Victoria S. Hardy

Victoria S. Hardy

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Julian's Surrender

Julian’s Surrender
a short story by Victoria S. Hardy

Joseph punched the wall, cracking the sheetrock, and screamed in frustration.  How dare she?  How dare that stupid bitch call his mother and lie?  He threw himself on the bed and turned up the heavy metal song on his iPod.  Yes, he touched the girl, but she was asking for it, sitting on the bus in a skirt with her legs open.  Stupid slut should have kept her legs closed if she didn’t want someone touching her; it was an invitation.  His mom wouldn’t see it that way, though, she never did.  She never took his side; she just blamed him, always blaming him for everything. 

His heart pounded in his chest and he threw the iPod against the wall, yanking the buds from his ears painfully.  He jumped to his feet when he heard the key in the front door and met his mother as she stepped into the house, overloaded with bags of groceries.  “Joe, get the rest of the groceries out of the car, please,” she said, carrying the load into the kitchen.

“No,” he said and slammed the front door.

Julian set the bags on the counter and sighed, as the television blared to life in the living room.  With her purse still slung over her shoulder she went outside and retrieved the rest of the groceries.  She began putting the goods away and dreaded the weekend - if she could work seven days a week, she’d do it.

She went to her bedroom and changed out of her uniform, leaving her purse and a bottle of Merlot on the bed.  “Could you turn the TV down, Joe?” she asked as she began preparing dinner.

He ignored her. 

She wanted a drink, but she didn’t drink in front of her son.  She saved the wine for bedtime, locked in her room, and it seemed to help her sleep, although she wasn’t sure it was safe to sleep so soundly.  She fashioned hamburger patties and was setting them in a pan when Joseph stepped into the kitchen, she felt her stomach tense as he tore open a bag of chips and jumped up to sit on the counter. 

“I didn’t hurt that girl, Mom,” he said, chewing with his mouth open, despite all the times she had instructed him in the proper and polite manner.

“You sure scared her,” Julian said, her nerves grated by the loud crunching.

“She’s just being a whiny bitch.”

“Watch your language, Joe,” she said softly, turning on the heat under the pan and opening a can of beans.  “Besides, she’s just eleven.  You scared her.” 

“She shouldn’t dress like that, how in the hell did I know she was only eleven?”  He crunched, and she could see the partially chewed food in his mouth. 

“You’re supposed to keep your hands to yourself.”

“I’ll put my hands where I want, it’s a free country.”

“It’s only free when you keep your hands to yourself, I talked her mother into not pressing charges,” she said, wondering why she did.  “But you can’t ride that bus anymore, her mom said if she saw you on the bus again she’s calling the law.” 

“Good, I hate riding that bus anyway, you need to get me a car.”  He crunched and her nerves screamed for a drink.

“I’ve told you before I can’t afford another car, much less the insurance on a teenager.”  She watched the burgers sizzle, but kept him in her peripheral vision. 

“Other kids have a car, why do you want to treat me like a red-headed step kid?”

“Other kids have families with two incomes or have their own job to pay for a car.  You’ll need to get a job, you’re old enough.”

“I’m not working at some fast food joint while some loser barks orders at me all day.  That’s not going to happen!  You could get another job and help me out.” 

She sighed.  She’d love to get another job, maybe two or three to avoid her son 24/7, but her son was her second and third job.  “No, I can’t.  I’ll just have to take you to school and pick you up until I can figure out something else.  Or you could walk.”

“Or I could just drop out, problem solved.  I’m not walking a mile and a half twice a day, you need to buy me a car.” 

“You’re seventeen, Joe, it’s time to start acting like it.”

“Oh, and I know you’re so going to kick me out when I turn eighteen.  I just know it.”  

“No, I’m not,” she said.  I might kick myself out, she thought. 

“You think I can’t read the writing on the wall, Mom?  I know you’re sick of me.  Hell, I know you never loved me.”

Here we go, she thought and flipped the burgers.  “Of course I love you, Joe.”  Okay, if the truth were told she was at the end of her rope. 

“No, you don’t.  You haven’t loved me since Dad died.” 

He was probably right, although she’d never admit it to anyone.  She was just beginning to admit it to herself.  He was her son and she loved him for that, but the last ten years had been hard, nearly impossibly hard, and she had no idea how she managed to make it day to day with the constant weight of stress and worry on her back. 

“If you loved me you’d buy me a car.  If you’d loved me you’d buy me the shoes I wanted for Christmas last year.  If you loved me you wouldn’t be such a bitch all the time.”  He dropped the bag of chips and jumped off the counter, crushing them into the floor.

She felt her heartbeat accelerate, took a deep breath, and stepped into the pantry for the broom.  “There’s only so much money, Joe,” she said calmly.  “I can’t afford three hundred dollar shoes.”  She waited until he was done grinding the chips into the linoleum, and had stepped away, before she began cleaning the mess. 

“No, there’s plenty of money, you’re just greedy.”  He leaned against the door jam and watched her sweep the greasy crumbs into the dustpan.

She didn’t even try to explain mortgages, car payments, utilities, insurance and the realities of keeping a roof over their heads.  Not to mention the loan she had to take out to pay the fines when he wrecked her last car.  The car he had stolen, although she didn’t tell the police he had stolen it. 

“You just want to keep me locked up here like a caged animal, no car, damned discount clothes, and no money.” 

“I thought you said I wanted to kick you out,” she said, cautioning herself to stay calm and not talk back.

“You just want to ruin my life, make me as miserable as you are.”

She sighed and put the broom away.  She stirred the beans, keeping her eye on him discretely.  She didn’t know why he behaved the way he did, but he had been a difficult child since he was a toddler.  She had taken him to doctors and they seemed to blame her - she was over-protective, not attentive enough, needed to spend more time with him, needed to be more sympathetic and she was depressed. 

Hell yes, she was depressed!  She felt like a caged animal. 

And yes, she hadn’t really loved him since Jerry died. 

The police ruled it an accident, they said the gun misfired when her husband was cleaning it, but she had her doubts.  Although the police stared into her son’s tear-stained, blue eyes and saw only a little boy who had been traumatized by witnessing his father’s death, she saw something else.  She still remembered the chill she felt when he crawled in bed with her the night of the funeral, hugged her tight, and said happily, “Now it’s just you and me, Mom.”  She chastised herself for seeing such darkness in a seven-year-old boy, but try as she might she couldn’t push the feeling away, anymore than she could push away the fear. 

She lowered the heat under the food and pulled the buns out of the breadbox, all the time aware of his eyes on her.  He didn’t look at her like a son looks at a mother; he looked at her like a man views his possessions. 

“You can’t keep me locked up like this all the time.”  He said and moved from the door jam.

She scooted around him and pulled the condiments from the fridge.  “You’re not locked up, Joe.”  Groundings and restrictions had never worked with him anyway.

