Claire would have cried longer. Instead, she noticed The Figure staring at her from the corner. At first she made out only the bulky outline of a man heaped in black fabric. Layers of cloth spilled over his shoulders, enveloping his legs, neck, arms. At his sides, gloved hands hovered.
Claire wiped her eyes. Its face became clear. It was white, immovable, porceline. The face floated, drifting gently across the space where normal faces are anchored.
Claire froze, then took half a step back. She did not take her eyes from The Figure. She did not speak. Where its eyes should have been were merely holes. It stared at her. Claire stared back.
A noise from upstairs broke her temporary trance. She recognized the sounds of Michael preparing. His razor clanked against the sink. Water gurgled. Fear crept the secret hallways of Claire’s body. Her heart slammed within her. Her mind went clear.
“Michael!” she shouted. “Michael!”
His voice came back, irritated. “What?”
“Hurry! Come here! There’s somebody in the house.”
There was the sound of something falling in the bathroom, then of rushing feet. Michael clomped down stairs. The figure did not stir. Not a fold of its gown fell in some new direction. It did not turn its face toward the sounds of Michael’s coming. What would have been its eyes fixed themselves on Claire. It did not blink.
Michael was nearly airborne when he came into the room.
“What?” he said. “Where?”
Claire grew angry. “Right there.” She was nearly shouting now.
She pointed to the corner where The Figure stood. Its face bobbed slightly, blown by an invisible wind.
“What?” Michael said again. Claire stared at him
“Where?” he said. “There’s no one there.”
Claire glanced again at the corner. It was empty. Claire looked at Michael, then at the corner.
“He was just there, Michael. I swear,” she said.
“Who was it? What did you see?”
“I don’t know,” Claire said. “I thought it was some guy dressed in black with a weird face.”
Michael started to relax. His shoulders sank. His face reverted to its normal happy expression. Michael smiled.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice calmer.
He turned toward her, put a hand on her shoulder. Claire shook her head to indicate she was. Her tears returned. Michael pulled her to him. When Claire remembered the betrayal she had just discovered, she sobbed harder still.
“I’ll look around to make sure.” Michael spoke in a tender, condescending tone. “You’re probably just tired. Maybe the lights from outside were casting a weird shadow.”
He shuffled off down the hallway to check the back door.
By the time Michael left for work, Claire had convinced herself The Figure had been a trick of the light. By the time she arrived at her own desk that morning, she had nearly forgotten it. She thought instead of the evidence of Michael’s cheating.
They had woken up late. Claire’s eyes had settled on Michael’s muscled back. She had drawn a few slow breaths. She contemplated the angle of his shoulder blades. She smiled.
Things seemed to be going well. They had been dating for six months. They had been seeing each other almost daily since they’d met. After the first three months, Michael had suggested they move in together. She had been reluctant at first. After a while, she had warmed to the idea.
Claire was thirty-seven. She wanted to be married. She had assumed she would be married by now. She had dated a lot, but things had never worked out. She had wanted to spend her college years having fun. Then came law school, which had been too intense for anything serious. Then, her move into the city and the long hours establishing herself at the firm had consumed her.
There had been a couple of near misses. The first was with Chad her senior year. He had wanted to marry her. She refused. Marrying then would have derailed all her dreams. She lay in bed with Michael that morning remembering how Chad had looked the night, a few weeks before graduation, when she told him there was no future for the two of them. She remembered the grief that twisted his round and cheerful face.
A few years after she had come to the firm, she had been serious about Levi. Had he asked, she would have married him. His dark hair and even darker moods had drawn her into his world. Levi never felt the same. She could see that now. If he had, perhaps things would have gone differently when they found she was pregnant.
She’d told him on a morning like this one. They had been in bed, rousing to meet the morning. Claire had moved closed to his side, rested her hand on the firmness of his chest. “Listen,” she’d said, “I have something I need to tell you.”
Things were never the same. He didn’t want a kid, he’d said. It wasn’t the right time. Having a child now would derail her dreams too, he’d pointed out.
“What about opening your own firm?” he had wanted to know.
Claire conceded his point. A child would screw everything up. She agreed to take care of it. A phone call, an appointment, a white coat, an unnaturally bright light and she was no longer pregnant.
Afterwards, she had fallen apart. Her grief was an ocean. Her resentment of Levi shocked her. They made a conspicuous effort not to talk about an ever-growing list of topics. In the end, he wandered away. He stopped calling. She rarely saw him. Then, one day, he was gone.
Claire wondered what would have happened had she chosen differently. She would be the mother of a ten-year old. That, at least, would be something. She tried not to think of it.
