She stared through the window at the glowing-green grass bending in the strong wind. Watching. Waiting for something to happen. Caged in, though in a prison of her choosing. Caged away from what tightened her grip on the coffee mug she held. Sunlight sliced through the faux-wood blinds she had cracked open when she began her vigil in the early-morning hours. Just one set of blinds, the rest remained shut tight, blocking the view through the other picture windows that lined the back wall of her sunroom. The mid-morning ray struck her face as bright as if no pane of glass separated them. She looked past her reflection, past her translucent, stony eyes.
She stood unmoving for another ten minutes. Heavy clouds blew in from the east, casting her backyard into shadow, settling a dull filter over the winter day. Something moved, but all she saw were the darting birds that often kept her company. Streaks of cobalt and sapphire, a rushing flash of red, the rare burst of brilliant yellow. Even the dimmed daylight couldn’t diminish that fire of color.
Lifting the mug, she swallowed a bitter mouthful of lukewarm brew, drained the cup. Made a sour face. Her striped reflection frowned. She twisted the white wand that controlled the tilt of the slats, shutting off the outside world completely. Letting the wand bounce against the blinds with a rattle, she turned toward the kitchen, headed for the coffee machine. She walked no farther than the arched doorway that joined the two rooms before her cellphone jangled with a text. She cringed at the jarring sound that echoed once in the quiet space.
Slow steps brought her to the counter where her phone rested. Now silent. Harmless. As she ran her fingers over the smooth, dark, innocent glass screen, the cell dinged again and she recoiled. Her heart raced, and she struggled to steady her breathing.
She reached again for the phone. A quick stab at the home button woke the screen. Two messages. A shudder ripped through her body.
You know I don’t like when you close the blinds.
One hand flew to her chest. The other shook so badly, she almost dropped her phone.
Don’t do it again. Open them.
Tremors coursed through her body. The awful chime sounded again, and this time her traitorous fingers let the phone clatter onto the granite surface.
She turned, still shivering, walked to the bank of rear-facing windows. Slowly, she rotated the rods, one window after another.
How many times had he thought about strangling her? At least thirty, he guessed. At least once every day since their sixth anniversary.
He could do it so easily, too. She knew nothing about his stint in the Special Forces, his tour short but lethal. She didn’t know so many things about him. Would be horrified if she did.
John placed his tool bag on the pristine workbench inside his shed. Sunlight filtered through the solitary window. The scent of machine oil clung to the air, pleasant. It soothed, as did the hum of the fluorescent lights, the sight of row upon row of mechanic’s tools perfectly lined up like a company of soldiers.
The garage-sized building stood on a far corner of their property. Far enough from the yellow house that he wouldn’t hear Felicity’s harping voice unless she stood outside and called from the deck. The bright, ugly yellow house he hated, the fucking, finally painted deck. Things. Things she wanted. Not him. No longer him.
These days it was “Do you have to do that now?” and “Why can’t you clean up your mess?” and “I told you already. Would you just listen to me?” Now, the spark was dead. The flame smothered by disillusion and neglect. He didn’t care to listen any more. Her whining and constant neediness grated on him, felt like teeth peeling off layer after layer of skin.
He hadn’t expected it to come to this. They’d started out friends, felt the warmth change to heat. But the heat intensified, burned the soul, the desire out of him.
She changed, too. The glow wore off, the sheen dulled. Before it was “You’re the best man I’ve ever known, John,” and “Thank you, hon, for the wonderful things you do for me.” Days long gone.
One by one, he removed items from his kit and returned the tools to their proper places on the shelves, in the tool box. Nothing out of order. His place. His life. He had to get it back.
He clenched his hands into fists, then released. Again. Flex, relax. Stretched them wide, tightened them. Cracked his knuckles. First the left hand, then the right.
He turned to leave.
“Yes. Today’s the day.”
The bottle green Castine kayak sliced through the swell of Salt Run. Darkness enveloped her as she rowed through inches of low tide. The sound of the chop cloaked the dipping in-out of her paddles. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. She glanced over her shoulder, and the kayak rocked at her sudden twist.
Nothing but dark, empty water.
Wind crisscrossed over her, the current roughened, and she knew she neared the spot where the waters converged. The Matanzas River, Salt Run and the inlet intersected near the tip of the island, creating a mash-up of frothy currents. Paddling hard, she strained and the kayak responded, tracking cleanly through the churning waters. The tide had been with her when she’d paddled out from the lighthouse ramp, pushing as if assisting with the task she undertook. But rounding the north end of the island brought new worries. Fear.
Her tired limbs dragged as she rowed out of the waves, ducking around the docks that jutted into the river. She watched them as she passed, checking whether anyone loitered above. For a moment, she rested and let the river carry her. Inhaled deeply, breathed in the brackish scent, listened to the lapping waves. A crescent moon spilled light like mercury over the river. But for that, she’d be almost invisible. A speck of darkness floating on so much fluid black.
A look at her watch told her three a.m. had come and gone.
She pressed on, neared the Bridge of Lions. Lights shined along the posts crossing the river. The towers’ glowing windows speared the night sky with vertical shafts of light. A ragtop jeep rumbled across the span, its noisy muffler disrupting the quiet.
She passed beneath the bridge and looked up, counted the docks as she passed beneath their shadows, the lampposts of the surrounding mansions casting meager light. One, two … she eyed each as she passed until she found the right one. A small speedboat floated overhead in its boat lift. She slid quietly up to the piling and tied in. She swiveled to open her boat’s rear storage compartment. It sat within reach, but she struggled to lift the rubber lid, and the kayak pitched, nearly upending her. Stabilizing herself, she tried again, prying open the cover with shaking hands. Steadier after a few seconds passed, she retrieved her cargo. Small, heavy like a ballast stone. Way more dangerous.