“I feel like I am.  I don’t get anything I want.  I’m just trapped all day, every day.”  He sat down at the table.

Yeah, she thought, me too. 

“I’m bored.  I want to have fun, I’m sick of this serious shit all the time.”

She made his plate and set it on the table.

“I want some chips.” 

“We don’t have anymore, I only bought the one bag,” she said and glanced at the trashcan. 

“I can’t eat a burger without chips!” he yelled.

“Well, you shouldn’t have crushed them into the floor,” she said, and instantly regretted it.

His eyes changed and she knew she had done it.

“Fuck you!” he bellowed and flipped the table.

She dodged the table and watched his burger slide into the corner, leaving behind a deep red smear of ketchup on the floor.

“It’s your fault!  It’s always your fault!  You’re supposed to give your kid the things he needs and you should’ve bought more than one bag of chips!  I’m freaking hungry!” 

She was grateful for the upended table between them as he raged, a boundary between them.  “I’ll get you another burger,” she said calmly.

“I said I can’t eat a burger without chips!” he yelled and kicked his chair into the wall. 

She said nothing; anything she said right now would throw him deeper into the blind and terrifying rage.

“I hate you!”  He kicked the chair a few more times until it was in pieces, stalked through the living room and slammed out the front door. 

She sighed and looked around the kitchen, they were down to only one chair now.  She righted the table and picked up the burger, wiping the ketchup off the floor.  She gathered the pieces of the broken chair and dumped them in the trash outside the back door.  She’d been so happy when she’d found the dining table at a thrift store just months earlier and in a few short months they went from five wooden chairs down to one.  She should have known better than to bring anything nice into the house, when would she ever learn?

She ate a burger, put the rest of the food away, and cleaned up the kitchen.  She made a mental note to go back to the thrift store in the morning and buy a couple more chairs; Joseph would take it as another sign that she didn’t love him if there was only one chair.  She dreaded when he returned, his rages didn’t end as quickly as they began, and she knew the rest of weekend would be challenging. 

She pulled the keys from the pocket of her jeans and unlocked her bedroom door.  She slipped inside and reengaged the deadbolt.  She’d had the door replaced with metal after he kicked in the last wooden one, sending her out the window to escape, and had the jam reinforced.  Joseph was big and strong, even stronger when he was angry, and she hoped the new door made it through the weekend.  

Julian settled on the bed and felt weary.  She glanced at the mirror across the room and thought she looked more like sixty, than the forty she was.  Her eyes were dark rimmed and hollow, her face was pale, and her body was too thin and bordering on skeletal.  Ten years of stress and fear had worn her down to something she almost didn’t recognize.   

She stopped taking him to doctors at eleven, somehow he always managed to con them and throw the blame on her.  Of course, she didn’t always tell the doctors the truth, either; terrified of something she couldn’t quite name.  Was she scared they’d call her a bad parent?  Scared that they’d lock him away forever?  She couldn’t identify the one fear out of all the others.  She was afraid and had been since the night of Jerry’s funeral.

Somehow Joseph managed to avoid most punishment for his actions and she feared that she did protect him too much.  She had lied for him, like when she found the neighbor’s missing cat mutilated and tacked onto a piece of wood in the shed.  She said she hadn’t seen the cat and made sure to bury it when the neighbors weren’t home and wouldn’t have a chance to catch her.  When she asked Joseph why he did it, he denied it at first and then said he just wanted to see what was inside.  “I’m going to be a doctor one day,” he’d said, staring up at her with those big blue eyes.

Yes, Joseph was handsome; sometimes she thought he was unnaturally handsome, although she wasn’t sure what that meant.  He was tall, lean, had a strong jaw, expressive blue eyes and full lips.  He turned heads everywhere he went and when he smiled she could see the effect it had on people.  They saw an angel come to earth, she thought, and shuddered, for all she saw was a demon that she had been battling for ten years.

When he was thirteen she began locking her bedroom door at night, but only after she woke up once to find him standing over her with a knife in his hand.  He declared he must have been sleepwalking and her gasp upon waking was what drew him out of his slumber.  That occurred just weeks after the little girl down the street, Tallie Covington, was found dead by the creek, mutilated and nailed to a tree. 

She searched his room while he was at school looking for any evidence that he may have killed Tallie, she didn’t find anything, but in the back of her mind she was sure he did it.  Then Rusty Brennings from three blocks over was found in the same terrible condition and she searched his room again.  For months she feared the knock on the door, the police arriving to take him away, but it never happened. 

She installed the deadbolt when he was fifteen, after she caught him in her room going through her underwear drawer.  He said he was looking for a pair of missing socks, but she didn’t believe him.  The next day she began locking herself in her room and locking her door when she left, even if she was just going to the bathroom. 

She felt like a failure as a mother, and she supposed that is why she lied to the police and the doctors – what if it was all her fault?  What if she hadn’t breast fed long enough or held him enough as a baby?  What if she had never loved him?  She’d read books on serial killers and it seemed the experts always blamed it on the mother, what if it was her fault?  What if one simple lack of attention or affection in those early years had been enough to set him off course? 

He stole her car when he was sixteen and was gone for a week.  She didn’t report the car missing and when he wrecked it and the police brought him home she said he’d only been gone for a few hours and that he’d had permission.  She had to pay the fines, of course, and the loan still wasn’t paid off. 

While he was gone that week, two prostitutes and one run-a-way in the next town were found dead; their flesh peeled back and tacked on some piece of wood. 

When he came home he was older, harder somehow.  He kicked in her door a couple weeks later.  She went out the window like a kid on a sled and knew whatever met her on the ground outside was not as bad as what was awaiting her inside the house.  She hit the rocks hard, and scraped her arms, belly and legs, but luckily didn’t break any bones.  She’d had a plan and had hid some money behind the shed in a mason jar buried under some debris. 

She ran, dug that jar up, and ran some more. 

She rented a cheap motel room and waited a few days, eating cheap take out food and washing her clothes in the sink.  She’d already stored an extra uniform at work and on Monday afternoon she went home as though nothing had happened.  The house was trashed.  The sentimental things that were left she stored at the corner self-storage unit, she didn’t need a big one, and it only cost ten bucks a month. 

She bought the gun the next week. 

She had to put it on lay-a-way at a pawnshop and fill out all the necessary paperwork, and when she finally paid off her purchase she stepped out of the iron clad store with tears streaming down her cheeks.  She ran into the alley and sobbed. 

She stood up, feeling older than her forty years and stretched.  She wanted a shower, but was afraid to leave her room.  She reached under the bed and pulled out a large bowl, a washcloth, and a gallon of water. She stripped and tried to wash the day’s grease, sweat, and the smell of food from her skin with a cup of water and soap.  She allowed more water to rinse.  She dressed in jeans, boots and a dark shirt and poured the waste out of the window.  She stepped into the closet, grabbed some coffee and a small machine, and while the coffee dripped she brushed her hair. 

