I’ve been working retail for a long time. I admit, it’s not my first love. However, round about inventory time one year I was driving home, tired, hungry, cranky, a bit over everything I was caught off guard when a dog ran out in front of my car and scared the hell out of me. No one was hurt, but it did set my mind to racing and made me glad it wasn’t something bigger. But that’s when you kind of start to wonder “What if…”
Emily loathed inventory night more than anything else in the world. Staying late, verifying counts, rerunning numbers, rechecking physical stock, basically redoing everything long after the auditors left just to submit the same paperwork three times before she was free to go home was particularly tedious. It was late October, by the time leaving the store was possible, it would be extremely late. It was going to be well after dark, dinner would be wrapped in plastic and cold in the fridge, the kids would already be in bed sleeping, and she would be too tired to reheat dinner, take a bath, or even read a few lines in her book. Most likely, she knew she would just fall asleep on the couch with an unopened protein drink in one hand and cell phone in the other still in her work clothes. Unenthusiastically she checked the latest spreadsheet, highlighted a few debatable numbers, and disappeared into the stock room for the hundredth time this evening.
It was nearly 11:30PM when she submitted the last of the recounts, saved the work, printed it out in triplicate, collated, stapled, and dropped the reports into her team’s mailboxes. Biding a few overnight co-workers good-bye in the break room, she pulled on her jacket, grabbed her purse, and left the building. Looking up into the parking lot lights, she could see the rain coming down rather quickly. The large puddle that always formed to the right of the door when it rained was rippling rapidly from falling raindrops. Late-night shoppers were jogging in under umbrellas or hoodies flipped up to avoid getting wet. Sighing mournfully, she recalled her umbrella was on the passenger seat of her car and wasn’t going to do her any bit of good now.
Keeping a brisk pace, she walked out to her car, feeling the cold rain dripping down the back of her head. It made her skin crawl, and she shuddered a bit. It was too cold for her, and she knew that by morning it could very well be ice if the temperature plummeted any more. Swearing lightly to herself while fumbling with the remote, she finally opened the door and slide into the front seat. Her feet reminded her how much they ached as she sat. Groaning, Emily looked next to herself and glared ruefully at the dry umbrella.
“I just want to see my kids,” she whispered while starting the engine. A blast of loud music filled the car, and she gripped the steering wheel, startled. Already annoyed by the exhaustion and rain, she did not want the extra noise. Immediately, she turned off the radio. Putting the car into gear, rolled carefully from the parking spot, and finally sped off the lot onto the main road and off to home. She consoled herself, knowing that traffic was sparse this time of night, even for a city.
The agreeable part about living one town over was that the drive, during the day, was full of gorgeous scenery, mountains dotted with snowcaps, stretches of green pine, a road that curved and moved with the landscape along a winding river. During the night, however, it was dark with no lights but that of other cars, stars, and the moon. Not to mention, it was full of animals that didn’t understand the concept of cars, trucks, or SUV’s. Undoubtedly, it could be hazardous and, so, Emily tried to pay attention to the sides of the road.
Escaping the city lights, the rain was coming down harder, and her windshield wipers were flying along. The patter of the rain on the roof was soothing her jangled nerves, the kind of night she like sleeping on. Slowing a little as she approached a curve that tended to be a little slick in the rain, a large buck wandered into the road.
“Shit!” Emily hit her brakes and horn, hoping to startle it away. The buck began to back peddle, but the car had already lost traction and was skidding sideways. Bouncing off the guard rail, the car screeched over the wet road and hit a large pine tree on the other side of the ditch. Emily was jostled around hard, her head ricocheted off the steering wheel and driver window, shattering it before the airbags finally deployed. It was quick, there was no time for her to think, and she lost consciousness. The buck bounded away safely on the other side of the road, tail flashing.
Walking along the side of the road, Emily was dazed and confused. Positive she had a concussion, she held her head with her hand while checking her cell phone for any signal. There were no bars, so she dropped the phone into her purse. Unable to remember leaving the car, this worried her. For a moment, she thought that maybe she should just go back to the car and wait for help. However, she knew there was a house about a mile ahead, and her feet had stopped hurting. She told herself that she could make it, she would just have to push. At least it had stopped raining.
Lights quickly appeared on the road from behind, and she felt a surge of hopefulness. Turning around, she began to wave as much as her stiff body would let her, hoping the driver would stop. The car slowed, and the caution lights began to flash. Becoming weak in knees with relief, she trotted as fast as she could towards the car to meet it. Approaching from the passenger side, the window lowered.
“ Emily?” The voice from inside was familiar. She bent over and looked inside. It was Hannah from work.
“Hannah!” Waves of relief washed over her, and she felt herself actually smile. Hannah looked terrified, she was gripping the steering wheel tightly, all the color was gone from her face, and she was unusually quiet. Emily reached up and touched her forehead, feeling the cold and sticky wound, she winced as it stung pretty good. “Must be pretty bad, huh?” Slowly Hannah nodded with wide eyes and unlocked the doors.
“Can… can I give you a lift?” Her voice was shaking slightly.
Emily exhaled and nodded, leaning heavily on the car.
