Vacant - Worth A Thousand Words I remember being cold --in my dream, that is. Then it would change; one horror swirling to the next, frightening me back to consciousness. I’d find myself sitting upright in bed, gasping for breath, sticky with sweat. Hesitantly, I would fall back asleep, only for the dreams to come back again at the first sign of sleep. I saw every hour on my alarm clock throughout the night, and gave up trying to get some sleep at around six in the morning when I started to hear sounds of life from outside –a distant bird, a car; I could sense it was almost sunrise. So I crawled out of bed, feeling rather wide awake, and went downstairs. With Sarah gone to visit her sister for the weekend, I had the house to myself. Naturally, I had some friends over the night before; we had a few drinks, watched some television; they left early, around ten o’clock because of the snow. Feeling groggy from the beers, I went to bed as soon as they'd left. Perhaps the alcohol was to blame for my restless night or the sound of the wind howling outside my window; or, whether I liked to admit it or not, maybe it was because I was sleeping alone. Being up before the sun wasn’t something I was used to. It was still dark outside, but I could see the first signs of an orange and pink glow coming from behind the trees. It was beautiful –-certainly a welcoming sight after my fitful night. I brewed some coffee and stood in the kitchen, watching the sunrise. I wished Sarah was home. Only after I finished my coffee did I notice the power had gone out in the night. The clock on the stove blinked 12:00; the phone lines were down, too. I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. It was quite the storm. Everything was covered in snow; everything was white. I sighed, remembering how Sarah and I were so excited about spring coming. The weather had been so nice the previous week, with the sun shining and the snow almost melted; it was one of the reasons she thought to go visit her sister. Up so early, I seemed to have too much time and little to do with it. With the power down, the computer and television were out of the question. Although the weather seemed better, going out didn’t seem like a good idea either; the roads were blocked. So I decided to call Sarah, but she didn't answer. So, I left a voicemail: “Hey, I forgot you’d still be asleep… Call me when you wake up. It really snowed here last night; I doubt I can even pull my car out of the garage. Oh, and the guy called about your picture last night… it’s all framed and ready to go. I’ll pick it up today if I can get out of the house. Tell Grace and Keith I say hi. Love you, bye.” Fed up with my boredom, I made an attempt to get my car out of the garage -and was successful. Driving down the street, I barely had my foot on the gas, worried that I would spin out. I seemed to be the only one crazy enough to head out in this type of weather. At first, I didn’t even know where I was going, since most of the stores I drove by seemed closed. However, I found myself driving towards the mall by instinct, thinking that it would be a good idea to go pick up Sarah’s picture -if the mall was open, anyway. When I got there, there were two cars in the parking lot, near the doors. I pulled up next to a little red car, killed the engine and started to get out when I froze. The car beside mine wasn’t just any car, but Sarah’s. I got out of my car and closed the door. Confused, I stood by the passenger side of the little red car, looking inside and trying to make myself completely certain it was hers. It was --the little stuffed alligator hanging from the mirror; her college sweatshirt was laying in the backseat. There was an empty paper coffee cup on the floor. There was one of my CD’s laying in the dashboard. It was Sarah’s alright. What was she doing back? I was baffled by the appearance of her vehicle. I stood there for a minute trying to figure it out, but the as cold was starting to get to me, I zipped my jacket up tighter and stumbled inside. The doors parted automatically as I approached –it was open after all. Once warm inside, the first thing I did was pull my cell phone from my pocket, dialing Sarah’s number. It rang until her voicemail picked up… again. I started walking, reasoning with myself as I went. Maybe she left early but forgot her phone at her sisters… she would have wanted to stop and pick up her picture before coming home. It made sense. I knew how excited she was about it. The picture was one that she’d taken –her first “professional photograph” she said- blown up and framed. She wanted to put it in the dining room above the table. It was a wonderful shot; she’d taken it downtown in one of the little market places she loved so much. The question was, however, how did Sarah know her picture was ready to be picked up? Obviously, the first place I went to search was the framing store. She wasn’t there; the shop manager, however, recognized me and assumed I was there for the photo, which I technically was. He started up a conversation, jabbering away about how talented my wife was for a beginner photographer. I nodded but interrupted to ask if he had seen her stop by. He frowned a moment but then shook his head. Now my mind was racing, as was my heart. Unsure of why I felt so much anxiety, I paid for Sarah’s photo, but left it there, telling the man I would be back for it soon. With so little shoppers in the mall that morning, I figured it would be easy to find her, but it wasn’t. I looked everywhere, even the bathrooms, yet I didn’t get so much as a glimpse of Sarah; no long brown hair, no dark blue jacket, no big brown purse. I even called her phone again; there was no luck. Finally, I headed back to the framer, deciding to just go home and wait for her there. I called Sarah again as I walked into the store, listening to the endless ring from the other end. “You won’t have any luck with that,” the store manager chuckled. I knew he was right and snapped my phone shut in frustration. “Apparently the landlines should be back up and running soon, though.” I nodded, anxious to just get out and leave. I