The brush slid through her greasy locks and she couldn’t help remembering the Perkins’ Pomeranian, the dog with the beautiful hair, Sunny.  A pampered, sweet dog owned by the elderly couple down the street.  It disappeared on the day Joseph was too sick to go to school.  She tried to get the day off, she’d seen the puke in the toilet, and she’d listened to him groan.  She shook her head and pulled her hair firmly into a ponytail.

She found the dog in Joseph’s closet, cut nearly in two and tacked on a piece of wood, and she lied again. 

She reached under a pile of winter sweaters and pulled the gun free. 

He’ll be back, she thought and sipped black coffee. 

She discovered the piece of thick plywood in the shed Monday morning.  She had just stepped inside to retrieve some birdfeed and nearly wet her pants when the saw it leaning in the corner.  She stood beside it and realized it was a perfect fit.  Her heart pounded, but no tears came.

Julian turned on the TV, muted the sound, and waited. 

She felt him coming before she heard him, the ground under her feet vibrated for several moments and then the ceiling fans rattled. 

The front door opened. 

She sat up straighter and set her coffee down.

“Mom!” he bellowed.

She unlocked the safety.

“We have to talk, Mom!”  He kicked the door. 

She didn’t know what would make him madder, if she spoke or if she didn’t. 

He kicked the door again.

She couldn’t speak.  She tried, but only a squeak came out. 

He hit the door harder, higher, she suspected with his shoulder, and bits of sheetrock fell from the ceiling. He hit it again and the wall splintered outside of the new reinforcement.

She lifted the gun.

With the next hit the door fell open and he stumbled into the room.  “Fuck it, Mom, why do you have to be such a bitch?  I just want to talk to you.”  He pulled a knife from his back pocket. 

She fired and he fell.  She saw the stain on his chest and watched it grow.  She stood slowly, the gun still poised.  “Tallie and Rusty?  Did you do it?” she demanded.

He tried to lean up on his elbow, but couldn’t.  He lay back and smiled.  “Of course.”

She watched his eyes, they seemed to darken, no longer blue but almost purple, and his pupils grew longer. 

“The run-a-way and the prostitutes?”

“Yes,” he laughed, smiled, and coughed up blood. 

“Why?” she screamed, grabbing her hair and sobbing, the gun against her head.

“Because it’s what I do and you let me.”  He laughed again, blood coloring his teeth and cheeks.  “You knew and you let me do it.”  

“No more,” she said softly and pulled the gun away from her head.  “No more,” she whispered and fired. 

She sat with him until she was sure he wasn’t breathing.  And then she waited a little longer. 

I’m just as guilty, she thought, as she picked up the phone.  I’m just as guilty, she thought, as she dialed.  “I killed my son.  I’m on the front porch, my arms are above my head, and I’m unarmed,” she said to the dispatcher and set the phone beside the gun on the kitchen table.  I’m just as guilty, she thought, as she saw the flashing lights pull in front of her house. 

Julian raised her arms in surrender. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Dotted Line........

The Dotted Line
a short story

Candi pulled on her shit-kicking boots and stared out the window.  She was dressed in a long sleeved shirt, denim dress pants, and a sweater.  She glanced at the clock, feeling the anxiety in her stomach, and finished her third cup of coffee.  She stood up slowly, her muscles tense and achy, and stretched out her shoulders.  She felt like she was going into battle, but she was only going to work.

She wanted to laugh, but knew if she gave into the desire she would end up on the floor, in the corner, sobbing.  She checked her lunch bag: nuts, protein bars, a peanut butter sandwich, caffeine pills and energy drinks.  She poured her fourth cup of coffee in a large travel mug and set everything on the table beside the door. 

She went through her small house, ensuring that the windows and doors were locked and that her cat had enough water to see him through if she didn’t make it home for a while.  She stood beside the tub and looked at the faucet; she wanted to leave it dripping in case he had to be alone for days, she considered leaving more bowls of food and snapped back to reality.  “You’re going to freaking work, Candace, not war,” she muttered softly.

She pulled on gloves, a scarf, and a nice leather jacket she’d found for only five bucks at the local Salvation Army.  She grabbed her keys, took half a dozen deep breaths, and stepped out into the morning.  The sky was overcast, the wind cold and wet, and she could smell snow in the air.  She glanced over to see the snow shovel resting by the porch and had to restrain herself from double-checking the fact that there was one in the trunk.  She knew she had placed it in there, as well as, other articles to protect her in blizzard season and she refused to check again.  She was tired. 

She drove slowly, taking an indirect route to finish her coffee and smoke a couple cigarettes.  She parked in the lot and looked at the towering building.  It truly wasn’t towering when compared to the other buildings beside it, but when inside, it felt oppressive.  It hadn’t always been overwhelming, though, for eight years she had enjoyed her job, loved it actually, but companies change hands and when hers did it resulted in most of the staff being fired or laid off.  New people were brought in to replace the, now, abbreviated job titles, and Candi was one of the “lucky” ones who had been spared. 

She crossed the parking lot and stepped into the building.  She shunned the elevator and took the stairs.  It’s training, she thought as her breathing became heavy when she turned onto the fifth set.  She counted as she walked.  She knew how many steps there were for each floor, and she knew how many steps there were from the parking lot to her small, cubed, office. 

The door of the stairwell opened and gave a perfect view down the hall, and into the glass doors revealing the reception desk.  Candi breathed a sigh of relief, Serena wasn’t at work yet and then she saw the willowy blonde appear from under the desk.  “Damn it,” Candi muttered under her breath. 

Her paced slowed.  She opened the glass door, smiled, and nodded.

“I see you have a new jacket, Candace.  What did that cost you?  A dollar fifty at the local food bank?”  Serena smiled, her delicately arched and darkened brows lifting up and disappearing under heavily bleached hair.  Her eyes were a yellow shade of green that reminded Candi of the feral cats that she fed on occasion and who would bite her for no reason.

“Seventy-five cents and they served lobster bisque!  Isn’t it great?”  Candi spun in a slow circle to highlight the hand-me-down jacket.

Serena’s pupils grew smaller and her lips tightened; she glanced at her nails. 

Candi made a right turn and stared down the cubed corridor.  She took a deep breath and stepped into the gauntlet.  The “hall” was long, with twelve cubed “offices” on each side and she wished she were invisible.  Luckily, she was early and most hadn’t come into the office with their chatter, noise, thoughts, and subtle threats.

“I thought you said the sales report would be on my desk this morning, Candace!” Laura barked before Candi had cleared the three-foot opening of her office.

“I left it there last night,” Candi said, leaning in and checking Laura’s inbox – it was empty.

