This is a story I wrote for the NYC Midnight short story contest, Round 1. The elements given were an alcoholic and a garbage dump. It is to be written in the “mystery” genre. This is my first attempt at Mystery. I enjoyed writing it. I hope you will enjoy reading it.
Dark as Night
It started with a call once a day. Then twice a day for a week. The third week there was no call at all.
That’s when she began to miss him. Again.
The second week of April, exactly 5 days before her birthday, he called again.
He said he’d been on vacation.
She pretended that she hadn’t noticed.
The first time they’d spoken, she answered her cell phone in the middle of the produce aisle, thinking it was her best friend, calling from Los Angeles.
“How did you even find me after all these years?” she’d asked
“Oh, you know, persistence”. He’d said. And they both laughed.
With the sound of his voice, she’d become disoriented. The gruff laugh, the deep, low-slung Georgia accent.
For an hour, she’d pushed a cart around Fresh Market with four radishes and three cans of black beans. Every ten minutes or so, she’d run into someone she knew and lose her focus, strain to get it back ,then say what she considered to be the wrong thing to her high-school boyfriend.
“I often wonder what happened to our class. It’s amazing some of them even survived.” She said.
“Jimmy McDaniels was Sheriff.” He said. They laughed at the irony.” Last I heard though, he was arrested on a DUI charge.”
“How did he get away with it that long?” she asked. She could remember him funneling beers, passed out on various front lawns and his being sent off to military school.
“He came out here to go to school, got accepted first round to UCLA Law School. Still partied and all but held it together. We talked every now and then. I don’t know, last time I saw him, he was in the bar with all his buddies from school. Pretended not to know me. Would come in there all the time, looking for a “date”. Most of those girls couldn’t wait to go out with a law student from UCLA. He spent 6 months in rehab after college. I guess he knew he had a problem. Couldn’t very well go into public office as an alcoholic.I guess nothing ever really changes, huh?” he said and there was a beat, just a tiny second where there was a little bit of unintended silence.
“I guess not” She said and tucked her hair behind her right ear. She smiled at the Pop Tarts, picked them up and put them back, moved things around in her mind, breezed past the granola.
He could hear her smiling.
“It was nice to talk to you too.” She said and then, “bye.” She looked around to see if it showed. Her exhilaration over speaking to an ex-boyfriend was tied around her forehead, like a bandana from the eighties.
A misplaced relic.
In aisle Eight she blushed at old Mrs. Franklin, who stood looking at the paper towels, hands on hips. She just grinned and pushed past her small buggy of single serve Stouffers.
At home, she went to Facebook and there he was, 78 friends. She’d tried to look him up years earlier, Googling him, his parents, marriage announcements, death notices, anything she could think of. He was always never there.
Not then and not now.
He called every day for a month. It was just small talk between old friends. He was in California. She was in Atlanta. There was never a mention of meeting face to face. She never asked for his number. It was nothing.
Until she awoke thinking about him.
From then on, she checked the clock, avoided the grocery store at certain hours…
In case he called.
She wanted to focus on the conversation, not get distracted by strawberry low fat yogurt.
The second week she went to the grocery and left her cell phone at home. On purpose. She tried to linger, ask questions of the butcher, bought a whole list of spices for a new recipe.
She took longer than she needed.
Once home, she checked her cell phone before she even put down the plastic grocery bags cutting into her wrists. He’d called. No message. She put the groceries away and worried that he wouldn’t call back, that she had somehow upset the delicate balance of their relationship by not being there.
By playing hard to get.
The next day, he called at the usual time. He said he was sorry to have missed talking to her.
She asked what he was up to these days. “What am I up to now?” he had said, “I’m a bartender. I live in Frisco Bay area. Almost married twice, no kids. Yet” He chuckled and she felt a summersaulting butterfly.
“How about you? You married?” he asked.
“I was, for three years.” She said, wrapping the stretchy cord from the hall telephone all the way around her forearm and back again, pressing pink and white swirls on her arm.
“You remember Charlie Cason?” she said, her voice lilting at the end, lifting it like a little offering to their telephone call ritual.
“The guy who broke his leg sliding down the main stairwell?” He asked.
“Yeah,” she said, avoiding the obvious. He was also the guy who she’d dated after him. The reason she broke up with him, to be exact.
“We dated while he pursued his PhD in Chemical Engineering. He wanted to get married right away, but my parents were willing to send me to Europe and I couldn’t turn them down.”
There, she had made herself seem smart and unattainable, even by the most intelligent guy in school.
“He followed you to Italy or what?” he said, fringing on derisiveness.
“When I eventually came home, in the fall of ’90, we were engaged, then married in February of ’91.” She said. “But he never wanted kids and after a while, after thinking I could live with that, I knew I couldn’t. And we got divorced. We are still friends. He calls every now and then.”
“I tried to find you, you know, that first summer after graduation.” He said in a serious tone.” I called every day for a month almost, talked to your mom.”
Another extra beat of time. A space for her brain to catch up. A place for him to wait.
“She never told me.” She lied. “So, who’d you almost marry? Anyone I know?” she said.
“I doubt it. She was from California. I met her at the restaurant where I worked in Fresno. She died about a month before our wedding date.”
“That’s awful. She must have been so young.” She said, feeling guilty for having bragged about her own life.
“Yeah. They never caught the guy who did it.” She heard him inhale and hold his breath.
She assumed he was doing it out of remembered pain.
