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“Foul Hook” by J.B. Kish

Foul Hook

By J.B. Kish

 

“Finding the right person is—arguably—the same as fly fishing the Kenai in July. It’s less about the salmon. Understand? There’s plenty of salmon.”

“It’s all about where you set that hook.”

*

Mary opened and closed her fist. The flesh on the outside of her index finger yawned, splaying open three cuts where fishing line had repeatedly eaten into her knuckle. She examined each wound mindlessly, picking at a few specs of dirt that had become embedded inside the flesh. She squinted and blinked wildly—only half aware of how exhausted she really was. Her eyes were sore, and they burned from all the crying. She was out of tears for now. But that truly was just for now. There were always more tears in this place.

The Central Peninsula Hospital Emergency Room was a sterile, white canvas that had been handed over to a community college art major of an interior decorator. Below was your obligatory checkerboard tile floor. Above were picturesque lake-scape paintings and a small TV that played old episodes of Roseanne. The vending machine—though she couldn’t see one, but was sure existed—was likely filled with junk food and crap microwavable burritos.

Mary—61 years old and peppered grey—was still in her waders when the doctor came out to break the news. They were tan with brown boots and clips that fastened over her shoulders. With these waders, she could walk out up to her tits and fish for salmon until her toes went numb. And she did often.

She remembered thinking that he had a familiar face. But then again, didn’t they all? Soldotna was a small town. His name was Doctor Jimmy…or…Doctor Eddie. Or something of the like. She was fairly certain they’d met on the river once or twice before. This Jimmy or Eddie always wore his backpack in the water. He never set it on the bank. He’d retie his leaders right there in the current because he didn’t want to lose his spot.

Tourists are always trying to steal what isn’t theirs.

When Jimmy or Eddie was speaking, Mary couldn’t quite make out the words. The world was stretching to a sluggish halt around her, and the man’s huge bottom lip was flapping incomprehensibly. His long, pointed face resembled that of a sockeye. And she couldn’t help but think of her leader sliding across his cheeks. She imagined herself whipping back and setting a barbed fishing hook right in ole Jimmy or Eddie’s cheek. A single, graceful maneuver.

A legally set hook.

Anywhere else, and Fish and Game would have your ass and a pretty pink fine too. Not the belly, not the back, and definitely not the tail—that was foul. A salmon had to be hooked right in the mouth for you to keep it.

Before she blacked out completely, she thought she’d heard her husband’s name—Nathan—sputter out from ole Jimmy or Eddie’s throat. She was sure she had. And she was sure it was bad too. Terribly bad. As she crumpled to the floor, all she could make out in the darkness was the phantom of a salmon. A single, beautiful fish breaching the water and trying wildly to shake the foul hook from its back.

Later, when she woke on a stiff hospital bed, Mary felt the unmistakable tickle of a cold coming on.

*

“Nathan, stop screwing around. You’re sick.” Something pricked Mary, and she frowned. The summer rain had brought the mosquitos from the woods. She slapped her neck and wiped the tiny insect onto her blue jeans.

The sky above their cabin that day was overcast and washed out. It threw no shadows, but still it covered the woods with a darkened veil. Everything—the trees, the creek, even her husband—it was all muted.

“It’s July, Mary,” said Nathan. “People don’t get sick in July.” He swung his backpack up onto the truck bed and pushed it back. Then he walked to the shed and returned with his fly rod.

Nathan’s face had always been a charming one. His chin was large and chiseled, like the edge of a cliff, and his hair was golden blonde and gently curled. He was six feet tall and barrel chested. But today his appearance was unfamiliar somehow. He was slouched and slow-moving. His nose was bright red, and that charm in his eyes was missing from his gaze. His eyelids were drooping and he sniffed a lot. Too much for a man about stand in a freezing cold river.

“Nathan—”

“—Six, Mary.” When he spoke, his voice was gravelly and congested. “They just raised the limit to six fish this morning. You know I won’t miss that.” Despite the way he sounded, his words had still come across as intended: curt and final. He turned and slid his pole into the back of the truck.

Mary sighed and crossed her arms. “Then I’ll come with you.”

