Short Stories

Do You Remember Walter?

“Love, I think the record’s ended. Want to pick something else out?”

The sound of his wife’s voice wafting in from the other room rouses Walter out of a sleepy daze. He’s lounged comfortably into the old leather club chair, nearly succumbing to a Sunday afternoon nap. It’s not a rare occurrence when he’s up at the lake.

Walter smiles to himself. It doesn’t get any better than this.

With a quick yawn and stretch, he rises and approaches the turntable. It’s silently looping now, but has filled the cabin with warm tones all day. He fingers through a wooden crate of ancient vinyls looking for something a little more soulful. Fulfillingness’ First Finale should do it. Needle dropped, he wanders into the kitchen where Jessica is cutting up the watermelon they’d bought at the farmstand that morning.

Walter can’t resist fresh watermelon. Nor can he resist his wife, whose lush reddish hair has taken on a deliciously golden hue thanks to the late afternoon sun rays beaming through the back porch windows. He slides up behind her body at the kitchen island to steal a kiss and melon spear from over her shoulder.

“Wally, please!” Jessica says through a gentle laugh. “At least let me put down the knife first.”

She only calls him Wally when she’s in a particularly silly mood. Or when she’s had a little too much to drink. Walter isn’t sure which it is at the moment and he doesn’t care.

“C’mon,” she says, grabbing a tray. “Let’s take this down to the dock.”

Walter switches over to the outside speakers and follows his wife out through the squeaky screen door. The dock off the shoreline below is as perfectly well-worn as just about everything else at the house. At the far end waits a pair of weathered Adirondack chairs. From there, the sight of brilliant sunlight reflecting at just the right low angles off gentle lake ripples reminds him of countless childhood summers spent here in the mountains. It always does and always will.

Walter smiles to himself. It doesn’t get any better than this.

The two use a few quiet moments to settle into the placidity of it all. Jessica stretches a hand across chairs and places it on Walter’s. “I can’t believe you learned to swim right here,” she says with a giggle. “It must have been so cute.”

Then, after a pause: “I really hope our kids will one day, too.”

Walter breaks eye contact with the shimmering lake and beams in astonishment toward his wife. She’s been slow to warm to the idea of children. Until now. The sparkle in her emerald green eyes lets him know she means every word. The old lake house is working its magic just as he has hoped.

Walter smiles to himself. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Before he responds, a cool breeze rolls in off the lake, sending shivers across Walter’s exposed skin. He tells his wife he’s going in to flip over the record and asks if she’d like him to grab her a sweater.

Jessica doesn’t immediately respond. She becomes still, her hand chilled. Walter hesitates and asks again, to no reply.

Something isn’t right. He lifts from his chair and bends to kiss her freckled cheek.

Nothing. Panic sets in and Walter’s chest constricts. At long last, she replies: “Of course, this is only the floor model.”

Walter doesn’t understand. His voice rises in volume as he takes his wife by the shoulders, rustling her gently to motion. Something is wrong. Terribly and painfully wrong. Her frozen gaze seems distant, as if her mind is elsewhere. Or nowhere. He reaches for her hands, but feels nothing.

Jessica is no longer his. She is gone. Everything is gone.

— — —

Walter’s eyes wrenched open with a jerk.

He saw only bright light at first, followed quickly by blurred shapes and motion. His temples throbbed with pain. It felt rather like someone had taken a sledge hammer and shattered his entire world.

With a weakened voice and bone-dry mouth, he struggled to form words. “Wha—,” he gulped. “What did you just say?”

The response came not from his wife. It seemed to come from no one. The words flowed to him out of a fuzzy, dark shape which, after a few moments, began to take the form of a man. A spindly man with sharp features and a graying combover.

“Yeah, the real thing will be much more immersive,” the man said in a casual tone. “I mean, I’ve never actually gone under myself, but I’m told the demo is actually pretty limited. You seemed to like it all right, no?”

Walter instinctively tried shaking his head in disbelief only to find his skull locked under a heavy glass dome. The man unhinged it along with a pair of restrictive clasps around his wrists. Walter rubbed frantically at his eyes and swept them around the room in a desperate search.

“I—I don’t understand. Where is Jessica? What happened to my—”

“It was just the demo, sir. You were plugged in for five minutes. Not even.”

Walter whimpered in exasperation. “No! Bring her back!”

The salesman, who Walter could now see was dressed in a cheap suit and tie, removed the remaining restraints at his ankles.

“Sir, you’re gonna have to calm down,” he said. “Now, if you don’t mind, we have other customers waiting. If you’d like to make a purchase, I’ll be more than happy to assist you up at the front kiosk.”

Still bleary-eyed and lost in a swirling current of emotion and would-be memories, Walter looked around for his crumpled coat on the floor. A faint rumble in his belly suddenly reminded him of plans for takeout Chinese. It was Thursday, he remembered. Month’s rent for his shared loft was due in the morning and he needed to stop off at the bank on the way from work.

Walter swept up his belongings and shuffled alone back out into the alley towards home.

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