“Well, it’s not there,” Laura said, leaning forward - all six foot of her - and pointed, with a sharpened nail painted deep red, at the empty box. 

“I’ll have it for you in a second,” Candi said.  She had prepared for this. 

“I’m leaving in sixty, you better,” Laura said, standing to her full height and placing her hands on her thick waist. 

Candi stepped into her cube, and pulled a set of keys from her pocket.  She unlocked the filing cabinet and pulled the second report free.  She walked back to Laura’s cube and dropped the report into the inbox.  Laura looked up from the compact, as she applied more blood colored lipstick, and nodded.  

Candi sat down at her desk, booted up the computer and turned, opening the blinds that looked down on the dark and polluted river below.  The river hadn’t always been polluted, but in the last few years, as the mines shut down, it had grown darker and darker and more slow moving.  At the very least, it made interesting designs in the ice as it froze every winter. 

She heard him enter, somehow the well-greased door always clicked when he entered – it always clicked three times.  Maybe a reminder of how much higher he was on the totem pole than she.  The line of cubes were much like a totem pole, the executives sat in the front with real offices and big windows looking down at the city, and the lines of uncluttered squares, growing smaller, denoted those who hadn’t achieved the big prize.  The executive turnover was high, but she remained at the bottom, never moving up, and tried to be content with her view of the polluted river.  Her space was the smallest, the heat rarely seemed to work, and the sun never made direct contact – she’d almost considered watering the moss that grew on the brick of her windowsill. 

Caleb had arrived and she was torn between her feelings.  He was big, lumbering, gruff, and short when he spoke.  He wasn’t attractive, and although he didn’t smell bad, she wondered how often he showered.  He was unkempt, his hair longish and looked as though he had been pulling at it in frustration and anger.  He always wore the same trench coat, his jackets looked as though they came from cheaper thrift stores than she shopped, and his t-shirts were ragged as if he had unearthed them from the beach after a wild party.  In other words, Caleb was weirdly cute and totally terrifying. 

Next came Crystal.  She could always tell when Crystal entered a room, not because the building gave away a hint, like it did with Caleb, but because she was just loud.  She laughed at everything; a hideously annoying, nervous laugh, and she did it at the end of every sentence.  Candi could only discern the importance of the person Crystal was speaking with by the sheer loudness of her laugh.

Candi studied her workload, sighed, pulled an energy drink from her bag, and listened to the office waking up.

Miriam came in quietly.  Miriam didn’t speak much and when engaged in conversation, she spoke of her angst, pain, and doctors.  Although Miriam was quiet on the surface, Candi felt the scream of her entrance.  When Miriam came in every morning, ever so softly, Candi felt it in her right shoulder.

Candi checked her email, realized she had to pee, and wished for something different. 

Amy stepped into the office and the floor vibrated.  Amy wasn’t a big girl, but she walked so heavily that the whole room vibrated when she entered.  Amy was twenty-something, blond, built, and had the second cube from the boss.  She worked out at the gym six nights a week, got more phone calls than anyone in the office and, Candi suspected, would be moving into the first cube by month’s end. 

Samantha came in next and Candi could detect her by the scent of her cologne.  Somehow her perfume made it through the doubled glass doors before Samantha did.  Samantha sat across from Caleb and he often complained of her stench and it seemed the more he complained, the stronger the aroma became. 

“Jesus,” he muttered as Samantha spoke to Serena. 

Candi stifled a laugh. 

The pit of her stomach churned, the air grew a little thicker, and she knew Troy had arrived.  She heard the greeting Serena handed out, her voice purring sexily, and Candi cringed. 

Troy had a big office, the ones with sunny windows and heat.  Troy was the prize amongst most of the single women in the department looking for a man to take them from their troubles.  Troy drove the right car, his facial hair was perpetually trimmed in the latest style, and his body reflected the time he put out to perfect it, but he made Candi’s skin crawl.  His eyes were blue, and dead fish like, his brows and hair dark.  On the surface he was an attractive, single, rich man, but underneath, Candi smelled a corpse. 

Her phone rang and she picked it up slowly.  “This is Candace, how may I help you?” she answered.

“Candi-Bunny, come to my office,” Troy said.

“Yes, sir,” she said, hanging up the phone and taking a big slug of chemicals that professed to give her energy.

She still had to pee, but she stood, picked up her notepad and walked through the gauntlet.  Most didn’t pay attention to her, settling their workspaces for the day, but she felt Caleb’s eyes on her back. 

Troy sat at his desk, his expensive suit jacket hanging next to his overcoat on the rack in the corner, and he studied the post-it notes on his desk.  She rubbed her nose, she could discern the cologne and knew it was high-end, one-ounce cost more than she spent in groceries for a month, but it didn’t cover the odor of the decay.  She knocked softly.

“Come in, Candi-Bunny,” he said and smiled, her skin crawled. 

She stepped into the room and stood in the doorway. 

“Sit, sit,” he said, waving his arm and indicating the leather chairs set before his desk.

Candi stepped forward slowly.  She felt naked, and restrained herself from looking down to see whether or not she was truly dressed.  She knew she had clothes on, but the desire, the feeling to check, was nearly overwhelming as the man with the dead eyes watched her.  She sat down on the cold leather and faced him, wondering if it was only her imagination that one of his eyes seemed displaced. 

“Laura said that her report wasn’t ready as she was told it would be,” he stated.

Candi glanced at her watch.  “I told her she’d have it this morning.  The workday doesn’t start until eight.  She had it at seven forty five.”  She pulled her eyes away from his because they made her dizzy.

He chuckled and his smile brought to mind a nature video she’d once seen of wolves tearing into the flesh of a helpless rabbit.  “She was displeased.” 

She nodded, her eyes on a bronze replica of scarab on his desk.  Her bladder cramped, reminding her of the coffee she had consumed.

He stared and she grew sweaty and weak.  The hair on her arms and neck stood at attention.  “Next time she wants a report on her desk, you deliver it.  Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, keeping her eyes downturned.  “May I go?”

He looked her up and down and she felt roaches crawling on her skin.  She stopped herself from slapping at the ones she felt on her legs, right above her boots and below where her slacks grew tight, and looked into his fish eyes.

He smiled and she told herself that his canine teeth really weren’t as long as she perceived.  “Yes, Bunny, you may go.”

She wanted to run.  She really wanted to run, after all, she had trained with all the stair walking she had done, but she walked slowly, almost lady-like, out of his office.  She went to the bathroom and walked back down the gauntlet, smelling the smells, hearing the overwhelmingly loud laughter, and feeling the eyes. 

Caleb grabbed her.  He rolled back in his chair, pulling her along, his grip firm on her wrist.  “Everything all right?” he asked, looking her over as though she was a meal he wasn’t interested in eating. 

