The sidewalks had rolled up, and the streets were deserted. Except for the elderly man who had wandered in, there’d been no one. She sized up the old man the moment he entered the shop—a lonely pensioner struggling to make the odd ends meet. And like so many others, he’d have nothing left for extras.
Cloaked in the aura of all the musty odors of age, he shuffled to the counter and waited, in the patient stillness of twice-stretched seconds, for her to look up from the ledger. After several moments, she stopped writing and began a conversation of simple small talk.
“Hello, if I can help you with anything, please let me know,” she said.
She really couldn’t imagine what he would want in the shop. He looked discarded himself, like something someone had carelessly tossed aside and forgotten long ago. Unloved, and gathering dust. Through eyes gauzed with age he looked at her, punctuating her comments with an occasional guttural grunt. He raised a faltering hand, inches above the counter, only to let it fall and quiver helplessly. She struggled to keep the conversation going, but yielded, inevitably, to her own faltering spaces of silence.
Reaching for a nearby form, she began jotting down an imaginary order. The old man stood before her, awkwardly confused in the cloudy uncertainty of his next action.
Why doesn’t he leave, she wondered, visibly relieved when at last he turned away.
Putting the form aside, she watched his frail advance toward the door. His steps were measured, filled with the fearful anticipation of the pain that a fall would bring. His gait was lopsided, probably from the uneven wear she noticed on the heels of his scuffed, black shoes. He wobbled, shuffling slowly to the door, hesitating, trying to force his confused thoughts into coherent action. At last, his gnarled fingers reached for the door knob.
With painful slowness, his fingers grasped the brass handle, and the door edged forward. He opened it, stopped, and half-turned toward her. Instantly, his stooped form was silhouetted in the afternoon sunlight, deepest black against brilliant white. The door closed, and he was gone.
What a relic, she thought, stepping to the window to look down the walk.
No one was there except the old man, mutely picking through the day’s garbage in one of the waste cans conveniently placed at intervals along the street by the local merchant’s association. She grabbed the shade and pulled it down over the OPEN sign, jingling the brass welcome bells that hung on the door. She turned and walked toward the counter.
The wide boards of the oak floor sighed with each step, and as she made her way down the length of the shop, she let her eyes rest upon the tasteful arrangement of antiques. Some of them were quite old, but nothing in her store was as old as the brick building that housed her treasures. She listened to the groaning and creaking as the shop settled and shifted on its rock foundation.
She had fallen for the place the moment she’d lain eyes on it. The realtor had been hesitant to show it to her. The location was good, but the owners had failed to keep up repairs, and the place was in shambles. Most prospective buyers scoffed at the extent of the damage from years of neglect, balking at the expense necessary to remedy it.
But the building had potential, and Graylon was not afraid of hard work. She had snatched it up before the week was out. After months of backbreaking labor, she saw it reborn. It had responded beautifully to her loving restoration.
With the renovations completed, she turned her attention to establishing her business and building a list of satisfied customers. It had not happened overnight, but her reputation steadily grew in the larger, surrounding cities, and many patrons now made day trips to step back in time and enjoy the small town ambiance while absorbing the scenic beauty of the area.
Her dream had started to pay off.
She had a natural talent for what she did and a good eye for pieces that would sell. Through dogged detective work, uncounted miles of travel, and an occasional bit of good luck, she had amassed a unique menagerie of high-end and cheaper items, a price and a piece for just about anyone’s budget. They filled her shelves for a time, and then, sooner or later, moved on with new owners to create a new chapter in their long and varied histories.
It was almost as if she possessed a sixth sense about the old things, as if anything that had ever been worn, used, or loved by someone long dead and forgotten could ‘speak’ to her. Murmurings from the wise grandfather clocks that lined the wall. Faint laughter and squeals of delight from the full-length silver mirror that stood in the corner. Echoed footsteps of a waltz danced in the flickering light of candles from the beaded shawl on the hat rack. Tired sighs from work worn laborers whispered from various objects that filled the shelves and counters throughout the building. She liked to surround herself with these symbols from the past.
A skittish flutter danced across her, and she shivered, fumbling for the keys to lock up.
“Damn funerals,” she muttered.
It had been a long day.
