"I can totally understand that. I just wanted, well," Sid stammered. His gut began to do jumping jacks and his throat began to swell shut. Though it was subzero temperatures, he couldn't help from sweating.
"It's just," he continued, "I like talking to you."
Stacy looked at him and smiled. She wiped her nose with a gloved hand and brushed her hair back.
"I like talking to you too, Sid. You seem like a nice guy."
"I am!" he exclaimed. "I am a nice guy. The nicest guy in all of Kalkaska," he said in a booming voice with a large smirk.
"Is that so?" Stacy replied, countering once again with her own charming grin.
"Indeed it is, madam."
"Tell me, does Kalkaska's nicest guy have a wife he avoids every night while sitting out in the cold? Or is he just out of his mind?"
The smile on Sid's face faded instantaneously.
"Ah, so it's your turn to ask the awkward question."
"Oh, I'm sorry if I-"
"No, it's ok. And since I am such a nice guy I'll answer your awkward question," he said with a chuckle. "No, I do not have a wife."
"Sheesh, I was just asking."
"It-it's not that I have a problem with that I just, don't-I like women."
Stacy broke out in hard laughter. Even her laugh was beautiful. He was smiling as she stopped to catch her breath, something he had done more of during this conversation than in his entire life.
"You know Sid?" Stacy said, in between breaths. "You're alright."
"Thanks. You're not so bad yourself."
They continued on into the night towards Stacy's home. Sid regaled her with stories of the infamous Kalkaska county Trout Festival that he never attended, and his obsession with ice fishing. Stacy had never been fishing and was dying to try it. Eventually they reached a faded yellow house on Dresden Street, next door to the town funeral home. The sound of their laughter echoed across the vacant street.
"This is me," Stacy said as she stopped in front of the house and turned towards Sid.
"Ah nice, next to the funeral home. How quaint."
"That's a funeral home?" she exclaimed, pointing to the large house next door.
"Yeah!" Sid said laughing. Stacy giggled in returned and then slipped slightly on the icy walkway and fell into Sid's arms.
"Whoa, there! Watch your step," he said as he internally thanked whatever Deity existed for allowing the most beautiful woman on earth to literally fall into his arms. He stared into her eyes as she stared back. For the first time in his life, he didn't feel hollow. Usually, he allowed booze the opportunity to fill that void, but now the thought of a drink was far from his mind. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted more than ever to kiss her and not let go. Here's your chance, Romeo. Do it. Then, a moment passed. Do it! Then another. You idiot! His window of opportunity was closing. You bastard! Grow a pair and - Stacy regained her balance and let go of his arms. Dammit!
"Um, thanks," she said as she regained her composure.
"No problem," he said, disappointed in himself.
"And thanks for the walk home," Stacy said as she made her way up the steps to the front door. She continued to smile as Sid watched her walk away.
"My pleasure. Will I be seeing you around?"
"That depends," she said with a brazen smile. She opened her front door and stepped inside.
Playing hard to get I see. I like it. "Depends on what?"
Standing completely inside she began to close the door, looking at Sid while biting her lip with a now seductive smile.
"Depends on what?!"
The door closed, and he was left answerless. All he could do was smile. He actually didn't know what else to do but smile. He turned his back to her house to make his way down the road towards his own, when the sudden urge to turn back around and head to the door poured over him like a warm river. Do it, you idiot. She's amazing. Don't let it end like this! His inner self wanted to punch his outer self hard in the gut. He pictured Stacy's face and reminisced on the evening they just had.
"I love you," slipped through his lips as he peered towards the door. Then, the sweating began again. He suddenly felt cold. Almost instantaneously, the world around him began to shift and change. He watched in disbelief as the trees and houses around him melted down like candles. The stars began to fall out of the sky in streaks of white. The snow covered ground disappeared beneath his feet and was replaced by nothingness. He soon found himself standing in vast darkness, void of all light and feeling.