“Yes,” she expelled on a breath.  “I’m fine.”

He studied her for a moment, up and down, and she felt the roaches leave her skin.  “Good,” he said, dropping her wrist and turning to the three different monitors displaying information. 

Candi went back to her desk.  She was just inputting the last day’s numbers when she heard Mika enter the asylum.  Mika was never happy.  Her desk was opposite of Amy’s, she received nearly as many calls a day, and Candi was unsure which one would achieve the golden cube right outside of the bosses’ offices first.  Mika bitched.  Mika bitched about everything and would tell the sandwich guy, the UPS man, and everyone below her how they could do their job better, but to the folks in the window-lined offices, she was milk and chocolate.  Didn’t hurt that she was half Japanese, and those extra twenty pounds seemed to work in her favor, but Mika was all spoiled-American and thought all things should be done, as she said they should be done, and when she expected them.

Candi chuckled for a moment, grateful that she still could, and regretted that she had never started an office pool to see who would win that golden cube, Amy or Mika. 

She cursed her moment of humor when Mika appeared in the doorway.  “I heard what you did,” Mika said, her voice soft but somehow reverberating through the rafters of the old building.  Her hand was on her waist and her black hair shined.

“What have I done?” Candi asked, focusing on the paperwork on her desk.

“You pissed off Laura!”  Her voice grew louder. 

Candi glanced at the mirrored 1970s clock on her desk and saw Mika toss the black mass of hair over one shoulder.  She shrugged, alphabetizing the paperwork from the previous day’s sales.

“It is your job to give us our reports, that is all you have to do.  How hard is it to pull up a file, print it, staple it, and put it on a desk?  Are you stupid?”  Mika stood taller than her few inches over five feet and seemed to fill the doorway.

Candi glanced at the mirrored clock again and decided it was only the angle of the mirror that made Mika look so large and bat-like.  She felt chill bumps erupt on her skin.  “She had it before the start of the workday,” she said softly.

“She’s a salesperson, Candace,” Mika spoke slowly as though explaining something to a deaf mute.  “Her days begin before the start of the work day,” her voice carried on the ceiling like a wet, heavy blanket.  “Do you know many people she talks to everyday?  Do you know how many places she goes?  She can’t wait until you come dragging in to get her reports!  It’s a simple push of a button!  You need to get with the program!”  She turned sharply, walking away, and Candi could have sworn she saw the jagged points of wings through the warped glass of the old clock. 

Billy stepped into her cube.  “Where’s the daily?” he asked. 

Billy was in his thirties, overweight, had never been married, and did everything by the book.  He glanced at his watch.  “The report,” he said again, digging his trousers from his crotch. 

Candi pulled it out of her outbox and handed it to him. “It’s here, where it’s supposed to be,” she said, making a big show of glancing at the clock on the wall. 

He stared at her chest.  “I heard you pissed off Laura,” he chuckled and worked on pulling the generous pants from the crack of his ass.  He took the papers and she told herself it was only her imagination that she saw the oily fingerprints he left on them. 

She shrugged. “It happens.” 

He snorted and continued down the hall. 

Then Nathan stepped through the doors.  He didn’t use just the one, he had to slam both of the glass doors open as though his girth was far wider than it was.  Physically, Nathan was not a big man, but he had a way of intimidation about him that no one could help but feel small in his presence.  He was mean, his eyes were sharp, and he had a challenged spot in the office – he was in one of the first cubes by the bosses.  When Nathan entered the room she didn’t smell him, the door didn’t click, the room didn’t vibrate, and her shoulder didn’t scream in pain.  When Nathan entered, the second hand on the clock stuttered and it stopped for a moment.  When Nathan entered, time and sound stopped for a beat. 

She heard Serena’s voice respond to his entrance, growing more slippery and slick, and Candi glanced at the big wall clock she’d bought for her cube and saw the little hand jut back, steady, and then proceed. 

She shook her head. 

Nathan was the reason she’d bought the big battery operated clock she kept on her cube wall, the only thing she displayed to her co-workers, and Nathan was also the reason she’d bought the circa 1970s electric clock on her desk.  He was also why she purchased the watches, both the one on her wrist and the two others hidden away in her desk drawers. 

“Candace?”  She heard Richard whisper from the other side of the wall.  “Where are my files?”

She sighed, stood up, and walked to the next cube.  “Right there, Rich, where they always are.”  She pointed at the pile beside his chair – the place he demanded she place his files.

“I told you yesterday I wanted them there.”  He pointed at the top of the filing cabinet.

“No, you didn’t.  If you had told me that, I wouldn’t have put them there.”  She pointed again to the stack, wondering why it was a big deal.  There were his files and in the same place she had put them since he had replaced Dawn. 

“I told you yesterday,” he whispered.  Richard never spoke above a whisper. 

“You may have thought, considered, and pondered telling me, Rich, but you never actually told me.  If you had, your files would be where you requested.”  She smiled. 

“I’m calling Troy,” he said and sneered, his front teeth calling up the memory of a gerbil she had as a child. 

“You do that,” she said and walked back to her cube.  She downed the energy drink and tossed the can in the trash.  It’s only twenty after eight, she thought, it’s going to be a long day. 

She went to work and the phone rang a bit before noon.  “This is Candace, how may I help you?” she answered. 

“We’re doing lunch,” Troy barked in the phone.  “I’ve had lots of complaints about you today, Candi-Bunny, lots.  Meet me at my office in five.”  He hung up the phone. 

She dropped the phone slowly and glanced down at her clothes.  She’d worn her shit-kicking clothes, would this be the day?  She straightened her desk as she straightened her house, as though she would never return, but there wasn’t a cat here to feed, so she watered the plants she’d set in the cold window. 

She pulled on her new five-dollar jacket, shoved her gloves in the pockets, donned her scarf, and met him at his office.  He towered over her, his dark brows in straight lines, his dead fish eyes looking both left and right at the same time.  “Let’s go,” he snapped.

She followed him, glancing over her shoulder to see if anyone was concerned.  Serena smirked and tended to her hair in the mirror she kept ready on her desk.  He took the elevator and she wanted the stairs.  Her breath grew short in the small box, his eyes were on her, and the roaches had returned.  The numbers descended and she wondered if the small box held any oxygen and then she wondered if he even needed oxygen. 

The doors finally opened, she took a deep breath, and followed him into the parking lot.  “Laura, Billy, Mika and Richard all complained about you today,” he said, bypassing his car and heading to the street.

She expelled the air caught in her chest.  “I know,” she said softly.

“You have it good here, why do you want to waste our time and your own?” he asked over his shoulder, the wind blowing most of his words away.

“I don’t, just trying to do my job.”

“Trying is the word here.  Trying,” he laughed and turned into a diner.