The deceased was a good patron, and she had closed the shop earlier that morning to attend the memorial service. She had reopened, but there was little business. The afternoon passed slowly, feeling three days long.
Throughout the drive home, she found her mind wandering, drifting back to the scenes of the morning, visualizing fragmented flashes of the service, and as always, experiencing the old, familiar expectation — an expectation she’d held since childhood.
Looking into the satin-pillowed finery, she was captivated by the corpse that lay within. She kept staring at it, watching the chest to catch the slow, steady motions of breathing. Its face was lifeless. The mouth, a taut line, was unusually thin, with lips faintly blue beneath the light coating of lipstick. Its hands, egg-speckled with age, waxen, and furrowed with rows of dark sunken skin, lay uncharacteristically still. They held no interest for her. But the chest, concealed and layered in clothing, appeared normal and full of life. It kept drawing her back, holding her eyes as she waited for the rise and fall that should naturally come.
She moved to her seat as a slight balding minister took the podium and began the service, dutifully repeating ritualistic passages over the body. His voice, soft and stumbling, lacked the charismatic flamboyance that would have held her attention.
She looked around the chapel.
The carpet was thick and heavily piled, and she let the heel of her shoe sink into its richness. Slowly, rhythmically, her foot moved to the sing-song lyric of a long forgotten jingle. She smiled slightly, realizing that it had been brought to memory by the quiet inflections of the minister’s voice.
The service ended with the blessings of benediction. As if on cue, a somber-suited man directed her car out of the processional lineup and onto the main road.
She winked her thanks.
She wheeled the car into the drive, glad to be home. She got out and looked across her back yard to the shimmering waters of the lake. A breeze skipped across its surface, bringing the ripples of reflected light to a sparkling crescendo, like a visual manifestation of sun-dappled applause.
The trees along the shoreline waved their leafy hands of silver and green. The gentle wind played among the branches, its invisible presence leaving behind footprints in undulating swells of motion. She looked above. The whirring sound of flapping wings was followed by deep-voiced honking. The v-formation tightened, and the wild geese circled, descended slowly, and landed on the opposite side of the cove.
Unlocking the back door, she entered the kitchen, tossed the keys onto the counter, and stepped out of her shoes. She dropped her handbag on the kitchen table, shedding her clothes as she walked barefoot down the hall. She turned on the shower. The bathroom filled with a thick, steamy cloud of moisture. The bubbling lather filled her nostrils with its perfumed scent. The water splashed against her upturned face, pelting her eyelids, and cascading down her body, reviving and refreshing.
She toweled her hair dry, fingering through the mirrored waves until they fell neatly into place. Inspecting the reflection, she pulled her nostril to one side and squeezed until a tiny white, spaghetti-like strand squirted out. She dabbed at the fiery mark with an alcohol swab and tossed it at the can. Switching off the light, she made a mental note to pick it up in the morning.
With coffee and paper in hand, she curled into a favorite chair. Automatically discarding the sports, funnies, and classifieds, she glanced at the extra inserts that cluttered the issue, making her way through the remaining sections. The obituaries were on the very last page, their bold print disconcertingly concrete.
Funerals and weddings.
They were such important topics to the blue-rinsed matrons who tottered in on swollen feet that she made it a habit and scanned the papers for scattered bits of local interest. Gaining access into the circle of their gossip was certainly good for business.
Good for business, perhaps, but yesterday’s service had left her edgy and out of sorts. Laying the unread section aside, she dressed for a walk by the lake.
A cool breeze blew off the water, and she sat down by its edge. To her right, a rolling fish broke the calm surface. Absently, she watched the widening ringlets move farther and farther apart. She recalled how easily, as a small girl, she had been mesmerized by the flickering reflections of party lights on night-blackened waters.
“You must be a thousand miles away.”
A short gasp escaped, “Ridge!”
“Hey, sorry. Didn’t mean to give you such a scare.”
He sat down beside her.
“Always liked it here,” he said. “So tranquil.”
“Umm,” she sighed.
“By the way, where’s that sidekick of yours?” he asked.
“Who? Peyton? For all I know, probably off trying to ruin some nice pedigree’s reputation,” she said.
