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Today's Story by James D. McCallister

And while on the subject of incongruities, his wife’s name isn’t Alise, it’s Elaine.

Patterns of Recognition

Seth Goodal’s had a good time all week on his overdue beach vacation, one that he’s needed for so long—relaxation and rest, the order of the day. But only until the last night, and the lunar eclipse. The moon’s gravity, affecting more than the tide. Dragging and pulling at his anxiety, quelled and in hiding. For now.

Seth suggests to his wife before nightfall that, for old times’ sake, they do a couple of what he calls screamers. Party like back when they were in college, he argues; live it up one last time before returning to the prosaic, workaday world. His wife Alise, noting the fact that not only hadn’t they known one another in college, she neither experimented with mind alteration then, nor has any intention of starting at this late date. Her refusal posed as query: “Are you kidding?”

So, Seth, alone on the beach, mesmerized and tripping out all on his own. Sickened. Panicked. The umbral moon, swollen and shaded brick as though inflamed with disease, hanging over the indistinct line of the nighttime oceanic horizon. Mottled. Mocking. Keeping all the pain and fear to himself.

And now the next morning in the car he’s got a hangover head on him, wishing he’d embraced Alise’s reticence to imbibe. Seth, guzzling fluids and ruing the screamers, a drive through purgatory if not Hades itself: roadways packed.

The other motorists anger and unnerve Seth. Hurtling wheeled boxes of metal and plastic, fuel tanks strapped onto undercarriages like hidden suicide bombs. Sentient, tender sacks of wet meat trapped inside, belted, restrained. The illusion of safety. He wonders: How fast is fast enough? Is there an event horizon on the highways of America for fast-enough, beyond which one passes back into the realm of sanity?

Seth’s cut off by a trucker. In a rage, he speeds up and at first opportunity, waving a finger and a fist, passes the semi.

Next, a set-piece straight out of Duel: the aggressive truck driver hauling a couple of tons of freight chases them down I-95 for twenty miles, tailgating, the driver producing his own hand gesticulations—a dragon, Seth thinks, chasing the cowardly knight, one afraid to stand and fight.

Alise says in a calm soothing reasoned voice, “Chill the eff out, babe. Let the trucks go on their way. After being on vacation, you ought to be more relaxed.”

Seth, anything but at ease. Keeping this fact to himself. “Sorry about that. Ready to get home.”

“You’re driving like someone else.”

“Don’t be silly—I’m me.”

At last he drops out of warp drive, slipping into sublight speeds and exurban orbit—home, in an outer spiral arm of the city. As automatic as can be, his hand hits the turn signal and he leaves the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. Can’t be right, though; he lives on the other side of town, and yet the subdivision to which he heads, convenient, a mere half-mile off the freeway, is the right destination. Has to be.

And while on the subject of incongruities, his wife’s name isn’t Alise, it’s Elaine.

Yet Alise feels right, as does the exit. Were he taking the wrong turn, Alise would speak up, but she makes no protest, continues watching the commercial corridor stream by outside the tinted auto glass, yawns and stretches in anticipation of trip’s end.

He has to admit that the screamer sex was fantastic, la petit mort like he hasn’t felt in many a moon—the screamers, giving one a deep and abiding sense of affection, almost like MDMA. He’s heard that hip West Coast headshrinkers sometimes use X in marriage counseling: A rush of empathy to reopen closed pathways, or else salving wounds fresh or otherwise, a treatment working only until the serotonin crash, and the inevitable remembrance of all that’s wrong apart from issues of sexual intimacy. Seth is familiar with such matters because lifepartner Alise had been a psychology major, one who now teaches the subject.

The only problem is that Elaine’s a philosophy major, one who’d written her thesis on the correspondence theory of truth, with such epistemological matters being the stuff about which he and his wife often speak. A far cry from pharmacological schemes of mental health therapy, yes?

Which wife, though? Confusion.

“I’m having a totally weird déjà vu experience here. Reverse déjà vu. Inverse déjà vu . . .”

“. . . excuse me?”

“. . .transverse déjà vu, or something . . .”

