500 story words and a mighty strange feeling.
It had been raining that afternoon. Annie had been watching the rain fall with the TV off. It was a test to see if she could take the quiet. She didn’t know how long she’d been in the window seat, pressed long enough against the glass to have warmed away some of the chill. Her eyes followed the rivulets each drop made as it crashed into the windowpane, the wayward, inexplicable route each took, individual, alone, to hell with gravity. Her thoughts were without luster or intent. Is this what he wanted? Her slowly fading into the gray walls? Whatever skills he thought she had to begin with.
She hadn’t received anything from anyone save the weekly envelopes with food money in three months. Perhaps he had forgotten her.
The doorbell rang.
She’d peered through peep hole, grabbing for the knife that had been artfully placed in the artful vase of feathers near the entryway. When she saw him, she let it slide back into its sheath. He stood on the landing. A long coat hung over him, clearly sopping wet. She’d never known Mr. Evelyn to stand about in the elements. There were raindrops on his eyelashes, the dim light danced over them. He was breathing, hard. She realized as she released her squint that she was, too.
She opened the door, “It’s your house, you don’t need me to say it, but come in.”
“Take off your coat. It’s dripping everywhere.”
He peeled it off and handed it to her; too wet to drip in the hallway on a hook, she brought it to the bathroom to drain into the tub. If she thought about it, she could have just put it in the dryer. But she was thinking about his face.
She’d never seen him in anything other than a suit. In any other way than in control. Mr. Evelyn was always in control. Where was that sneer?
She gestured to the couch as a crash of thunder rattled the apartment. A telltale screech and blip as the power went out. It wasn’t dark enough yet to matter, though.
“Is there something wrong with your eye?” It looked red and inflamed, a slightly milkier color than usual. He reached up and touched it almost instinctively. “You alright? Someone after you.” She glanced toward the vase again.
“No, I just need…something to drink.”
“Is this the part where I collapse on the chaise longue and you sip from my carotids?”
He frowned, clearly irritated by her joke.
“You look pasty as fuck. Pastier than usual.”
“Get me some wine, then. Something to eat. What the hell are you spending that money on if you don’t have wine?”
That was more like it. Sort of. She could feel his eyes, both the good and the ill follow her into the kitchen.
“Red.” was barked when she knew he could no longer see her.
After she emerged with two glasses, he took them from her hands and set them on the table. Then, caught off-guard, he kissed her. He seemed quite shocked that he’d done that. Almost unsure of himself. Annie didn’t like it so she closed her eyes and kissed him back. And it was like that in the quiet room as she took off her clothes and then he took off his and she put her hands on him and he put his on hers. Until there was nothing left but the tight entropy that drew them both in at once to the point of pleasure but little mercy. The painful bloodshot of his eye kept her from watching his face as she felt he didn’t want her staring. The feeling of the blanket rubbing beneath her shoulder blades distracted her until she heard him cry out, until she felt him leave her.
She let herself fall asleep afterwards. Just for a few minutes. A catnap. She told him, though he didn’t respond. When she awoke he was standing, leaning against the wall, staring. Whatever had been bothering his eye, was entirely gone. Truth be told, his expression, so fixed on a middle distance frightened her.
“Mr. Evelyn. Sir…I’m not going to call you, Sir, not after…we…not after that.”
He smiled. It was hard to know how to take.
“Are we going to talk about any of this?”
“What do you want to say?”
“I don’t know. I want to know who you are.”
“Maybe I’m not everything you think I am.”
“Maybe me neither.”
Even more alarming, he chuckled.
“It’s time to talk about 10:00am tomorrow morning. You’ll be leaving, taking a Greyhound to Dayton. I have a job for you. There’s a police officer in Falls Valley that nee…”
“Did I not…was I not what you were expecting?”
“No. You were good. Lovely. Sufficient.”
“Sufficient? That’s about the worst thing anyone’s ever said after fucking me.” She stood up and swigged one of the glasses of untouched wine.
