The Man in the Red Barn

Pins and tails, pins and tails, pins and tails. Perfect, he thought, wiping his brow. Using a critical eye, he traced over the intricacy of the joints, again, checking for the barest hint of flaw. He found none. The weeks leading up to this moment—the focus on spacing, the attention to slope, the decided span width—had been formed with such meticulous determination, his resulting success was expected. The dovetail joints were aligned, tight. A precise fit. A trademark to fine woodworkery. The trademark of dedicated beauty. 

His finger hovered above the seam, following his mental chant, tracing the detailed grooves. Pins and tails, pins and tails, pins and tails.  

After weeks of painstaking labor, the final elements of a handcrafted executive desk were ready for joint assembly. Wood glue gleamed against the surface of the pins, shiny, sticky, wet. He stretched out a hand, keeping clear, blue eyes affixed on the alignment of the joints, and grasped his sturdy, rubber mallet. It melded into his hand. The handle, worn from wear, matched the curvature of his calloused palm. This was what he loved, this was his reason for breathing. It was a heady feeling, becoming one with the tools in his barn. 

He aimed the trusted mallet at the joinery seam. With three, hard raps, the wood blended together, a beautiful complication. He smiled, a soft, wispy grin. Setting the mallet down, he wrapped tan fingers around an old, worn rag. The next steps would take careful precision, he knew. It was then that he shifted his eyes, just once, seeking the blue clamp that would contain the sides of the drawer throughout the night. The clamp lay where he’d placed it earlier in the day. It balanced in precarious manner, teetering on a nearby stool.

Earlier that morning, he had abandoned the stool, needing to be closer to his work. His time for sitting, for respite, for carving the intricate joints, had long passed. Now he stood strong, muscles flexed with the effort of building his newest project—his newest love.

If only everything remained exactly as I left it, he mused. A frown crept down his chin, pulling at his lips. In mere moments, his mood changed. Disgust filled him. He felt the repressed anxiety, rage, and overwhelming hatred of the past few months claw out, needing space to run free. The feeling ate at him in seconds, burning bright and hot in his mind.

Damn her! his mind raged. How could she? … Why did she? The thoughts clambered over him, questioning, like always. Along with the questions, came the doubt. It crept in, chipping—always chipping—at his soul. 

He shook his head, dispelling the negative emotions. He mustn’t give in; not now. Not when he was absorbed in his sole purpose for being—this majestic desk that he would stain a deep cherrywood. When it was finished, when it was completed, he would stand back, beaming, and watch the desk gleam with the effort, attention, and love he’d put into its care. This time, he knew, effort would breed reward. It was a hope that seared his soul, branding the gaping wound, sealing his desolation.

Woodworking was more than a hobby for him. It was the craft that would—and had—saved him. Therefore, he wanted to see his work come to life. He needed to know that the blood, sweat, and tears he’d put into this craft could form something amazing—something that would last. From focused persistence, and mental training, he could remember to relax, to breathe, to transfix on the beauty created through his greatest love—the material that could bend to his will, and remain steadfast for years to come. 

Anger left a residual smear in his bones, unwilling to mind the mental stomp. It resonated deep, turning his eyes a stormy, milky gray. He released the rag back onto the table, and shook himself. His arms waggled, his legs shifted on the balls of feet, his head bobbed from side to side. A full-bodied, disjointed, hasty jig. It worked. The muscles in his arms loosened. The resentment in his head cleared. He was ready, again, to become one with his work. 

To become one with his craft.

The rag was lifted, again, and wrapped around an index finger. Carefully, and with gentle effort, he smoothed away excess glue, checking the evenness of the seam through the worn, dirty fabric. The task complete, he placed the rag on the work bench, and lifted the parallel-jaw clamp into his hand. As he fastened it into place, he checked, and rechecked, the alignment of the seam. If the joinery was loose, if the seam was uneven, the drawer would never seat properly. Nothing would fix the problem, which would worsen over time. The drawer would become loose. It would become useless. It would become a hopeless endeavor, a fruitless cause.

He didn’t want anything else in his life feeling hopeless. 

Rag in hand, he smoothed the surface one last time, and nodded, assured. Come morning, he would join another section of the desk together. Although he could complete that section today, he wouldn’t—there was no hurry to finish the desk. He had time. Endless, ticking, time. Because he had time, he had patience. He could wait for the glue to set, the seam to strengthen, the alignment to provide structural integrity to the piece. 

Stability, for him, was the key to creating success. 

