I know it’s night by the chirrup of crickets and the cool air pressing against my skin. Most people feel sunshine, but I experience darkness more profoundly than any daylight.
My dog brushes my leg, the weight of him a familiar comfort.
“We’re almost there, Stokes,” I say, gripping his harness.
It’s the sixth day we’ve visited the bus stop outside an old five-and-dime, and Stokes knows our routine well. He leads me to a bench, away from the silent store and the drunk who mutters to himself as he urinates. A small metal plaque glimmers at the base of the bench, its face the beacon that drew me from our usual route home.
I sit and keep Stokes close. Under my hands, his hair is coarse and thick. I scratch him while we wait.
The occasional car rumbles by, but mostly it’s quiet. I smell exhaust and the faint hint of garbage. Alone with Stokes, I hum to him, wondering if tonight our bus will arrive before the apparition. Wondering if I should be hopeful or worried if this will be the last time I’m allowed to see.
Their horrors, their beauty, are all that’s left to me. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of what they give to reconcile with what they take.
When a presence settles on the other end of the bench, the fine hairs on my arms float. I face it and open my eyes.
Surrounded by nothingness, a woman sits with a paper bag on her lap. Her aura blazes and she smells of ozone. She would be beautiful, with long limbs and a regal nose, if not for the hole in her chest oozing red down her brown bag. On her back is another wound, three times the size and messy, where flaps of her vintage dress and dark skin flutter in a breeze I don’t feel.
“Hello, Regina,” I say.
“Oh!” She startles and puts a hand above her bleeding bullet wound. “I didn’t see you.”
I smile at the irony. Stokes leans into me, a whine escaping him as his hackles bristle under my fingertips. I keep my hands on him, stroking his ears. Telling him with touch that everything is fine, that I’m thankful he senses her, too.
My skin crawls with electricity as Regina studies me.
“Do I know you?” she asks.
“We’ve met before.”
“Have we?” Her brow furrows, and she laughs lightly to cover the awkwardness. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”
“That’s normal,” I say. “Regina, I want you to know Kevin is fine.”
“Excuse me? How do you know my son?” She stands, unsure whether to be wary or offended.
I don’t know what she sees. If to her, I am a petite woman in sunglasses with a German Shepherd perched at her side, or if I am the man that murders her.
“Your sister took him in,” I continue as though she isn’t there, which to the world, she isn’t. Never really was. “He went to college, became a lawyer. He fights for people who don’t have the means to see justice done. People like you, Regina.”
“You must have me confused. Kevin’s just a baby.”
“He’s married now, has two girls. The oldest is your namesake. Everything he does is to honor your memory.” My gaze drifts to the glowing plaque near my thigh. “He even had this bench dedicated to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to suffer anymore.”
Her laugh is shaky. Her brilliant eyes dart between me and the street, and beyond as if to flee. But this is not something Regina can run from anymore.
“It’s all right.” I remove a pocketknife from my jeans. “I promise.”
A high-pitched rattle signals the approach of the bus.
Stokes growls low enough that I feel the vibration. I keep one hand tight on his harness while the other grips the knife and works to scratch the plaque until the name of Regina Michaels is unreadable. Red lines slash her face, and I know this is the fetter that binds her. Her dress tears. Regina’s eyes are wide, her skin shining with perspiration.
“Please,” she says, but it’s too late.
Though Stokes will see our bus, I see only the ghostly overlay of the old #3 line. Both lurch to a stop in front of us, their doors squeak open, and a shadow rushes out.
A blur of white bone and blackness in the shape of a man. The hem of his coat flaps, inky tendrils of fabric unraveling and snaking toward Regina. She screams. A flash of muzzle, a deafening rapport, and the stench of smoke and powder. My dog whines.
I work desperately at the little plaque while Regina’s grocery bag tumbles to the ground, dissolving into the nothingness I’ve come to know so well. The shadow-man surrounds us, passes through us. A burning cold crawls into my bones.
“Why?” she asks, as her knees buckle. Her gaze locks on me hard enough to have weight.
But I have no answers for her, only release. The destruction of her memorial is reflected in her skin. Cuts that weep red while I cry for my own part in her demise.
A flare of light causes me to stumble. Stokes’ steady presence rights me, and I blink away bursts of beautiful colors I haven’t seen in years. Then there is nothing. No Regina, no shadows, no glowing plaque, and a bench I can only feel under me.
“Ma’am?” The bus driver calls. “Are you all right?”
I swallow hard and nod. “Fine.”
Stokes helps me up the steps, to the tiny kiosk where I fumble around and swipe my card.
“Thank you for waiting,” I tell the driver.
We find a seat toward the front. I rest my hand on Stokes’ head and close my eyes, unsure if I’m thankful when no one sits next to me.
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