“Well, I apologize.”
“No, no! You go to bed with me after…all this time together…all this hell and now you are going to send me off to fucking Borneo. I am not crazed for thinking there’s some connection.”
“Don’t be melodramatic. It’s a small town in Ohio.”
“It may as well be Timbuktu. It’s out of here. It’s away from you.” She reached out and lay her palm on his lapel.
He stared at her. A confusion, a ripple in the placidity of his gray-green eyes as he looked back at her furious face. Then, almost as arriving at the result of an equation, he nodded, resolved.
“Whatever it is you think you feel, you don’t feel it.” He snapped his fingers in front of her eyes. “It’s gone. Drink your wine. ”
“Fuck you.” She threw it at the wall. He made that clicking noise with his tongue as though the cliché disappointed him. The stain along the baseboards and now running across the carpet was tremendous. It seemed to glow with her rage.
“I don’t understand. I won’t go unless I get some answers.”
“You’ve never had answers, Annie, and yet, you survived.
I can’t tell where my failings end and the failings of the universe right now begin.
Okay, that was in the heart of it all.
Miranda slipped her flute of wine, newly manicured nails delicately gripping the stem. She was aware of the time. She was aware of what she had set into motion. Daylight was melting into dusk outside the massive glass walls of Daedalus and the alcohol was draining the strength of her senses into one, a warmth that settled around her head like a nimbus, an incubator, a blow dryer on high.
She had taken off her shoes, silvery pumps with a heel high enough to be noteworthy. In this city, that was a good six inches and her legs throbbed from her knobby knees down to her clammy, irregularly sized toes. Miranda’s body had always been a little off. She’d been born a hairy child with clubbed thumbs. Her mother and father called her una piccola scimmia pelosa. Through the services of a good – no, excellent – aesthetician, the aggressive eyebrows had been thinned decisively, her upper lip as silken and hairless as the rest of her. But the murderer’s thumbs, like so much else, were destiny.
“What do you know about your…friend?”
Maybe she had had more of the Barbaresco than she intended. But she could be excused for craving it. The taste of strawberries melded with rose petals blooming in a delicate, garnet-hued vintage. Was like drinking blood must be for a vampire, radiating life’s essence. As she turned to meet the eyes of this boy, she realized the black bottle was empty. She’d have to ask for another.
The boy chained to his chair didn’t answer.
“Come on now, I’ve requested your company, and you don’t have anything to say to me?”
Her Barbaresco, and maybe some of the drugs from the party, were starting to kick in. The black glass, his black eyes, the obsidian awards lining the shelves. A perfect darkness. She flicked at the top three buttons on her ivory dress shirt.
“He’s out doing what you wouldn’t. 7:02pm. 11th and Halvorson. A tall man with a noticeable limp that is just about to become moot. He’s out there protecting you from your fate, your destiny. It’s almost romantic. He’d like us both to think of it that way. I’ve sorted him that far. And I also know it would upset him for you and I to become friends. Jack’s always been rather possessive. But, you see, I need to upset him. Turnabout’s fair play.” She reached, inelegantly, to shimmy out of her panty hose.
The boy in the chair smiled just enough to feel she’d been silently ridiculed. Miranda felt a dryness in her throat. She flicked another button to and smiled back.
“I’d offer you a drink. You’re old enough now, right? There’s some white wine over by the caddy. ” She motioned vaguely behind him. “But I’ve had the sort of drink you can’t follow with swill. It’d be like going from caviar to White Castles. Besides, the light is rather bright, anyway. And we’re all well past breaking ice.”
She stepped behind him, on those waxed but unsteady legs, leaning forward to press herself into the back of the chair as she ran her hands down his shirt.
In a thick, cakey whisper, she moaned with an amiable sincerity. “It’s a terrible thing we have to do together. You have to prove he doesn’t own you, and I…have to prove he does.”