“I am really sorry.” She had known this person for half her life. And even though she suffered an insecurity complex about men in general because of their relationship, the grown-up in her was truly sorry for his loss. Having heard the pain in his voice, she felt empathy. He was a stranger but inside him was the teen boy that the teen-her once loved.
He seemed like more than just a bad decision.
That evening, in the light of the small, overly wallpapered bathroom, she looked at herself in the close-up mirror. Little lines crinkled when she smiled.
The past showed in the half-moons under her eyes. Disappointment nested in the droopy corners of her mouth.
Twenty years. Gone and never coming back. Hearts change, forgive. Realize. Maybe see value in things previously dismissed.
She Googled the ‘murder of a woman in Orange County in 1989’. Nothing came up. She Googled, ‘murder of woman in Orange County’ and a newspaper article came up. August 28th, 1992. A local paper reported that the body of a twenty-two year old woman was found in a lake in Orange County, California. She’d been reported missing 6 months earlier, by her mother when she didn’t come from the bar where she worked nights.
The next article was from the San Francisco Chronicle, dated May 3, 1993. “Another woman found in Lake Oliver.” A waitress from Bay County found in the shallow end of the lake, closest to town. Authorities were tipped off when her purse and clothes were found in a half-burned dumpster about a mile away.
The next article was from April 3, 1993.It quoted Sheriff McDaniel. “This will not happen again in our county. I can promise you that. We will find the murderer.” The sheriff was a black and white picture, balding and droopy eyed, like he’d stayed up late for years, just looking for this guy. He’d changed a lot since high school.
The next article was a story about Sheriff McDaniel, dated July 2, 1993. “Bay County Sherriff Arrested for a DUI, a month after his wife was found at the bottom of Lake Oliver.” It attributed his troubles to his failed attempt to find the Lake Oliver serial killer, suspected of killing 5 women in Orange County; all waitresses, all found in a lake, their clothes in nearby dumpsters. It went on to say that Sheriff McDaniels had struggled with addiction all his life, but had not had a drink in twenty years before this incident.
The newest article was again from The San Francisco Chronicle, dated August 12, 1993. “Elusive, possible serial killer has gone dark”. It went on to say, “After a fifth woman was found earlier this year in a rural Lake in Bay County, authorities are desperate for answers.” She shuddered.
Further down, there were articles about a trial of the suspected killer.
The phone rings…
It is him.
“Hey. What cha’ doing?” he asks.
“Oh, just a project for work.” She says,
“Bartending doesn’t require a PhD, but it does afford a flexible schedule.” He said.
“Yeah. I wish I had a little more time to travel.” She said, trying to sound, “normal”, like she hadn’t just been reading about his dead fiancée’s killer. She closed out the articles page.
“Hey, life is short. You have to make the most of it,” he said, almost shouting over what sounded like a semi-truck’s air brakes.
“You on a pay phone?” she asked.
“A what? They don’t make those anymore.” He laughed.
“Guess not. You sound like you are standing next to a highway.” She said.
“Yeah, I’m not far from the by-pass, at this little Texaco station. Thought I’d hit the road. See what kind of trouble I can stir up. I don’t want my feet to turn to stone, you know?” he said.
“I thought Texaco was only in the South.” She said.
There was a bit of silence. “I guess not.” He said.
“I was thinking, I might head down there sometime. I mean, not immediately. Maybe in the spring.” He said and her heart flipped over again.
She was old now. Not seventeen. Or even thirty.
“You got a boyfriend, or anybody right now?” he asked.
“Not really, I…”
“Never mind…”he said.
“No. It’s okay. It’s just a little weird. I mean, it’s been twenty years…” she stumbled over her words.
“Yeah.” He said. “I understand.”
“No, listen, I would love to see you. Why not? For old time sakes.” She was smiling again, remembering.
He said. “I’m actually driving through Georgia in a couple of weeks. I will call you…” he said.
“That sounds really nice.” She almost whispered the words. She had two weeks to lose ten pounds.
“Sounds fun. I will try to plan some things for us to do while you are in town, you know, so we don’t risk a lot of awkward silence.” They both laughed.
“Will it be warm enough to swim there in a couple of weeks?” he asked.
“Swim?” she said, wrinkling her face. “Maybe. Late May is pretty warm, remember the quarry? How we jumped off that cliff, that clear blue, freezing water?” she said.
“I think about it all the time.” He said.
Two weeks passed. Then three. Late June and no phone call. She checked her cell for missed calls. And finally, decided to call him. Maybe she misunderstood when he would be in Georgia. She found the phone bill and the twenty-odd calls from the same phone number in California. She dialed it.
A man answered.
“John?” she asked.
“No, can I help you?” Something obscene colored the man’s voice.
“I was looking for John Edward Callahan. Is this the right number?” she asked.
“Depends. Who are you?” he asked.
“Oh, just a friend. He’d called me from this number and…” The man laughed.
“He gone.” The man said with a kind of admiration. Looong gone. They been looking for him for a month now, baby.”
“Who?” she said.
“Everybody. State of California. FBI.” The man continued. “He runnin’. Maybe to you.”
“From where?” she managed, now fascinated.
“State of California Correctional Facility for the Mentally Insane.” He said, enunciating each syllable for effect.
“This was to be his home for life. Done three counts of murder. But he dark as night and fast as the wind. And he don’t never get caught ‘til he want to.”
She knew this about him already.
Her stomach butterflies were moths now, chewing at her reality. They flitted and ate and made holes before turning themselves to the flame. Darkness and desperation shone through.
She’d known it all along, that he was just pretending.
She never trusted him at all.