She drifted through the aisles, running her fingertips over family-size packages of paper towels and flimsy beach cover-ups. The air held a hint of disinfectant but it was still overpowered by mustiness. Her shoes squeaked on the linoleum. She shifted her heavy tote bag from one shoulder to the other as she gazed at neon sale signs pointing to rows of plastic dishes. Other shoppers ignored her and she wondered if she was real. She didn’t feel human. She was a former human. An ex-human.
In the baby aisle, a yellow onesie caught her eye. Blue elephants were stamped on the cotton. She picked it up and then put it down. She picked it up again and walked quickly to the cash registers. The cashier barely looked at her during the transaction. As she walked outside into the drizzly rain, she shoved the onesie into her tote bag.
A man stood near the curb next to a box of wriggling puppies. “Free puppies,” he said, smiling at her.
“Come on,” he said, picking up a puppy.
Even though she didn’t want to touch it, she reached out. The puppy looked up at her with mournful eyes and licked her chin.
“I can’t,” she mumbled, looking at her feet.
The man took the puppy from her arms and when she raised her eyes, he was staring at her quizzically. She knew he was looking at her disheveled hair or her blotchy complexion.
“I’m Ethan,” he said. He was young, she guessed. Barely twenty-one.
“I have to go.” She walked away, wrapping her scarf around her neck.
“What are you doing tonight?” Ethan called.
She turned around. He was grinning, his smile so bright that it seemed to cut through the mist.
“Let’s go out.”
She nearly grimaced. “Why?”
“C’mon. Meet me at Jasper’s on 15th. 7:30. We’ll sing karaoke.”
“I don’t sing,” she said, walking away.
“I’ll be there at 7:30,” he called as she retreated.
She was there again the next day, wandering from aisle to aisle, examining plants and birdfeeders. Her shoes were different and they didn’t squeak, but without the noise she felt invisible. The store employees averted their eyes and gave her a wide berth as she passed. She came to the baby aisle, and this time, she picked up a small plastic rattle. Shaking it gently, she listened. It sounded muffled and far away and she wondered if the rattle also wasn’t real. She checked out, the cashier wordlessly taking her crumpled money, and dropped the rattle into her large tote bag.
Ethan was outside again but his box held fewer puppies.
“It’s you,” he said, smiling like she was a friend.
“I don’t want a puppy.”
“Are you sure? There are only a few left. They need homes.”
“They need good homes,” she said, turning away.
“I didn’t see you at Jasper’s.”
“I don’t know you. Why would I go there?”
“Because it seems like you need some fun. I’m fun. And I’m a good listener.”
“I don’t need fun,” she said. “Good bye.”
“I’ll be there if you change your mind!”
Her apartment was dark and empty. She turned on every light and sat in the armchair, her bag on her lap. Sitting there, she barely held a coherent thought as the afternoon passed languorously. As she often did, she pictured molasses oozing from the bottle, a state she feared her mind was approaching. Nonetheless, when she finally stood, it was to shake out a few pills from the bottle near the sink. She took a drink of water and checked her watch. Ethan would be at the bar. She didn’t want to go but she found herself opening the door and locking it behind her.
Jasper’s was quiet but it was also the middle of the week. Christmas lights were strung from the ceiling and the wooden bar was dinged and scratched from years’ worth of drunken patrons. She sat on a stool with a torn vinyl seat. A dank smell permeated every surface.
She turned to see Ethan approaching.
“I didn’t think you’d show,” he said, sitting next to her.
“I didn’t think I would either,” she said, hugging her bag to her chest.
“What are we drinking?” he asked.
“Two vodka tonics, please,” Ethan said to the bartender, sliding money across the bar.
“What are you going to sing?” she asked once they had their drinks.
“Not sure what I’m in the mood for. You?”
“I told you I’m not singing.”
“Your loss. It’s good for the soul,” he said with a wink.
“Is that supposed to be some sort of platitude?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t dream of boring you with such banality,” he said. “Besides, that would be presuming that I know something about you.”
“If you don’t want to bore me, then you’d best start singing.”
“The pressure!” he exclaimed, finishing his drink in one swallow.
Amused despite herself, she watched him on the small stage. He sang a song she recognized but couldn’t name, something upbeat with a Motown feel. Ethan spun around energetically, gesturing at her with the microphone during parts of the song. She nearly smiled, suddenly realizing she couldn’t remember the last time she wanted to do so. Surprised, she finished her drink.
“How was I?” he asked when he returned.
She clapped slowly. “Not bad. Not good, but not bad.”
Ethan laughed. “I’ll take it. You’re up.”
“Just go look. See if there’s something that speaks to you.”
“Okay, fine.” She didn’t know why she was humoring him. Rising to her feet, she placed her tote bag on the seat and went to the stage. Quickly, she flipped through the karaoke book even though she had no intention of singing. As she returned to her seat, she was shocked to see Ethan rummaging through her bag.
She rushed over and pulled the bag from his hands. “What are you doing?” Anger flashed through her, nearly cutting through the deep fog. “That’s mine.”
Ethan looked stricken. “I’m sorry. I was just curious. Why…why do you have that with you?”
“What?” She took a step away from him.
“You know. That club. Or bat. Whatever it is.”
“It’s not a bat. It’s a rail. A rail from a balcony.”
He frowned. “Why? And what’s with all the baby stuff?”
His face wavered before her eyes and she blinked slowly until her vision cleared. She clutched at her drink with a shaking hand but there was nothing left but melted ice.
“The rail is from my husband.”
“Yes. I used to have a husband. He killed himself last year.”
There was a long pause.
“He tied a rope around this railing and jumped off our balcony.”
“I see,” Ethan said. “And the baby clothes?”
“We used to have a baby.”
There was another pause.
“I have something for you,” Ethan said. “Follow me.”
She did follow, not knowing what else to do.
A puppy sat outside the bar next to a bowl of water. Ethan untied the puppy. “This is the puppy you held yesterday. Take him, please. You’ll give him a good home.”
“What’s his name?” she asked.
“Whatever you want. But how about you give me your bag? I’ll keep it safe.”
Her brain was slow and fuzzy but it seemed like it might be a good idea. “Ok.” She held it out to him. Ethan took the bag and gave her the puppy in return. His fur was impossibly soft.
“See you tomorrow at the store?” Ethan asked.
“Ok.” She turned, feeling the puppy’s heart beat lightning-fast against her chest.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he shouted.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
© 2015 Ashley Ellingson