A clock rang out, striking the hour. His eyes shifted, focusing on the dimming light in the barn. The morning had passed, consumed as he was in his endeavor. With shock, he realized it was late afternoon. Although he had time to spare, he also had people counting on him. His shift at the bar began at eight. In just a few hours, he would be forced to join “the real world.” 

The real world, where he slapped on a happy smile for the local drunks, and quantified middle-aged women’s flirtations with a nod, and perhaps a free drink. It wasn’t hard work, but it was constant, and mindless. His was a job in which duties fluctuated through client demands. They wanted a drink, they wanted a smile, they wanted a psychologist, they wanted understanding, … they wanted the idea of love.

Every night, at exactly nine, he became the most sought-after, most important, most relevant person at Flannigan’s. It was his new life; it was the only other reminder that his life held purpose. 

He needed purpose. He wanted purpose. 

What he craved was a reason, a meaning. A second in which his life made sense. He found this through woodworking. Shaping the wood, carving the edges, forcing the grains to heed his command. The wood obeyed. It never surprised him, or left wreckage in its stead. In his mind, craftsmanship made sense, giving meaning to the upheaval she left behind. 

Because of her, he had moments. Moments that overwhelmed his psyche. Moments when the loss crushed his heart in its vicious, viselike grip. Moments in which breathing didn’t make sense. Moments where he wanted death.

Because of her, he needed new moments. Moments with purpose. Moments that held meaning. Moments in which he could stop, breathe, learn, and enjoy. Moments where he could be happy. Moments when he didn’t think—when he could just be.

Woodworkery allowed these moments. It was difficult. It was an intricate precision that took all of his mind, all of his effort. It didn’t allow him the ability to think, reason, or ponder. Nothing was left—nothing but the hard planes of mahogany, falling in slivers at the scrap of the chisel, the pounding of the hammer, and the whir of the saw. He spent hours absorbed in his task, until the sun grew dim.

It was then his mind would return, full-force. Her image burst alive, mocking him. It teased him. It agonized him. Nothing dulled the pain she left behind. Pills, beer, sleep, a good, hard sob—nothing. He had tried it all, but still, she remained. Her soft, amber hair, swaying in the breeze as they sat at a patio cafe, sipping tea. Those wide, green eyes, gleaming with mirth as she teased him for unconsciously mismatching his socks. The curved, manicured nails that trailed in his hair, every night, when they read a book, or watched television. That white, silky skin she kept slathered in SPF 85, fearful of freckle, wrinkle, or blemish.

She haunted him.

His wife haunted him.

Which is why, when evening came, he worked. In his former life, just four months removed, he was an investment banker. He lived in a grand, two-story house. He was a prominent, upper-crust, worthy man of society. He was a loving, devoted husband to the golden-haired ghost. That’s what he called her now: his golden-haired ghost. He dared not utter her name. To have that beautiful cadence slip through his lips was a cruel, sadistic joke. Just thinking it filled him with bitter resentment. It allowed her face—sweet, heart-shaped, pixie-nosed, full-lipped—into his vision, and, in response, bile climbed his throat.

There were days when he hated his new job; days when he resented this forced life. But, now he had the bar. He had required interactions with equally depressed beings. He had busy nights that made him forget. For moments at a time, in these new moments, he could forget the reason he lived alone, in a camper beside his beloved, red barn. 

Cleaning his tools took seconds. Arranging them into a neat pile, awaiting the morning, took even less. He stepped away from his workbench then, and labored out into the afternoon sun. Every morning, he flung the doors to the barn wide. Its openness allowed brief trails of air to wind, in lazy array, through the hot, stagnant space.

Brightness flooded his face as he walked outside. The change from dim to light was so drastic, it made him wince. He stood still, blinking, until his eyes adjusted to the daylight. With a certain amount of shock, he realized the morning had turned into a mild, spring day.

He breathed in the outside smell, aware of life moving forward—ever forward. There were bees darting through a scattering of brilliant, yellow marigolds. Their buzz gaving the waning sun a lovely, pulsing tempo. Birds chirped in nearby trees, a cacophony filling the air.

A wayward breeze ruffled his hair. It tugged at dusty, damp clothing, cooling the stain of hard work. With the back of his dirty hand, he wiped his brow, again. This time, a sticky smear of glue residue was left in its stead. Breathing in, slowly, he knew it was time to close shop. He needed a shower, a cup of strong coffee, and food. The last point became noticeably clear when his belly released a loud, belligerent growl.