The jacket he was wearing was gone. In fact, his whole wardrobe had changed. He was wearing only his boxers and his Al's Auto Repair shirt, buttoned only at the bottom. As he realized what he was wearing, his mind slowly became clear. He remembered his house. He remembered being woken up by Todd, his strange neighbor, in the middle of the night. The memories came like an avalanche. He remembered Todd on his porch ranting and raving about the weird men that appear at the top of his stairs from time to time. He remembered Todd begging and eventually convincing him to fix those very stairs; those wooden stairs in the dim light of Todd's house; and the man in the hooded robe that appeared in the glowing purple light at the top.
"Sid," a calm voice called.
Panting in disbelief, Sid spun around to see the bald, powdery-white man, the one that appeared at the top of Todd's stairs, standing in front of him. The ground beneath him wobbled as it had the moment he first arrived, causing him to stumble.
"What-what the hell is going on?" he exclaimed. "What happened?"
The strange man stood silent for a moment. His dark robe, now illuminated by a faint purple light behind him, covered his whole body save his hands and head. His calm, inviting eyes locked onto Sid's and never broke contact.
"Do you, remember her?" the figure asked.
"Wh-what?" Sid answered, fumbling a bit with his balance.
"The woman, who is she?"
Sid gained what he thought was pretty decent footing, and then looked the figure directly in the eye.
"Wh-what was that? That felt so real?"
"That moment in your life; was it, important to you?" the figure asked inquisitively.
"What? Why-why do you care?" Sid asked, completely astounded. "That happened like 20 years ago! How was-how did you-"
"Was it, important to you?" the figure asked again.
"What do you mean? She-I never saw her after that night," Sid said.
The figure walked up to Sid. He walked with such ease that made Sid angry. The figure placed a hand on Sid's left shoulder. The weight of the figure's hand caused him to stumble a bit on the rippling floor.
"Why?" the figure inquired.
"That's none of your damn business! Now what is going on?!"
The figure continued to smile as he placed his second hand on Sid's opposite shoulder.
"Please, Sid. This moment in your life, this moment I have given you to see once again. Was it, important to you?"
Sid paused a moment and looked away from the man, trying to comprehend everything that had happened. He couldn't help but feel empty, hollow even. A feeling he was all too familiar with. There he was, standing with some sort of extraterrestrial or maybe even celestial being. That thought was crazy. Yet, he had just re-lived a memory that felt more real than any dream he had ever had; even more real than what was happening at the present moment he thought. If that wasn't a crazy notion, he didn't know what was. As time passed, standing there silent in the vastness, the experience he just had began to feel more and more like a dream or a distant memory fading from his mind.
Then he pictured her smile. That warmth; the same warmth that he felt practically that whole night with Stacy, began to engulf his entire being. He had forgotten about her, until now. Tears began to form as he looked back up to the figure.
"Yes," Sid managed to say. "That night was important to me. She was important to me."
"Why?" the figure asked.
"I don't know. I mean, I barely knew her." Sid whispered, allowing the tears built up to race down his face.
"But, she was it. She was the plug to the hole in my heart. I just didn't do anything about it."
"Why?" inquired the figure.
Sid closed his eyes. Now would be a good time to wake up! He opened his eyes to see he hadn't gone anywhere. The realization of what his empty life had become after that night hit him in the chest like an anvil. The sobbing eventually became uncontrollable.
"I didn't do anything because," Sid paused to blubber a bit and catch his breath. "Because-"
"Because," the figure stated, "loneliness is all you know."
Sid covered his face and dropped to his knees, bouncing up and down as he hit the fluid floor. The figure smiled warmly and knelt down in front of him. He embraced Sid, wrapping his strong arms around his trembling body. That moment when Stacy fell into his arms flashed into Sid's mind. He grasped on to it desperately.
Sid raised his head and peered into the face of what he thought was his own. It was striking to see the resemblance.
"Who are you?" asked Sid.
"I am called a Vacant; a vessel of modification."
"Why do you look like me?" Sid barely made out between sobs.
"Because," the Vacant said, his voice rich and warm, "I have chosen you."
"Chosen me for what?"
"Through my earthly conduit, the one you call Todd, I have chosen you specifically."
"For what-I don't understand."