“Poor guy,” he said, “a little older, a little longer, eh?”
“Hmm,” she said. “But he’ll straggle back, don’t you worry. When he’s hungry enough.”
“Or had enough?” he asked.
He gave her a hand up.
“You want some breakfast?” she asked.
“No thanks. I’m only staying for a few minutes,” he told her. “I have to get back to the office and tie up a few things.”
They walked back to the cottage.
“You know, we’ve really done wonders with this place.”
“We?” she said, giving him a playful smack while dodging his attempt at her.
They went inside. Her appetite had suddenly returned.
“Well, they just found anuthern,” he said swinging open the door of the cafe and sliding onto the barstool.
“Whut? You kiddin’ me?” Maisie asked as she handed him a plate.
“Nope,” he replied, shoveling into the eggs and grits she had placed before him.
A piece of half-chewed egg spewed out onto his lower lip. He didn’t bother to wipe it off. Maisie looked away. How anyone could go right on about his business, with such a mouthful, was beyond her. She turned to stir her thickening beans, letting the spoon sink down until it scraped the bottom of the pot and taking a long drag from her cigarette. The burn seared deep in her lungs. It felt good.
“Down near the old stone bridge,” he said between bites. “You know, down by that newcomer’s place. Sheriff got wind of it, same as I did on the scanner. Fact ‘tis, I prob’ly beat him there by, oh, a coupla minutes.”
Maisie hadn’t heard anything about this. She had closed the diner early because of Mrs. Atherton’s funeral and headed home to soak her feet.
Not that she didn’t feel good enough to attend the funeral.
She considered herself as fine as most folks and better than a bushel more. Closing was something she always felt compelled to do, partly out of respect, but mostly because in her small town, when someone like Mrs. Atherton suffered the misfortune of giving up her living spirit, the sidewalks rolled up. Especially if that someone was society folk like Verbelia Atherton.
Maisie knew that, for the next few days at least, she’d hear the words ‘poor Miz Atherton’ repeated quite often. But Verbelia had been laid to rest quite properly, just as she would have liked—with lots of mourners and a ton of flowers. As for herself, Maisie didn’t care one hoot about all their shenanigans. All that nose-blowing, tear-jerking, pious sympathy didn’t impress her one bit.
The Atherton service was old news, and since the following day had been Sunday and she had holed up with a hot romance novel that she had been dying to finish, it was really old news. But here was opportunity. No customers except Joey Johnson, who just happened to know the latest. And she had him all to herself.
“How many does ‘at make, J.J.?” she asked knowingly.
Never one to overstate a point, Joey was especially closed-mouthed around women. He had said what little he had to her as a way of greeting, and she would have to ease him into the conversation if she were to learn all that he knew.
“Seems to me. . .that’d be the third of the season, wouldn’t it?” Joey said, sopping up the last remnants on his plate. “But this ‘uns gotta a twist.”
She poured herself a cup of coffee and planted both elbows on the counter. This day might just prove to be a halfway decent one after all.
“Gray. . .What is it?”
There was a choking sound on the other end of the line, and for a second, Ridge was unsure who was calling.
“Ridge. . .come. . .some. . .one’s drowned!”
He slammed the receiver down and ran to his car. Speeding to the cottage, he bolted inside. He found her in a bathing suit, still standing by the phone, bloodstained, ashen, and trembling.
“Oh,” she whispered and stumbled toward the bathroom.
Hollow gagging preceded the retching cough.
She looked so vulnerable, and even the stale odor of vomit was not, strangely, unappealing. He wet a cloth and wiped her face.
* * * *
“I had eaten lunch,” her voice quivered as she talked to the sheriff’s deputy, “and it was so hot that I decided to take a swim.”
* * * *
Her meal was laying there, a hard lump of concrete in the pit of her stomach. Fans were running in the background, but the air was liquid with the intense humidity of summer.
It would be cooler by the lake.
She slipped into her suit and pulled a towel from the top shelf of the linen closet, a pale beige and floral design, one of her prettiest.
She walked to the pier and looked out over the water. The towel fell in a loosely twisting curve about her feet. With luck, the breeze would pick up, cooling her off when she got out.