The doors of the barn swung closed with applied pressure. Heels dug into the ground, arms pushing with steady strength, applied pressure. Panting hard, he lifted a thick, rusted chain, and wound it through the door’s hardware. An antique lock was pulled out of the back pocket of his jeans, pushed between the links, and clicked into place. Although he lived in a rural town, he held no confidence in strangers. Trust in reliability, trust in goodness, trust in honesty, trust in sacred vows, meant nothing. If there was one thing she taught him, if there was one thing he learned from her, it was that trust was fickle. 

Not even trust could be trusted.

A white camper sat just beside the barn. He had bought it two months prior, when he realized he could not continue in his old life. That life was extinct. It was a lie—a monstrosity he obliterated in her absence. When he walked away from that life, and pulled up to the beloved, red barn, a gently used camper towed behind his Dodge Hemi Truck, he allowed himself temporary amnesia. Amnesia meant to escape the horror. Amnesia meant to rebuild his sanity.

He stepped into that respite now, all sixteen feet by eighty-five inches. It was smaller than his first studio apartment, straight out of college, but it satisfied his new life goal. The camper appeased his intention of existing. The contents included a kitchenette, a small dining table, a pull-out sofa, a mounted, 32” flat screen TV, and hidden bathroom.  This space, his new home, wasn’t a means to an end, it was the means to a humdrum, no expectations, mundane survival. He was surviving, he was a survivor, because of her.

Always because of her.

He ambled over to the coffee pot, bones tired from the morning’s exertions. The hours of standing left him feeling exhausted, weak from mental diligence. What he needed right now was rejuvenation. A quick, sudden jolt of caffeine would provide the energy he needed to move forward, to complete the second leg of the day. The pot was filled to capacity, poured into the back of the machine, and set back in its place on the hotplate. A filter was nestled into the basket, grounds were measured out, and the power switch was flipped. The thick gurgle, hissing sizzle, and steady drip of the brewing machine filled the cabin with a comforting sound. 

He wanted to collapse, but now was not the time. He was covered in wood dust, glue, and grime. Soiling the couch that doubled as his bed was not on the agenda. At least not today. He wasn’t quite ready to ruin his habitat, to ruin his sanctuary. It might be sparse, it might be threadbare, but it was his—and it would remain intact, unblemished, protected. If he could protect his home, every day, into eternity, he would—and be grateful.

Stripping his clothes, he walked toward the tiny bathroom, and stepped into the shower. Hot water burst from the showerhead, poured over his head, and ran along his arms, torso, and legs. It scalded his skin. The pain, however, was welcomed. He reveled in the feel of the small, heated needles stabbing at his weary, overworked muscles. The water rushed over him, a boiling, scorching spray, stinging his face, biting his shoulder, penetrating his hair. It reminded him that he was alive, extant, and had persisted, strong, another day. What she refused to do, he did, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. He had strength. He was tenacious. He was everything she promised, but didn’t produce.

Water dripped from his skin as he turned off the spout. He gave himself a violent shake, removing the excess of liquid and sud. The droplets sprang from his body, spraying across the steamy glass door, a quick, glimmering display. He opened the door, stepped onto a threadbare rug, and pulled his one luxury—a thick, terrycloth towel—around his body. The towel settled against his hips as he moved toward the smell wafting from the tiny kitchen. It smelled pungent, rich, and hot. This was a robust, heady aroma. It wrapped around him, enveloping him, calling out in siren spell.

He poured a cup, and watched the steam billow out, and tantalize his senses. The transferred warmth, the energizing touch, beckoned him in. He dipped his head near its fragrant whisper, burying his nose into the rim of the cup. That first sip, he knew, was what Heaven felt like to a weary traveler. 

Cup in hand, he walked toward the tiny refrigerator. Having satisfied the need for shower, and coffee, he was ready to tame his grumbling stomach. The frigid, contained air met with the steam that rolled off his flesh in waves. A shiver caught him off guard, goosebumps rising in the wake of cooled skin. He steeled himself against the temperature change, and ducked down to peer inside the fridge. A congealed, week-old sandwich, a molding block of cheese, an expired container of sour cream, a sprouting onion, a half-dozen eggs of questionable age, and a cold six-pack of MGD met his stare. He scratched at the wet in his hair, flinging droplets around the cabin, pondering the selection. It was a mental debate that made him roll his eyes. Consuming the lot of expired goods might not be a wise decision, but he had no other choice. 

Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will go to the grocery store, he rationalized, loading his arms with veritable perished foods. The burden was set on the counter. A bowl, skillet, cutting board, whisk, and knife were pulled out of their hiding places, having been tucked neatly within the small cabinets and drawers.

Everything was laid on the counter, and shifted into a manageable order.

Preparation diminished uncertainty, a point in which he remained ever cognizant. His life, right now, functioned on the certainness gained through the stability he constantly craved.

The stove was turned on, a red ring on a shiny, black surface. He set the skillet over the bright circle, allowing the surface to warm. Four eggs were cracked into the chipped, ceramic bowl. It was the only bowl he had left, but it spoke of her. They had received this bowl as a wedding gift. Today, he chose to ignore that fact in the wake of her overwhelming presence. No matter how diligent he was in suppressing her essence, she pushed her way in; his alluring, invasive specter. 

The onion was stripped clean of sprout and peel, and placed onto the cutting board. He chopped it fast, years of expertise showing in his management of the blade. Half the contents of the cutting board were deposited into the bowl of eggs. The whisk merged in his hand, a devoted fusion—as with all tools of late—and he beat the contents of the bowl thirty times. 

Egg mixture met skillet, and sizzled. The temperature on the stove was lowered, the ingredients inside the blazing skillet stirred, poked, and monitored. He turned to the moldy block of cheese and eyed it, dubious. Plucking it up, he examined its worth. The mold sprouted in areas, but left a small chunk of tangy cheese unaffected. He could work with that. Knife in hand, once more, he carved away offensive sections in large sweeps, and threw them into the trash can. The remaining bits of onion, and strips of acceptable cheese, were deposited on top of the egg mixture in the center of the skillet. He cracked open the sour cream, next, and gave a long sniff. It smelled like sour cream. To be sure, he plunged a pinky into the white, solid substance, brought it to his lips, and tasted it.

Tastes like sour cream. Eh. Should be safe, he gathered. Flipping the egg mixture into the form of an omelet, he pulled out a plate. The omelet slid from the confines of the pan, a yellow, oniony, cheesy substance. He helped the meal along by dolloping large amounts of okay-smelling, all right-tasting sour cream onto its surface. 

Shower, check. Coffee, check. Food, check.

Belly full, he noted the time. Only an hour remained until he needed to get dressed, and head toward the bar. He set an alarm, laid on the couch, and allowed the day’s exertions to tug down his heavy eyes. A slow, hazy slumber pulled him under, enveloping him. 

Baby, I love you, she whispered. Her face hovered over his, smiling that wonderful, angelic grin. A hand fluttered into view. Her hand. He felt the warmth of her palm as it cupped his face, caressed the hard planes of his cheek, and ran, playfully, along his lips. She kissed him, then, and he savored the taste of her. She was there. She was right there, and he could feel her. 

She spoke again, pressing her face into his ear. You’re my partner, my man. I’ll be with you forever. We’ll never be separated, even in death. In seconds, she was in the hallway of their house, turning toward him, reaching for him. Amber hair. Green eyes. Milky skin encased in a thin, pink slip. 

His golden-haired ghost. 

He rushed toward her, taking large steps. Arms flung wide, he was reaching, straining, wanting. He needed to touch her skin, to run his hands through her soft, brilliant hair. When he reached her, he pulled her into his embrace, and savored her feel. 

Something wasn’t right. Something was wrong. Confusion filled him within seconds of capturing her. He lurched back, and stared, with blank shock, at his hands. They were empty. Where she had been, where she should have been, she wasn’t.

What? he wondered, befuddled. 

With growing desperation, he thought, racking his brain, apprehension nibbling in his ear. Something was wrong, something wasn’t right. This was their house, a house he designed, a house he knew in his bones. It was their cookie-cutter, two-story, above middle-class, house. 

She had been right there. Right there. 

He turned circles, scratching his head. Where did she go? Where could she be? His movements were slow, at first. He fumbled through the hallway, feeling the pull of something, some memory. It scraped. It begged. It demanded to be heard. Move. Hurry. Speed up! You’re wasting precious time! 

Awareness registered, an onslaught of horrific clarity. He minded the warning, and rushed, headlong, down the hall. Skidding into the kitchen, he expected to see her, giggling over a large pot of lamb stew. She always made lamb stew when he was worried. But, she wasn’t there. Nothing was in the kitchen. Nothing was cooking, nothing was boiling. The entire space sparkled, pristine, empty.

His eyes sought clarification from the clock. Six. It was evening, and she should be there. Dinner should be prepping, simmering, baking. Aromatic smells should be wafting through his nostrils, filling his belly with desired promise. Instead, there was nothing.

