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Fiction by Dominique Weldon

There’s Nowhere to Go from Here

Out of everyone in the bar, Holly chose Jared. She didn’t know his name then, only that he sat on a stool beneath the bar’s deep violet lights with his elbows on the counter. He didn’t arrive with a woman. The beautiful bar women, who smelled of sweat pea body spray, held pink drinks in their small hands and sat at booths with chiseled-jawed men. Holly’s ex-boyfriend, Simon, thought these women were sweeter than her. She couldn’t compete with them, so she was glad this man sat alone. His shoulders hunched over, as if withered down by invisible weights. Holly was sure he’d purge Simon’s ghost lingering in her head.

She sat on the stool next to him and smiled. Damp hair clung to his forehead, and beads of sweat dotted his face. She held her smile since she couldn’t afford to be picky. He tilted his head back to finish the dark remainder of his drink. “I’m Holly,” she said, and after a long pause, he responded. “Jared.”

His dry voice reminded her of sandpaper rubbing against unpolished wood. She ran her fingertips along his arm, stopping at his cracked knuckles. She swallowed a nervous lump down her throat. It had been years since she flirted with a stranger, yet the hairs on the man’s wrist rose from her touch. She noticed his fingernails were short and without a trace of dirt. Despite his knuckles, these were gentle hands. These were hands that would hold her. “I’m bored,” she said. “Do you think you can help?”

Jared paused. He turned towards her for a moment before glancing away, his cheeks reddened. “Really?” he said, his voice filled with wonder. “You’re asking me?”

They held hands as they walked across the bar’s parking lot and to Holly’s car. Jared gave her his address and said he was thankful he didn’t have to walk back. They reached an illuminated two-floor home, nestled deep within lush pine trees. Flowerbeds of blooming chrysanthemums sat in the front yard.

Inside, the living room lights blinded her. She blinked several times, adjusting to the brightness as he led her to his upstairs bedroom. She was relieved by the room’s lack of light. The shadows covered her softened stomach and thick thighs, allowing her to pretend she was slender and worthy of his bed.

On the mattress, she rose her shirt over her head and revealed her silky bra. She held the side of Jared’s face and stared into his eyes. “Tell me I’m beautiful,” she said. He ran his hand down her waist, and she tensed, waiting for him to laugh. After several moments, he smiled, his face neon green in his alarm clock’s light. “Of course, you are,” he said and pulled her closer. As he entered her, Holly gasped from the pain and replayed his words in her mind—Of course, you are. Of course—as if they were the most beautiful words she had ever heard.

After they finished, laying side-by-side and sweaty, Holly noticed the comforter. The alarm clock’s glow illuminated the patterns covering the blankets, which were robots with sharp claws and glowing crimson eyes. The light gave them a metallic, moss-colored sheen, morphing them into something alien. The dozens of robots marched to a silent drum, a beat fit for a child. She laughed, and Jared looked at her with raised eyebrows.

“You have a robot blanket?” she said.

“It’s pretty old.” Jared paused. “But it works.”

“It’s for children.”

He shrugged. “Can’t get rid of it now.”

She laughed again, and Jared’s gaze hardened into stone. He leaned towards her, the heavy smell of beer trailing out of his mouth. He placed a hand on her hip, and his fingers were sticky and hot. “I want to see you again,” he said, and Holly’s breath caught in her throat, her body warming from his words. So this was how it felt to be wanted, like drifting upon a sun-smoldered cloud that neared the sun, glowing from the inside out.

The following night, Holly drove to Jared’s house. She headed to his home right after her shift at the local car insurance company. The town of Alton was so small that she remembered how to find his home without using her phone. When she arrived, not a single car was parked outside the house. She knocked on the front door and waited. That morning, she covered her face with thick powder, midnight black eyeliner, and ruby-red lipstick, a look Simon used to love. In bed he’d lick her lips, his long, dark hair falling against her face, and tell her she was sexy, so sexy. He hadn’t said that in months, long before he ghosted her three weeks ago. He no longer answered her calls or messages, as if he had never existed.

The door cracked open, and Jared peered out. Patches of stubble covered his jaw, and his eyes were hazed with a glossy sheen. He smiled, and Holly’s heart fluttered. “Are you going to let me in?” she said.

He pulled her inside. This time, she looked the around living room and noticed four varying-sized pairs of shoes sitting by the front door. A red overcoat draped across the back of the couch, and a pile of unopened mail laid on the table.

“I couldn’t live here,” she said. She thought of her cramped one-bedroom apartment, which was barely big enough for two people, a tightness she learned to adjust to. “I wouldn’t know what to do with all of this space.”

Jared dropped her hand. “It’s my parents’ house.”

“They’re never here,” she said. She listened for other voices, but the house was silent. A chill washed over her, as if she was being watched.

“They passed away.”