Still, she longed for a child, for a family. Nothing in her life had been moving in that direction, then Michael had come along. They connected immediately. Before she knew it, Claire had hung on him all the nascent hopes she carried.
Claire rolled over to look at the clock. It was 7:30.
“Crap,” she said loudly, trying to rouse Michael. “I’m going to miss my meeting with the people from Simmons.”
Claire threw off the covers and swung her feet to the floor.
“I need to call Helena and tell her I’m going to be late.” She reached for her phone on the nightstand. Dead. Claire cursed herself for forgetting to charge it.
She leaned across the bed and pushed Michael’s shoulder roughly.
“I need to use your phone.”
Michael didn’t respond. She leaned against the cool skin of his back.
“I’m going downstairs,” she said. “You’d better get up and get going too or else you’re going to be late.” She worried for him about details like that.
Downstairs, Claire found Michael’s phone on the hallway table. Michael dumped the contents of his pockets there whenever he came home, though she had asked him not to.
Claire carried the phone into the living room. Michael had new texts. Claire hesitated. Was looking at his texts okay? Might looking through them be some kind of violation? Claire felt pulled in opposite directions. The tension eased quickly.
Looking would be fine, she decided. They were living together weren’t they? Surely, he wouldn’t mind her opening a couple of text messages. They were probably from work. What if it was something important? What if they needed him? He would probably appreciate her letting him know if it was something urgent.
The texts were not from work. The texts were from Samantha. Claire did not recognize that name. In the first, Samantha suggested they meet at her place. The second asked simply, “Does Claire know?”
Claire stared at the phone. The meaning of the texts hit her like a wind strong enough to make her stumble. Michael was involved somehow with this woman, Samantha. He was probably sleeping with her. Realizing he was getting sex from both of them made her cry. Tears masked her vision of the world. She wiped them away and thought about what to do.
She thought of confronting him, of screaming at him, of telling him he was a monster. She could see him breaking down. She could see him sobbing, confessing, reassuring her of his love. She could also see him confessing, shrugging, and walking out. She could not decide which of these visions was more likely to be real.
She did not want to lose him. Maybe she was misunderstanding the situation. Shouldn’t she give him the benefit of the doubt? Her tears fell harder. Then she had looked up and seen The Figure watching her with its eyeless, rocking face.
Later that morning, the appearance of The Figure seemed a blessing to Claire in this way: its showing up had prevented her from accusing Michael. She was glad she hadn’t said anything.
Because, what did she know really? She had too little evidence to convict him of anything, even in her own mind, she reasoned. Those texts could mean all kinds of things. He could be planning to surprise her. Maybe Samantha was someone helping him plan. Maybe she worked in a jewelry store. Maybe she wanted Michael to stop by her place to pick something up, something he planned to give to Claire. Somebody helping Michael do all that would want to know if she knew, so as not to trip up and spoil the surprise. She decided to give Michael the benefit of the doubt. He deserved that much. He was innocent until proven guilty, right?
* * *
By noon, Claire was feeling better. She had put away the texts and the insecurities had led her to jump to such unfair conclusions about Michael. The Figure had been a momentary illusion, a trick her mind played making her think she had seen something, someone, she had not. Claire’s mood brightened. She wanted company. She decided to walk down to Helena’s office to suggest the two of them get lunch.
Claire headed down the hallway. Each step lifted her mood a little higher. Michael loved her. They were moving toward marriage. That’s what the texts meant, she decided. Samantha must be the jeweler. Michael was preparing a proposal. Claire could hardly contain her happiness. She was eager to share the news.
Outside of Helena’s office, Claire glanced out the window. The Figure was there, standing alone on the sidewalk across the street, still staring. It looked larger than she remembered it. It did not move. No one seemed to notice it. This frightened Claire. A figure the size of a big man draped in acres of black cloth, with a face like a porcelain mask should attract attention on a busy street. The fact that it did not rattled Claire.
She turned back. Each step closer to her office calmed her. Halfway down the hall, she paused. She thought this might be her chance to really look at it. It was possible her mind might trick her twice in one day. If she went back and looked and it was gone, she would know it had been an hallucination. Maybe she would call a doctor.
It was still there.
The combination of the distance and the thick glass of the window made Claire feel safe enough to stare back. She felt herself calming. Her heart resumed its normal pace. Her breathing slowed.
She peered at The Figure. It looked just as it had in her living room that morning, a mound of black cloth that did not obscure the distinct form of a man beneath.