Her strokes were fluid and easy, and the warm water rushed passed. She swam parallel to the shore until she felt herself tiring. Stopping, she floated on her back, letting her mind clear and the tension leave her body. She stared up at the blue sky. The sun warmed her face, and the water cradled her, soothing in its silken feel, muffling the many bird songs that floated to her ears. The surly mood lifted, dissolving in the cobalt pool.
Here was peace and serenity, and she wanted nothing more than to lazily drift forever. Reluctantly, she started retracing her path. Halfway back, she dipped beneath the surface. Open eyes revealed the distortions of green surroundings.
The pier lay just ahead.
She resurfaced, breathed deeply, and swam for the cooler, deeper water below. Reaching forward for one last downward stroke, her fingertips brushed against something, and as she opened her eyes, the momentum drove her face squarely into it. The hairy surface gave way, and the form caved in upon itself.
She pulled away, swimming for the surface with short, spastic strokes. She was choking, blindly groping for the pier, and finding the ladder, she started up. She lurched forward to call for help, but her foot became entangled in the towel, and in its coiling grip, she became unbalanced.
She tumbled sideways. Her vision whited out.
* * * *
“I didn’t know what to do. . .I. . .I. . .ran to the house. Called Ridge. . .he called you.”
“O.K.,” the deputy said, as he continued writing, “and the blood on the docking cleat is yours, ma’am?”
“Jason,” Hayden Louis said to one of the men, “be sure to sample that. . .yeah, over there on the cleat. . .and, I’d see about that if I were you.”
This last remark had been directed at Graylon.
She touched the cut above her eyebrow. There was still a dull ache, but that was easing, and thanks to Ridge, the bleeding had stopped.
“Hey, Lou,” as Hayden’s friends often called him, “we got it!”
The deputy turned attentively to the rescue workers. Graylon reached for Ridge’s arm, steadying herself as they watched the men tug on the rope.
“Maybe you’d better go back to the house,” he told her.
Silently, she obeyed. This scene was not something she cared to witness.
“What the. . .?” the deputy began whispering under his breath.
Dangling on the end of the hook was a bloated mass of dingy, matted fur and rope.
It was a fact. Most people assumed the area Deputy Hayden Louis patrolled to be absent of criminal activity. A quiet collection of backward farming communities, most thought Hayden’s job consisted of citing the routine traffic violations or settling an isolated dispute between neighbors. But in truth, the incidents in and around the so-called sleepy small towns, were frequent in number and, more often than not, alarmingly violent. Local nightspots were always sources of trouble. Too much liquor, too much talk, and Hayden could have a killing on his hands.
Sometimes, the poor bastard left standing was so drunk, he was barely conscious. Sometimes, he stood before the deputy, somber and repentant, like a child awaiting punishment. Sometimes, he cried, babbling confused accusations in a hysterical attempt to justify his own actions. Sometimes, he ran.
But drunken brawls accounted for only a small percentage of the violent outbreaks. There were other tragedies, as well—the skeletons of family disputes, the successful suicides, the simple casualties of ill-fated circumstance. All were the residue of scarred humanity, wounded in some way by someone or something, damaged by life or by chance.
* * * *
The smell, pungent from the bank, was overpowering from the water. Hayden swayed as a rush of nausea passed, stepped into the water, and tried to help. It was impossible to secure a firm hold. Every bone beneath the cracked, swollen flesh was shattered. The animal was like a slimy, bloated balloon, and it took several attempts before the mud, the muck, and the mass oozed itself into the bag.
“This damn thing’s as big as a friggin’ horse,” someone said, as Hayden tugged at the zipper.
“Let’s get it out of the water. Ain’t no need for further contamination. We’ll send it over to Harvey at the dump. He’ll dispose of it for us.”
Hayden struggled with the zipper.
“Snagged,” Hayden said through clenched teeth, feverishly trying to close the body bag.
His nostrils burned with the searing stench of decay; his eyes watered, and his fingers twitched with urgency. His stomach churned, and in one swift, uncontrollable surge, its juices mixed with the contents of the bag.
“Shit,” he growled hoarsely, the zipper freeing and finally closing.
“Get it outta here,” he added.
Ridge motioned Hayden aside.
