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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: May 4, 2020      Views: 24

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Part 1 of a 2-part short story
"A Fear of Falling (Pt. 1)" by BlueTiger





He woke to the feeling of cool air blowing through the screen of the open bedroom window.

He opened his eyes. The sky outside -- what he could see beyond the branches of the pine tree that grew by the house -- was a soft gray color, the clouds stretched across it like billowing silk.

"Do you think it'll rain?" Audrey asked. She was putting up her hair, tying back stray strands of blonde as she checked her makeup in the mirror. Jonathan hadn't gotten out of bed yet.

"I don't know," he replied, rolling over on his stomach, "I don't think it will."

Audrey smacked him impatiently as she crossed the room to get her shoes.

"Get up," she said, "we still have to go shopping for the party tonight."

"I don't want to." He said.

"Don't want to what? Get up or go shopping?"

"Both. Neither." He answered, stretching a hand out towards her, "I want to lay in bed with you all day and wait for the rain to go away."

"I thought you said it wasn't going to rain."

He looked out the window at the branches of the pine that swayed with heavy slowness in the breeze.

"It could go either way," he said.



*******

The tower of apples looked like a pile of uncut rubies beneath the glow of the supermarket lights. Jonathan picked a few from the top, carefully, seeing in his mind's eye the red avalanche that would ensue if he wasn't careful.

"Are we bringing beer?" Audrey asked, turning the cart around.

"Sure, we'll bring some," he answered, "and potato salad, we said we'd get that."

He picked a couple more apples out of the pile, when something caught his eye.

There was a man watching him.

The man was leaning against the wall near the deli meats, one hand casually in the pocket of his blue jean jacket, and the other holding a cigarette. He wore a white cowboy hat and boots that were covered in dust and mud. The strangest thing about him, stranger than the lit cigarette (wasn't that illegal inside of a Kroger's?), was the length of rope slung across his shoulders, like he had just returned from wrangling cattle. There was a hard look in his eyes, and he might have been carved from stone with how still he stood.

He looked so out of place standing there that he reminded Jonathan of those puzzles he played as a kid

There's a wagon, a bus, and a car and a trike, which one is not like the others?

"Red potato or mustard?"

Jonathan glanced at Audrey. She was holding up two containers of potato salad for his consideration.

"Um...I don't know. You could get both, I guess."

"Both? That's kind of a lot of potato salad."

"Do we know that guy?"

Audrey looked over his shoulder.

"What guy?"

"The guy over there in the..."

Jonathan's voice trailed off as he realized the man had disappeared. It had only been a second that he had looked away, he wouldn't have thought the guy would even have enough time to walk down another aisle and out of sight.

A bike and a train and a car and a cowboy, which one is not like the others?

"Never mind," he said, "I guess I'm just seeing things."

*******

"Just call me when you're done," Jonathan said as they pulled up in front of the beauty salon.

"Will do," she replied, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek as she swung out the door, "I won't be long."

"Ok. See you in a bit."

"Don't fall asleep."

"What?"

She looked at him quizzically, half in and half out of the car.

"I didn't say anything." She told him.

"I thought you just said..."

"Silly," she ruffled his hair, kissed him again before climbing out of the car, "I'll see you in a little while."

*******

Jonathan pulled the car to a halt at the faded stop sign when something by the railroad caught his eye.

There was a horse on the other side of the railroad. It stood against the backdrop of the trees, observing him with deep black eyes. And riding the horse was a cowboy, a cowboy with an ivory-white hat.

Jonathan's hands clenched the steering wheel and he began to sweat. There was something not right about this man, something he felt deep down in his bones but couldn't have explained The man was out of place, out of time...he shouldn't have existed, but there he was. There was something else, some thin wheedling terror that had sounded the alarm in Jonathan's brain the first time he had seen the man. It was there now, that petrified, screeching not-rightness, and Jonathan could feel the pounding of his heart in his ears.

The blare of a horn shocked him out of his momentary horror. He glanced in the rearview mirror. The guy in the truck behind him was red-faced and grimacing impatiently. Jonathan stepped off the brakes and drove on.

And when he glanced back, there was no one standing by the railroad.