They settled in a booth and the waitress brought the menu.  He waved it away and ordered for both of them.  “Rare steak, very rare, and some fries.”

Candi thought of the peanut butter sandwich with longing and a catch in her belly.

“Do you want to work here?  There are many people who would like your cushy office.”

She held her tongue and was grateful when the waitress appeared with iced water.

“What do you make, twenty-five, thirty a year?”

She nodded her head and stared at the red plastic cup.

“Don’t you know how blessed you are?”

She wanted to laugh and dug her nails into her thighs, trying to waylay the sound and emotion.  This is being blessed?

“Look at me!” he demanded, causing the people at the counter to turn their heads. 

She looked up and couldn’t decide which eye to focus on.  She was unsure if his eyes were actually off-center, or if that was only the way she perceived him. 

“What do you want, Candi-Bunny?  What do you want?” he asked, the roaches crawling on her skin.

“I want a job and I want peace,” she said honestly. 

“You can’t have both.  What?  Do you think I have peace?  I work eighty hours a week and my team has to work with me!”  The patrons at the counter turned again. 

She pulled her eyes away.  “I don’t want the big office, I just want a job.”

“What are you willing to give?” he asked, reaching over the table for her hand. 

She pulled her hand away.  She lifted her gaze from the condensation beginning to drip down the exterior of the cup and focused on his sideway eyes.  “Not that.” 

He laughed louder this time, and two men, with hard hats sitting on the counter, ignored their half-eaten burgers to turn their stools and watch the interaction. 

The waitress brought their bloody steaks and Candi’s stomach clenched as she remembered her sandwich.  Troy waved the woman away rudely as she attempted to ask if they had all they needed and a third man turned to watch. 

“Really?” he declared.  “I think you’re lying!  I think you’d give most anything to keep that wart hole you live in and feed that damned cat!”

A woman with tattoos on her face joined the onlookers. 

Candi felt chill bumps rise on her skin.  How did he know about Siddhartha?  She didn’t put pictures of her cat as her screen saver or on her cube walls.  How could he know?  She focused on the water dripping down the cheap red cup.

“Answer me!” he said, cutting into the bloody meat. 

“Yes, really,” she whispered, wishing she could disappear as the couple behind turned in their direction.  

“You have to make a decision and make it now!” he said, his voice louder, and she was sure she saw those canine teeth lengthen.  “Do you want to move forward or fall off the cart?”

She looked around the diner, saw the men at the counter ready to defend her, the couple behind her concerned, and she reviewed her bank balance in her mind.  She’d been saving, she had a couple months worth stored back, and Siddhartha wouldn’t go hungry.  “I guess I’m falling off the cart,” she whispered and pushed her bloody lunch away. 

“Did you read what you signed when you came to work for us?” he growled under his breath, but the people at the counter still watched him as one would watch a snake.

She thought back.  No, she hadn’t read all thirteen pages.  She’d scored a job, a full time job, when most of her friends had at least two part time jobs and were still struggling to make ends meet.  She shook her head.

“I own you.  I own your fucking cat!” he laughed and the woman with the tatted face stepped off the barstool. 

“So what are you saying?” Candi asked.  He owned her?  What the hell had she signed? 

“You signed a contract.  I own you,” he said, taking another bite of the bloody meat, unaware of the patrons watching him. 

“That’s not legal.  You can’t own another person.  Slavery was abolished.”  She still kept her eyes from his, taking turns watching the water beads slide down her glass and looking at the people in the restaurant.

“You signed the dotted line, serf!  I could call animal control and have that cat in a gas chamber in under thirty minutes,” he laughed.  And then, his teeth did grow.  He pulled a phone from his pocket and hit a button. 

“You’re going to kill my cat?” she asked, her voice rising, and focused on him.

His eyes straightened under the scrutiny.  No longer fish-like, no longer looking two directions, but staring at her and turning a deep, un-human, shade of red.  “You signed the dotted line.”

What the hell had she signed, she asked silently.  She hadn’t received a copy.

As Troy spoke her address into the phone, the bell above the door jingled and Caleb stepped into the diner, nodding at the patrons.  They stood; all of them, and Caleb grabbed the phone, tossing it to the waitress behind the counter who caught it as though she had grown up behind home plate.

Troy was startled and before he turned to confront Caleb his demeanor changed and was replaced by the normal countenance of any man, the red glow faded and the teeth slid back into their rightful position.  “Caleb,” he said, standing.  “What in the hell are you doing?”

“I see you, too,” Caleb said and motioned toward the waiting mass.

The patrons descended on Troy.  Caleb pulled Candi out into the parking lot and, under the screams from the diner, he whispered in her ear, “Let’s go check on your cat.”  He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and began leading her to his car.  “Tomorrow Nathan will be the boss, and it seems we’re going to be busy this week.”

She stopped, glanced back at the blood smears on the glass of the diner windows and understood the high turnover of the executives. 

He slowed and then reluctantly stopped, his eyes on the ground.

“Are you serious?” she asked.

He nodded his head slowly and sighed.  “It’s a war.  Do you want to play?”  He turned and focused his gaze on hers. 

Candi laughed and looked down at her shit-kicking clothes.  “Seems so,” she said.  She kissed him on the cheek, wrapped her arm around his waist, and said, “Do you think we can take Mika to lunch tomorrow?” 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Detective Bragg's Retirement