Nathan stiffened. It was a single, fleeting moment, but Mary was sure she’d seen it happen. His broad shoulders slouched and he turned. “I thought you had book club today?” he asked, his tone noticeably softer.

Mary shrugged. “The book is shit anyways.”

“Won’t the club be upset?”

“Let them,” said Mary. She turned toward the shed and retrieved her pole. “Besides,” she continued, “twelve fish is better than six.”

Nathan didn’t respond. He stared at her incredulously before climbing into the truck and starting the engine.

Their trip down to the river was familiarly quiet. Mary felt like she’d interrupted her husband somehow. She got that feeling a lot lately. He was agitated of late, and typically spoke in grunts or nods. But it was probably just his cold, she told herself, handing him a hanky. She thought, he’ll be right as rain on the other side.

Nathan took the rag and blew his nose, pinching his nostrils and wiggling. He coughed—that deep, chest cough of a man who should be in bed—and rolled his window down, spitting some phlegm into the breeze. Mary smiled shyly, and then she turned to look out her window, her heart skipping a gentle beat.

They were coming up on Redoubt Avenue.

Nathan slowed the truck, stopping just before the tilted sign. The four-way intersection was empty. Straight ahead, the Kenai River awaited, along with a 6 fish limit. But the truck was steadfast and unmoving. Nathan sat with his foot on the break, the engine rumbling, and stared out the windshield. Mary smiled nervously, glancing down Redoubt Avenue. The road stretched half a mile, and there was a large white house at the end. Its enormous French doors smiled back at her. The vaulted roof wiggled like a suggestive eyebrow. There was a greenhouse along the north side next to a well and clothes line. Mary studied the house, and then looked back to her husband, placing a hand on the back of his neck. “Nate?”

Her husband’s upper lip rolled, and he sucked in through his front teeth. He took his foot off the brake and accelerated through the intersection.

 

*

 

The funeral home was surely decorated by the same person who’d done the ER. The walls were paneled with dark oak and mahogany. It conjured images of age and refinement. It said to Mary, “Only the best are laid on display here.”

“This is where the head of your family will say his goodbyes.”

Pictures of sunsets and clouds and even a painting or two of Christ lined the halls toward the room where Nathan was lying in a box. She hadn’t walked down to see him yet. She wasn’t ready for all the people and their eyes and the God damned sympathy. She’d had enough of it the past 72 hours. On top of that, her head was splitting. She felt like her brain was ballooning out against her skull. This cold had overtaken her faster than she thought physically possible, and it made thinking all the more difficult. Planning a funeral is devastating enough.

But planning a funeral on three bottles of NyQuil is next to impossible.

“Mrs. Blake, we’re ready for you now.” The funeral director was a short, balding man with a thick beard and soft eyes. He placed a comforting hand on Mary’s shoulder.

Mary feigned a smile and placed her palm on his own. This man was the closest thing she’d had to a best friend since Nathan died. He’d practically planned the entire service for Mary, and still she couldn’t remember his name.

“Try to remember the good times,” the funeral director suggested. “His touch. His smile. Perhaps talk about the first time you met.”

A single cry leapt from Mary’s throat and she cupped her mouth, nodding her head. She started down the hallway, blowing her nose into her handkerchief. She just wanted it to be over with. She wanted to be done with the whole mess. Wanted to be done with this ceremony and this funeral. As she blew her nose—her nostrils aching and raw—she wanted more than anything just to be done with this cold.

She stopped just short of the doorway and took a deep breath. From where she was standing, she could make out the top of the casket and the lectern. Nathan was lying peacefully on display—like a trophy salmon.

Mary’s trophy salmon.

She thought in some ways he was lucky for the heart attack. Some people die terrible gruesome deaths. Some get mangled or eaten. Bear maulings are not all that uncommon in these parts. But at least a heart attack kept you clean. At least it gifted you an open casket and one last chance to say goodbye.

May turned and stepped into the room. The audience of friends and family turned, and all the air was collectively sucked from the room. Mary took a step toward the lectern, nodding politely at a vast number of people that had taken puddle jumpers from Anchorage to attend the funeral. There was Bill, Nathan’s younger brother. His wife and two children. Doctor Brents was there—and old family friend. Shannon O’Riley from the salon. And there was—

Mary tripped over a long orange extension chord, and Doctor Brents leapt up from his chair to catch her. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she struggled to swallow it back down.