When Holly asked what happened, Jared told her that he was in college, that during the winter break of his junior year, his parents and sister drove along the highway and were struck by a semi. The car instantly caught ablaze. He said they were on his way to visit him, and Holly felt her heart ache. She started to say, I’m so sorry. So, so—when Jared leaned towards her and covered her mouth with his. His tongue tasted of beer again, coated with the subtlest hint of citrus. When he pulled back, he said, “You look amazing. Did I tell you that?”

“No,” she said. She hoped he’d say it again, so the words settled so deep in her core that she’d believe him.

Jared led her up the stairs and into his room. She began slipping her shirt over her shoulders when she saw the familiar robot comforter. She paused, tightening her jaw until it ached. Jared faced the bed, unzipping his jeans. When she remained still, he turned around. “What’s wrong?” he said.

“I can’t,” she said. She forced out a laugh, the sound dry and shaky. She looked at the stuffed monkey tossed on the floor and the superhero posters along the walls, covered with men and women wearing contorting tights and capes. A wooden shelf above the bed held a model airplane. “I can’t do it,” she continued. “Is this really your room?”

Jared sat on the bed. “My childhood bedroom,” he said.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “At least get rid of the blanket.”

“Why do you hate the blanket so much?”

Holly didn’t answer. After several seconds, Jared sighed and patted the empty space next to him. “If you promise to keep seeing me,” he said, “I’ll move some things around.” He chuckled, his face a glowing emerald, and Holly felt her heart swell. She wanted to laugh in Simon’s face and tell him, See, you’re wrong. Somebody wants me, so how could I be worthless? She tried to forget how Simon used to lay beside her in bed, his ocean eyes narrow, as he pinched her stomach fat in between his fingers. She walked towards Jared, whose jade skin reminded her of a lush, spring garden moments away from bursting into bloom.

Several days later, as Holly hung up her work phone, ending a call with a disgruntled customer, her cellphone buzzed in her pocket. She glanced over shoulders, making sure her supervisor wasn’t nearby, and pulled out her phone. Jared’s name flashed across the screen. I need to see you, he typed. It’s so quiet here.

Holly’s pulse thrummed in her neck, but a moment later, sourness settled on her tongue. She imagined Jared sitting on his bed with two miniature toy robots in his hands. She saw him crashing the robots together as he made high-pitched laser sounds in between his teeth. She knew she should be worried about a man who lived in a home filled with dead people’s possessions, who had a bedroom covered with toys and décor surely picked out by his mother years ago, but she couldn’t escape his pull. When Jared laid on top of her and trailed his lips along her neck, she forgot the thickness of her thighs, the squareness of her jaw. He never called heavy, so heavy. How could she leave a man who instead said she was as sweet as syrup, so sticky that he couldn’t wash her away?

She typed, I’ll be there. Make sure to change the sheets!

She could handle the feeling of being watched inside the house, but the blanket had to go. Her stomach turned at the thought of being wanted by anyone seeped in childness. Only an adult could love her the way she needed, fully with gentle attentiveness. Simon once loved her that way, but when he saw a new shiny girl, his feelings dissipated. Holly couldn’t handle being tossed aside again, like a play-thing. That’s why, hours later, when Jared opened his front door, she pushed past him and headed upstairs.

Jared called her name, but she didn’t respond. He followed her, and when she reached the second floor, he grabbed her shoulder. “Where are you going?” he said.

She slipped out of his grip and headed down the hall. “I need to see it,” she said.

When she entered his bedroom, she grabbed the doorway, sure she would fall if she let go. Nothing changed from last time. The robot blanket was still there, the metal men continuing to march to that soundless beat. She imagined the robots pointing their claws at her and laughing, the sound a clamor of clicks and beeps. She turned around, gritting her teeth together. “It’s the same.”

He forced out a tight smile. “I thought you were joking.”

He reached towards her, with opened arms, but she stepped back. She stared at his trembling lips, at his chewed-down fingernails, and she knew he was shoulder-deep in the well of his past. He couldn’t fully want her when watered down by grief. She pulled the blankets off the mattress.

“What are you doing?” Jared said. She ignored him, heading towards the closest window. She opened the window, prepared to throw the blankets outside when Jared grabbed the fabric’s other end. Holly tugged on the blanket, but Jared tightened his grip. Sweat rolled down the curve of her back.

“Stop it,” he said.

“It’s a blanket,” she said.

“My mother made this.” His eyes watered. His face, waxy and white, turned Holly cold. As she stared at him, Jared yanked the blankets out of her arms. He rocked the fabric back and forth, as if swaying the small robots to sleep.

“You can’t keep living like this,” Holly said.

“How else should I live?” he said. “It was my fault, so you tell me how I should be living.”

Holly felt her throat tighten. “You said it was an accident.”

“I couldn’t come home during winter break,” he said. He began speaking faster and faster. “That I had to finish a research project, so I told them they needed to visit me for Christmas. I made them get on the road—I made them get hit by that truck.” Silent tears rolled down his cheeks. “They’re dead because of me.”