Detective Bragg's Retirement
a short story

He wanted the house. I didn't. But I accepted the monstrosity on a swampy mess of land that was listed as a mansion on a lake. It may have once been a mansion, but the lake had never been anything more than a swamp. The house was rickety and cold, the floors groaned and sank as you walked, and sometimes … sometimes... they shifted in an odd way.
He liked the house so there was no discussion. We moved into the big, white, clapboard structure set on fifty acres bordering a swamp just outside Savannah. The wallpaper hung exposing mold, the floors creaked and were so soft in places it felt as though the swamp had already taken over and the paint peeled and chipped. I swear it was not my doing, but here I am.
He watches me. All the time he sees me and maybe he even sees my thoughts. I've cleaned the gardens as he demanded. He didn't ask me to clean them and he didn't help me. He demanded and I did as I was told.
The garden was huge and held so many plants that needed trimming and weeds that needed digging that I spent three months, much sweat and too many blisters to recall to set it in shape. I uprooted the old fountain, replaced the rock and cleaned the weeds away. He didn't say a word as the water began to flow again and he didn't lend a hand. He sat in the rocking chair in the big sunroom and just observed.
I work nights in the city morgue, I check in dead people and I release them. I'm not quite sure if I could explain how I happened upon this job, because it’s hard for me to remember how long I’ve worked here. It seems I am one of those people that life just happens to and I try to fall in line. I don't know how I got the job, but here I am. I check in and check out deceased folks as though I'm in charge of some otherworldly hotel desk, renting space to the dead for a day or two until their families or the state picks them up.
Tonight I have entered Sara Lee Bean and Lucus Cecil Mckenzie and released Joseph Emery Sanders, Ms. Lucy Moore, teenager William A. Callahan and the very tiny baby named Roshell Liz Bathens. It's a tough job, but I try to treat the dead with respect. The kids are the worst, the kids are always the worst. The old folks, you understand. The middle aged you just figure they had a chance to live, but the kids and the teenagers, well... they never had a chance.
I met him in a bar. I was watching the band and having a drink and he was the brooding guy in the corner. He looked like Jim Morrison in one of those black and white posters you see in music and book stores. His hair was long, dark and curly, his lips full and full of promise and he wore a leather jacket. He didn't speak, much like he doesn't of late, but there was something that drew me in like a magnet to steel.
At first the relationship was hot, as promising as I knew his lips would be when I first saw him sitting in the corner nursing a beer. At first it was the inspiration behind every sonnet or love song ever written, but looking back, I can't remember his words. Had he ever spoken? I can't remember his words.
I want to laugh right now, big guffaws of revelation, but I'm choking them back because if someone would walk in on me rolling in the floor, laughing so hard I wet my pants, a mental hospital would be the least of my worries. It's not proper to laugh while in charge of the dead and I’m afraid if I start laughing I won’t be able to stop.
I never heard him speak, though. That's why I want to laugh. I moved into a clapboard, rickety, old, three-story mansion slowly descending into a swamp with a man who looks like Jim Morrison, who makes demands, but never speaks. He rocks, he stares, he judges, he soothes, but he never says a word.
I try to reach back in my mind and attempt to remember how he came to be living with me, but I can't. I remember seeing him sitting in the corner when I pulled my eyes from the tight-jeaned lead singer and then I remember waking up with him sitting in my apartment, rocking slowly. I don't remember having sex with him, I don't remember a kiss or a conversation. I just woke the next morning and he was sitting in the rocking chair in front of the French doors that looked out onto the street below.
I gave up my apartment, the apartment I'd dreamed of since I was a child, big open rooms, high ceilings and a balcony overlooking a busy street in Savannah. I gave it up for a sulky, demanding Jim Morrison look-a-like who doesn't have sex with me and doesn't speak.
I don't even know his name.
It's almost time for me to go home and there he will be, waiting for me in the sunroom as the morning light shines on the murky water. He'll rock and demand and what will his demands be today? Glazing glass? Stripping floors? Plumbing? Painting? Something. He doesn't understand the need for sleep or the need to eat. He doesn't eat and I haven't eaten much since he moved in. I'm down thirty pounds or more since I met him. My ribs show through my skin and my belly looks like those of the corpses thrown in a ditch after some genocide.
Surprisingly, I was allowed to sleep today. When I first stepped into the house he set me to scraping old paint off ancient, wooden, window frames, but then he lost interest in my task. If I left a little crumbling white lead on the frame, he didn’t complain, he wasn’t even watching me. He rocked with his eyes closed, not sleeping, but not focused on me for what seems like the first time in months. Around noon he let me go and I fell into a dreamless sleep. I woke with just minutes to get ready for work, and he didn’t acknowledge me as I passed through the dark sunroom on my way out the door.
Something has changed and I’m afraid.
You would have thought I’d have been afraid these last months with his constant, quiet, brooding attention, but the silence under his typical silence is more frightening than anything I’ve known. He didn’t even open his eyes as I passed through the room, he didn’t acknowledge me in any way and I felt emptiness somewhere in the place between my chest and my shoulder blades, as though the breath I have been holding for all these months had finally been released.
I was looking over the paperwork on Terri Cusack, a teenage girl who died in a car accident, when I heard commotion outside the double doors that led to the loading dock. Rusty Belfair was the chauffeur of the dead, much like I was the dead’s hotel clerk and he was bringing me a new resident, but he wasn’t alone. I stepped through the door to find him pushing a white shrouded stretcher across the concrete. “It’s going to be a busy night, the ME is on his way in.” Rusty pushed the wheeled conveyance into the room followed by two detectives. “Seems we have a murder.”
I didn’t like dealing with murders. Murders brought people into my sedate night shift who I rarely saw. Murders brought questions, chaos and noise into my typically quiet time with the dead. Rusty followed me down that long dark hall, flipping on lights behind me. I followed him into the examination room and he began setting the room to rights, so the medical examiner could just come in and get to work.
“It’s a freaking mummy,” Bragg, one of the regular night-beat cops, said and shuddered, while his partner, Stanton, laughed. “God knows how long he’d been sealed in that wall in Brewster’s Tavern.” Bragg was regaining his control and caught himself mid shudder, giving a half-hearted smile. “I have claustrophobia, I couldn’t imagine…” He shook his head. “Anyway, the owner said that the earthquake we had a few months back cracked the wall, and every time a truck drove by it cracked a little more and was crumbling away, so he decided to tear it down and build a new one. Found that guy inside.” Bragg, containing the shakes as best as he could, explained.
Rusty pulled the sheet off the body and I stared down at the dried out husk of a man. His hair was dark and long, probably longer in death than it had been in life and his face was drawn up like a rotted apple. He still wore a leather jacket and if it had ever been supple and smooth, now it was just stiff and dusty. His jeans were tattered and threadbare and his shoes were withered and moldy.
“Judging by his clothes I don’t think he’s been in there that long, the building was built in the late 1800s and has had dozens of owners and has been renovated many times. We’ve got to get a time of death to even begin to know where to look.” Stanton patted his coat pockets and found a pack of cigarettes. “I’m going to have a smoke and wait for the ME.”
I watched Rusty move the body onto the autopsy table and was surprised at how little a human body could weigh. “Never a dull day,” Rusty said pushing the stretcher back toward his van.
The scent of brewing coffee filled air and I walked back to the exam room and stared at the body. I was alone, the detectives were on the loading dock, smoking and waiting for the medical examiner, and I couldn’t seem to pull my eyes away from desiccated corpse on the metal table.
I met him in Brewster’s Tavern. The earthquake had disturbed me; we didn’t typically have earthquakes in Georgia. I couldn’t seem to calm myself and decided to have a few drinks.