She was here.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue. The one from the white house with the French doors. Mary watched her from the corner of her eye, hunched over in Doctor Brents arms. Why? She asked herself. How could she be here?

Mary thanked the good doctor and corrected herself. She flattened her dress and approached the lectern, turning to face the audience. It was a good long while before she found the courage to speak. She thanked everyone for coming but wasn’t exactly sure what to say next.

“Perhaps talk about the first time you met,” the funeral director had suggested.

So Mary took a deep breath and said the first thing that came into her mind. “Finding the right person is—arguably—the same as fly fishing the Kenai in July.”

The audience laughed quietly.

Mary continued. “It’s less about the salmon. Understand? There’s plenty of salmon. It’s all about where you set that hook.”

As Mary spoke, she tried to look around the room. She tried to make eye contact with everyone in the audience. But after a few moments of painful pretending, she simply gave up. Mary was done. She wanted to be free from the weight. Free from 25 years of marriage and fishing. She flashed a short, polite smile. Then she folded her hands over the lectern and turned, looking to the woman from Redoubt Avenue.

“Nathan left another woman for me.”

An unexpected wave of discomfort rolled across the audience. Those in attendance were understandably quiet. Mary wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to say herself. She could feel a chord of snot slipping from her nostril, and she wiped it with the back of her hand. The woman from Redoubt Avenue’s expression was flat. Mary realized that she too had a bright pink nose and flushed cheeks.

“Back in California,” Mary continued. “He was engaged. Not many people know this story actually. His Fiancé’s name was Catherine. She eventually married someone else and lived in Germany for a short while. She was—” Mary took a deep breath. “—killed during a robbery. A gas station or maybe it was a grocery store. I’m afraid I forget which.”

The woman from Redoubt Avenue shifted uncomfortably. She glanced around the room.

“Nathan broke it off with Catherine in a letter. It was one week before she was supposed to return from the Peace Corps.” Mary chuckled, as if unable to believe the words coming from her own mouth. “They were supposed to be getting married, and instead we were running away together. To Alaska.” She paused to blow her nose before looking down at her husband’s face. “It was a particularly cruel thing to do. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. A whole lot.”

 

*

 

The chain-link fence behind the funeral home rested atop a small ridge that looked down on the Kenai River. Fisherman lined both sides of the water. Every few seconds, someone below shouted out for more room as they walked a salmon down the line. “Fish on!” they called. It was music to one’s ears. The reds were running thick—the limit still holding at six a day.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue leaned against the fence, smoking a cigarette and watching the fishermen. She was a thin, blond creature with pale skin and a mess of freckles. Mary thought her quite beautiful actually, though she wouldn’t have admitted that out loud.

Mary approached her from behind, but her cough gave her away. The woman from Redoubt Avenue turned, and her eyes widened. She bit the cigarette nervously and pulled. Mary paid her little mind and leaned against the fence. She looked down on the fishermen below.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the woman. Her eyes were watery. She balled up a few tissues in her palm and stuffed them in her pocket.

“It’s Interesting,” Mary said flatly.

“Excuse me?”

Mary smiled. “Just something Nathan said to me the other day. He said, ‘Mary, people don’t get sick in July.’”

The woman from Redoubt Avenue lifted her eyebrows.

“Anyways,” Mary continued. “Shows you what he knew.” She took out her handkerchief and trumpeted her nose. Then she offered it to the stranger.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue studied her closely. She licked her lips and turned back toward the river. “No, thanks,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I’m on the mend. Another day. Maybe two, and I’ll be fine again.”

Mary nodded and then—much to the woman’s surprise—held her hand out, motioning for the cigarette. The woman from Redoubt Avenue stared at it coldly. For a moment, Mary thought she might be stupid enough to argue with her. “Don’t stop sharing now,” she said bluntly.

The woman from Redoubt Avenue blinked, swallowed nervously, and handed her the cigarette. Mary placed it between her lips and inhaled. She filled her lungs with the smoke. Filled them with harsh tobacco and the taste of this woman’s lipstick and saliva. She took it all.

