The Gray Lady stood on the lawn, her gaze a wordless tombstone, a cracked moon without a planet. It was the end of Halloween night, the last fires burning down, pillars of smoke fading into the ghosts of what could be spires. She said nothing. She’d been there for hours, not moving. She was a statue, breathing.
I’d been out most of the night, driving around with Mitch and Lyla. We were only sophomores then. Dreams of the future were what often died inside us so we could live. Mitch smoked and drove. Lyla laughed while she worked the radio, and I sat in the back looking out the window.
That was when I first saw the Gray Lady.
She was on the court-house lawn as we drove around the square. Mitch and Lyla focused on dodging costumed bodies on the crosswalk and didn’t hear me when I asked them if they saw her too.
She saw me. She didn’t take her eyes off mine when she lifted the burned-white branch of her arm and began to write something in the air that I couldn’t read. There must’ve been some message in the gesture, an answer to my question, “Where is Mom?” Or else she was telling me what I already knew, that words are invisible to the people who need them most.
Dad and I hadn’t spoken in days. We’d both woken up one Sunday morning to find a silence wandering our hallways like a stranger. Mom hadn’t left a note. She’d only packed one bag. And she’d taken her favorite mug. Dad only put his work clothes on and went to work without a word, slamming the door behind him so hard, a picture of us fell from the shelf on the opposite wall. He’s his loudest when he has nothing to say.
The gray lady has no eyes. That doesn’t mean she isn’t watching. I could feel her eyes when Mitch, Lyla, and I entered the cemetery that night. I could feel them more than I could feel my own eyes moving. Lyla had a Ouija board tucked under her arm. Mitch had a small bottle of vodka, a candle. He lit it when we found a good spot above the grave of someone whose name had been too blurred by years to read.
Lyla laid the board out, set the planchette down. She asked if anyone was there, and the planchette pointed to “Yes.” Then she asked, “What’s your name?” I knew that whatever name came up was a lie. When I’d looked at the Gray Lady, I could feel her namelessness. It was the only part of her I recognized. This was the second cemetery I’d been to that night. The first was her smile that wouldn’t end, a twisted bouquet of unending corpses. “What’s your name?” Lyla asked again.
The planchette moved: T-H-E-P-R-E-S-E-N-C-E-O-F-A-B-S-E-N-C-E. Then it didn’t move again. Mitch got drunk, so we had to drive him home, leave his car, and walk back to Lyla’s house.
Up in her room that smelled like the ashes of dead lavender, she tried to kiss me again. I pushed away. “I’ve told you I can’t” I said. She didn’t reply, just looked at me a moment then looked away, her eyes lensed over, blurring her vision. “I can’t count on anyone,” she said. I got up and walked out.
Walking home, a man approached me out of the mouth of an alley and said something about the beginning of the end of things. “Fine, let it all burn,” I said, walking passed. It was then he grabbed me by the elbow and his voice hissed through the cobwebs of his beard.
“It’s been burning since we’ve been here. Don’t you see? We are the burning.”
I cried out, pulling myself free, and I dashed away. I was nothing but movement. All thoughts falling through me. I could hear him behind me though calling one last time, “Nothing means anything.”
On the way home, I’d calmed down a bit so I stopped at the pharmacy to buy a bag of candy for the hell of it. The checkout lady behind the counter looked so tired. The way she looked at me, I could tell she would never remember my face. In her voice, when she said, “Have a good night,” I could hear that she had no more room in her heart for anyone.
Back at my house, as I climbed the porch steps, I could feel the Gray Lady again. Her grin was serrated in the shadows. All over town were voices veiled by distance and the joy they felt that didn’t include me, the joy of wanting to be who they were.
She didn’t move. But stood grinning in the still smoke of her black-lace gown. She was like a flame that was too afraid of itself to burn.
Oddly, I found myself wondering where dad was. Knowing that mom was anywhere but here was to know the world would one day end. It was knowing the sun someday would die. That I, the son, would one day die. The Gray Lady’s eyelessness burned. I was worse than alone. I looked up at the sky. The night was in the middle of its starless ending.
I didn’t ask the Gray Lady what she wanted. The Gray Lady never wants anything. She doesn’t want to kill me. She doesn’t want to cause me pain. She knows the world is full of pain enough. All she wants to do is sit and taste the pain as it happens to me. She wants me to want the world to end because that will mean the pain ends too. Not just mine, everyone’s. Those who are happy don’t know that happiness is just another kind of pain. Mom knew that.
Mom used to tell me that the day I was born was the most important day of her life. She used to carry me with her wherever she went, and she would let no one else do it. She would let no one else feed me, change me. She wouldn’t let anyone change me.
Then everything changed. Change is God. It’s the one thing I believe in because it’s the one thing that I’m certain is real.
I turned back to the Gray Lady and said, “Enjoy the show!” I went inside, away from the sound of her grin, which you can only hear inside your head. It is the sound of a dead planet grinding against another dead planet.
In the kitchen, I opened the window to let the night in. I started eating my bag of candy, a Milky Way first. Crying, I chewed it to paste and hated how much I loved the world.
I stood up and turned around to find the Gray Lady standing there in the middle of the kitchen.
She cast no shadow on the floor because shadows are a measure of presence, and she chooses to be totally absent as she stands before you, her smile growing like a crack in the pavement of her face.
But the smile faded a little when I took a step toward her. And it faded more when I took another step. Her smile became a wound healing, but it hurt her to heal. She began to move away from me. She looked around for a door, an open window. “Don’t,” I said. “Please just stay for a little while longer.” And I walked toward her. She frowned. I’d given my crying to her, and to see her so hurt was just too much. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I sat back down. Then she was gone. I opened a Three Musketeers bar and took a bite, chewing as silently as possible alone in the kitchen. I was suddenly so afraid that someone somewhere would hear me, that someone would come bursting through the door and find me and change the whole world. Change is God. Change happens to the people you love so it can happen to you.
I had a dream once when I was little that I saw my mom as a child. She was standing in the snow wearing her coat and earmuffs, catching snowflakes in her mouth while she held her own mother’s hand in the middle of the street. I watched her, this stranger who hadn’t met my father, who hadn’t borne me yet, and I swear I’ve never seen her look so happy.
Marcus Whalbring is the author of A Concert of Rivers from Milk & Cake Press, as well as How to Draw Fire from Finishing Line Press and Just Flowers from Crooked Steeple Press. A graduate of the MFA program at Miami University, his poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in, Strange Horizons, Space & Time, Haven Spec, Illumen, The Dread Machine, Abyss & Apex, Spaceports and Spidersilk, Cortland Review, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Spry, and Underwood Press, among others. He’s a high school teacher, a father, and a husband. You can connect with him via twitter at https://twitter.com/marcuswhalbring or learn more about his work at www.marcuswhalbring.com