AFTER DARK

John Thomas Tuft
5 min readFeb 2, 2024

AFTER DARK

By John Thomas Tuft

Alicia and Henry go to Bulls Steakhouse in Lynchburg, Virginia every Monday night for a quiet dinner. Some might say, too quiet. But Alicia and Henry are quiet people, living quiet lives. Now in their early 50s, childless, Alicia is a librarian in the county library system. Henry is a systems analyst for a national mail order/online clothing company, keeping their software up to date to meet the needs and desires of an always-hungry-for-the-next-thing-so-we-all-dress-like-adolescents public. They are both dressed in quiet clothing, live in a quiet neighborhood in the Lake Vista development, and they both drive hybrid cars. Watching the two of them at the restaurant, barely a blip on the social radar, one might think of Taylor Swift singing, “I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror.” The thing about all of this is that they only go out to dinner after dark.

Alicia and Henry spend time looking over the menu, although they know it by heart. They’re both disappointed that the black bean rollups disappeared from the menu a few years back, but what’s a body to do? The casual observer may wonder if the rarity of their looking directly at each other is due to familiarity or the je ne sais qoui nature of the Taylor Swift lyric; the ‘I’m not sure what I’ll see there or if I really want to know’ anxiety of relating to human beings. They are members of the Presbyterian Church out on Forest Road. They attend sporadically since the pandemic, not for any one particular reason, but it is now just one more thing on a long list of “would the earth stop turning if we don’t do this” kind of thing. Living life is a series of stepping in and out of different flows, separate currents, that guide, steer, and push in one direction or another. Currents which can often haunt us as we lie awake after dark.

The Kings of Leon sing, “I could never point you out, waste of space in a faceless crowd.” The server comes to take their order, a young woman in her 20s who smiles and attends to their needs. She has no way of knowing that she reminds them, in a moment of unbidden despair, that their Peter would be about her age now. If only… That is the source of the deep sigh that escapes from Alicia and the small twitch under Henry’s right eye. The flow of grief is such that if you don’t immerse yourself in it and let it carry you awhile, you can find yourself forever treading water or battered about in the white water of rocks and rapids. Such it was for Alicia and Henry. Peter was 3 when they first noticed the excessive tiredness and strange bruising. On a beautiful and peaceful spring evening, swaddled in his favorite blanket, in his mother’s arms, next to his father, all of them on the old wooden swing, watching the sun go down over the lake, at the age of 4, after dark on a Monday evening, Peter died.

In the immediate aftermath, and then as the long, slow days turned into months, then years, Alicia and Henry felt like they were caught in a whirlpool of pain, aching loss, shattered dreams, emptiness, and shock at the pointlessness of it all. It wore them down physically and it took a toll on their relationship. “Why couldn’t I just fly away with him?” was the repeated lament of Alicia. Henry’s stoic silence was an empty scream of his feelings of guilt, irrational yet all too real to him. Henry set up a woodworking shop in his garage and spent longer and longer hours there, trying to fashion a reason to keep going. Alicia took up power walking, pickle ball, birdwatching but nothing held her interest for long at all. Sublimating passion of any kind is to remove oneself from any flow in life’s streams. Intimacy dies from neglect and the two spend many a lonely hour together, yet apart, after dark.

The server brings their food, smiling nervously as though she wants to say something. But Alicia and Henry are preoccupied with being alone. The old wooden swing sits neglected in the backyard. Peter’s bedroom is a shrine, filled with unused love and affection. Twenty years worth; a generation flowing on past them, empty of promise. Peter should be out of college now, making his way, falling in love, fussing over them, hinting at starting a family of his own someday. Alicia picks at her primavera. She thinks a thought but lets it filter out as, “How’s your food?” Henry nods, as though even that is too much to consider after dark.

“Excuse me,” their server is back, shifting from one foot to the other. They look up. “Are you Petey’s parents?” Alicia and Henry are dumbstruck. Is that who they are? “I’m Gracie. You probably don’t remember me, but I was in Petey’s class in nursery school. I had a big crush on him.” Gracie stops, worried by their lack of reaction. “We moved away right after Petey…well, you know…afterward. Anyways, I’m taking some graduate classes now at Lynchburg U. And I was just wondering…?” Her courage peters out, lost in the slow eddy of pain around the couple. “Well, I mean, Petey used to tell me about the big swing in the backyard. Sitting there with his mommy and daddy. I was just wondering…” Gracie blushes, “You’re going to think I never grew up, but would it be terrible if I came over to sit in that swing? Please. I’m kinda lonely being back here and all.”

And that is how, the next evening, as the sun was going down behind the mountains beyond the lake, three people came to be sitting on a swing. Searching for the flow that would carry them through. Talking, remembering, and just being with each other. Until well after dark…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.

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John Thomas Tuft

John is a novelist, retired mental health counselor and minister and sheep farmer, who now lives in Roanoke, VA.