I didn’t see him when I first arrived. The band was going over a sound check and there were only half a dozen regulars nursing drinks at the bar. Most were talking about the earthquake and watching the big screen in the corner that showed the worst of the damage in North Carolina and Virginia. People began drifting in, I had a few drinks, moved slowly to the music and that’s when I noticed him.
I have no other memory from that night. I don’t remember walking home, I don’t remember going to bed or whether or not he and I had a discussion or sex. All I do remember is waking the next day with him slowly rocking in front of the French doors. A few days later I had moved into the crumbling old plantation house and my work began.
I stepped away from the door as I heard the ME enter the building, the waiting officers followed him and two more had joined the fray. “We found a wallet on the floor of his tomb. Says his name is Reginald Maybaum, old South money. He disappeared in 1969, it was big news, some say he was killed, and others say he ran off with his girlfriend who the family didn’t approve of. He was so important in his day that the department formed a task force, but never found a sign of him. He was young, good-looking and rich and it was the height of the free-love generation, they finally decided he ran off to New York or California like lots of other young people had done. Now we have another body.”
I looked down at the sheet covered stretcher as Rusty passed and the area between my chest and shoulders felt more hollow and empty than it had when I came to work.
“It’s a woman,” one of the officers following Rusty explained. “Tucked away in a little tomb right next to the guy. No ID that we could find, though. In 1969 when Reginald disappeared, his girl did too, not that the police were very concerned about her. She was nobody; no family of any means and lived on the wrong side of the tracks. She was just a footnote in the investigation.” The medical examiner and Rusty moved the body to an autopsy table and pulled away the sheet.
The first thing I noticed was the cotton print dress, the colors had faded with the years, but the pattern was instantly recognizable. I’d made the dress myself in the summer of 1969. It was to be my elopement dress. I searched for weeks to find just the right print; the perfect weight and I pieced it together in the patch of sun that the French doors let into my apartment.
“Marti Davis was the girl’s name, just nineteen when she disappeared.”
The medical examiner picked up a lighted magnifying glass and studied the neck of the empty shell. “The beads on her necklace spell out Marti,” he said. He set the magnifying glass down and adjusted the big overhead lamp to shine on the victim. “Both died of a gunshot wound to the head.”
“So we just solved a 40 year old missing persons case. Good job, guys,” the older of the cops turned away and headed to the coffee pot.
I fell against the wall, my chest slowly deflating, and gasped for air. I remember walking into the pub down on Warf St. It was closed, a buddy of Reggie’s had just bought it, and renovations were under way. I remember his smile as I stepped through the door in my yellow dress covered in tiny red roses. He and his friend were having an argument as I entered, but Reggie turned, smiled and with a loud explosion of gunfire, he fell to the dusty floor. I screamed and ran to him.
I slid down the wall, all strength and oxygen leaving my body in a dusty cloud.
“Reginald Maybaum lived out in that old plantation house on Maybaum Swamp and Marti Davis lived at 123 C Levon St.,” an officer read aloud from a notebook he pulled from his jacket pocket.
“That’s weird,” Rusty said. “This is 125 Levon Street.”
“Yeah, this block used to be row houses turned into cheap apartments. They tore all that down in the 1970s and built the morgue. So I guess Marti really is home,” Bragg shuddered again.
The last of my breath left me on a puff of dirty smoke and I lost consciousness.
I awoke in the sunroom staring through recently polished glass at the sun’s reflection on the murky water. I glanced down at the bright yellow dress with little red roses and then at the crisp white paint on the window frames and the fresh paper on the walls. The room was tastefully decorated in light wood grain antiques and the floor felt solid.
“It’s nice to be home,” Reggie said and stood from the rocker.
“Yes,” I agreed and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Very nice to be home.”
“Let’s take a walk in the garden before breakfast.”
“That sounds wonderful,” I sighed and wrapped my arm through his. “I especially like the fountain.”
We stepped out onto the brick patio and I looked back at the regal plantation home glistening in the morning sun and couldn’t believe my luck that a man like Reginald Maybaum could love a nobody like me.
Bragg pulled down the path as the out-of-control magnolia trees slapped his windshield and tough, dried leaves crackled and popped under his tires. The trees gave way to an overgrown yard and he could barely discern the driveway under the thick grass. He inched along, his eyes glued on the ramshackle old house. The paint peeled grotesquely and a huge hole in the roof had grown black with age and wet mold. He parked in front of the once elaborate staircase and stared up at the porch lined with rotting pillars.
He turned off the engine and listened, the air was full of bird song and squirrel chatter. He stepped out of the car, nervous and attempting to control the now familiar shudders he’d experienced in the last months. His shrink said it was anxiety about the earthquake, a new diagnosis on the east coast since the shaker a few months earlier. He had to admit it did start after the earthquake, but he’d mainly only suffered the cold shakes in the morgue, which made his job as a homicide detective a difficult endeavor.
“Poor bastard,” Bragg muttered, looking up at the towering structure. “Hell of a way to go, Reginald Maybaum.” He walked slowly around the house, taking in the decaying details and feeling a loss that such a grandiose building would soon fall into dust. The ground at the back of the house gave with each step as though he was walking across a marshmallow and he knew soon the house would begin to lean toward the swamp, sinking a little more with each storm that passed.
The earth grew hard again and he realized he was standing on a brick path in what once was an abundant garden. One wall of the house was covered with a thriving wild rose vine, vibrant with small yellow roses shining in the morning sun, but he knew as beautiful as the display was it would only hasten the destruction of the Maybaum house. He glanced at the octagon shaped sunroom, the windows were cracked and broken and some panes had just fallen out of the wooden frames, shattering on the brick patio. He looked into the room, the floor was rotted in places from the rain that flowed through open windows and the wallpaper hung limp and lifelessly, dark with mold. A broken rocking chair was the only piece of furniture.
“Such a shame,” he whispered and shook his head. He turned and tried to imagine what the garden may have looked like when Reginald was alive and then he heard it – the trickle of running water. He glanced up at the roof to see if the gutters were leaking and counted in his head back to the last rainfall. The sound grew louder and a shudder racked his body, this time beyond his ability to control.
The sound wasn’t coming from the house; it was coming from the garden. He followed the echo of trickling water down the brick path and into the wild abandon of the once manicured landscape. “The fountain can’t possibly be running,” he said, pushing through the jungle of azalea, bougainvillea, ivy and jasmine that had fallen out of their planned enclosures to fight for dominance in the sun.
Just as his eyes fell on the old fountain, the sound ebbed away, but not before he heard a light feminine giggle. A shudder raced down his body and his brow broke out in cold sweat. The concrete fountain listed to the left, dislodging the figures of a boy and girl that once sat on the pedestal above the pool and were now shattered on the rocks below. Dandelions and scrub grass battled for position on and around the broken figurines and Bragg felt a barrage of cold shakes overcome him.
He ran back to his car, threw it into gear and slid across the grass as he accelerated. Finally, his tires found traction and he took the magnolia lined lane much too fast and wondered if their snaking limbs would crack his windshield. He stopped at the end of the path and gathered himself before he pulled onto the two lane state road that would bring him back to the city limits of Savannah.
“I’ll give it a month,” he muttered, wiping his brow with a tissue. “One month and if I can’t get myself under control, I’m retiring.” With the decision made, he pulled slowly onto the highway and fought the urge to check and recheck the rearview mirror.