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The Long Dark, fiction by James Matthew Lee Wilson

On a bright summer morning, smelling fresh of rain and honeysuckle, I lay in my bed, listening to the sounds of my grandmother's kitchen. Down the hall, a cabinet opened and closed. The kettle clanged into the basin and then water from the faucet rushed in to fill it. Footsteps tracked over to the stovetop. My grandmother hummed to herself, but she was not alone.

"I wonder what Bill will do now that Esther is gone." A familiar voice. Joe Camacho; forever sweet on my grandmother.

He came most mornings but never on Sunday. On occasion, he brought flowers, which she would fuss over before placing them in a vase. But most days they would sit at the kitchen table, sip their coffee, and chat the morning away. To my knowledge, it was never anything more than that.

"I imagine Bill will stay. Don't see him as the leaving type." My grandmother answered, confident in a way that only a long-term resident of a small town can be when speaking on local matters. I heard the clink of her spoon against crockery and then the creak of her chair as she joined Joe at the table.

"A good man, that Bill," Joe commented. "Looked after his mother until the very end."

Feeling warm and safe, I eased myself down further into my covers. The room was dim, the western widow only letting in a shaft of indirect sunlight. After a good stretch, I placed my hands behind my head and stared up at the ceiling.

My grandmother sighed. "How do you suppose she went?"

"Not a clue. I told you exactly what I heard at the café. Ambulance arrived this morning and pronounced her. I am assuming Bill found her in bed, but...well, I hate to speculate."

Although I couldn't see her, I knew my grandmother was nodding in solemn agreement. After another sip of her coffee, she added: "I suspect Sanchez will be by with his Long Dark to pick her up as soon as he can get down the highway."

At that, I sat up and swung my feet out and down onto the cool linoleum floor.

"I wonder how long they've had that hearse." Joe mused. "Fairly certain his father drove it?"

"Yes, I assume so. Undertaking is a family business."

"I always wondered what it would be like to ride in it," Joe said. "Looked so luxurious. Hell, once in high school, I asked Sanchez after basketball practice if he could take me for a spin in the old girl."

"Joe, you didn't." My grandma stammered, shocked if not intrigued as if Mr. Camacho had just disclosed some delicious scandal whose public disclosure could shake her small town to its core.

"I did," Joe responded, his grin audible.

A few moments of silence followed. I grabbed a wadded t-shirt from the floor and pulled it over my shoulders.

"Well?" My grandmother urged.

"Well, Sanchez said he couldn't do it. Said that the Long Dark was only for one kind of ride." Joe paused for a sip of coffee and then let out an uncomfortable laugh. "He told me not to worry... that if I hung around town long enough eventually I was going to get that ride."

In the silence that followed, I pulled on my jeans and then dropped my feet down into my Air Jordans. My fingers found the laces and double-knotted them. Slapping my father's old baseball cap on my head, I stood and tiptoed to the bedroom door.

"Well, that's a bit morbid." My grandmother commented, cutting the silence with a brand of matter-of-fact judgment that she'd perfected in her teaching days. "But true enough if you think about it."

I was slipping from my room, keeping quiet but still listening intently. I was pretty sure I knew where Mrs. Barnes lived... had lived.

"You know, I can't think of one burial up on the hill that Sanchez and his car weren’t a part of." This might have sounded strange to some, but I knew that Joe and his backhoe were regularly employed by the town to dig and then fill narrow graves at the cemetery when occasion demanded.

"I wonder how she rides." My grandmother pondered. "Sanchez and his daddy always took the best care of it. I don't think I ever saw that car dusted over or without its bumper shining. So different from all the other clunkers rattling around these parts. No offense, Joe."

I was almost to the front door, the urge to run almost overwhelming me.

"I imagine they keep it like that out of respect for the departed." Joe mused. "I mean how would you like to be hauled off, Agnes?"

"Joe, if I am being honest, I would prefer not to be hauled off at all."

They both chuckled softly. Humor from my grandmother was rare and not to be wasted.

I slipped from the front door, rambling down the porch stairs and out into the morning. The screen door slammed shut behind me. The sun warmed my face. I raced down the dirt road, anticipation fueling each stride. Mentally I plotted my route, evaluating familiar shortcuts and byways. In the end, I found the sidewalk and stuck to it.

If I hurried, I might join those standing on their porches and at their gates, watching with hats in hand as Sanchez solemnly ushered Mrs. Barnes away from this world and on to the next. I could bear witness as the sleek black lines of the car broke against the rough and tumble environs of our small town. I could shield my eyes as the chrome of the bumper caught and held the brilliance of the day. I could listen as the clean black rubber of the wheels crunched the gravel beneath them. All of it washing me in the intoxicating knowledge that the Long Dark was on the move once again, and I was not inside.

James Matthew Lee Wilson is a writer who pursues words and phrases down dusty dirt roads and dark starlit highways. His work has appeared in Flying Island Literary Journal and Reader’s Radar Literary Podcast. He currently lives in Indiana with his wife and son.