She cradled the package, rotated it slowly, looked for the timer.
Pushing the buttons as she’d been directed, she saw red numbers begin to flash. She whipped her head around. No one else seemed near, as far as she could tell.
She focused on the device, the webbing that surrounded the watertight plastic cover. With hands shaking again, she reached around the piling and strapped the bomb to the pier below the low-tide waterline. Out of sight.
Deep breaths. After she removed the line tying her in, she paddled out. Looking back, the glow from the red numbers flickered, then faded as she rowed into the night.
A body is buried at 501 Lakeshore Road. Walk a short way down the overgrown drive, and you’ll see the marker when you round the curve. It’s a crude thing, looks like a weathered slate from somebody’s walkway. Jim Henney’s initials are scratched into the worn surface. With a date: Febuary 29, 1976. Yeah, people often spell that incorrectly, but see it carved into a gravestone and that’s sad. For me, anyway.
My name’s Sam Gates. Sam, short for Samella, a family name. My byline says S Gates. No picture. Keeps folks guessing. My exposé column got picked up from the local paper and now reaches twenty-one states in syndication. Imagine that. Going from Podunk, Florida to nationwide in a few years. What does that tell you about people’s morbid curiosity? What does it say about my proclivities?
Back to Jim Henney.
Today is February 29, 2016. I drove thirty-two miles to 501. Now I’m idling beside a flowering azalea, listening to birds chatter through the windows, cackling up a racket. Sun rests heavy on my car. I kill the engine, and the interior warms quickly. Besides the birds, all I hear is the motor’s cooling tick. Not a soul, save me, graces the unkempt patch of land butting Creek’s Head Marsh.
Not a soul, save me, is willing to visit Jim Henney.
Whispered stories about the man followed me all my life. He’s legend where I’m from. He died young and he died hard. His exploits started it all; those stories ignited my interest in investigative reporting.
Forty years later, his grave calls me back.
His grave, and the anonymous email I’d received this morning.
I leave my car beside the ditch and tramp down the drive. Nasty vines had overtaken the land, and they snag my pants and sleeves. I’d remembered to cover up, despite the rising temps and humidity. Trees bow overhead, sunlight trickles through. I feel as though I’m walking inside a giant, glowing green bowl. The air smells fresh until a fetid breeze wafts from the marsh.
I find the marker. A ray of sun slashes across the slab. I pause in the clearing where the house had stood. Gone now, burned to its foundation. Only charred timbers lie junked beneath the encroaching brambles.
Again I inhale. The stench has blown away, leaving a remembered, woodsy smell. One of the few good things about this place.
Forty years. His grave’s still calling, but it’s not giving answers. I’ll find them, though. All the secrets, the lies. The cover-up. I’ll learn the truth behind those whispers, behind the averted eyes and closed faces.
Folks say Jim killed twenty-five locals with his tainted moonshine. The townspeople lynched him for it. On the day I was born.
I don’t believe their gossip. I have my reasons. Reasons I’ve collected half my life. Unfinished snippets I’ve learned from trustworthy sources. Not enough, but enough to keep me going. Someone else doesn’t believe the old stories either.
There’s more than one side to every tale. I’ll uncover the truth because it’s my job. And because I’m the one who can clear my brother’s name.
Even though I never knew him.
“I can’t believe you made me come over here to do this.” Her hand trembled.
A mug sat on the stained laminate table. The scent of coffee lingered in the air as it cooled, helped along by a chilly breeze that floated through the open kitchen door. Milky sunlight crept over the counter, spilled on the floor.
“A phone call would’ve been nice. After everything we were to each other.” Her eyes smarted, the burning tingle of rising tears. She struggled to swallow. “Do I mean so little to you? What we shared …. I can’t believe you don’t feel the same way. How could you not?”
His stony face watched her.
“Everything you said, everything you did. Were you just faking? The whole time?”
Silence heavier than a tombstone filled the air.
“It’s not like I didn’t try to make things work between us.”
She paced. Back, forth. Her eyes never left him. One hand clenched into a fist. Releasing it, she inhaled, held her breath a moment, then tried again.
“You know, there’s a new Adele song they keep playing. Have you heard it?” She didn’t wait for his reply. “There’s a line ‘I must have called a thousand times.’ That’s exactly what I did.” Her voice rose as she continued. “But you never answered, just like he didn’t. You never picked up.” She turned to him as she yelled, “Why not? Damn it, why the hell didn’t you ever pick up the phone?”
Expressionless eyes followed her. Again no reply. She moved toward him, fire burning in her eyes. She slipped on the slick floor, slid through a slimy puddle, but that didn’t stop her. Her hand swung in a wide arc, made abrupt, satisfying contact.
Still he didn’t utter a sound.
She retreated and resumed pacing, anger dissipating. The sound of a soft drip carried through the air, but she took no notice. No other sound broke the quiet. Even the refrigerator didn’t hum.
“This is getting us nowhere.”
Julia turned to face David, left fist settled on her hip. Her right hand gripped the chef’s knife she’d pulled from his butcher block. David’s blood seeped onto the floor and mingled with the puddle widening beneath his chair. No response would come from him now.
“I can’t believe you made me do this.” Julia shook her head. “You should’ve answered.”
All works ©2016-2018 Carolyn Greeley