by Robert Stoddard
Ever since the hospital, Josh had been taking night walks. He'd wait until all the
neighborhood dogs had been walked and most of the house lights were out. Then,
he'd escape into the solitude of darkness where he could talk to himself or cry
with nobody around to care.
He was doing a lot of talking and crying these days.
Josh didn't think he was crazy. After almost dying from cancer, he was just trying
to figure things out. Night walks were perfect for that.
Plus at night, his wife, Megan, never wanted to go with him. During the day, she
was always hovering or peeking in on him, looking for signs that he was getting
better. Even when she was at the grocery store, she would call to see how he was
doing, and he felt smothered by her concern. But by the time he went night
walking, she was out like a light on the sofa in front of the television.
Megan deserved to sleep. Through his surgery, through the terrible infection that
followed and almost shut down his body, then through the searing chemo, she had
never once left him alone in that terrible hospital room. She had suffered with him
through each one of his ordeals, getting even less sleep than he. Often it was only
her will he felt keeping him alive. And as his medical complications got more
complicated, he saw her get more indignant as she challenged incompetent nurses,
bullied doctors with her tough questions and demands and forced everyone to fix
him or suffer her wrath.
Many times, coming out of a feverish nightmare, Josh would see Megan's face
framed above him like an angel in a vision, and he would take that bright face
back with him into his hopelessness, holding it in his hands like a lantern so he
could avoid the bullets of pain that shot at him from the darkness and kept him
Now that he was home with no sign of cancer and nothing to do but continue to
recover, Josh finally saw the toll his illness had taken on Megan. It frightened
him, how tired she was. Anyway, he was better off on his own, away from her
concern, because what he was feeling now was far worse than all that pain and far
more private, and he didn't think she could handle yet another dread.
So Josh hid from Megan on his night walks. Hid from her faith in happy endings.
His illness had taught him that everything is random and that anything could
happen and did, but how could he tell Megan that? How could he tell her that
although the pain had moved out, his body was now being squatted by something
far more sinister.
That's why he was really roaming the streets tonight, why he liked the night walks
so much, why Megan could never know. Josh was scared, so scared that as he
trudged along, squinting his eyes past the silver shadows of the trees, he found
himself yearning for that same twilight state he had inhabited in the hospital.
Anything to block out the fear that was paralyzing him.
It wasn't that he was afraid of dying. It was that he didn't have either the strength
to remain in this world or the courage to leave it. Despite his positive prognosis,
Josh just couldn't see himself getting any better, and that meant more pain, and he
couldn't handle that. Because he couldn't foresee any happy ending, he was
opting for the black oblivion of night.
He walked on for over an hour, but no matter how much he pleaded for help or
shouted for strength or begged for it just to be finally over, the shadows remained
shadows, the mist was just mist and the trees did not unfold their branches to the
oblivion he sought.
He noticed Megan open her eyes briefly when he walked in, then close them again.
He sat down in a chair and looked at her sleeping.
They had always been a close couple, even after 10 years of marriage, sharing
everything together except the child they had always wanted but couldn't have.
Even though the freak nature of his illness had caught them both off guard, tossing
them overboard into an sea of panic and hopelessness, they were so much in love
that clinging to each other had been their lifeline.
He knew Megan thought they had been rescued, and he had felt that way too, at
least for a while after he was released from the hospital. Now he knew better.
And he didn't dare tell Megan about the beast of fear clawing through his chest,
undermining even his love for her.
Looking at her now so peacefully asleep, Josh dared not imagine what her
discovering his secrets would do to her, so he wandered into the bathroom, sat
down on the edge of the tub and softly cried again.
Megan was no fool. She knew how long he'd been gone, felt him staring at her as
she "slept" on the sofa, and she heard him now sobbing in the bathroom. She
knew he was depressed, but she didn't know how to help him. He wouldn't let her
help him anymore anyway. It had been different in the hospital where they were
both focused on getting him better and out. At home, though, Josh stopped
recovering, and she couldn't figure out why.
Well, until she could figure him out, Megan would do what she did best. She'd
turn off the TV, go straight to the bathroom, sit down on the edge of the tub beside
him and take him in her arms.
