Esther had married her high school sweetheart.
For most of the fifty years she and Marvin spent together, they’d looked ahead to what came next: their wedding day, the house with a white picket fence, the birth of their children. But when the children grew, she and Marvin were left to stare at each other on their matching recliners and Esther longed for the old days. Marvin didn’t say much, but when he did, he talked about what was, rather than what would be.
The new drive-in theatre in town was just what they needed to bring them back, perhaps even bring them forward, together. It was almost romantic.
Cane draped over her arm, Esther shuffled from the concession stand. Liver-spotted hands held the tray of treats that Marvin liked most – lightly salted popcorn, candy-coated chocolates, and the gooey caramels that always stuck to his dentures. Esther hated that Marvin needed to remove his teeth to eat them. The last time they visited the drive-in, his dentures slipped to the driver’s seat floor and wedged beneath the gas pedal. Marvin hadn’t noticed until he started driving. Broken teeth scattered about like Chicklets falling from an open box. It was a wonder they got home that night.
Small steps, Esther thought, as she weaved through the minivans and sedans parked on the open lot, avoiding the darting children and adults distracted by their cell phones. She never understood the allure, why grown adults needed to escape their lives by staring into a device they kept glued to their hands. Living inside a screen was unnatural.
But she supposed she was just old. And it was easier to mutter “back in my day” than it was to recognize that the world had changed. Or to change with it.
Esther’s knee began quivering. It wouldn’t be long until it would give out on her again. Only a few feet away from their Grand Marquis, she needed to stop. Rest that leg. Knee surgery was inevitable, but she’d tried to put it off as long as possible. Who would take care of Marvin if she were laid up for weeks?
She heard him snoring before she saw him through the window, his head tilted back, mouth gaping open. He always sounded like a buzz saw when he was asleep, yet he denied ever making a sound in his slumber.
As children giggled and pointed at the tired old man in his car, a strange sensation overtook Esther. Her body chilled, gooseflesh rose on her skin, and it felt as if every pore on her body opened to suck in the night air. Her feet lost contact with the ground, and she floated, feather-light. The tray slipped from her fingers and crashed to the grass. The light on the movie screen flickered, as if charged by an electric current.
Darkness overtook her; swallowing the drive-in and everything in it.
She emitted a slight gasp, reached shaking fingers to her chest. She felt no pain, but her heart thrummed like a bass drum. It reminded her of high school Marching Band, of cheering Marvin on as he scored the winning touchdown of the championship game.
Her best self, in her best days.
In the distance, a pinprick of white light shone through the dark. Brilliant spires flashed from its core like starfire. It grew – breathed – as illumination poured through. The pinprick became a circle that stretched in a whirlpool of radiance, until the movie screen glowed. Esther reached for the light; it stretched toward her, entwining a smoke-like ribbon through her fingers, around her hand, her arm, her waist. She drifted through darkness toward that rectangular beacon – it called to her, it calmed her. She closed her eyes, surrendering to the sensation of butterfly wings fluttering in her gut, balmy breezes blowing through her mind.
Esther landed softly. Silken sand oozed between her bare toes.
“Where am I?” Esther whispered.
She opened her eyes, wide, surrounded by lush palm trees and mountainscapes, a pink sand beach, and the clearest turquoise water she’d ever seen. As birds cawed in the distance, she glanced down at her own body, clad in a bikini. Her stomach and legs were smooth, her body lithe. The spots had dissolved from her hands. She felt no pain in her knee or joints. She touched the red curls that fell from her shoulders, twisting her fingers through locks she hadn’t felt in decades.
When am I? she wondered.
Through the rolling waves, Esther heard a clicking, like keys from an old-fashioned typewriter. She glanced up to the azure sky, where the words “The Choice” was typed into a cloud, and in smaller print, “Starring Esther Morris.”
This can’t be.
“Turn around, Esther,” a deep voice boomed.
Hugging her arms to her chest, she obeyed. The islandscape gave way to a vast field, dotted with miniature cars and people, small as toys. She squinted to make out the words over a tiny building. “Concessions,” it read.
“I’m… I’m on the screen?” she asked.
“For the moment,” the voice said. “Stay, and you become writer, director, and star of your perfect, eternal story.”
“I have a choice?”
“Always,” the voice said.
“And if I return?”
“Simple as re-setting the reel. You keep the life you have. We simply find another story.”
She thought of Marvin, alone in the car. Of a life well-lived. Of their years remaining.
“Take me back!”
“Very well.” Sand splayed over Esther’s eyelids. She closed them tight. When she opened them, she was back in the darkened field, holding a tray of candy and popcorn.
Esther glanced through the shadows toward the Grand Marquis. It was empty.
The screen lit up again, to the cheers of patrons around her and the blares of car horns.
“You left me,” she murmured.
She looked up to the face of seventeen-year-old Marvin on-screen, securing his football helmet under the glare of stadium lights.
Lisa Fox is a market researcher by day and fiction writer by night. She thrives in the chaos of suburban life, residing in New Jersey (USA) with her husband, two sons, and their golden retriever. Her work has been featured in Metaphorosis, New Myths, and Brilliant Flash Fiction, among others. Twitter: @iamlisafox10800