*******

"You've been awfully quiet." Audrey informed him as they drove down the winding road towards Curt's house. The cooler was in the back seat with the potato salad and the beer, and the man on the radio was announcing that there would be a slight chance of thunderstorms tonight with a low of sixty-eight.

"Have I? Sorry."

"Well you don't have to apologize, but you look like something's wrong. Did something happen?"

"No...nothing happened, it's just I'm...tired, that's all."

They reached Curt's driveway, where most of the party guests had already gathered and smoke was rising from the barbeque in the middle of the yard. The kids ran around, some splashing in the shallows of the lake, others climbing around on the playset that stood in the corner of the yard.

"Hey Jonathan! Hey Audrey!" Curt called as they stepped out of the car. Jonathan waved hello, and grabbed the cooler out of the backseat as Audrey went to join her group of friends. He shut the car door again and --

There across the street was the cowboy.

He was standing in the driveway of the abandoned mobile home across the road -- the only house that could be seen from Curt's place -- and he was watching Jonathan with the same somber expression as before. Jonathan wondered if he should run over there and ask the guy what his problem was, but Curt was calling him over, and he knew that as soon as he turned his head the man would disappear.

He was right.

He looked away for a moment, glanced at Curt and his best friend Jerry as they laughed over some joke, and when he looked back at the driveway there was nothing but an old abandoned drive and old, shady trees above it.

"How's it going, Jonny?" Jerry asked as Jonathan set the cooler down with the rest of the food.

"Alright," he answered, "How've you been?"

"Worse than some, better than most," Jerry replied, tipping back his beer with a shrug, "Got a new project going on at work and I've been stressing but...it's all good, you know."

"Yeah."

It was all good. If it weren't for the phantom cowboy stalking him from the roadside, things would have been pretty much perfect.

"Has anyone new moved into town, do you know?" He asked suddenly. Their town was a small, friendly lakeside community. Everyone pretty much knew everyone - or at least knew of them - and if there was a new arrival it was the subject of gossip for at least a week. But Jerry shook his head.

"Not that I know of. Why?"

"I've just been seeing this weird guy around town...I've seen him all over the place today. It's almost like he's following me."

"You got a stalker, Jonathan?" Jerry laughed.

"I don't know. You sure you haven't seen anyone suspicious just kind of hanging around here?"

Jerry finished his beer in one deep swallow and shook his head.

"I got two daughters, man," he said, "Believe me, if there's some weird dude creeping around town, Imma be the first the notice."

"Well I don't know how anyone could miss him. He's dressed like he just came from a rodeo."

Jerry laughed and looked at him sideways.

"Are you just pulling my leg or something?" He asked.

"No...no, it's just weird, that's all. Forget about it."

But Jonathan couldn't forget about it. He lay thinking about it late into the night, after he asked Audrey if she had seen the man before, or heard anything about through the rumor mill of the beauty parlor.

Of course she said no.

"It's strange you didn't see him," Jonathan said, stroking Audrey's hair.

"I didn't." She replied. In the dark, the sound of their voices seemed enormous, their sentences like the black shifting shapes of thunderclouds.

"The clothes he was wearing...really out of fashion, though. I mean, even for a cowboy. Polyester. His shirt looked polyester, like they used to wear, back in the day."

She laughed.

"Back in the day?"

"Yeah, you know, the sixties, seventies...everyone smoked and wore a lot of polyester."

She nodded, twisting the edge of the sheet thoughtfully.

"It was a flammable combination," she said, "people used to catch on fire."

"Spontaneous human combustion," he added, "clothes and fat catch fire and people burn like candles. The wick effect, they call it. They used to think it was something supernatural, but it's more likely that it was cigarettes and polyester."

The rain started, softly, tapping out a tentative melody on the roof.

"Is that what you're afraid of?" Audrey asked, her voice heavy with sleep, "catching fire?"

"I'm not afraid of anything, except heights." He answered.

But that wasn't entirely true. He was afraid of the man in the white cowboy hat.