Below a young boy—maybe twenty or so—shouted “Fish on!” and his pole bent sharply toward the water. But he held his ground. For a second, his line hissed across the water, and Mary thought he’d forgotten to set his drag. But the boy placed his palm on the reel and it came to a halt. The women watched as he slowly began to reel and step back toward the bank.

With a sharp jerk, the line changed direction and headed down river. It was moving fast—too fast. The boy grabbed the reel, and Mary watched skeptically as the sockeye salmon breached the water, flipping marvelously through the air. The boy’s green yarn winked at them from the salmon’s back, and it crashed down into the water.

Mary took another drag. The hook was foul.

The boy’s shrinking posture was sign enough that he’d realized the same. Angrily, he fought the salmon up onto shore. It was a lengthy battle. They always are when you foul them. It’s like trying to ride a bucking bronco instead of walking it by the reins. When he’d finally pulled it up onto shore, the fish thrashed around, and threw river stones like shotgun rock salt. But once suffocation set in, the fish slowed and then all together stopped moving. The boy dropped down, placing a knee on either side of the fish. He pulled a pair of needle nose pliers from his vest and ripped the hook from the fish’s back.

Slipping his finger up into the fish’s gill, he walked it back out into the river and placed it in the water, but the salmon rolled belly up. Carefully, the boy took it with both hands and rolled it back over. Slowly, he pushed and pulled the fish through the water, forcing oxygen back into its gills. He did this five or six times before the fish snapped back to life. With a few quick jerks, it freed itself from his hands and disappeared into the river.

Both women watched. Each taking a drag.

© 2014 J.B. Kish

“A Life Inside” by Carrie Padian

 

A Life Inside

by Carrie Padian

 

When they tried to reconstruct Alice Anderson’s final days on Earth, the police were surprised at how little her coworkers knew of her whereabouts.  Many of them had been in town only for the weekend, a company outing full of beer and drunken small talk.  Now they were all lined up, a row of white men in starched white shirts in the station waiting area, heads buried in their phones or talking on their bluetooth headsets.  Alice’s boss was called in first.

The hallway down to the interrogation room was cold and institutional.  The concrete block, aging paint, and reinforced glass all reminded Arthur Kelly of his elementary school.  35 years ago, life was simple and Art was the king of the dodgeball court.  He missed it.  The other kids shrinking away from him in the hallways felt like power, and Art loved every minute of it.  Managing a bunch of finance hacks came close — their lives in his hands, just a little bit — but it couldn’t match that old primal feeling.  Now, with a cop at his back and an industrial steel table blocking the exit, Art was looking for outs.  It was game time.

“Can I get some coffee or something?” he asked with a smile.  The detective on the other side of the table was young, with slicked black hair and a smug, smarmy face that made Art’s knuckles itch.  He was studying a file in front of him, Alice’s file.  Art made a point of clearing his throat until the man looked up.

“Yes, yes of course,” he said, “though between you and me, calling that stuff coffee is an act of extreme charity.”  He gestured to the uniformed officer by the door.  “Uh…Williams, would you mind?  Cream and sugar?” He turned to Art.

“Black.”

“Two black coffees, if you please.”  His eyes followed her out of the room.  “So, Arthur, what can you tell me about Alice Anderson?  Have you known her long?”

Art sat back in his chair, a metal folding number that creaked beneath his bulk.  His back was sweating, and he didn’t know why.  “No, I wouldn’t say that, exactly.  Well, Alice worked for me for about three or four years but I can’t say I ever really got to know her.”

“Oh no?  Why is that?”

The officer returned and set a steaming cup on the table in front of Art.  He sipped at it and stared into the black for a long moment, considering his answer.

“To be honest, I can’t really tell you why.  Alice was a pretty girl and a good worker but sometimes that just isn’t enough.  Sometimes the human side is missing a little, if you know what I mean.  You can try but they won’t let you in.”  He looked up at the detective.  “You get what I’m saying, kid?  Sometimes you can’t get to know your coworkers as well as you’d like to, is what I’m saying.”  He cast a meaningful glance at the girl who had brought the coffee.  She met his eyes and then stared at the floor.  Art sipped again at his cup.