Lillie stood in the threshold, drawing the side of her hand up to shield her eyes from the wayward strobe lights that cut across the gymnasium’s scraped and warped maple floor. She could feel the nearly negligible weight of the purse on her shoulder as though it were an albatross. Her mother’s dress suddenly not as beautiful as she imagined when she’d spun its lacy petals in front of the bathroom mirror. Suddenly, whatever bravery she’d invented or drawn up from a hidden reservoir within went dry.
There were sort of shambling masses rising up and down in front of her, seemingly to four or five different songs instead of to the driving rhythms of Ace of Base. Nobody turned in her direction. There was no mystical moment where the directionless spotlights all found her at once and lit her up from within, no gasp at her beauty, and her mother in the back of her mind fell silent. She pulled up on the boatneck of the dress, than down, then up again.
She wanted to see Adrian’s face. Let his eyes meet hers from across the room as the crowds parted, Red Sea-style. Or even, Henry Pilbeam’s athletic eyebrows lurching up over a Dixie cup of sugary punch. Suddenly the decision to meet him here instead of having him drive into the Dump and pick her up at her doorstep was in question. How could that be any more awkward than wondering if all of this was some sort of joke? But he wasn’t at the punch bowl, or idling around the makeshift DJ booth, or anywhere really.
She swallowed hard, squared her shoulders, but a rush of blood surged into her cheeks, the tips of her ears. Nobody cared. All of this was a fool’s errand in a dress she couldn’t fill out.
And she could just about walk home right now, sleep out on the ruins, nobody know any better.
Instead, the face that drew her into the room was Mr. Hargreaves, science teacher and definitive adult. His hairline receding, his coat tweedy and ill-fitting, glasses indentations she was close enough to note. A man who should know what instinctively Lillie saw as patently obvious. There was no reason for teachers to interact with students at school dances unless there was about to be a fight or worse yet, making out on the dance floor. She had nearly gotten halfway down the hallway.
“Lillie, Lillie? You aren’t leaving quite yet, are you? Come in, come in!”
Lillie froze. The lies started rolling around in her head, but she couldn’t get a whole one together before she started walking back.
Just over Mr. Hargreaves’ tuberous left ear, she saw them, sitting at a table. She had a corsage on her wrist, a wristlet of little violets. Andrea was laughing and Adrian, for as much as he ever looked happy, looked…felicitous. She found herself entirely extraneous, like some spaceman who got his tether cut and could just watch the space shuttle shrink in the distance as he floated away. Lillie just got spaced and Mr. Hargreaves was still talking.
“And now, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you certainly do look like your mother tonight.”
“Was she a friend of yours?” For a moment, this piqued her interest. For a moment, there was enough gravity to send her back to Earth.
“No. Not exactly, but everyone at the Lucky Star was awful fond of her and she was a great waitress, really.” His voice got taut just like Adrian said people do when they lie. Suddenly, she wasn’t the only one who wanted out of sweaty confines of a festooned gymnasium.
“Well, that’s very nice, you remember more of her than I do, then.”
The cold distance, the ice shelf he had floated between them, melted away.
“No, I am sorry, Lillie, you go enjoy yourself.”
This was not a bric-a-brac, ticky-tack sort of town, though enough towns of that sort on the south-side of Cleveland surrounded it for it to be tarred with the unparticular brush of nineties’ suburbia. It still had the usual mill, the small factories and the rivers, here the White and Matthews, which fell into two small, but threatening waterfalls for which the town was named. It had what you’d expect: the rich section, the poor section. The elementary, junior high and high school. Main Street lined with shops that shouldn’t exist but carry on somehow because everyone buys their milk at Grossman’s. Everyone buys their tires at the Peerless by the highway. The ones who stay and the ones who get out. The ones who stayed hated the ones who got out. And everyone hated the Dump. There was nothing new about that. Falls Valley didn’t want to be special and in most ways, it wasn’t. But the sleepy-eyed, blue-collar hamlet was home to another set of forboding twins that made it something other than it might have been. The crimson Horace-Ayler Chocolate Company building, which endowed the town with a sort of forced cheer it could not support, and over time, it despised. John Horace and Francis Ayler, 1860’s entrepreneurs from Boston made their chocolates here for some time, until lured by the lights and lively company of the city, left the yeoman’s work of the manufactory to G. Howard Solomon. As the stories go, G. Howard Solomon, a man of certain predilections, met his end somewhere in one of the boiling vats. But the family ran the operations, spun the sugar that few in town ever actually tasted for generations until the great-great grandson of Mr. Solomon, Andrew Carlisle, now filled with Valleyan blood several times over took the reins and finally capitulated to the inertia of the town where he was born and moved most of the candy-making processes to Cleveland. The inertia, or perhaps to better care for his ailing wife or maybe, as the stories the men at the Lucky tell, for another reason. But the stories say a lot of things.