Nothing.

He checked his phone, which appeared in a wisp of smoke, in his hand. No calls. No messages. All at once, worry, doubt, and fear engulfed him, tangling together, demanding answers. 

Where is she? What is happening?

He raced out of the kitchen, and back down the hallway, heading toward the stairs. He didn’t know why; he couldn’t figure out his angst. She could be in the shower. She could be fixing her hair. She could be out shopping, having forgotten the milk. She could be visiting a sick friend with a hot bowl of chicken soup.

But, she wasn’t, and he knew it. 

Not one clue supported his unease. Nothing supported his frantic, terror-filled mind. Everything was in place. Everything looked right. But, he knew. Something was wrong. He knew something was wrong. He just didn’t know how he knew, or why he knew, with such certainty.

He leapt the stairs in spurts. Two at a time, four at a time. He took large, springing jolts, propelling himself toward the top. She’s fine, he reasoned. She’s just at the neighbor’s, having a late chat. It’s okay; I’m delusional.

If only.

Fear gnawed at him. It challenged his sensible, rational side. It taunted, calling out, reminding him that she would—for no reason—go into her closet, and cry. Concern admonished him of her strange doctor visits, where she would emerge, morose, and sleep for days. Panic leeched into his bones, explaining her snippy, temperamental, very un-her, side. Of late, it was not normal. She wasn’t acting normal. And so he bounded the stairs, distress aiding his flight.

His step faltered when he reached the top. The bedroom door. … The bedroom door. The sturdy, whitewashed, bedroom door, which had always remained open, inviting, tempting in illicit rendezvous, was closed.

The bedroom door was closed.

A tremor jerked its way through his intestines, flinging its way into his spinal column, shaking, and shaking, his body, until convulsions overcame him.

“No,” he breathed. 

“No,” he reasoned.

“No!” he shouted, a sob breaking into his voice. “Samantha! Sa-man-tha!” It was then that he propelled himself toward the door. Stabbing out a hand, he attacked the doorknob, and slammed, full-body, into the white paint. 

The contact jarred him. 

“Samantha!” he screamed, panicked. He scratched at the door. He clawed at it. Taking a few steps back, he steadied himself, and rammed—with all his might—into the solid wood. Clavicle, humerus, and scapula trembled under the wake of his action. Undeterred, he rammed the door again, again, always again, screeching her name, begging her to open the door.

Open the door, Samantha. Just open the door. Please, please, my beautiful, sweet wife. I’m begging you. Open the door.

When the door caved, when the lock broke, thirty minutes had passed. His voice was raw, his throat shredded, her name thready on his lips, “Samantha, … Samantha, … Samantha.” Tears streamed down his face as he stumbled into the bedroom, shaking. 

A raw, earthy, guttural sound filled him, and his knees hit the floor. He had found her. She hadn’t been there, but she was here. In the bedroom, on the bed, she was. White, pristine, beautiful, just as she looked in life. Just as she should have looked, asleep. Her eyes stared, glassy, at the ceiling. Her breath stilled, frozen, in unmoving lungs. A bottle of narcotics, and a decanter of whiskey, lay on the bedside table, abandoned.

His wife; his wonderful, loving wife, had killed herself.

He jerked, fully upright, unnervingly awake. Fists clenched, sweat beading down his back, eyes alight with rage. Damn her! How could she? … Why did she? Damn her! He swallowed, blinked, and swallowed again. The horror, the sheer terror at finding his dead wife, consumed him. He couldn’t breathe, because, if he did, he would smell the stench of death. His stomach heaved, twice, and he was jolted into action. 

Bounding toward the tiny bathroom, he flung open the toilet lid, and unloaded his dinner into the bowl. Five minutes passed as he gagged, heaved, and vomited. Stomach emptied, he dropped his head onto the cold, ceramic toilet lid. The taste of curdled cheese lay on his lips, and he breathed out its acrid stink, whispering, “Damn her.”

Several minutes passed before he regained his strength, along with his will to survive. He pushed himself up, standing on shaky legs, and hung his head over the sink. The water was turned on, hot steam touching his skin. He washed his face, rinsed his mouth, and looked into the mirror. Bracing tanned hands on the sink’s edge, he stared at the stony reflection. He was colorless, as pale as his golden-haired ghost. The lips she had caressed in his dream turned down, a wry deprecation, devoid of humor. He could belittle himself for hours, but it wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t bring her back.