Widening her eyes, voice low and menacing. “Say ‘déjà vu’ again. I dare you. I double dare you. Say ‘déjà vu’ one more goddamn time, motherfucker.” Then her hard expression breaks, and she’s laughing—earlier in the week they watched Pulp Fiction on cable, and for the rest of the vacation she’s often lapsed into a menacing ‘Jules’ persona.

A chuckle. “I’ll have a Royale with Cheese, extra mayo on the fries, hold the déjà vu.”

“Vincent, that is some repugnant shit.” Alise brandishes a thumb-and-forefinger handgun, squeezing the trigger. “Kablooey.”

Seth, signaling for the left turn into their neighborhood. “C’mon, I’m serious—I really don’t feel like myself.”

“How so?”

“Like everything that should feel familiar somehow doesn’t? And yet it does.”

“Interesting.” Elaine stretches again, cracks her neck. No—Alise does, with her long, tanned arms. A beanpole. Elaine was—is—short, cherubic, an angel.

Alise, scrolling through a thousand messages on the Blackberry that she’s ignored while away from work—spring break, for the kids, for the professors. “I worried about you partying like that last night—I’m not sure that’s a good thing for you to be doing.”

“I can’t disagree,” an echo of screamer tickling at his ganglia. “How about that moon, though? Eerie.”

“The moon? What about it?”

“The eclipse. The red moon.”

“Excuse me?”

A sensation beyond unease settles into his gut. “Never mind—I must’ve dreamt it.”

“Now that vacation’s over, I want you back on the straight and narrow.” Stern, then softening her tone. “Okay, honey?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll unpack and get everything squared away. You can take a nap.”

Seth envies Alise: while he’s endured having his doors blown off by frenzied fellow drivers, she’s dozed away her own hangover—in her case, red wine the culprit instead of a red moon.

Turn, turn, turn, into their quiet, safe neighborhood—and then pulling into the curved driveway of the house. The Goodals. Welcome.

Seth’s nagging sensation returns—this isn’t the right house. Can’t be.

The structure’s familiar enough—it’s a 1970s contemporary, but it’s a house he remembers as being one they only considered buying, a property that’d had far too many maintenance issues: a cracked foundation, a rotting deck, twin HVAC units in a state of decay, a roof graying with age, sagging gutters overflowing with leaves from the tall hardwoods dotting the sloping, half-acre lot. This house is the same, yet altered—painted, a newer roof, a rebuilt deck overlooking the woods down the hill. Home. Yet not.

Seth, shaking inside: He remembers standing in this driveway with Elaine looking at the property, but instead settling on the more traditional split-level in the older neighborhood across town, the one closer to her job at the Department of Social Services. The house that seemed more family friendly.

Elaine. Not Alise.

But then looking over at Alise shoving road-trash into a plastic grocery sack—cellophane from crackers, a diet soda can, a foil packet of pretzels at which she wrinkles her nose. “These were stale. I want my .79 cents back.”

Unbuckling his seatbelt. “Hey—look at me.”


“Nothing.” Her features ripple like the heat waves on the highway. Alise. Elaine. Alise. The psychologist.

But Elaine, she loved kids, went into social work because no one goes into the philosophy field except to teach; Elaine, a sensitive type with self confidence issues, thinking she’d never have the stamina to withstand the rigors of the dissertation process. So, switching majors and getting a master’s in social work, wanting to help children from abused families—an emotionally bruising, ill-compensated career track. Seth, loving her for this quality. The two of them loving their own child, knowing themselves more than capable of parenting, the polar opposite of Elaine’s abuse and neglect cases.

A child.

A daughter. With Elaine, the social worker.


Elaine. Evelyn. A double E waterfall, cascading over his back.

But at his side, Alise. The two of them, childless by choice.

The facts: Alise, a teacher of psychology at the community college, loves her job, enjoys her students. Proud to help them prepare to either transfer to a more prestigious bastion of higher learning, one such as Southeastern University, or simply for life itself.

Southeastern—a research institute of the first order, the state school, old campus, sprawling, eating up downtown. The institution to which both Elaine and Seth had matriculated.