Later, when Josh had settled down and gone to bed, she took her own night walk,
roaming their small house going over and over everything in her mind. Maybe she
should start being tougher with him. Being gentle and patient and understanding
just wasn't cutting it anymore. Maybe the key to Josh were those night walks of
his. Megan decided she'd have to think about that.
The next night as he put on his coat Megan asked him, "Going on your usual
"Uh, yeah, I thought I would," said Josh.
"It's late, Josh. You be careful, okay?" She said the same thing every night before
he left. "I'd go with you, but I'm kind of tired."
She watched Josh sigh with relief and go out the door. "Bye, then," he said and
Megan hurried to the door and watched through the peephole as Josh disappeared
down the street. As soon as she thought he was far enough away, she slipped out
to follow him.
Up ahead, she saw Josh gesturing wildly and heard him talking to himself. He
could have been the homeless guy who "lived" in the alley by the pharmacy and
spent his nights yelling at his blaring radio. But this was her husband. This was
Josh, her emotional rock. Dependable Josh. Sturdy Josh. Sweet Josh.
Suddenly he was gone. Megan scanned the street. The trees stood like sentinels,
the darkened houses huddled behind them, their branches stretched across the
street to those on the other side in a protective canopy of grey-green. No sign of
Josh anywhere. Where was he? Had she lost him? He was right in front of her
just a second ago. Which way had he turned?
Josh hadn't turned. A moment before it happened, he had been talking to the
stars. There weren't many to be seen in this city sky, but enough for Josh to
remember how vast the universe was and how small he was by comparison. He
was just a small speck of nothing. Who or what could possibly care about him or
his pain? Josh understood more than ever how alone he was, and he cried out
because of the unfairness of it.
Then he heard a rustling of the branches and the voice of the wind as it brushed his
face in a cool caress. The houses retreated. The trees ahead of him took on the
shapes of giants, their limbs lowering to the street and then rising high into the
sky. Ahead of Josh were colors that he couldn't make out. He walked faster
towards the colors. As he drew closer, he could hear the babble of soothing voices
beneath the wind. He felt his chest release its pent-up fear and for the first time in
ages he felt free. He thought he heard a voice summoning him.
"I'm here," said Josh. "I'm here."
Josh thought he saw human figures walking quietly just behind the trees. The
swaying branches turned this way and that and obscured the view. When he was
able to see past them again, the figures were gone. The babble returned in a
symphony of wind and swaying branches. Then the wind died down, and he heard
Megan's voice behind him.
What was Megan doing here?
"There you are," he heard her say. "I was worried, so I came looking for you. I
guess I didn't realize how unfamiliar everything can look at night. You were right
in front of me, but I couldn't see you at all."
Josh wasn't listening to her. "I saw something. I was almost there."
"Almost where?" Megan said.
Josh turned to Megan and suddenly frowned. "You shouldn't have followed me,"
he snorted. "And I'm not through with my walk yet." He headed away from her
briskly, hearing her call after him.
"Can I come, too, Josh? Hey wait up!"
But Josh was already turning the corner. He had to get away from her. Why did
she have to choose tonight of all nights to go out looking for him? Didn't she
know she had ruined everything? Maybe if he hurried he could find the figures
again and this time make them understand how much he needed to find out what
He came home an hour later, exhausted by the useless search. Yet, for the first
time in months he felt excited and hopeful. He knew that answers were
somewhere in those shadows and he would look every night if he had to until he
found them again.
He saw that Megan was already asleep. He felt guilty for running away from her.
He knew he had hurt her terribly. The crumpled tissues on the floor by her side of
the bed told him that she had been crying. He undressed and slipped into bed
beside her. She didn't stir. He spoke to her back.
"I'm so sorry, babe. I know I can't explain how I'm feeling right now. I can't
seem to sort anything out. But tonight was the first time I've felt some hope about
all this, you know? Like the road ahead might not do me in after all. I'll know
soon, I promise. I can feel it. Just give me some time."
He wasn't that surprised when Megan turned around to face him, her face puffy
"Josh, you scared me tonight," she said.
"I know," said Josh.
"What were you doing out there?"
He couldn't tell her. Not yet.