"A gift I give to you," the Vacant said.
"Why?" Sid said between sobs, his body completely drained.
After a moment the Vacant pulled back and placed Sid's damp face in his hands.
"Because," the Vacant said as he wiped a falling tear with his thumb, "you walked up the stairs."
"I don't understand," Sid said.
"The woman; see her, in your mind."
Sid closed his eyes; tears still streaming down his face. He could feel the warmth radiating off of the Vacant's body. Then, in a flash, Sid pictured Stacy's parka, her gorgeous green eyes, and her contagious smile.
The Vacant covered Sid's face with his right hand. He could feel the Vacant's smooth skin across this nose and cheeks. He could feel the quickened pulse of the Vacant's muscular hand as it encompassed his face.
"What could have been shall be."
Then all was dark.
Sid woke up and found himself on the porch outside his house. The early morning sun crept over the tree line, issuing in a new day. Sid tried to move, but couldn't. It was as if he was a part of the porch floor itself. How the hell did I get here? he thought as he strained to move his body. All the other events of the past night remained vivid in his mind. His immediate thought however was that he dreamt the whole thing, that maybe he somehow sleep-walked out to the porch. The dark hooded figure, the stairs in Todd's house, all of it was a figment of a liquor-induced hallucination. Then, the most unexpected thing happened. His front door opened. A blonde woman, dressed in a lavender night gown and matching robe stood there in the doorway.
"Sid! What on earth are you doing out here?!" Her voice was like velvet, calm and caring. She bent down, wrapping her arms around him, pulling him close to her warm body. Sid's own body filled with heat from head to toe. The same feeling he felt when he clasped the hand of the Vacant for the first time; the same warmth that filled him to the brim when embraced by the strange traveler. Peace. This startled him more than the fact that a strange woman was in his house and was now holding him. Then, he remembered. She was his wife.
But I don't have a wife, he thought. But indeed he did. He somehow remembered that he was married. He tried to remember the events of the day previous to his encounter with the man on the stairs, but couldn't. It was like trying to remember a dream when you wake up. His life before the stairs was nothing more now than just a dream. He was waking up to real life; his life. This was his reality and, lying there on the porch embraced by the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, he accepted it.
* * *
The incessant knocking continued for about ten minutes. Sitting on his bed, Sid tried all he could to ignore the knocking as he finished tying his work shoes and buttoning his Al's Auto Repair shirt. He knew who it was, and he couldn't help but smile. A bottle of water half empty stood proud on his neat and organized night stand which also was home to his alarm clock, a picture of the blonde woman with a gorgeous smile, and a copy of Time magazine. The moon was on the cover. The knocking continued. Sid ran his hand through his neatly trimmed auburn hair, and then headed to the door.
It had been six months since Sid's encounter with the Vacant at the top of the stairs. Yet, in his mind, he was in the twenty-first year of his marriage to Stacy. It was strange to practically have a whole new set of memories. From the moment he met Stacy and their first encounter at the bench to the present moment; all new and exciting memories. He couldn't remember his old life before the Vacant, but he knew the life he had now was different than before. Crossing over the threshold of the portal was euphoric in the end to say the least, but Sid never really talked about it. Nobody would ever believe him, he thought. Nobody save Todd. Not a day went by that Sid didn't think about it, though. Nor did his annoying neighbor let him forget it. Todd in fact was the one knocking on Sid's door, as he did everyday. It's always something with Todd.
Sid grabbed his brown Kool Kat lunch tote and a fresh, unopened bottle of water and headed for the door. As he opened it, Todd stopped pacing.
"Good morning Todd," Sid said as he closed and locked the door behind him. Todd, rubbing his hands together frantically, gazed at his neighbor with twitching eyes.
"Sid, you have got to mow your lawn. It's unsightly. Plus it makes my lawn look bad, even though I mow it every week."
Sid smiled, "I know Todd. I'll see what I can do."
Reaching his car, Sid began to unlock the door as Todd made his way back to his own house. Mr. Calloway, newspaper in hand, slowly made his way up Sid's driveway.