——

I admit it, in fact, I’d be the first to admit that I’m not that easy to know.  Sometimes I don’t know how Ben, my fiancé, ever puts up with me.  “Quirky”, is what my mom always called it.  Dad would say “independent” with a sigh, as if that’s the worst quality a woman can possess.

I didn’t want to go to Chicago in the first place.  Sure, the firm paid to fly me in, put me up in a pretty nice hotel, and then set up this whole party thing, but if I’m being honest, I would have preferred to just spend that time at home with Ben and the cats, reading books, watching movies.  I don’t like socializing, and it doesn’t like me.  The idea of hours on a rooftop with Art and the gang making small conversation while they get drunker and drunker, pretending not to notice when their gazes linger just south of my collarbone or their fingers graze my ass as they’re walking by, pretending I think it’s funny when they call me “token bitch”, well, no.  That doesn’t sound like a good time to me.  And yet, after last week’s pointed conference call where Art blustered on about being “the head of this family” and that it was breaking his heart that our sales numbers weren’t higher and we needed a few good “team players” out there, well, I had no choice but to go.  Despite everything, I knew the only girl on the team would be the first on the chopping block when Art went looking to trim the fat.  No pun intended.

——

Detective Matthew Savits rubbed his eyes.  Never before had he spent so much time talking to so many smart looking men who knew so very little.  Many of Alice’s coworkers seemed to know even less about her than he did.  Not a one of them had seen her leave the party.  Most of them hadn’t even known she was engaged.  He stared at the twin photographs in front of him, one a headshot from Alice’s driver’s license.  She was white, blonde, early thirties, and her stats put her at five feet seven inches and just under 200 pounds.  A solid woman.   Physically, Alice was average as could be.  Unremarkable.  She was smart though, he could see it in her smile, almost a smirk at the camera.  This was a woman who could know things just by looking at you.  What happened then?  How does this smart, savvy, solid woman end up like that?  Matt touched the second picture with a gentle fingertip, tracing the orange electrical cord wound around Alice’s neck.

——

It was the longest flight of his life.  “Just over four hours, gate to gate!” the attendant chirped into the intercom.  Ben Stadt felt his insides clench.  He couldn’t decide if he wanted to actually get there.  As long as they were still in the air, maybe Alice was still alive.  Maybe that was some other dead blonde girl the police were calling about.  Some other poor sap’s fiancée.  Ben shifted in his seat and felt the armrest digging into his hip.  He welcomed the pain.  It helped him feel less dead inside, in the parts that wanted to join Alice wherever she was.  The world felt so empty without her in it.  He felt a hand on his arm.

“Do you hate flying as much as I do, sweetheart?” came a voice from his left, the woman in the window seat he had only barely looked at when he boarded the plane.  He took her in now, a soft, round, motherly brunette.  She was staring at him with imploring eyes, practically begging to be of use to him in his time of need.  And she didn’t even know how much he needed right now.  Alice would have ignored her, maybe put headphones on or buried her nose in a book.  Ben nodded and patted her hand.  “Yes, thank you, I do, I hate flying.  It’s the absolute worst.”

——

Ben didn’t always hate flying, you know.  I remember this trip he and I took to Acapulco to celebrate our second year together and you should have seen him on the plane.  His face just lit up like a kid on Christmas, so thrilled with the excitement of flying through the air.  He was so giddy the woman next to us asked if it was his first time flying and he said “nope, I’m always like this.”  He was, always like that, and I loved him for it.  I was the one who hated it.  Flying seemed to me like an exercise in giving up your human rights.  First, they pack you into this tin can with maybe a few square feet of personal space, tops, then they tell you when you get to use your own laptop, when you’re allowed to drink something, when you can use the bathroom, what angle your seat back should be.  It’s torture on the best of days, when I’ve got Ben to distract me, but flying alone is just awful.  They always sit me next to some chatty lady, or worse, some dude who spreads his knees as wide as possible until they’re pushing into my leg space, like somehow he’s entitled to it, and then he spends the whole damn flight telling me about his very successful business or his sweet, loving family and I try to nod a little to be polite, but not so much that I’m encouraging him to keep talking, because doesn’t he see that I have this book in my hands?  No, he doesn’t seem to notice.  He never does.  He just wants an audience for a few hours and since we’re on a plane there’s nowhere I can go to escape.  No escape.  Now, that sounds familiar.

