Sarah’s mind was buzzing like the streetlamps scattered around the parking lot as she exited the mall. She was tired—unusually tired, she remarked to herself, but then, it had been a long day; work had gone late because the customers had refused to leave after closing time, even when her manager had turned off the music and Sarah had stood expectantly by the entry which led into the rest of the mall. The customers hadn’t even noticed it was closing time, it seemed, when her manager finally approached them and said, “Is there anything else I can help you find?” The customers had glanced at their watches, horrified, and hurried out, smiling wanly at Sarah as she wished them a “goodnight” on their way.
But the length of time spent in the store, Sarah decided, was not what had made her so tired. It had been what she had to do in the store; it was the standing and the smiling at customers, the high, excited voice she acquired to match her manager’s, and the useless small talk she made at the cash wrap as she wrung the items into the register. It was the pretending, yes, the pretending—it was exhausting to always be playing the role of someone else.
Now she would be late for Mike, who had promised to wait for her after his shift finished at the grocery store. She walked across the dark parking lot, wringing her hands together and touching her hair. The air was still warm though it was early fall, and the streetlamps coated the night in a slippery yellow light which Sarah passed through quickly, her shoes clicking against the pavement.
She soon approached the grocery doors, which swept to either side and sent a cold rush of air into her eyes. Blinking, she faced the bright interior lights and turned to look for Mike, who had said he would be waiting just by the front doors with a surprise for her. He wasn’t waiting anywhere in sight, and Sarah began to wring her hands again. The other customers lingered sleepily by the cucumbers or the sweet potatoes or the pears, pushing bulging carts of food in front of them.
“Sarah,” said a voice behind her. It was Mike, standing now where he had promised, a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. “Sorry I’m late,” he said as Sarah walked back toward him. “Really, really sorry. Had to use the bathroom and, you know, say goodbye to the team.” He smiled over at the sparse rows of customers lined beside the cash registers and the workers pulling bundles of food into plastic bags.
Sarah nodded and tried to smile back at him. This was only the fourth time she had ever seen Mike, and the third time she had spoken to him. But, she reminded herself, she hadn’t yet said a word, so this interaction hardly counted as a conversation. Her eyes whirled around, landing on his empty hands. She mumbled something about the surprise he had promised her. Mike lifted his eyebrows.
“Oh no!” he said, raising his hands as if to ward her off. “Oh no, Sarah, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot. I was going to buy you chocolates, you see, because the other day you said you love chocolate, but I just completely forgot. I can go back and get them now, if you’d like.”
Sarah shook her head. “No, no,” she said, “that’s fine. Absolutely fine. Thank you. For thinking of it.”
Mike exhaled. “Well, you’re welcome. It’s not every girl that I almost buy chocolates for, you know.” He winked and she laughed, wringing her hands together.
“Now, where to?” he said, turning toward the door. “I was thinking Barney’s, or maybe Molly Bloom’s.”
“Oh,” said Sarah, following behind. The grocery doors slid apart. “We’re going out? I mean, to a bar?”
“Sure,” said Mike. “What else would we do on a fine, Thursday night like this?” He gestured to the dark sky stretching over the parking lot. The warm air touched Sarah’s cheeks and she exhaled. She could do this, she told herself. Everyone did this. Everyone went to bars after work and met people they didn’t know. Everyone did it easily, in fact, so certainly she could too. Besides, she had already met her stranger for the evening—that being Mike—and she wouldn’t have to fumble through anymore first conversations.
In the parking lot they were stopped by a man in a green vest pushing a long line of grocery carts. He paused and straightened, rubbing his hands together.
“Done already, are ya, Mike?” he said, staring at Sarah.
“Yup,” said Mike. “Been here since lunchtime, and that’s long enough for me.”
“Sure.” The man didn’t take his eyes from Sarah. “Sure. Now, who’s this? Not getting tied down already, are ya, Mike?”
Mike glanced at Sarah and then raised his chin. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I am.” His eyes glowed yellow in the light from the streetlamp. “This is my wife,” he said, puffing out his chest.
The man cracked a grin. Mike smiled coyly at Sarah out of the side of his mouth and grabbed hold of her hand. He squeezed it tightly.
“No,” the man said, looking from Mike to Sarah and back again. “No. No way. Mike, you’re barely twenty-two!”
Mike smiled broadly.
The man dropped his gaze to their clasped hands. “Well, where’s your ring, then?”
“My ring?” Mike laughed. “Oh, well, that’s a funny story. We haven’t got them made up yet. You see, we haven’t been married very long.” He leaned in toward the man, his voice dropping. “It was all very rushed, if you know what I mean.”
The man glanced at Sarah’s abdomen, hidden, thankfully, beneath her loose work shirt. “Pregnant?” The man said. His eyes sparkled. Mike hushed him.
“Careful.” Mike looked around at the scattered cars in the otherwise empty parking lot. “No one knows yet, not even her mother.”