"Just night walking, that's all," he said as he held her close and planned a route for
The new route wasn't necessary though. The next night, it happened only a block
away from his house. One minute he was hurrying down the sidewalk, eager to
explore a new neighborhood, the next minute all sense of his own street was
consumed by the groves of silver trees, the swirling colors and the sound of
This time, Josh was able to pass the sentinel trees easily and found himself in a
small clearing where the colors melded with a soft grass and the surrounding
woods. He breathed in the rush of wind, felt himself relaxing.
Suddenly everything went silent and still. Heads peered out from the trees. Then,
a few ghostly people cautiously stepped toward him. An old woman, a man in a
wheelchair, a pregnant lady, an emaciated woman in a turban, another in a hospital
gown, several men in uniform, a little boy with a cough, a girl holding a teddy
bear. All of them were barely visible, as if in a faded painting. All moved slowly,
all held out their arms to Josh.
Those closest to him began murmuring something under their breath. "Solace.
The words were picked up by the others. Josh now recognized the phrase from the
Suddenly the turbaned woman had her fingers on Josh's neck. Her nails dug into
his skin. Her other hand climbed up to his face and turned it towards her.
For an endless moment, Josh was caught in the agony written on the woman's
face. And something else he saw there that surprised him: hungry eyes like pits,
so black that the darkness oozed out of them and dripped down her face like old
Josh was about to pull away when the woman released her grip. "No solace here,"
she said as she dropped her arms and slumped away. She looked terribly lost, and
her wailing was the sound of loneliness.
Pity overcame Josh's fear. He tried to embrace the woman, but she backed away
and shrieked even louder. The wary expressions of interest on the faces of others
close to him also faded away. The rest of them began to wail or call out for help.
The men in uniform screamed softly as if they had just been mortally wounded and
were sinking into shock. Josh caught one of them as he swayed and fell to the
ground, but the man crawled away from him and kept up his lament.
The little girl made short clipped cries and reached out her hands to Josh even
though she wouldn't take his hug.
The turbaned lady kept repeating, "No-no-no-no-no-no," in a spooky sort of
round, dancing past Josh whenever he approached her.
Josh felt more helpless with these phantoms than he ever felt for himself. The
sound of their eerie cries was ripping him apart. "No solace here," they chanted
between their bouts of anguish, as Josh kept turning from grief to grief, rejection
to rejection, around and around, consumed with the power of the people's sadness,
yet unable to help them, until his only choice was to join them. Lifting up his
arms, and addressing the stars, he wailed in anguish too, while the others,
oblivious to his pain, continued to revel in their own.
At first, Megan was guardedly optimistic about the change in Josh. It had
happened too quickly. One morning he woke up and seemed to be his old self.
The strain on his face was less evident, and soon he was even whistling in the
shower. He seemed to fall back into his pre-hospital routine. He read the paper
again each morning, asked what he could do around the house, went grocery
shopping with her and even talked about going back to work. Megan's caution
quickly turned to gratitude. The disability payments would stop soon, and she
hadn't known where the money would come from.
Best of all, though, was the afternoon when he crept up behind her, nuzzled her
neck, turned her to him and kissed her tenderly. It was the first time he had
wanted something more than pity or protection from her, and it felt so wonderful
to feel safe in his arms for a change. Look at who's crying now, she thought as he
moved down her body and her tears wetted his hair.
His night walks still bothered her though. Sometimes he seemed almost restless
until the appointed hour. Their renewed intimacy was relegated mostly to
mornings, and she could feel the distance in his affection for her grow with every
hour after dinner until it seemed to evaporate several hours later into total neglect.
"What do you do out there for so long?" she asked him one night after he returned.
"Nothing much, I guess," he said. "I think a lot. I work through stuff while I'm
walking. I'm better when I come back, right? So it must be good for me. Better
than therapy, right babe?"
Megan wasn't so sure about that. And as the days went by, Josh's vibrancy began
deflating like a slow-leaking balloon. His ennui began to swallow up his days as
well as his nights. His whistling stopped, the papers went unread again. He
stayed on his walks longer and longer and then wandered the house restlessly until
early morning. He slept most of the day, and when he arose he seemed to float
through the afternoon. His body clock seemed to be geared solely to his night
walks. He would come alive at dusk like some vampire, his energy static and
unharnessed but growing in intensity towards the appointed hour. There was no
room for anything else, not even for her.