The figured peered back. The void of its eyes focused on Claire in spite of the distance. As she met that improbable gaze, Claire was not afraid. The Figure did not threaten her. Rather, she felt a kinship emerging between them. She wondered what it wanted.
The fabric covering The Figure rustled. The disturbance deep within its cloak grew. The Figure was moving. It extended an arm slightly. The arm was covered by a filmier, thinner sort of black cloth that defined its musculature against the backdrop of the rushing world. The Figure lifted its hand and extended a finger skyward. It seemed a gesture meant to communicate. Claire did not understand its message.
The Figure’s movement had startled her, and Claire took a quick step backward.
“Hey,” Helena said from behind her. “You almost knocked me down.”
“Oh, Sorry,” Claire said. Helena looked at Claire.
“Are you all right?” she said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“No,” Claire said. “I just…” Claire struggled to explain.
“What were you looking at?” Helena interrupted, moving to the window.
Claire stepped up behind her. The figure stood in the same spot, its finger still pointing up.
“I don’t see anything out of the ordinary,” Helena said. “Did you see something?”
“No,” Claire said, her tone unconvincing. “I think I’m just tired.”
“Well, maybe you should go home. Get some rest,” Helena said.
“No, it’s okay. I’m okay,” Claire said, sounding more confident.
“Well,” Helena said, “I’ll check in on you later, okay?”
“Okay,” Claire agreed. She watched Helena disappear toward her office before returning to the window. She looked out again into the street.
The Figure was gone.
Back at her desk, Claire felt lightheaded. She put her head in her hands, pressed her fingertips hard against her brow, tried to remember what a normal day was. She pushed her palms against the lids of her closed eyes. When she opened her eyes again, stacks of papers on her desk swam before them. She felt disconnected from her work, these heaps of useless words. She was not going to ask Helena to lunch. She wanted to be alone.
On her way out, Claire stopped before the big window once again. The Figure was not there. Disappointment flickered in her belly. She wondered where he had gone.
Claire stood still once again before the main door. Opening it, she knew, meant stepping out alone into the world, the world where The Figure came and went as he pleased. He could show up anytime, Claire reasoned. He could show up at lunch. She could wake in the middle of the night to find him leaning over her, his vacant eyes locked on her vulnerable form.
He could never show up again. This thought hurt her more than the others. Claire could not explain why. She knew only that he might be out there somewhere waiting in a quiet place, and that by leaving the this building, and the ceaseless labor that had anchored her through so much restlessness, she would be defenseless against whatever he had planned. Claire opened the door and walked through.
* * *
Soon, she was settled into a booth at Harvey’s trying to make sense of her twin problems. The bulwarks she had built that morning against the idea of Michael’s betrayal crumbled. Seeing The Figure there in the street had sapped the strength she had used to deny the truth. She knew what the texts meant. Michael was sleeping with another woman.
She couldn’t blame him, really. Michael had never promised he’d be only with her. She had, however, determined to be his alone. She had hoped he would do the same for her.
Claire imagined confronting him, telling him what she expected, laying down some ground rules. She imagined telling him that if she wasn’t enough for him, then he could find someone who was. Self-respect dictated as much.
And yet. Her visions of his walking out the door were equally vivid. Claire knew what he would take with him. When he left, he would take with him her hope for a family. The wedding day, the flowers, the dress, the face of the child she yearned for would all be dragged clunking down the stairs away from her, when Michael left.
Claire took a deep breath, held it an extra moment. She decided not to confront Michael. Maybe this was a one-time thing. Maybe once they grew closer, once marriage was one the horizon, he would forget these little flings and dedicate himself to her. Maybe a child would bind them together.
A waitress in a ponytail bounced over and asked in a thin voice what Claire wanted.
“Just coffee for now,” Claire said. “I haven’t decided about anything else yet.”
The waitress bounced away again.
Claire thought of The Figure. She no longer believed he had been an illusion, a convulsion of her burdened mind. Whatever he was, he was real. She thought of reporting him to the police as some kind of stalker. But, then what? Already two people had made it clear they could not see him. Why would the police be any different? Besides, she had no sense that The Figure was a threat. She wondered if the opposite was true. Perhaps, Claire thought, whatever The Figure intended, he meant to offer her some kind of solace, some kind of protection.
In the end, Claire decided to wait. She would wait to see if The Figure appeared again. She would wait to see if her feeling about him changed. If she came to feel frightened of him then she would tell someone. Right now, it felt good to Claire to keep him a secret. She was reassured to think of herself held in the mystery of his presence.
The ringing of her phone interrupted Claire’s thoughts. It was Michael.
“Hello,” she said, trying to sound cheerful.