——

The Q Hotel was downtown, right in the middle of everything, which meant parking was going to be a bitch.  Matt circled the block a solid ten times before giving in and pulling up to the valet stand.  If only he was driving a black and white.  He could park that thing anywhere he pleased.  But hitting the hotel on his way home meant taking the Hyundai and that meant parking like a civilian.  He flashed his badge at the attendant as he handed over the keys.  “Uh..take good care of her, yeah?”  Sometimes that worked.  Man, he loved flashing that badge.  Maybe they wouldn’t even charge him.

Matt pushed through a revolving door and found himself in the 1960s.  Everything in the Q lobby could be characterized as “groovy” or “far out”, from the flashing lights to the white leather furniture.  On his left, the hotel bar was a cluster of giggling, chatty drinkers and Matt could feel rather than hear the music pouring out of the speakers scattered every few feet.  It made him feel old, which he wasn’t.  Not for a detective anyway.  Just four years on the force before he took the exam and passed it in one go.  A fluke, really.  Matt had always been good at tests.  Unfortunately that skill didn’t always translate very well to field work.  After more than a year at it, he still felt like a rank amateur when it came to the detecting part.

He approached the front desk, manned by a tall, thin kid who couldn’t be more than twenty.  He flipped open his badge again.  “Chicago PD.  I was told you’re holding Alice Anderson’s room?”

The clerk was maybe a little too eager to please.  “Yessir, we’ve been waiting for you to come take another look.  We’ve got it up there just as she left it.  I told housekeeping not to go in there, not to even touch it.  Like I said, we’ve been waiting for you.”

Matt shot him a look, preparing a response along the lines of eff you, kid. I’ve been busy until he thought better of it.  It might help to have a guy on the inside. “Well, I’m here now.  Can you show me?”

Alice’s room was on the fifteenth floor, a double room which was odd only because her colleagues all asked for kings.  “I’ve never really had so many people from one group insist on a king bed before,” the front desk kid said, “I wasn’t entirely sure we wouldn’t run out but it turns out we’ve got more kings than doubles even.  And the doubles are cheaper so they go faster.  In the end, it was harder for me to find her an open double than it was to find all those kings.”

Matt nodded, considering.  “Why do you think she wanted a double then?”

The clerk leaned in and pushed the door open.  “See for yourself.  I think she might’ve just wanted someplace to spread out.”

1504 was a typical upscale hotel room with a few major differences.  The ceilings were high with exposed ductwork and piping which gave the space an industrial, lofty feel.  The walls, ceilings and all the furniture were stark white.  It made Matt not want to touch anything for fear of griming it up.  There was an unplugged floor lamp on its side in the middle of the room. On the wall across from the slept-in bed hung a lightbox with words printed on it:  Life is not about discovering yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.

The second bed was covered in paper, stacks of typewritten pages lined up meticulously along the edges of the mattress.  Air coming through the a/c vent had blown a few of them out of place.  Matt bent down and squinted at an errant page.

“Huh.” he said.   “So she was a writer?”

“It looks like it.  I mean, her name is on all of these pages.”  The clerk picked up a sheaf of them and flipped through it before Matt could stop him.  “What is it, though?  A novel?  Maybe a dissertation or something?”

Matt took the pages from the clerk and moved toward the bathroom’s better lighting.  He heard a squish and looked down.  The carpet was saturated.  “Did something happen here?” he asked.

The clerk crouched next to the spot and prodded it with a long finger, watching the short pile carpet disappear under the water and reemerge again.  “That’s a lot of water.”  He looked up just as a cold, fat drop splashed on his face from above. “Aagggh!  Right in my eye.  Thanks man.”, he said as Matt handed him a towel.

“Is that normal?”

“I don’t think so..I mean no, of course not.  I can get one of my plumbing guys to take a look at it.”