"Morning Mr. Calloway!"
"Goon morning, Sid. Off to the shop?"
"Yeah, but just for a few hours," Sid opened the car door and tossed his lunch bag onto the passenger seat, "Perks of being the boss and all."
"Sorry I didn't make it to your barbeque yesterday," Mr. Calloway said. "My back was acting up."
"Don't worry about it. Stacy made you up a plate."
Mr. Calloway smiled. His large mustache curled up at the ends.
"That's awful kind of you two. You give Stacy my love. I'm off to the park." Mr. Calloway said.
"Take care," Sid replied. He watched as the old man slowly walked back down the driveway and towards his own house.
As he slid into his car and shut the door something out of the corner of Sid's eye caught his attention. It was Todd, pacing back and forth in his living room. His curtains were open just enough for Sid to see him. After a moment, Todd stopped and looked at his arm as if he were looking at a watch, though there was none. Todd matted down his slick hair, turned and slowly made his way towards the stairs. Sid could only see the first few steps from the angle where he sat in his driveway. After a moment, Todd began to walk up the stairs, gazing up at the top. A light purple glow appeared, beaming down from the top. As Todd left his sight, the purple glow followed. Sid couldn't help but keep smiling as a single tear formed from his left tear duct and slowly trickled down his face.
Sid put the key in the ignition, started the car, and placed his left hand on the top of the steering wheel. His wedding band glistened in the morning light.
"I thought you would have left already," a smooth voice said, causing Sid to jump.
Stacy, finishing her morning run, came up to the car door. Her blonde bangs were matted to her forehead. She leaned in and kissed Sid; her lips were like pillows made of clouds wrapped in joy. So cliché, he thought, but he didn't care.
"I'm leaving now. I shouldn't be long," he said.
"Bummer," she replied, her bottom lipped pouched. "I was kinda hoping we could, you know-" She bit her bottom lip and gave Sid a cheesy wink.
"I can be late!" he exclaimed, catching her gist. "I am the boss after all!" Sid slammed the car in park, grabbed the keys, and quickly followed his wife into the house.
Before he knew it, he was lying in bed. His hair was disheveled, clothes were strewn all over, and the world's biggest smile lay plastered on his face. Stacy was in the shower. He could hear her singing. Maybe I'll just not go in today, he thought as he threw around the idea of hopping in the shower with his wife. Maybe we can take a drive out to Traverse City, maybe hang out on the bay.
He rolled over to find his phone, which happened to be still in his pants on the floor by the bed. As he reached down and grabbed his pants, his phone fell out and toppled under the bed.
He rolled out of bed and leaned down to grab his phone, when something peculiar caught his eye. It was a book.
"Hmmm, I don't remember putting this here."
He grabbed the small, leather bound book and peered at the front cover. It had no title. He opened it and began flipping though the pages. Hand-written passages populated each and every page. He could recognize the handwriting almost immediately. It was Stacy's.
"Must be her journal or something," he said, as he stopped on a page dated the Wednesday of the previous week. She wrote about her morning run and the squabble she had with the grocery store attendant later that day. Sid chuckled as he remembered her calling him at work about it, ranting and raving about the obnoxious attendant who didn't know the difference between cucumbers and pickles. He flipped to the front page, peering up to see if Stacy was coming. He could still hear the shower running. I'm in the clear, he thought. He looked back down at the first page; the ink a bit faded. At the top of the page he noticed the entry was dated twenty years ago in November.
Sid's eyes began to widen as he read. His heart fluttered and his body began to tingle as his eyes glanced over each word of the passage.
No way, he thought. It can't be.
I met him today, the one I was told I would find.
I woke up in the cold and just started walking and there he was,
sitting on a bench. I stared at him for a while in the dark, just
watching. I know that's kind of creepy, but I did it anyway.
I knew it was him, because when I looked at him, my body felt warm,
like it did when I met the woman. I was too scared to move though.
What if he didn't like me? What if this wasn't the man that I was
suppose to meet? Then I heard it, the voice of the robed woman
that spoke to me:
What could have been shall be.