The building remained, an eerie testament to the failed inroads outsiders attempted to make in Falls Valley. Even the font, a welcoming off-script on the side of the building which read “Horace-Ayler makes the best fudge for miles” was a strange, almost visceral affront. So many spitballs and paintballs and eventually, graffiti artists and bored, thwarted kids with means had scuffed and abused the building that a security guard for the half-rented apartments had to be hired. The added cost forcing the renters out and the building sits un-rented, crimson paint revealing a dusty, faded brick, papered windows not revealing anything. Certainly none of the ghosts.
There was the Horace-Ayler Chocolate Factory.
But most people don’t come to Falls Valley for defunct candy-making history. They don’t come for the truth. They come to see the First National Bank Building where Charles Senna died in a ball of fire.
Sure, she stole the diamond ring, that wasn’t the question. She’d plotted the heist for nearly a month. It wasn’t no canary. No cognac. No blue-blooded Hope Diamond big enough to make her walk with a limp, its weight dragging down her right pocket. No. It was just a slip of a thing. An afterthought rock with an afterthought mount on an afterthought little silver circle. The kind of ring that wouldn’t impress a pauper or his daughter and it never impressed her. But it was hers. Given to her to signify the first day of her less than auspicious engagement to criminal mastermind and first-rate nothing and nobody, Garland Howard. The love of her quarter-served life sentence. Garland, Tinsel to pretty much everybody who had dealings with him and didn’t have the sense to restrain themselves from repeating the experience, was the one who was dead. Probably as verdant and desiccated as a Christmas tree in the pauper’s box they buried him in by now.
She didn’t kill him. But that wasn’t the question.
Annie stole the ring back for reasons that were clear for that long month of plotting and rehearsing and conning and making all the little thefts that let her appear to be just some newlywed bitch out of the Pennyrile who stopped in to be getting her ring resized. Nice people trust other nice people. That was their first problem. Though Annie could always add up other people’s problems in her head like a jeweler could see the spots in a rock without much talking to the. If she could count theirs higher than hers, she’d leave the matter be. If she had it worse, well then, she’d best not be talking troubles unless she was looking for more. Annie had a lot of silent days. She wasn’t living the sort of life where it was valuable to make friends.
She’d wanted that ring so much, the reason for needing it had been subsumed by the taking of it. Now that she thought about it, she could have stolen that blinking, green emerald eye big as her knuckle set in a bed of tiny, glittering diamonds instead the cheap, shitty thing they’d sold so that Tinsel could have that new TV. The TV that played one thing: reruns of crime procedurals. He liked counting corpses, inventing workarounds for failed murder plots, going ballistic at the inevitable fuck-ups of perfect crimes. It lit him up like Christmas. Annie had nothing on a stiff with a fork through its temple. Ironic, that he’d die like that, like something right out of CSI, never getting to watch them fuck up the investigation of his own death.
But none of that was concerning Annie at the moment. That damn ring, symbolizing her fidelity and verity and terrible taste in men who had terrible taste in jewelry, was in that worn, brown bookbag that was making its way somewhere through Bowling Green, in the possession of some thief. Worse than that, some thief who thought they were better than her.