John Parker stepped into his pants, glanced back at the woman sleeping in the bed he had just vacated. And the guilt hit him. Why did he do it? Why did he have to nail some bimbo he’d just met when he had a beautiful, willing wife at home?
He almost always questioned his actions after the fact. But never before. When he met a pretty young thing, every thought in his head was crowded out by the one imperative: get her in the sack. And since he fit all the prerequisites—tall, dark, handsome, successful—most A-list women had tucked away in their minds when eyeing a potential hookup, he seldom struck out. It was just so damn easy.
He left three hundred bucks—cab fare plus a little something extra—on the bedside table, and after looking around to see if he’d left anything behind, slipped quietly out the door. He hated goodbyes, some more than others. That’s how he’d ended up married to Liv: he couldn’t tell her goodbye.
I stood out on the deck, staring up at the night sky into the face of the end of the world.
Inside, my family and a large group of their friends drank and laughed and danced to old songs, some I remembered, some I didn’t. Upstairs, my two little brothers and the younger kids of the partiers’ slept—with a little help from Benadryl—blissfully unaware of the fact they would never wake.
In the valley below, the town sparkled like the Fourth of July, now a month past. The sultry breeze carried the faint sounds of music and laughter up the steep hillside to my family’s summer home.
Was the whole world celebrating?
The president had announced a few months ago that Delaroche was on a collision course with Earth, but for no one to panic because all the countries with nuclear capabilities would launch their missiles at the comet when it was close enough, and would either destroy or divert it from its course. That hadn’t happened. The firing of the entire world’s nuclear arsenal hadn’t altered its path.
There had been some minor rioting when the president had given his final speech informing the citizens of the United States of the failure to stop Delaroche, and advising us all to make our peace with God and spend the few remaining days with our loved ones. But no one had burned buildings, looted stores, or done all the other things people have under extreme circumstances. Almost everyone, like the president, left their job and went home to be with family and friends. Televisions were turned off, the internet wasn’t accessed, cell phones were tossed down and forgotten. Now that it was too late, people realized what was important.
Delaroche would strike the earth around sunrise. And that would be it. I knew I should be scared, but I wasn’t. I was a little sad, though. I was fourteen years old. I would never go to a prom, never have a boyfriend, never fall in love, never get married, never have children.
A few years ago, I had decided I wouldn’t even consider a serious relationship until I had finished college, gotten a degree in neurosurgery—specialists like my dad made tons of money—and set up a practice. Now…well, now none of that mattered.
Behind me, the party noises increased in volume, then I heard the door snick to. Footsteps across the porch. Two hands settled onto the railing beside mine, one holding a bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, my father’s most expensive wine.
“Why’re you out here by yourself?”
The bottle went up, and my eyes followed it to the face of my mother’s best friend’s son, Mathew. Though we were the same age and went to the same school, we had never exchanged a word. We moved in different social circles, he with the dorky geeks, me with the honors students and cheerleading squad. Why, I didn’t think I had ever really looked at him before, and if you got past the acne cooking on his cheeks and forehead, it was a nice face, friendly and open.
He lowered the bottle, saw me staring. “You wanna drink?”
“Sure.” I took the bottle from his hand and took a big swig—my first taste of alcohol. Wasn’t too bad. I tipped the bottle to my lips again, then passed it back.
“What’re you thinking about?” he asked.
Again, I shrugged. My eyes traveled back up to the sky. Delaroche had swallowed more stars, stolen more of the darkness. “I wonder if it’ll hurt…”
“It’s a fucking monster, and we’re at ground zero.” He took another drink, passed the bottle back to me. “It’ll be over like that.” He snapped his fingers. “No time to hurt.”
I downed what was left, then set the empty bottle on the railing. I turned toward him. “Will you kiss me?”
He looked surprised. Stunned actually. “Well…uh…Megan, I’ve never kissed a girl before.”
“And I’ve never kissed a boy before.” At that moment, I wanted nothing more on this earth than to be kissed. I turned to him, circled my arms around his neck.
Our eyes locked. I felt the click of a connection in my stomach. I closed my eyes…then…then felt his mouth, soft and warm upon mine. I tasted wine; I tasted him. It was the best kiss ever.
Slowly, our lips drew apart. I opened my eyes. He was smiling. I smiled back.
“Wanna dance?” he asked.
I nodded my head.
Inside the house, I heard the familiar beat of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”, my mom’s favorite song. Mathew crossed his arms over my back while mine stayed locked around his neck. We danced. And we danced. For a long time. Slow. Our bodies tight together.
And over his shoulder, I watched night turn into day. A bright, hot day that held no sun.
I closed my eyes, turned my face into the crook of his neck. And we danced.
(Author’s note: I wrote “The Last Dance” quite a few years ago and shared it on a previous blog. I’ve written many short stories—some have been published in magazines, some not—but this little melancholy tale that I never submitted for publication, continues to be one of my favorites.)
The sun is just peeking over the horizon when I tell Maryanne it’s time.
She gives a quick nod of her head before taking a sip of coffee. “I know…gotta get the taters in that ground tomorrow.”