“Just take me home, please. I… I want to see my kids and go to sleep.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go someplace else?” Hannah asked, perking a brow.
“I’ll go there after I see my kids,” Emily said softly, planning to have her husband take her to the hospital when she got home. A small smile etched onto Hannah’s lips, and she nodded a little. Climbing in, Emily let relief come, and it made her shiver. She was growing colder, and she looked at the climate controls, the heat was on. She thought to herself that it must be shock. After a long moment of silence, it occurred to Emily that Hannah lived in the city, about a mile and a half from the store. “So, I’m not ungrateful for the lift, but what brings you this way so late?”
“I moved,” her voice was soft.
“When? I thought you loved that little place on Vance street.”
“I did, but I met someone.”
“That’s so wonderful. I didn’t know you were dating.”
“I wasn’t,” she said with a bit of a laugh.
“I’m happy for you. The easiest way to find someone is when you aren’t looking.” The stress from Hannah’s face melted slightly.
“That… that means so much to me, Emily.” Touched by her warmth, she smiled back and tilted her head back. It was throbbing.
“I hate inventory night,” Emily complained.
“Hallelujah, sister.” They laughed.
Pulling into the small town, the car slowed and made a few turns into a well-manicured residential area. Hannah pulled them up into the driveway of a lovely two-story house. Jack-o’-lanterns glowed softly, lining the porch railing. Emily smiled peacefully looking at them, thinking that Hank and the kids wanted to surprise her with the decorations. She hadn’t even got around to buying pumpkins with work keeping her away lately. Hannah parked and looked at Emily.
“Thanks for the ride.” Looking at the lights on in the living room, she could see glimpses of her husband, Hank, standing at the window looking out at the driveway, waiting for her to come inside. A sudden warmth moved up her chest and chased away her chills, it was comforting. Getting out of the car, she closed the door and moved along the walk. The children were still awake, she could see them sitting on the living room floor. Hank was looking out the window at the car in the driveway. Hearing the other car door open and close, she turned around and saw Hannah.
“I just need to see you get where you need to be.” Nodding at one and other, Emily smiled gratefully and moved up the porch steps. Before she could open the door, it swung open, and Hank stepped out to the porch. He brushed past her as he moved down the steps. Baffled, she didn’t know why he was ignoring her, especially with the gash and all the blood. Turning around, she paused for a moment.
“Hank?” she called out after him. No response, she felt a little angry. Frowning, she looked at the kids sitting on the floor watching a movie. They shouldn’t be up this late, but she was thankful they were. The pain in her head didn’t seem to bother her anymore. Clearing her throat softly, heads turned to look at her with surprise.
“Mom?” Her daughter sprang up and ran to embrace her, unphased by the blood or head wound. As her daughter held her all her remaining pain melted away. Her son was a bit more hesitant, carefully gauging the situation, but finally, he stepped forward with a small tear in his eye and wrapped his arms around his mother. She hugged them tightly and kissed them quickly.
“Where have you been?” her daughter asked choking on a tear. Perplexed by the question, she shook her head.
“I’ve been at work, sweetie.” Her son shook his head, maintaining a grave expression.
“No, mom.” He said in a flat voice, “You’ve been dead.” Laughing at first at his little joke, she looked down at her daughter’s face and saw the same grim and highly concerned expression. Suddenly, she knew he wasn’t joking. Standing upright, she stumbled backward, she felt her body run cold again as she looked outside as Hank was waiting for Hannah, unaware of her presence.
“No. Dead? No…” Shaking her head, she looked at her kids and closed her eyes.
“Yeah, you were found dead in your car when you didn’t come home,” her daughter said. The words began to settle on her, flashes of the accident raced through her mind.
“There was a funeral,” her son said softly.
Opening her eyes, they didn’t look like the same as they did a moment ago. They were much older, years had passed, but were just as beautiful. They still made her heart swell with pride. Could she be dead? Was that why she couldn’t remember leaving the car and Hannah’s odd behavior? Was that why she was no longer in pain? She didn’t want to be dead, her heart cracked in two, and her face began to crumple.
Reality began to settle all around her. The living room began to flake away like old loose paint, not only were pictures of her and the kids hanging but photographs of Hannah and the kids, along with Hannah and Hank. The walls were no longer beige and trimmed with oak, they were a vibrant red and trimmed in pine. Her daughter had braces, and her son had grown into a fine young man. A tear came to her eye as she finally accepted the truth. Looking out at Hank, she could see the grey in his hair. She did die back at the car.
Hank stood out on the porch, watching Hannah slowly walk towards him. He crossed his arms and looked at her, confused.
“What’s the deal, slowpoke?”
“You didn’t see her?” Hannah stepped up onto the porch and motioned inside.
“See who?” Confused, he reached out and wrapped an arm around Hannah’s waist. He looked inside just in time to see his dead wife with the kids as she looked at him through the open door.
“ Emily?” Releasing Hannah, he flew up the stairs and inside, looking at the fading form, a hard lump in his throat. Looking at his children, they held the ghost of their mother while whispering their good-byes as Emily faded away.