Except that this isn’t Elaine, and the college in question isn’t venerable Southeastern University, with its national championship basketball squad and the ‘Fighting Redtails’ avian mascot and the old antebellum campus that somehow escaped Sherman’s marauding arsonists. No, not forty-thousand student Southeastern; instead, he’d met Elaine at Carolina State, a smaller school, a newer institution of modernist architecture in another town a hundred miles away, the mascot a roaring indefatigable Cougar, an ill-respected football team, a more intimate place of higher learning.
Seth, knowing not of Elaine’s whereabouts. Further troubling: Who’s been minding Evelyn?

But if there is only Alise and no Elaine . . . then what of his daughter?

Getting out of the sedan, which when they’d left a week ago had been a minivan. Seth, asking softly, glancing sidelong across the roof of the car at his wife. “I wonder if Evvie missed us.”

Alise, gape-mouthed, staring back at him over the roof of the grayish green vehicle, which ought to be what the dealership called anthracite blue. Alise. “What did you say?”

“Evelyn.” As his daughter’s name escapes his lips, he goes weak in the knees, braces himself against the frame of the car. “I can’t remember who’s been keeping her.”
Concern, confusion. “For heaven’s sake . . . what on earth’s wrong with you?”

“This is what I mean—I don’t feel right.”

“Have you been drinking today?”

Indignant. “No.”

Now Seth’s wife, whatever her true name, sounds downright fearful. “Jesus—I knew I should’ve driven.”

A moment of clarity, of statement rather than question: “We don’t have a daughter.”
Her voice now gentle, cautious. “No, Graham. No, we don’t.”

“Graham?” Temples throbbing, hands itching to consult the identification card within his leather trifold wallet, one that should instead be made out of dyed hemp: Elaine, a vegetarian forbidding the usage of animal skins. “Who the hell’s Graham?”

“Are you trying to make some incredibly bad joke?”

Seth, short of breath, his words a thin wheeze. “Sure, honeybunny. You know me and my bad jokes.”

“I can’t —” Breaking off, searching his eyes. “I can’t imagine a worse one.”

“World’s worst comedian,” he says. They begin to pull suitcases from the trunk, which should be the back door of the van.

“That’s the thing—I’ve never known you to be much of a joker.”

“Maybe I’m changing.”

“I suggest you change back.”

Graham—who should be Seth, and still is, as far as he can tell—wonders, still, about his missing daughter, but allows the subject to drop. “By the way—I had a really fun time. I told you we needed that vacation.”

“Did you, now? I thought it was my idea.”

“Either way, it worked out.”

“I wonder. I really do.”

Now he’s more puzzled than afraid, remembers having had the time of their lives. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That I’m not sure we solved any of our problems. Not that I expected to, not in ten days.”

The trip that Seth took—or the mysterious Graham, as the case may be—only lasted a week, but he allows this discrepancy to go unremarked. “What problems?”

Alise sighs. “I suggested this vacation because, in spite of it all, our marriage means something to me. But —”

“But what?” And why aren’t you calling me Seth, Elaine? Why?

“I don’t think I can go on like this. Not until you’re truly better. And I’m starting to worry . . . that you won’t be. Ever.”

Graham’s (Seth’s) mind races. He shakes and feels ill—but not like a hangover. Despite not having stuttered in years, not since prepubescence, he stammers out the next words. “Guh-guh-go on like what? Go on like huh-huh-huh-how?”

Alise puts a suitcase down on the driveway, yellowed grass growing in the cracks of the weathered and stained concrete. “Let’s not do this out here. Please.”

“Do what?”

“Start yelling at one another again.”

Seth (Graham) is dumbfounded. Seth and Elaine (Alise) have the strongest marriage of any of their friends—no grave disagreements, no infidelities, comparable interests, compatible bodies and temperaments. And in the form of Evelyn (Evelyn), a true life connection.

Evelyn. Who doesn’t exist.

“I feel like somebody else.”

“I’ve begged you to get back into therapy. You aren’t over it, my dear. Twenty years or not, you are yet to be healed. You need to admit this to yourself.”

“Over what?”

She offers in reply a stony, suggestive countenance: This is the kind of shit I’m talking about.