“Don’t do that just yet.  I want to have our guys look at it first.”  He glanced at the pipe above.  There was a discolored gap in the stark white paint. “Actually wait.  Do you have a ladder I can use?”

——

Please don’t ask me about the book.  I really don’t want to talk about the book.

——

Art watched the sun set over the rooftops from his grand mahogany desk, stiff-backed in an antique Persian leather chair that cost more than his car.  The temperature in the office remained a steady 68 degrees but Art was still sweating.  He ran a finger underneath his shirt collar and loosened the choke hold grip of his necktie.  He should never have talked to that cop without a lawyer.  What a stupid, amateur move.  At least he didn’t lie.  No he didn’t.  No, not really.  Alice was a hard bitch to know.  So many times she shut him out.  And he had tried, really tried with her.  So many second chances when her numbers were down.  So many other ways he had given her to prove her worth to the company.

He walked to his office door and pushed in the lock.  With any luck he’d have a few hours before the cleaning staff came in.  On his desk sat a laptop with an open document on the screen.  The margin text read “What Happens Next: a novel by Alice Anderson.”  He scrolled to the first page and began to skim.

——

The Q Hotel was generally quiet at night, and that was the way José liked it.  The late night party people usually kept their partying to the hotel bar or the dive joint down the street, which meant the people who asked for things after hours were the quiet ones, the lonely introverts who preferred dinner alone in their rooms with a good book to seeing and being seen out on the town.  José’s people.  He loved to bring a little cheer into the lonely traveler’s life, be it a bit of friendly conversation or an extra fudge brownie sneaked in on the tray.  No request was too big or too small.  After all, lonely travelers were exceedingly good tippers.  But José told himself he wasn’t just in it for the money.  He liked the feeling at the end of a long night shift that he had done a little good in the world.  He had served someone, with every ounce of meaning that word entailed.  José liked to think of himself as the lonely traveler’s trusted friend.  And no one in the world, no one else ever needed to know about it.

——

“Biff Johnson was a powerful man, and he never let you forget it.  He moved about the world like a movie star with an entourage, young, impressionable girls hanging on his every word.  He could have had any one of them in any combination he wanted but Biff was a hunter and he liked a challenge.  He’d spot his prey across the room and sidle up to her silently, like a leopard stalking a gazelle.  And then he’d attack, not with teeth but with effusive charm that made her feel like the most beautiful prey animal in the room.  She’d be dead before she even realized he was watching.”

Matt lay the stack of pages on his lap.  Well, that was thinly-veiled as all hell.  Was this supposed to be fiction?  He flipped to the back, the final words on the final pages.

“Serena heard the door shut behind her and only then could she let loose the torrent of tears pricking behind her eyelids.  Such a helpless feeling.  Of course she knew he’d make a horrible father.  He was a weak man, deep down.  Not at all the kind of partner who would stand by her side and face life’s challenges.  Not like Dan.  Dan had always been the only person she could ever count on.  But if he knew…if he knew what she was, what she had done…  Serena choked back a sob as she realized Biff was now out in the world with intimate knowledge of her secret affairs and nothing at all to stop him.”

“Oh, crap”  Matt picked up his phone and dialed the station.  “Hey Lanie, listen, I’m going to need someone to pick up Art Kelly for further questioning.  Can you send a car?  Office and home.  Yeah, now please.  I’ll meet you there.”

——

The book is dumb, right?  You can tell me.  I can take it.  No I know, the book is dumb.  I’m so terrible at writing fiction.  But I had to get it out.   What can you do when your life becomes a freaking melodrama?  What else can you do when you realize you’re the stupid girl in this equation, that despite all your desire to become someone interesting and special, your life has become the biggest cliche?  Yeah, I screwed my boss.  I did it.  Me. I’m the dumb girl.  Wow, it almost feels good to get that off my chest, or I guess it would if it wasn’t too damn late for any of that to matter.

You know what happens next though, right?  To Serena?  Yes, she offs herself.  She should have gone after Biff and made him pay but she’s selfish and stupid and she ends her life with a gun.  And so would I have too, if I’d had one.  But when you’re traveling you have to make do with what you’ve got.