“Not even her mother?” the man gasped. His laugh was like sandpaper on the wind. Sarah smiled and tried to pull her hand from Mike’s, but he held her fast.
“Well,” said Mike, “we’d better be going. Can’t stay up too late with the old wifey.”
The man nodded, chuckling. He began to push the carts as Mike and Sarah turned away. They started once more across the parking lot.
Mike wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Thanks for playing along with that,” he said. “We’re always kiddin’, me and him. You know, doing make-believe, what we wish things were like. You would make a good wife, you know.”
Sarah’s face hardened into a warped smile, her eyes painfully squinted and her lips pulled upward. She waited for him to stop laughing, and then followed him to the bus stop on the distant side of the parking lot. Her apartment was in the other direction, far down the street to their left, and she fantasized about crossing the road during a break in traffic and waiting at the bus stop opposite instead. She would wave at Mike through the passing cars, and then watch him disappear from the bus window, fading like a dream into the shadows and yellow light which patterned the sidewalk. But the traffic never ceased, and Sarah stood quietly wringing her hands, thinking about work—work, of all things!—and how, though the day had been slow and long, it had never been motionless. She wanted nothing more, in that moment, than to be still, to have the line of vehicles freeze in front of her and Mike to stop his swaying by her side. To have quiet, to be silent, to be still.
Then the bus rolled up beside them and Mike was guiding her by the small of her back through the door. She showed her bus pass, found a seat, and they were off, rushing downtown, past the mall and a quiet neighbourhood and the university gates, getting off only when they had reached Richmond Row, the downtown strip of dress shops, cafes, and bars which Sarah had been multiple times during the day, but which she had rarely seen at night. Music and light fell out onto Barney’s patio and a little ways down the street she heard a woman shriek and then lapse into cackling laughter.
“Come on,” said Mike, taking her hand. He pulled her onto the patio, through a tangle of women wearing crop tops and high-waisted shorts, and toward the bar. Sarah, who had access to only one of her hands and therefore couldn’t wring them together, touched her hair and her clothes and her purse. Mike leaned over the bar and asked for two beers, which the bartender produced, giving one to Sarah. She clutched the drink, relishing its cool perspiration against her palm.
“Well,” said Mike, tilting his head toward her. She strained to hear him above the music. “Tell me about your day. Tell me about your job. You work at the mall, right?”
Sarah nodded. “Right.”
He smiled. “Tell me about it. The job. What store do you work in? Do you like it?”
“Well,” she said, but was cut off by a large, red-haired man at the other end of the bar yelling, “Mikey? Is that you, Mikey? Hey, Mike!”
Mike turned and stretched out his arms, the neck of his beer bottle trapped between two fingers on his right hand. “Geoff,” he said. “Geoff, hey, Geoff.”
Geoff bounded over and slapped Mike on the back. “What’ve you been up to?” he bellowed. “It’s been years!”
“Ah, not much,” said Mike. “How about you?”
Geoff shrugged. “Law school. You know, busy times. Hey, did you ever finish your degree?”
“Sure.” Mike took a swig of his beer. “Sure.”
“Say,” said Geoff, looking over Mike’s shoulder, “who’s this?”
Mike turned, a smile creeping across his features. “Sorry I didn’t introduce you two earlier. Sarah, this is Geoff, my old friend from first year. Geoff, this is my wife.”
“What?” said Geoff. “No!” He shook his head and Mike winked at Sarah. “That’s amazing! Just amazing. Congratulations, man.” Geoff pulled Mike into a hug and slapped his back once more.
“How long have you two been together?” Geoff asked, releasing him.
“Together?” said Mike. He threw an arm around Sarah. “Two years together, but two months married.”
“Well,” Geoff said, looking at the two of them and blowing through his lips, “I never thought I’d see it. Well, well.”
Mike planted a wet kiss on Sarah’s cheek. “‘Well, well’ is right. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Sarah smiled widely up at both of them. She felt hot beneath Mike’s arm.
“Sure is,” said Geoff. “Anyways, I better be getting back to my friends.” He gestured to the other end of the bar. “Great seeing you, Mike. Really great.”
Mike tipped his beer toward him, and then Geoff was gone, pushing through the crowd.
“I like this,” said Mike. He squeezed her in toward his chest. “I like you.”
“Well, I am your wife,” Sarah said, trying to smile.
Mike laughed, bringing his beer back up to his mouth. “That’s right,” he said, chuckling. “That’s right.”
“So, where did we honeymoon?” said Mike later in the evening, after he had downed three beers and Sarah had managed to get halfway through her first.
She clutched her barstool. “Bali.”
“Bali? A little far, don’t you think?”
“I’m just kidding.” He pushed her arm. “Bali was great. Remember the sunsets? Remember the beach? Just fantastic. Now, do we have any kids?”
“Are we going to have kids?”
She shrugged again, her fingernails now sticking into the bottom of the stool.
“Oh yeah,” said Mike. “I forgot. You’re preggers.” He poked her stomach and she shrank away, sucking in her breath. “What’s the matter?” he said. “Don’t be embarrassed.” He reached for her stomach again, aiming to tickle, and she jumped away, stepping off the stool.