They unlock the house and go in. The previous owners had cats, a whole brood of them, and after being away long enough the nostrils can still detect a hint of cat urine, a sour, phantom odor. Seth puts the suitcases down in the foyer, walks into the kitchen and runs himself a glass of tap water. He has to open four cabinets to find a drinking glass. Graham would know where the glasses are, but Seth does not.

He decides to ask one more time about Evelyn. “Elaine, honey —?”

From the master suite across the short hallway that leads down into the expansive family room, with its top of the line home theatre and L-shaped sofa, Alise cries out. Seth doesn’t care much for movies, neither does Elaine. And yet Graham and Alise do.

She stomps into the kitchen, her face scarlet. “What the hell did you just call me?”
His own cheeks burn. “Uh-uh-uh-Alise.”

“No, you didn’t. Graham . . . you called me by her name,” voice breaking. “Again.”

“Called you by whose name?”

Alise screams in frustration, picks up a small spiral notebook from the granite countertops (which should be tile) and flings it across the cooktop island, pages fluttering like bird’s wings. The notebook glances off the hanging copper pots (stainless steel) and lands at his feet shod in Nikes (New Balance).

Weeping. “How long will I have to play second fiddle to a dead woman?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m hungover. The screamers—the damn pills . . .”

“Pills? What pills?” Alise turns pale. “What are you on? Tell me.”


“Why are stuttering? You don’t stutter.”

“I didn’t realize I was duh-duh-doing it.”

Alise throws up her hands and hurries back into the bedroom. She slams the door, her next words muffled. “You said you were over it, finally. And I believed you . . .”

Over what?

Over Elaine. Over Evelyn.

A brief sensation as though leaning back in a chair starting to tip over.
Ah, thinks he, of course. Graham knows this. Seth does not. Seth is unwilling to know these facts. To know, he understands deep down, is to remember. That they’re both gone.

Images once forestalled now come as a flood:

Elaine walking across campus. Elaine buying the pregnancy test. Both terrified; the result, positive. They’d agreed that of course we’re going to keep the baby: We love each other. We will get married. We will have a daughter; we will name her Evelyn, she said, after my grandmother.

We will buy a house—a cool, contemporary one like the one they saw in the real estate guide, only a half-mile off the beltway, convenient to everything. Impoverished college students, loving one another, talking about matters like how much money they need to buy food in the coming week, what their mutual sets of parents will say when they break the news to them, how the future stands less opaque than ever before in either of their youthful lives, terrifying yet also comforting.

How they look into one another’s eyes. How their nighttime wedding is conducted beside a sea splashed by moonlight silvery and pure. How by then she’s already starting to show, but that no one seems to care and if they do, no one says so. How they look at the contemporary house, finally settle on the more traditional one, a down payment the mutual wedding gift from both sets of happy parents.

How they finish their degrees. How Elaine works and Graham (Seth) stays home until Evelyn is old enough for day care. How Graham (Seth), an English major, works on a novel, one destined to remain incomplete. How life for a number of years is like tupelo honey . . . until the night on the back road, returning from a Harvest time hay ride.

How the racing teenagers came roaring around the curve, across the double yellow line. How, before the impact, Elaine and Evelyn both cried out; an explosion and a period of black punctuated by aHUH sound, what he later realizes is Elaine’s death rattle. How he awoke to see his daughter’s carseat, upside down, and all quiet and still but for the ticking of the shattered engine, a hissing sound like steam, and the moaning of the other driver from across the road in the opposite ditch—Help us oh god what happened somebody help us.

The moon hanging in the sky through the shattered windshield. The veil of blood flowing into his eyes. How in the years afterward he’d tried to write about the accident, how he’d never succeeded.

How he sees his dead daughter in the faces of the high school students in the neighborhood and at the grocer and in the mall, which is how old Evelyn would be by now. Thinking how much she and her mother resemble one another, and would continue to do so into Evvie’s adulthood.

How in the years since the accident he’s pursued a random and purposeless serious of occupations, none of which make him happy, none of which can replace the ache inside him over tragedies now long ago. How he’s dying inside bit by bit, and has been for years, hiding this from Alise, from the world.

How he’s functional. And happy.

Yet not.