Once after dinner, something about the look of Josh as he sat in his favorite chair
with a distracted stare made Megan remember the night when he had suddenly
disappeared in front of her. That moment had scared her more than any other in
his illness. The night had simply swallowed him up, and the emptiness she felt, if
only for a few seconds, was more final than anything she had ever experienced. It
struck here that the night was swallowing him up again, and there was nothing she
could do about it.
Josh knew he was in trouble but he didn't seem to care. At first, the release he
experienced each night as he joined the others in their mysterious chorus of pain
was exhilarating, and he came home feeling renewed and more sure of his
recovery than he had in a long time.
He called his new companions "sufferers."
At first he had been repulsed by their ritual, but he soon discovered it was an
addiction he craved himself. By joining in their cries of torment, mingling his
screams with theirs, he unleashed such a searing agony within himself that it
didn't seem to go away any more. He carried it through the next day like a heavy
stone and craved the next round of release.
Once a night was not enough any more.
One night, as he watched the sufferers move sadly away, he began to feel an
overpowering urge to walk with them. Where did they go when they left him?
Why couldn't he go with them when they moved on? Were there other groves
where others like himself were waiting for the sufferers to appear?
That's what he secretly hoped for. More sufferers. More groves. More release.
He couldn't contain his pain any longer. It was a torrent that was drowning him,
and the ritual of the sufferers was his only rescue.
The first time he tried to walk with the sufferers, the grove shuddered and fled,
and he came to himself sprawled on the sidewalk pavement. Other attempts met
with similar results. He thought of nothing else all day but how he might follow
One night during the ritual, he screamed with frustration as much as in agony of
soul. Immediately he felt a wrenching inside of him. When the sufferers stopped
suddenly and began to disperse, he knew instinctively that he could go with them.
They moved into the woods. Josh moved with them. There, he was surrounded by
the restless colors. One step counted for ten. He walked on wings of agony. He
saw another clearing through the giant trees. He peered around a trunk and saw a
man whimpering in confusion and walking in useless circles in the middle of the
Josh was suddenly hungry. He saw the scars on the man's face and arms, and his
appetite for pain grew ravenous. He circled the man, stalking him. It was a hunt,
and the man was his prey. He weaved himself closer to the man and felt an
overpowering urge to tear his flesh. He heard himself asking the man, "Solace?
Josh's arms gripped the man's bony shoulders. The man raised his head and Josh
found himself locking eyes with empty sockets. The blind man was sobbing and
pleading. "Help me, please."
The other sufferers were chanting now and entering the clearing. Josh didn't
know why the man seemed suddenly repulsive, but a sudden loathing welled up in
his throat and drowned his earlier pity. "No solace here," Josh said to no one in
particular as he turned away.
"No solace here," the sufferers repeated.
This time, Josh began the ritual wailing, climaxing in a scream at the top of his
lungs. The burning in his chest exploded. The sightless man fell to the ground
and screamed and screamed and so did Josh and so did the sufferers.
It was over too soon, and the pack of sufferers moved on, restless and unsatisfied.
Josh moved on too, more empty than ever, with eyes on the lookout for prey.
Megan awoke to a man on the television selling a juice maker. It was 2:00 a.m.
She had fallen asleep on the sofa again waiting up for Josh. She went into the
bedroom, only Josh wasn't there. She began pacing at 2:15, was truly frightened
by 2:30 and spent the next hour between walks down their sidewalk looking for
any sign of Josh and sitting by the phone. At 3:30, she decided to get in the car
and search for him. If she couldn't find him herself, she would call the police.
She drove the darkened streets of her neighborhood for another hour or so. It was
just before dawn when she got really angry.
"When I find you, Josh, you are going to be in so much trouble. I don't care how
miserable you are, you have no right to scare me like this. You want pain? You
want to grovel in pain, well by the time I'm through with you, you'll know what
pain is. You'll wish you never left that crummy hospital. Those Nazi nurses and
the interns who used you as a guinea pig for every test known to medicine are
nothing compared to what I got in store for you, you sorry piece of self-pity. Oh
Josh, where are you, sweetie? Please just let me find you."
He was nowhere. She pulled over and put her head on the steering wheel. "Take
it easy, girl," she thought. "You can do this. Josh is okay. You'll find him. No
Later, she thought, "It's your marriage that's lost, girl, not your husband. Please,
oh please, Josh, you gotta help me out here. You gotta. Help me find "us" again."