She wrapped her arms around herself. “It’s getting late,” she said.
“You can’t go,” said Mike. “You haven’t finished your beer.” A smile still hung on his lips, but his eyes had gone flat.
“That’s okay.” She felt a tremor in her voice and she tried to force it away. “I shouldn’t be drinking anyway, remember? I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, yes. I remember.” Mike rose. “Look,” he said, “we’ll share a cab.” When Sarah frowned, he continued, “It’s the least you can do, seeing as you are my wife.”
They walked to the curb where a cab soon pulled over and swept them away, heading back past the university gates, the quiet neighbourhood, quieter now, and the mall. Sarah realized she hadn’t given the cab driver her address—Mike had only given his—and she opened her mouth to speak.
“Did you know,” said Mike to the cab driver, “that this is my wife?”
“Really?” said the cab driver. He looked back at Sarah through the rear view mirror.
“Yup,” said Mike. “Only two months and she’s already pregnant.”
The cab driver nodded and turned his eyes back to the road.
“Um,” said Sarah.
“And,” said Mike, “we honeymooned in Bali. Just got back, actually.”
“That’s nice,” said the cab driver.
Mike took Sarah’s hand and smiled at her. They passed the parking lot where they had walked earlier that evening, and she could see the square top of her apartment building looming ahead. Mike’s apartment, however, was closer, and they made a left-hand turn into its driveway. She watched Mike pay the cab fare, and then he winked at her as he got out of the car. Sarah turned to the driver.
“I haven’t got all night,” the driver said, eyeing her through the mirror, “and your husband’s waiting for you.”
She looked out the window where Mike stood on the curb, his arms crossed over his chest. “Oh,” she said, her voice cracking. Then she opened the door and got out of the cab.
Mike waved to the driver as he pulled away. He took Sarah’s arm, which grew stiff as he touched her. “M’lady,” he said, leading her inside the building.
They rose the five floors in the elevator quietly, Mike holding her arm all the while. He smiled at her when she looked at him, and when she paused as the elevator doors slid open, he pulled her through and began speaking quickly.
“Now,” he said, “I know we don’t have the biggest place, or the nicest place, but there’s no need to look so disgusted, sweetheart. This is all we could afford after that trip to Bali, as you know. It’ll do fine for now and when the baby comes we’ll find something nicer, more spacious, maybe a condo or a townhouse or something similar. I’ll find a better job—that position at the grocery store definitely won’t pay the bills, and you’ll, well, maybe you’ll work from home in one way or another. We could homeschool the kid, too, if that were the case. Anyway, no need to figure out all of this tonight, as you always tell me, and it is so late after all.”
They had reached his apartment door. He fumbled in his pocket for his key and produced it triumphantly, sticking it roughly into the lock. Sarah stopped in the doorway. It was dark inside the apartment, even when Mike turned on the dull lights. She could dimly see empty beer cans stacked on the kitchen counter and a towel thrown across the hallway floor.
“I know it needs some tidying,” Mike said, turning to her. “We’ve just been so lazy lately, haven’t we?”
Sarah swallowed and said, “It certainly needs a woman’s touch.”
Mike smiled. He waited for her to enter and then closed the door behind her.
“You know where to put your things,” he said. He went down the hallway and through a door which Sarah suspected led into the bedroom. She hesitated for a moment, but a moment only, and then took off her shoes and sweater. The shoes she put near the door, neatly next to Mike’s, and the sweater she hung in the closet. She picked the towel up from the floor as she passed through, placed it over a hook in the bathroom, which was halfway down the hall, and then stood in the open bedroom doorway, her hands hanging by her sides. Mike sat on the edge of the bed, taking off his socks.
“Do you know what my last name is?” he asked seriously, not looking at her.
She shook her head.
“Sheffield. And that makes you?”
She cleared her throat. “Mrs. Sheffield.”
He smiled, turning to her. “Mrs. Sheffield,” he said, “please come inside and close the door.”
She did so. The name, ‘Mrs. Sheffield,’ spun through her mind. She couldn’t remember her real name. She couldn’t remember quite who she was.
“Mrs. Sheffield.” Mike had pulled off his shirt and sat reclining against the bed. “Please come here.”
She moved forward, facing him.
“Mrs. Sheffield, please take off your clothes.”
Her hands worked numbly. She couldn’t feel the fabrics, the buttons, or the zippers. She couldn’t remember quite—
“Mrs. Sheffield, please lie down and be very still. Be very, very still.”
Erica McKeen is a writer of poetry and fiction based in London, Canada. She is an occasional writer for The Mighty, and a prose reader for Persephone’s Daughters. Her short story, “Our Eyes, Our Tongue,” won the 2016 Lillian Kroll prize in creative writing from Western University, and her work has appeared in Occasus, Minola Review, Shirley Magazine, The Quilliad, and other publications. She likes to travel, record nightmares, and eat good cheesecake.