“Hey, babe,” Michael said. He sounded upbeat. “How’s it going?”
“Fine,” Claire said. “Just getting ready to have lunch.”
“That’s great,” Michael said. “Hey, listen. I’m not going make it home tonight. Greg’s got an extra ticket to that game I was telling you about. But, we’ll have to go into the city. I’m going to follow him in. When the game’s over, it’ll be late, so I’ll just crash on his couch and come home in the morning.”
Claire wilted. Her mind fumbled for the right reaction.
“What about your stuff? How are you going to brush your teeth?”
“Oh,” Michael said. “I’m at home right now, grabbing some stuff.”
“Well,” said Claire, “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” Her voice revealed her mood was starting to slip. Michael did not seem to notice.
“Sound great,” he said. “See you then.”
Claire hung up the phone.
The waitress returned. “Have you decided what you’d like?” she asked.
* * *
Claire did not return to the office. She went home. Part of her hoped Michael would be there, hoped she would find it within herself to confront him, to persuade him somehow not to go, to stay with her, to be satisfied with her, with the life they could have.
When she arrived, the house was empty. She walked through the rooms. Sunlight streaming in the windows threw dark shadows into every corner. Claire stopped and looked into the living room. She took in the couches, the rug, the television, the photos standing like little memorials in their glistening frames.
Claire felt like an intruder, as if she were in someone else’s home. Things felt foreign. She stepped into the room, fingered the leaf of a plant, wondered what kind of woman lived here, though, in truth, she knew what kind.
She heard breathing, a raspy, rattling wet sound. She did not turn. She knew who made that sound. Claire grew still. Her breathing fell into synch with the sound behind her. When she did turn, The Figure waited in the opposite corner. The sound of his breathing filled the room.
Claire was not afraid. She met The Figure’s gaze and held it. Without thinking, she stepped toward him. Her heels clicked against the wood floor. The sound was profane, a sound as irreverent as laughter in a moment that demanded a hush. Claire stepped out of her shoes and descended to her true height.
She stepped toward The Figure again. His face, floating frozen over the black linen, hypnotized her. The Figure was crying. Big tears streamed unbroken across the hard surface of its cheeks, disappearing into the sea of black.
Claire took in a short, sharp breath. It came out again in the shape of words.
“What in the world are you?”
Before she finished the question, she knew the answer was nothing. Whatever The Figure was or once had been, he had been nothing in the world.
Claire sat on the couch. She closed her eyes. Her mind filled with the waves of his breathing. Behind that sound, Claire could still sense Michael’s absence and the emptiness of the too large house.
She knew he had not gone to any ball game. She knew he was with that woman, Samantha whoever. Claire turned the thought around and around again in her mind.
Why would he do it? If he wanted to be with this Samantha person, why not just leave? Why move in here? Why take up space in her home only to leave it under a pretense? She did not understand, would not understand. Claire loosened her grip on the puzzle of Michael’s behavior.
She opened her eyes. Through her half-opened lids, Claire could make out the form of The Figure, steady, unwavering, staring. She opened her eyes fully. She focused them on The Figure. His tears had dried. Nothing now marred the perfect white field of his face.
“Why are you here?” she said.
The Figure was silent.
“Do I know you?”
The Figure was silent.
Claire felt she did know him, or had known him, or should have known him.
“Are you a ghost?”
The Figure was silent.
An idea came to Claire. She sat up on the couch and considered it. The thought frightened her. But, Claire remembered Michael, imagined him in the naked arms of someone younger than she, someone slimmer, someone sunnier, someone capable of nurturing whatever part of him had been starved in Claire’s company.
She stood and stepped forward. When she was just inches from The Figure, his body wrapped like a funeral wagon, Claire stretched out an arm and laid her hand across the spot where his heart should have been.
She felt a chill buried deep within the garments. She gazed into The Figure’s absent eyes. He became harder to see, fading from her vision, from her touch. Claire watched until he was gone. Before he vanished, Claire was certain she saw his tears once again begin to flow.
* * *
Claire slept little that night. She lay awake wondering if Michael would come home. When she did sleep, she dreamt of The Figure. She saw herself looking for him, wandering aimlessly through abandoned cities, across imaginary landscapes. Sometimes she saw Michael there, always from a distance. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of The Figure. Sometimes she could not tell whether she was seeing Michael or The Figure. Either way, in the end, she was left alone in a barren world.
Claire woke to the sound of breathing. The Figure stood silent in the corner of the room opposite her. He had been watching her sleep. Claire watched him back. She glanced at the clock. She had slept late. Michael would be home soon.
Claire looked to The Figure.