Holly stared at his trembling frame, at his reddened, dampened face. He had crumpled right before her. She didn’t know how to place him together again. “I think you need help.”

He leaned back, as if she struck him. His face darkened. “Get out.”

“I’m only saying—”

He pointed a shaking finger at her, his nostrils enlarged. “Get the hell out of this house.”

He towered above her, as if prepared to shove her out if she didn’t run. She’d seen that look before. His knife-sharp gaze told her that she was repulsive, that she deserved to be outside within the dirt.

She stepped back and cradled her chest. If she didn’t hold herself together, she was sure she’d crumble. “Fine,” she spat. “You’re a stupid hookup anyway. I’ll find someone else. It’s obviously not that hard.” The lie burned her tongue. She hoped he didn’t realize how small she felt, how she worried that no one else would invite her into their home again.

Jared sat on his bed, his back facing her. She knew that their conversation was over. Holly wanted to scream at him, but she bit down on her lip and stormed out of the room. She headed down the stairs, the steps groaning beneath her feet. She didn’t stop until she reached her car, which shined like obsidian beneath the moonlight. She sped away from the empty, ominous house.

Holly tipped her head back and downed her second beer. Soft acoustic guitars strummed out of the bar’s speakers, and the sounds of conversations filled the room. This was her third night at the bar, and she still hadn’t found another man to approach. Some wore dirty overalls and baseball caps that shadowed their faces, while others had tanned, muscular arms and grinned at girls with milky bright smiles, as if they expected to go home with whichever girl they chose. Holly needed someone who was so empty, so desperate that they couldn’t tell her no. She needed someone like Jared.

She bit down on her inner cheek. She didn’t want to think about him. Of course, her heart hurt for his family, but she needed someone whole and unfractured now. Surely there were other lonely men in town, men who didn’t have houses drenched in grief. She called over the bartender and asked for another beer.

As she watched the bartender fill a glass from the tap, her phone vibrated in her jean’s pocket. When she grabbed the phone and saw Jared was calling, her throat tightened. She almost didn’t answer, but she knew she had nothing to lose.

“What do you want?” she said.

“I can’t take it,” he said. His gentle voice swirled into her ear, leaving her toes tingling. She saw him mere days ago, but it felt like ages. “I can’t be in this house by myself.”

“Ask your friends.”

“No one else will come,” he said.

“I don’t know if I can—”

“Please come back. I want you here.”

Her heart pulsed as she rushed out of the bar and drove to Jared’s house. She almost expected him to be on the porch with opened arms, but he wasn’t outside. She parked her car along the curb and headed to the front door, her stomach tightened with nerves. During their phone call, he had told her to come straight inside, so she opened the door.

The house was dark, and the only light came from the kitchen down the hall. She walked with her hand against the wall, trying to keep her balance as she stumbled through shadows. As she neared the kitchen, the scent of rot struck her face. At the kitchen table, Jared hunched over in his chair. He clutched a beer can in one hand and held his face with the other. His body trembled as he sucked in shaky breaths, and when she neared, she realized he was crying.

She stopped at the kitchen doorway, watching his shoulders shake. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and cleared her throat. “I’m here.”

He looked up at her. His eyes were hazed with a red sheen. He smiled with tightened lips. “You came,” he said. “You actually came.”

She hesitated. “Are you okay?”

He gestured toward his kitchen, at the dirty dishes in the sink and the trashcan filled with decomposing food. “Everything is the same,” he said. “I never touched anything after they left me. It’s like they’re still here.”

She sucked in a breath. “Jared.”

He took a long drink of his beer and slammed the can onto the table. “Don’t start,” he said. “You don’t know what it’s like to be in a house filled with ghosts. You don’t know what it’s like to hear voices in your head.”

Holly’s chest ached because she did. She did know. Simon’s voice once echoed in her ear every night, telling her how her thick neck rolled beneath her chin, how her hands were so pudgy that they looked like dough. She knew what it was like to be haunted. She realized she hadn’t heard his voice in days, that Simon somehow quieted.

Holly walked toward Jared, who appeared small and breakable, and she pulled him into her arms. She squeezed so hard that she thought her own limbs would snap. As she held him, he said, “Don’t let go, not yet,” and Holly decided she would learn how to hold a man who carried the weight of his family’s ghosts. He pressed his head against her chest, and the two of them stilled. The only sound surrounding them was their breaths, which were damp and heavy with the sweet smell of life.


Dominique Weldon is a Biracial writer who grew up in Iowa. She is a first-generation college graduate of the University of Iowa and received her MFA in Fiction from Butler University, where she taught Literature and Creative Writing courses as a Graduate Teaching Fellow. She teaches at Butler University and lives in Indiana. She is currently working on her first novel and a graphic novel.

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