“Well, Lou,” Ridge said, “I guess I get the dirty job of telling Gray that it was her dog, Peyton.”
There had been a crowd at the scene when Hayden arrived. Rescue workers and boats drifted in from other parts of the lake, drawn there by the shrill wail of sirens, along with the usual number of ambulance chasers and curious onlookers who monitored their scanners. Some, Hayden was certain, had gone away disappointed because the meat on the end of the hook wasn’t human. Yet, they had not gone away completely empty-handed, for unspeakable mutilations had been done to that dog that would, he knew, be expounded upon over coffee shop counters for many days to come.
He would never understand the grotesque fascination that accompanied the violent death of living things. He had seen so much and had often witnessed the meaningless waste and the immense sorrow brought upon families. Sometimes, it felt like an inescapable scourge. And he’d seen how people were drawn to horrible situations with a blood lust to learn every sordid detail.
An observer, Hayden often stood in the background watching. It seemed that everyone had a part to play—grief-stricken mourners lost in their anguish, gold-digging parasites counting their windfall, grateful bystanders awash in relief that such horror had come to another man’s house and had, this time, bypassed their own.
But, no one loved attention’s spotlight more than the person with a story to tell.
Time after time, Death’s bard would recount the gruesome details with a macabre relish. And those who listened most intently, listened with an insatiable appetite as the same tales were hashed and rehashed, tattered from the telling, yet devoured over and over again as if they were hearing them for the very first time.
The irony was never lost on Hayden. Such a harvest of pain for one person could be a bountiful feast of speculation for another. Over card games, coffee, and a second piece of cake, women would discuss horrible happenings. Their husbands would sit with beer and stale peanuts, the blast of the radio in the background, wondering why such things happened.
They were no different from the crows Hayden had seen as he crisscrossed the county on patrol. Dressed in formal mourning attire, like black feathered undertakers, they picked the roadkill carcass clean, consuming every morsel and leaving only a death stain upon the highway. With stomachs gorged on carrion, they flew to the treetops to belch decay, oblivious of the victim who had been their main course.
“No. It’s fine.”
He had finally persuaded her to take a cup of tea, and although she would only drink only a few sips, Ridge took it as a good sign that she felt better. They walked to his car. He wanted to spend the night, but she wouldn’t hear of it, so he reluctantly settled for her promise to call him if she heard or saw anything out of the ordinary.
“Call me. Tomorrow morning. First thing, when you get to work.”
“Ridge, I’m O.K., really.”
She touched the bridge of his nose and rubbed at the funny little crease that always appeared when he was troubled.
“I’ll call,” she said and kissed him. “Thanks. I mean it.”
“Sure,” he said and got into the car. “And don’t forget, tomorrow morning. First thing.”
“I will. I will,” she said as the car drove away.
Darkness had fallen, and those who had lingered around hoping for something more had finally lost interest and left for home.
In the excitement of the evening, he milled about unnoticed. Cupping his weathered hand around the soft, orange glow of the cigarette, he leaned against the rough bark of the trunk, watching as Ridge’s car drove away.
The years had brought changes. Gone forever was the girl of his time-frozen memory, but it was the same one. He was certain.
Even as a boy, he had loved the lake at night. Deep into its darkness, he would paddle his canoe, throwing out his line, as snowflakes silently fell on the glassy surface of onyx or fat bullfrogs burped their ripened bellows to the cadence of the lantern-like flashes of summer fireflies. It was as a boy, he had paddled to this same cove, soaking up the sights and sounds of summer’s weekend parties—naked light bulbs strung across the dock, cloth-checkered tables scattered about the lawn, sleeveless dresses and short-sleeved shirts, choppy bits of phonograph recordings floating across the water, often followed by the metallic shrill of laughing ladies, slightly tipsy.
He could not explain it, but he had known that she was back, and for many nights afterward, he had fished her cove, always making sure to stay well within the cover of the tree-lined shore. If she had looked out onto the water, she would not have seen him, so completely was he woven into the night’s shadowed tapestry.
He watched her walk back into the cottage, finished his cigarette, and carefully stamped out the smoldering butt with his shoe. He walked off into the blackness.
He was patient.
He could wait.
I hope you enjoyed this part.
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