“Well,” she said, “what am I supposed to do when he gets here? “
The Figure remained silent.
Claire turned her gaze to the wall. “He’s all I’ve got,” Claire said.
Claire glanced up at The Figure when she heard the rustling sound. Once again she saw his hand, covered in black cloth, emerge from the folds of his robe. With a single finger, he pointed upwards. And Claire knew what she would do.
When Michael arrived home, Claire was downstairs. She had showered and dressed. She had been unable to eat. She had settled herself on the couch to wait.
She wasn’t there long. After only a few minutes, she heard Michael’s keys jingle at the door. In another moment, he was inside. He seemed surprised to see her there.
“Oh, hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she said. “How was the game?”
“Okay,” Michael said, dropping his bag on the floor near the piano.
“We lost,” he said.
“Ah,” Claire said. “How was Greg?”
“Good,” Michael said. “Same as always.”
Michael turned to make his way upstairs. Claire felt her nerve give out. She was not going to confront him after all. Too much of her was tied to too much of him.
Then, she saw The Figure standing in the corner, heard it’s almost imperceptible breathing.
Michael’s foot was on the first step toward the bedroom.
She had said it with more energy than she had intended. She hoped it had not sounded accusatory. Even now, she hoped her suspicions were wrong.
Michael froze. He stood still on the step before turning to answer. His hesitation told Claire what she needed to know. In that stillness, Michael told her all she had thought of him in the hours since finding the messages was true.
“Um, I found her texts,” Claire said. “in your phone. Yesterday.”
Michael looked at Claire. She could tell he was calculating his risks, trying to determine the best move.
“Hunh,” he said. “Really? What did they say”?
Claire sighed, exasperated. She was beyond doubt now. The outcome was set, she could see it, clicked into place like the bolt of a lock. Nothing she could do would alter it now.
“Come on, Michael,” she said. “Just tell me. Are you seeing someone else?”
Michael sank down to sit on the stairs. He rubbed his hand across his face.
“Yea,” he said. “I am.”
Claire had no reason to talk further. Now that it was out, her possible futures dwindled. The suspicions she had been trying to bury swept forth to occupy her mind in the glare of the hot truth. The details of why and where and how often did not matter. She was beyond all these things and she knew it.
She could no longer pretend he wasn’t doing what he was doing. She could not cling to the possibility of something better with him. If he was unable to be faithful now, he wasn’t suddenly going to become really good at it later. Faithfulness, Claire now saw was something that took a lot of practice.
“Get out,” was all she said to him.
She turned her back to him. Later she would break down; she would lie on the floor and bawl. She would waver. But at that moment, a thick numbness had spread over her.
“I’ll get some stuff,” Michael said.
Claire moved to the window and looked out. The world outside was bright, the sun shined across a thousand green things. Claire felt shrouded, prepared for the grave, a hollow, solitary figure passing out of the world. A little while later, she heard the door slam somewhere behind her.
* * *
The day passed. Claire moved from the window to the couch to the dining room to the window again. She did not eat. She did not sleep. She surrendered to contemplation. Vast tracts of reality opened to her. She surveyed them all with sorrow.
The loneliness returned in full after dark. She lay down on her bed and let her hopes shatter. There would be no marriage. There would be no handsome children. No little lives springing forth from her own little life. She was a dead end.
The weight of this unexpected honesty settled on her with awesome force. She thought of death, of her own, of the child who had so briefly dwelled within her, of her parents, of what seemed to her every tentative flowering of love in the world.
Through her desolation, a sound came to her. She did not bother to open her clenched and weary eyes. She only listened. Gradually, the sound of that persistent breathing forced its way up through the soil of her dark thoughts. By the time it surfaced, Claire was calmer. She rested in the sound of the breath. It rocked her like waves rock a boat, like a mother a baby.
A kind of joy seeped into her being. Claire felt as if, in spite of her closed eyes, she were seeing an invisible light, an energy designed for her alone, a pulsing warmth alive in her abdomen, seeping through her veins. A conviction grew in her. She had a sense of being recovered from something destined to disappear, yanked from some history long ago ruined.
Claire prepared to sleep with all the truth that moments before had threatened to crush her now nestled deep in her heart, overcome by a larger truth she could not name. She would return to her pain, to her loss. But now was the time for rest. She floated out of consciousness knowing herself empty but finally able now to be filled, obscure in all the world, but never again to be abandoned.
DEAN ABBOTT lives in Central Ohio where he teaches Communication at a liberal arts university. This is his first published work of fiction. Some of his non-fiction work can be seen at www.oldfashionedman.wordpress.com.