He opened a cabinet in the bathroom, reaching inside to grab boxers, faded jeans, and a fitted, gray shirt. It was his standard uniform, worn daily. His, “life doesn’t bother me, and I have no need to pretend” outfit. The hair gel sat on the ledge of the sink. He slicked it through still-damp hair, working it into spiky points. Standing back, he surveyed his image. Yet again, he had achieved the carefree, adorable, bartender look. His eyes told a different tale, but not many bothered to glance into his eyes—not when they wanted another shot of tequila, or bottle of beer. 

There was a dark, stormy turbulence in his eyes, which disturbed him. His breath caught in his throat. Within his eyes, her image hovered. She always hovered, near the brink of remembrance, his ghostly mirage. Today, in this moment—with the dream still fresh in his mind—he could see her in his reflection, crooking a finger, calling out to him, enticing, inviting, tempting. 

The camper door slammed in its aluminum frame. He hurled himself into the open air, not bothering to use the stairs. It was a desperate need to escape her presence. She lingered in the aftermath of memory, his seductress. A flash of teeth, a teasing stare, a strand of smooth, blonde hair. Hands on knees, head between his legs, he breathed. Large, gulping breaths filled his lungs, clearing his mind. Over, and over, he breathed, until no wisps remained. Until he didn’t feel those sweet, lifeless eyes, staring. He forced the sultry, spring air into his lungs, until he forgot her presence.

Calm fought its way in, and soothed him. With each intake of air, his mood tempered. Minutes passed before he was able to straighten. When he did, when he finally stood tall, he gazed across his land, staring into the neighborhood beyond his fence, unseeing. A decision was made. Using the ball of his foot, he turned, and walked toward his truck. He wouldn’t go back into the camper; he couldn’t. Instead, he would show up for his shift, early. He would rather wash dirty glasses than think about her for one more minute. 

Cicadas beckoned, crying out for symphony, rising in crescendo, and dying off. Alerted to the sound, he slowed, and stopped. He turned his head, closed his eyes, and listened. Just listened. The irony of locusts, destroying everything viable, thriving in desecrated lands, was not lost on him. She had eaten his heart. She had invaded his mind. She made his life unlivable.

And she thrived in memory.

Head cocked toward the sound, he gave a wane smile, and opened his eyes. A woman stared back. Wide, brown eyes bored into his. A tranquil, stoic face read the angst etched across his features. Perched atop her head was a lopsided, careless bun, wayward strands flapping in the breeze. Her property backed into his, but he’d never seen her before, engrossed as he was in the simple act of existing. 

She stood in Natarajasana pose, dressed in muted Yoga clothing. It was an odd stance she held, balancing on one leg, one arm perpendicular to the floor, the other holding a foot above her head. All the while staring. 

At him.

Raw nerves tingled throughout his body. After the nightmare, he felt gaping, wounded, bloody. He wanted his bar, his patrons. His blind, uncaring, indifferent to personal struggles, people. They saw through him. Their needs overpowered his pain.

But, this woman. This woman unnerved him. She made him feel something he hadn’t felt in a long time. With sudden shock, he realized he felt recognized. It was so unacceptable, so different, that he cocked his head, and stared back. How could she, this woman, make him feel acknowledged in his pain? It seemed as if this mystery woman, just one house over, felt a resonance from his troubled soul. His anguish must have leeched into her meditative state, and demanded attention.

Nothing noteworthy in her face told him she noted his returned gaze. Yet, he felt her sympathy. It oozed from her, pouring from her eyes, closing the gap between them, enfolding him with compassion. He had been noticed. It wasn’t a, “Hey, Buddy, pour me another round?” glance. It wasn’t even a, “I want a free drink, so I’m going to bat my eyes, and declare how mysterious you are” look. No. He was used to those. Those glances grazed at him, they didn’t consider his depth. They didn’t care about him. This look, from this woman, was new. She had, “You can bend my ear, cry on my shoulder, and tell me your deepest, darkest troubles” focus. 

The implication, the warmth of her stare, made him feel safe. He hadn’t spoken to her, he hadn’t lifted an arm in greeting, and yet, he felt connected. For a moment, linked through this woman’s eyes, he could see his worth, his meaning, his purpose.

He could see life.

The connection broke as he reached out to grasp the handle of his truck. He didn’t look back, the strange encounter feeling more complex by the second. The key was threaded into the ignition, the engine revved with thunderclap shock. He wouldn’t glance back; he couldn’t. And yet, he wondered, Did she see my pain, my agony, through her eyes?

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