closed the gap between myself and the counter, but noticed a look of confusion touch the framers face. I frowned back at him, wondering why he was just standing there. “Your wife came by…” he said. I started. “What? I thought you said you hadn’t seen her…” “I hadn’t, Sir, but she came by not long after you had left.” My mouth must have hung open in shock, for the older man seemed embarrassed by my reaction. He attempted to consol me; “Beautiful woman,” he said smartly, his mouth smiling but his eyes looking hesitant. “Very beautiful… beautiful picture….” I didn’t even say goodbye, but turned and left without another word. I walked through the mall in quick strides, my eyes darting back and forth in hopes of seeing her. There were barely ten people in the whole mall; it felt eerie. The elevator music that played sounded too loud; I didn’t even know the malls had played music. I hoped on the nearest escalator to get downstairs. Maybe I could catch Sarah before she drove away. I was so frustrated, irritated and confused. I wanted to run, but there was a lady on the escalator a few steps down, so I waited. Then I saw her. Sarah. My wife. Her long brown hair, her dark blue jacket, and her big brown bag –and in her arms, the framed photo, almost too big for her to carry, wrapped in brown paper. She was walking toward the doors, her back to me; it was her though, without a doubt. I would know her anywhere. I hurried down the escalator, not caring about the woman in front of me as I knocked passed her. I tried to call her name, but my voice caught in my throat. She was almost at the doors now, so I tried again. “Sarah!” I yelled; the volume of my voice surprised me. Sarah had reached the doors when the she heard her name. She was leaning against the door to open it, since her hands weren’t free. She glanced over her shoulder at me, our eyes meeting for the quickest of moments before she continued on as though she hadn’t heard or seen me. I stopped, watching her go through the glass doors marked OUT. I felt something building in the pit of my stomach, something I hadn’t felt before. In my mind, the logical explanation was a misunderstanding. However, the feeling in my stomach told me otherwise. Suddenly, my phone started to vibrate. I jumped slightly, forgetting I had been holding it the whole time. I expected the little screen to read: ‘Sarah Calling’ but I was disappointed. Instead, it said ‘Thompson A Calling’. I opened my phone. “Sarah?” I asked anxiously. “Zachary, no, it’s me, Grace. I’ve—“ “Grace, hey, sorry. Did Sarah leave?” “Zach, listen to me a minute. Where are you?” “The mall, I just saw—“ “Zach! Please listen!” The force in her voice silenced me. Again, I couldn’t help but feel an unknown emotion building in the pit of my stomach. Now I understood what it meant, though: dread. Something was wrong. What could be wrong? I just saw Sarah -she was fine. Something happened to Grace, maybe… or her husband or daughter…? “What’s wrong Grace? Is Maddy alright?” I asked anxiously. “Maddy is just fine, Zach,” said Grace. She seemed to feel that I was about to interrupt again, because she hurried on. Now I heard the emotion in her voice. “It’s Sarah. It’s why I’m calling. She… the snowstorm… She was on her way here… it hit us before it hit you. She didn’t know. There was no where to stop.” She was crying now. I clutched the phone in my hand tightly, hearing her sobs and the static of the connection. “What happened?” I whispered, raising my eyes to the doors ahead of me, the ones that said OUT… “She couldn’t see the road and spun out… rolled her car. It was a whiteout. It happened last night, I tried to call you but the phones were down until now.” My mind flashed to the red car I saw outside, parked beside mine; the alligator hanging from the mirror; I remembered the nightmares. “And?” “The doctor said it’s only a matter of time.” She was sobbing again, harder this time. “Oh Zach, I wish there was a way you could see her, but the highway is shut down, there’s no way…” “Grace, are you sure you’re not—“ “Not what, Zach? Do you know where I’m calling you from!? The hospital! No, I’m not mistaken, if that’s what you were going to ask!” I started to walk. “I have to go…” “Wait, I—“ I didn’t wait. I hung up, broke into a run. I got to the exit doors and pushed, dashing out into the cold winter air, blinded by the intensity of white. A snow plow had come and cleared some of the parking lot, pushing all the snow up onto the side walks. I tripped as I ran through it, but kept going, squinting to try and find my car. I spotted it, next to two empty parking spots. I closed the gap, fumbling around in my pocket for my car keys. I found them, nearly dropped them, and then unlocked my car. Within a couple more minutes, I was speeding out of the parking lot, spinning and fishtailing as I went. There were still no cars on the roads, which was lucky considering the amount of red lights I sped through. To get home, it took me five minutes. I didn’t even bother to park in the garage, but stopped half way up the drive way and then ran to the front door, my keys ready to unlock it. It flew open and I stumbled in, finally coming to a stop. I tried to listen closely, but I was breathing so hard that it was all I could hear. I didn’t bother calling out her name again; that feeling in my stomach told me she wasn’t here. Instead, I began slowly walking through the house, looking for some sign of her being there. I went through the kitchen, seeing nothing but my morning’s coffee mug. I walked into the living room, seeing the beer cans still sitting there from the night before. I kept walking. Next, I turned into the dining room. When I saw it, I felt like I was punched in the gut. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t even stand. With a small yelp, I sank down to the floor, feeling something rising up in the back of my throat. I was going to be sick, cry or scream all at the same time; I did neither. I was dumbstruck. I was gasping; I clutched my throat. All the while, my eyes were fixed forward. Across from me, mounted on the wall, was the picture in its new frame.