She was near the park. Through the windshield, she thought she saw him. No,
that was just a jogger. She pulled over and started to circle the park.
Suddenly, there he was on the park lawn, heading for the duck pond. She turned
off the ignition and lunged out of the car at the same time, tearing her jeans on the
"Josh! Josh," she cried.
He stopped and turned. Megan saw him shake his head at her, and cry, "No solace
here," before he ran away.
"Josh, wait up," she shouted as she ran after him.
Megan caught up to him easily, but before she even reached him, he sank to the
ground breathing heavily.
"No. No. Go away. No solace here."
"Josh, sweetie, I'm here. It's okay. It's okay." Megan bent down to help him up.
When she saw his face, she gave an involuntary gasp. "Josh," she said. "What
happened? Oh sweetie. Oh, Josh, look at you."
Josh's face was etched in torment. Hollow eyes darted back and forth. Deep lines
scarred his forehead, eyes and the folds around his nose.
Megan stepped back, then clutched her stomach. She couldn't take it in. This
gray, worn and emaciated Josh looked as if he had dipped himself into the color
palette of a haunted house movie and come out-.
A ghost. That's the only way she could comprehend his appearance. Megan felt
he might fade away into nothingness at any moment. And what was he
mumbling? "No solace here." What in heaven's name did that mean?
For only an instant, Megan was repulsed by the creature before her. Then she
moved back to him, knelt down, and took him in his arms.
He clutched her so hard her arm hurt.
"Solace," he said, bearing his teeth and hissing slightly.
"Josh, you need help. Let me get you to the car. It's just over there," Megan said
as she helped him up.
Josh gripped both her arms as he rose. "Solace, solace," he shouted.
Megan was surprised at the strength of his voice. Then the park spun, and time
exploded into misty colors of restless energy that engulfed them completely.
Megan could feel Josh's fingers clutching her, but could not sense much else until
the colors cleared and she found herself in a hazy clearing encircled by giant trees.
"Solace," Josh repeated.
The pressure of his fingers on Megan's arms increased.
"Josh, you're hurting me," she said.
But Josh's grip on her did not let up. Instead he locked her in a vice-like embrace.
Megan couldn't breathe. And something in her chest began to hurt terribly.
"Josh, let go."
Josh wouldn't let go. She could feel him gasping near her neck. Then he let out
as ecstatic a cry as she had ever heard, far more terrifying than his screams in the
hospital had been. It was so intense that it seemed to summon the energy from her
own body. She could feel the surge of power consuming her and rushing blindly
to her chest, which was pressed so tightly to Josh that it could easily pass between
"Solace," cried Josh again.
Then Megan saw them from over his shoulder. Coming out of the woods. No, not
Ghosts who looked like Josh.
"Solace," they hissed as they approached, arms outstretched.
"Solace," Josh shouted in ecstasy.
Megan's fear was almost as overwhelming as her pain. Molten fire rushed
through her. Her heart was exploding from the volcano in her chest.
Then a new sensation. Josh's pain. It entered her, flowed through her and came
back out again. She arched her back and almost passed out. She looked up at
Josh's face. It was flushed and young again. He's so handsome, she thought.
Then hands touched her head and shoulders and legs - every part of her that
wasn't attached to Josh.
"Solace," cried the sufferers, latching onto Megan and beginning to feast.
Each time Megan felt a hand touch her, it was a new center of pain. Their torment
was flowing freely through her now, using her up, tearing her apart. She wouldn't
last much longer.
She didn't understand why it was so quiet all of a sudden, why she felt so
peaceful, why the pain was subsiding. This must be what it's like to die, she
thought happily. But what would Josh do without her? Josh needed her. She
couldn't leave him yet. The pain returned. It made her scream, but it cleared her
mind. It took her entire will to raise her head back beside Josh's. She barely had
the energy to whisper in his ear.
"Josh, help me," she said and fainted in his arms.
Josh had never felt so free of fear. "This is what I've been missing," he thought.
"I could go on forever just like this, loving Megan, holding her tightly. Arms
around each other, never letting go. Sharing joy and sharing pain. I'm a lucky
guy, he thought. I've got it all."
"Josh, help me."
A voice. Megan's voice. In pain? "Don't worry babe," he thought. We'll always
help be there for each other. That's what it's all about. You taught me that.