“It’s gonna be a good day for it,” I add. “Weatherman says it’s gonna be in the seventies with sun all day.” I head for the back door.
“I’ll be out soon as I finish my coffee,” Maryanne says.
I stop by the shed and get the shovel before heading to the garden. I’d just been digging a couple of minutes when Maryanne joins me. She’s carrying the hand spade for the fine work.
I dig down about a foot—that’s as far as I’d best go with the shovel—and lay it aside. Me and Maryanne drop to our knees and start digging more, me with my bare hands (I ain’t got a light touch with tools) and her with the little spade. And soon I feel something, push my fingers in a little more. “There he is,” I say.
Maryanne tosses her little spade a row over, and now we’re both using our hands. I hear her muttering under her breath, prayers, I reckon, ‘cause I hear “Lord” and “God” sprinkled in amongst her other fervorish words.
By the time we get him uncovered, Maryanne is laughing and crying at the same time. She tenderly brushes the dirt from around the closed eyes of our only child, Cain. “Ain’t rotted much, has he Tom?” she asks.
I work Cain’s shoulders free. “Don’t look like it.”
“That’s good,” she says. “Real good.”
“You want me to do it?”
“No, let me.” She begins working her arms under our boy’s body. “He’s so little, I can manage just fine.”
And she’s right. Cain was just three when he died last August. The hardest part of all this was getting him planted in dirt that hadn’t seen rain in pretnear a month.
When she has both arms under him, I take Cain’s hands and cross them over his chest and steady my wife as she rises to her feet.
“I’ll put him over there by the tulips,” Maryanne says. “Aunt Hassie said to make sure he got sun all day long, and a’fore dark, he’ll come back to us.”
I have no doubt the old witch is right, and tonight, Cain’ll be tearing through the house like he hadn’t spent the last seven months in the garden. After all, I seen it happen a’fore—with Maryanne. She’d died birthing Cain. And I’d planted her in the garden like Aunt Hassie had told me to, and come spring, I’d dug her up and laid her in the sun.
He slid onto the bar stool beside her and flashed his most engaging grin, knowing the effect it had on women. Dazzling white teeth coupled with a tanned, handsome—but not too handsome—face, tall, muscular-but-lean body clothed in a perfectly-fitting Armani suit as black as sin, he was every woman’s dream.
She said, “Don’t get too close.”
He said, “Why…you don’t bite, do you?”
She sipped the strawberry daiquiri he’d had the waitress bring her. “I might.” Her cool, gray eyes met his over the rim of the glass, laughter dancing inside storm clouds. She licked her full, red lips.
“And I just might like it.” He bent his head and moved in close, letting her catch a hint of his expensive, musky aftershave.
She leaned away and their eyes made contact again. Swirls of darkness ebbed and flowed inside the gray. He’d never seen eyes like hers; they excited him even though no cuts, bruises, or blood marred her body.
People are looking at me funny, especially the ladies at the registers, ’cause I come here nearly every day. But I can only buy what I can carry home. Mama can’t come and we need food, and if anyone finds out Mama can’t come, me and Lizzy and Josh will have to go to one of those foster homes. And they ain’t good places to be.
I know ’cause I was put in one last year. Lizzy and Josh was put in them too.
My third-grade teacher, Miss Fincher, had seen my busted lip and had called someone and they’d picked me up at school and taken me to this place where a woman in white had looked at me all over, my privates too. I hadn’t liked that one bit. Then she’d told a big woman with red hair that I had been “physically abused.”
Cassie drifted up and down aisles stocked with mess kits, ammunition boxes, helmets, and such inside Big Mike’s Army Surplus, waiting for the few customers to finish their shopping and leave. Then she’d make her purchase.
Dark head bent, she browsed the racks of clothing that bristled brown and green and beige. She pulled out a camo jacket and checked its size, fingered a faded black tee. She examined a row of scuffed boots that lined the back wall, looking for a pair in her size. No luck.
She wandered on.
At last, the door dinged behind the last customer. Cassie approached the counter and peered down into the glass case. There it was—her salvation.
“What’cha eyeballing, Cassie?” She glanced up at Big Mike. He grinned around the unlit cigar clamped between his teeth.
“Um…I was just wondering…what does that cost?”
Mike’s gaze followed her pointed finger. His brow furrowed. “That thing?” He gestured at the slim, wooden case that lay open beneath the glass, exposing its shiny insides.
“Yeah. How much you want for it?”
Mike scratched his ample stomach. “Now what in hell would a pretty young thing like you want with that?”
Cassie had known Mike for years. He knew things about her no one else in the entire world knew, including her mother—most especially, her mother—but this was none of his business.
She pulled a wad of cash from the front pocket of her baggy, black jeans and plopped the crumpled mess onto the counter. She dipped her head, a fall of purplish-black hair curtaining her face. “I just want it, that’s all.”
Shaking his shaved head, Mike picked up the cash. “Kids these days, spoiled rotten. Think they gotta have everything they want.” He smiled at Cassie, reached out and ruffled her hair as if she were six, not sixteen. Then he began to count.
Cassie’s hand came up to her mouth. She chewed on a blood-crusted thumbnail.