Seth pours himself another glass of water but forgets to switch on the filter. How the water tastes of chlorine; how he’d expected sweet and clean.

He goes down the spiral staircase to the family room. The house seems much too big for the two of them, a hollow cavern. Trying for a child here and there, Seth (Graham) hoping in secret not to succeed, his wish coming true. Talk of a seeing a fertility specialist, but talk like that withering on the vine. Graham (Seth) in no shape to be a father. Not anymore.

Hearing Alise standing above him on the loft, the high ground. “Don’t people get over things? Eventually?”

Quiet, to himself. “You’re the psychology major.”

He sits on the couch, which feels much more firm that he expected—he’d hoped to sink down into the cushions, to perhaps be swallowed up by the sofa like the bed eating the kid in that old horror movie. The one to which he’d taken Elaine on their first date, when they had been but teenagers swept up in a clammy-palmed rush of hormonal intoxication. A movie about nightmares.

Is he Graham, or Seth? He doesn’t feel like Graham at all. Seth feels like an altogether different person from Graham.

Graham died that night too. Or perhaps Seth. Or perhaps both.


Graham remembers with a sick stab of fresh grief: Seth.

Seth was what they chosen to name their second child, as yet unborn. How the ultrasound had shown a healthy baby—a boy. Only a week before the Harvest Hayride.
Graham, all but unhurt, walking away from the wrecked minivan, but she—they—unable to do so.

Or only a dream, a bad dream? No—a scar on his forehead the reminder of their smiles, the long-healed remnant of a wound from which blood had flowed into his eyes and colored the moon red.

He fingers his hairline, finds the bumpy escarpment of tissue: The scar is there; the scar is real.

Graham picks up the universal remote—a learning device, a single gadget to control the different electronic machines in the entertainment system. He doesn’t remember buying any of the gear, has to squint at the buttons to see which one turns on the power to the TV set. He can see his reflection in the gray of the widescreen: indeed, it is Graham sitting on the couch. Lumpen, inert, but himself. Indisputable.

Graham gets up and goes to the window, rests his elbow on the edge of the television monitor, looks out at the burgeoning greenery of springtime, and the slope leading down to a gurgling brook that’s cut through the land for eons, forcing a V in the small patch of woods separating the houses from the other side of the neighborhood. The stream rushes through its channel, spots of foam at several points where diminutive waterfalls gurgle.

He goes out on the deck and down the stairs to the yard below, shuffling toward the stream through leaves and underbrush that needs raking. He intends to lie down in the water, hoping for the creek to carry him to the river flowing to the East, one that joins with another river and then another still before fanning into a great delta meeting the roiling green sea from which the Goodals have only now returned. The ocean, its tides tugged and cajoled by a moon of pearl, the waters vast enough to swallow him whole: A different sort of vacation.

But Graham’s is a ridiculous, ruinous desire. The creek—unlike the memories he has sought to obliterate—isn’t able to transport a fully grown man to a different place. Only the man himself holds such power.

Graham rolls up his khakis and takes off his shoes and gets in the water anyway; standing with its modest current coursing around his ankles, he splashes his face. He breathes deep and holds his arms up to the under-canopy of the trees, and the shimmering sunlight beyond. He feels Seth leave him, feels Elaine and Evelyn go back to sleep again. By force of will, he tells them goodbye. Again.

Alise, watching him from the deck. “Now what are you doing?”

Graham, looking at his wife as though seeing her for the first time in a long time—for the first time ever. “I had beach sand between my toes.”

Alise, laughing. “It lingers in the cracks, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.” Graham, washed in the lifeblood of the stream, renewed, reborn, a man neither of past nor future, only the moment at hand: “But it doesn’t have to.”


A two-time South Carolina Writer’s Workshop/Carrie McCray Literary Award and SC Fiction Project honoree as well as a 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom short story finalist, James D. McCallister’s fiction publications include two novels, King’s Highway (Red Letter Press, 2007) and Fellow Traveler(Muddy Ford Press, 2012); a third, DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW, is currently being shopped by the Corvisiero Literary Agency. McCallister teaches creative writing at Midlands Technical College and lives in West Columbia, SC, with his wife Jenn and their beloved brood of a dozen cats, muses all.


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