You've always been there for me. I couldn't have made it without you. You're
my angel, girl. I took you into my nightmares more than once. Never would have
come out alive without you, angel girl."
Josh felt Megan's face next to his. "Josh, help me," echoed somewhere in his
heart. He felt a sudden tenderness for Megan. He held her more closely, but she
was limp in his arms. Why was Megan so limp?
A crack of thunder awakened him. What was that? He saw sufferers all over
Megan like ants. For a moment he didn't know where he was or what he was
The sufferers stopped. They smelled his compassion. "Solace," they hissed as
they released Megan and swarmed on Josh.
Josh slashed at them with a free arm, holding Megan with the other one. His fear
for Megan grew as he fought off his attackers. Megan was in danger. How did
she get here?
It struck him that he had played out this scene before. Megan's face was cradled
under his arm, just as in the nightmares, and he was dodging bullets of pain as the
sufferers tried to rip his flesh with their ghastly nails.
"Stop," Josh shouted.
But the more angry Josh grew, the more the sufferers could taste his strength.
There was no escape from their hunger to be saved.
Josh dragged Megan to the far end of the clearing. The sufferers advanced
looking like they had found their salvation.
Josh pulled a branch off of the tree behind him and flung it at them. He looked
down at Megan. He saw her face as he had seen it in his delirium. Lovely and
The sufferers moaned in pleasure.
"Please, no," Josh pleaded as he dropped to his knees. Behind him, Megan was
barely breathing. Josh looked at the turbaned woman crawling towards him like a
spider and said in a broken voice, "I think she's dying."
The woman stopped and tilted her head at an odd angle.
Josh knew then how to stop the attack.
"No solace here," he murmured, letting his sorrow of losing Megan engulf him
The sufferers stopped aghast, repelled by Josh's helplessness. He saw some of
them turn to Megan, but she wasn't moving any more.
"No solace here," they cried.
Josh let out a final stream of agony more vivid than any he had shared with the
He was crying now for Megan, not himself, and at last recognizing the difference,
he wasn't surprised when his sorrow grew into a sweeping wind that descended
into the clearing through the giant trees and hurled the sufferers back into the
Another crack of thunder announced a downpour. The colors blurred and ran
together, and Josh and Megan were back in the park.
The jogger saw them as silhouettes between the trees, the figure of a man
staggering across the wet park lawn holding a lifeless woman in his arms.
"Solace. Solace for Megan," the man wailed.
The jogger took out his cell phone and called 911.
The man was still holding her when the ambulance arrived.
"It's my fault, " the man said as he handed the woman to a paramedic. "I needed
her too much. I think I killed her."
And then he collapsed.
Josh only vaguely remembered the drive to the hospital or lying next to Megan in
the emergency room, both of them surrounded by specialists. He didn't know why
they bothered. He knew she was dead.
He hadn't believed the paramedics when they told him Megan was alive, and he
didn't believe the doctors when they told him Megan was in a coma but had a
good chance of pulling through.
He finally believed the night nurse, though. Rose Connor was one of his nurses
from before, during his own hospital stay. Her humor and common sense had
been his salvation then, and her gentle reprimand now was the beginning of his
"I don't want to hear any more mumbo jumbo about sufferers and solace," Rose
said. Truth is, you must have carried Megan a mile or more after that lightning
bolt hit the both of you. You think you have a right to stop now when you brung
her this far? She'll be depending on you to see this through same way she done
for you last year. It's your turn now, Josh."
After that, Josh never once left Megan alone.
There were black days when he thought he might lose her forever. During those
times, the guilt twisted through his gut, but he refused to retreat into the terrifying
fog of fear and remorse that had started it all. He knew where that led.
And so, on the day Megan suddenly blinked open her eyes, Josh was there looking
tenderly down at her.
"Welcome back, babe. You made it."
Megan didn't speak, but Josh noticed the right corner of her mouth curl upward
the way it did sometimes. Then she closed her eyes again. He squeezed the hand
he was holding and added, "I made it back, too."
Megan's hand returned the squeeze.
Josh knew then that Megan would take his face back with her into whatever place
she was inhabiting and hold it as a light against her pain, just as he had once used
her face as a charm against his own suffering, and that was enough to give him a