Albert sat in his deck chair and watched the small green dot approach his nephew’s house by the banks of the river. The lights had gone out earlier that evening and now the wind was up, the dry air pregnant with static electricity. His nephew’s kids were scrubbing their feet against the acrylic doormat and zapping each other, screaming their delight.
The sounds cut off.
Trembling slightly, Albert reached up to check his tin-foil hat. Still there. He stood and turned to the chairs where his family should be. Gone. They were all gone.
“You,” he said, pointing to the empty seats, “you didn’t get ready. Ha-haa. I told you… I told you, but you didn’t, did you?”
The hats he’d made them lay scattered across the table, rocking gently in the candle-scented breeze. Untouched, like always. His gaze moved through the foil shapes, past the half empty wine glasses, over a cling wrapped salad and all the way to the silver top-knob of the pepper-grinder out at the far corner of the table. A white napkin fluttered against it. Waves on the sea against a lonely lighthouse.
“Haa.” Emptiness hollowed his chest and his arm dropped to his side. “So what now, what now? I’m all alone again, aren’t I?”
He clutched himself tight and gnawed at his knuckles. He was used to being lonely, but it was so much worse when he was on his own.
His eyes darted to a movement under the table–a piece of squirming blue. Sally, in her new blue dress.
The plastic tablecloth bunched together as little fingers tried to pull it to the ground.
“Sally? What’re you doing?”
“Jason keeps trying to zap me,” she said, voice sinking to a groan.
Albert eyed the electrifying carpet mat with distrust, but it lay dormant without a child to goad it.
“Well, he’s stopped now,” he said. He listened to the evening again. No neighborhood voices, no doors banging, no cars driving by. “It’s all stopped.”
He walked over and poked the carpet mat with his toe. No response.
“Um. It’s okay–you can come out, if you like.”
Sally’s head appeared between the large wooden chairs, blonde hair rumpled and askew under her tin-foil pirate hat. She dragged herself upright, pulling at her frock to unravel the twists spiraling around her torso. Albert watched her, his mouth twitching in and out of a smile. He liked Sally. She liked his hats.
“So where’s Mum and Dad?” she asked.
“Umm,” he said, voice lifting a little. “Ba. Bar-be- No! Next door.” He pointed, keeping his eyes on her. “Jim and Lorraine’s.”
“Oh.” She glanced at the tall fence between her and the neighbors’ place and chewed her lip. “Okay, I guess. But when–?”
“Ummmm.” His voice rose a bit more, along with his pulse. He wasn’t ready for questions–the answers might scare her and then she’d just leave.
But she sighed and took his fingers, her palm small and warm against his rough old hand. His murmur faded away and his eyebrows inched up, like hopeful, hairy caterpillars.
“It’s okay,” she said, patting his hand, “we know where they are. We can get them if we need them.”
The shaggy caterpillars shot skyward and a wordless mutter sputtered through Albert. His body shook and his voice rose higher and higher, like a humming kettle. The edges of his world curled in.
Sally squeezed his hand tight and dug her little fingernails hard into his palm. She stuck out her tongue, waggled it, and went cross-eyed.
“Ha,” said Albert, and his screwed tight muscles collapsed. “Ha-ha! Sally, you’re funny.”
She clutched his hand in both of her own and grinned.
“Come on,” she said, pulling him towards the edge of the deck. “I don’t want to go back inside. Jason was being mean. Tell me a story.”