*******

It wasn't until the next Saturday that Jonathan saw the cowboy again. He was walking back from the post office when he noticed him. The man was sitting on a bench beneath a tree, not far from the sidewalk, his right boot crossed over his knee. Anyone walking by would have seen him, but there was nobody around today. Nobody but Jonathan.

Jonathan thought about ignoring him - that vague fear came back to him, like sirens screaming underwater. But greater than the fear was the curiosity.

Which killed the cat, he reminded himself as he began walking, cautiously, towards the bench where the man sat. Right now he didn't care. He kept his eyes glued on the man, knowing that if he blinked the guy might disappear. But the cowboy didn't seem to notice, as he was calmly perusing a newspaper that rested on his knee.

Jonathan wasn't sure what he was going to say when he reached the bench. What do you want? Who are you? Why are you walking around in that out-of-date outfit, you chronologically impaired weirdo?

"Hello, Jonathan."

He swallowed whatever question he had been about to ask at the sound of the man's voice. The cowboy didn't take his eyes off the paper, but continued to calmly read.

"I was wondering when you'd show up," he continued, turning a page, "I tried all day yesterday to get your attention, you know."

Jonathan stared for a moment, recovering from his shock, but managed to reply.

"You got my attention," he said, "What I don't know is why you want it, and I don't know who you are or how you know me, and..."

His voice trailed off as another realization dawned on him.

"Wait...wait, it wasn't yesterday I saw you. It was last week."

The man sighed and set his newspaper aside, finally looking Jonathan in the eye.

"Sit down, Jonathan." He said.

"Why should I-"

"Just sit."

Jonathan obeyed, crossing his arms and taking a seat beside the man on the park bench.

"Ok, I'm sitting," he said, "Now will you answer a few of my questions? Like how you know my name, for starters?"

"That's not important."

"Yeah, it is. "

"No," the man insisted, shaking his head, "first you. You need to answer some questions."

"Alright," Jonathan said, exasperated, "If we're going to go about this whole thing bass-akwards, then fine, I'll answer your question."

The man nodded slowly, and laced his fingers together as though settling into a long conversation.

"Good," he said, and that was all he said for a few moments. He was watching the sky, his eyes following a line of geese that was tracking across the gray.

"Do you think it's going to rain?" He asked finally.

Jonathan crossed his arms tighter across his chest and answered, irritated,

"I don't know. It might. What does that have to do with anything?"

"You like this kind of weather, I take it?"

"Sure. Why wouldn't I?"

The man shrugged.

"Not everyone likes this kind of weather."

Jonathan sighed in frustration, and threw his hands into the air.

"Alright, are we going to sit around talking about the freaking weather all day, or are we actually going to talk about something important? Like why you kept showing up last week?"

"Yesterday."

"You mean yesterday as in last week? Yeah, sure, yesterday."

"How has work been, Jonathan?"

The question caught him by surprise. He started to answer, then realized he couldn't. He ran a hand through his hair, racking his brain for any memory of the last week. Conversations, lunch breaks, anything...he couldn't. He couldn't remember.

"You don't remember going to work because you never went to work. You haven't gone to work for a long time. The week never happened, Jonathan, only today happened. And today happened yesterday too, and the day before that and the days before that."

Jonathan stared back at him, blinking stupidly.

"It's not...that's not how it..." Was the best he could come up with. The man ignored his stammering.

"And the weather hasn't changed either," he went on, gesturing with one hand towards the overcast sky, "every day it might rain. Every day there are clouds up there, but it never actually does rain, does it? It never rains and the sun never comes out, and it's always a pleasant seventy-some degrees just the way you like it -- isn't that right?"

Jonathan sat in silence for a moment that seemed to stretch on and on. The cool breeze was blowing, sending up wafts of perfume from the flowers that grew along the sidewalk. Nothing the man was saying made any sense, but he couldn't argue. There was nothing to say; the more that he thought about it, the less sense it made, because he couldn't remember the last time he had gone to work or the last time the sun had come out from behind the clouds.

"You're crazy," he said, standing up, "this is crazy, this doesn't make any sense..."

"You're going home." The man said. A statement, not a question.

"I guess I am."

"Come back tomorrow," the man said lazily, leaning back and snapping the newspaper out flat again, "we'll talk about the weather some more."
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