——

The morgue waiting area was surprisingly cheerful.  The walls were a creamy blue with sunset landscape paintings every few feet.  The symbolism wasn’t lost on Ben.  If he ignored the death smell lingering in the air, he might have been able to pretend he was at the dentist’s office waiting for a cavity to be filled.  Alice would have appreciated this room.  She would’ve wanted to write about it, how we strive so hard to find the silver lining of death, how that blinds us to the fact that we’re all going to die, some sooner than others.  He clenched his fingers into a fist, stifling the empty cry that was waiting just inside his chest.  He had done this.  He had failed her, failed to save her.  Now it was all too late.  Ben heard someone calling his name and walked toward the waiting room door.  Dreamlike.  Nightmarelike.

——

It had been a mistake to go back to the room that night.  José knew that.  After all, the guest had ordered steaks and scotch for two and usually that meant do not disturb for the rest of the evening.  But there was something in her look when he delivered the tray, something wild and unsettling that José couldn’t put out of his mind no matter how hard he tried.  So he waited for a lull in his evening calls and up he went, under the guise of retrieving the room service tray and seeing if there would be anything else for the night.  His light knock went unanswered.  José paused, ear pressed to the door for some sign of life.  He heard a wail from within and a crash and that was plenty.  He knocked again, louder this time, then used his key card in the lock.

——

i never wanted to be a parent.  Did you know that?  Or a wife, for that matter.  When we were first dating I told Ben that all of that family stuff would just interfere with my grand plans to take over the world.  I was joking but not joking, if you know what I mean.  I told him having kids felt like erecting a giant chain-link fence around your life, an unbreakable barrier between what you are now and what you might someday want to be.   So we kept it casual.  We kept it so, so casual, so we could both live our lives and be free.  He used to say he didn’t want kids either but I think he was lying about that.  He liked to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear.   But then his sister had kids and he became the fun uncle and I think he really loved it.  He wouldn’t say, but I think playing with those kids made him feel more whole somehow, and even engaged, our life together looked so empty by comparison.  So barren.

——

Alice’s body looked small under the sheet.  It reminded Ben of the way she’d sleep, curled up into a compact ball next to him on the bed, her body disappearing among the pillows.  She loved pillows.  She’d surround herself with them like a moat of feathers, keeping the interlopers out she once said.  It bothered him that she did that but he never said so.  Sometimes it was enough of a job just to keep her happy without bringing his own complaints into the mix.  Sometimes she was just so sad that he couldn’t even reach her.  Not with hands.  Not with words.  He stood, now, just out of reach.  It felt right to keep his sorrow some distance away.

The morgue attendant met his eyes and then pulled back the sheet, displaying Alice’s shoulders and head.  Ben exhaled a long, slow breath he’d been holding since he entered the room.  It was her, he was sure of it, but she looked so different here.  He used to watch her face when she was sleeping.  There was always a tension in it, a vigilance she held onto and couldn’t let go.  This face here was serene Alice.  Alice at peace.  Alice who had finally gotten the freedom she wanted from this tortured world.  That’s what she would have said anyway, if he had been able to ask her.  Ben nodded at the attendant.  She replaced the sheet over Alice’s head and asked “Oh, have you been up to see the baby?”

“The what?”  Ben was stunned.  “I…don’t know…what baby?”

“Alice’s baby.  Up in the NICU.”

Ben’s face must have been a mask of confusion because the attendant nodded and left the room, then returned with a counselor in tow.  She spoke slowly and in soothing tones.

“Hello Mr. Stadt, I’m so sorry for your loss.  I know this is a difficult time, but if you’re ready I’d love to take you up to meet your daughter.  She’s been waiting all day to meet you.”

“My what?” Ben resisted.

“Your daughter.  Come on.”  She took Ben’s elbow and guided him toward the door.  “I think you’re really going to enjoy meeting her.  And I’m pretty sure she’s got your nose.”

——

So yes, in the end, José the friendly room service clerk saved me.  He pulled me out of there, called an ambulance, put me in it and saved me.  Not my life of course, my neck was broken.  I  was too far gone.  Jose saved the important part of me, the part that mattered.  My baby girl.  Something of me to leave behind for Ben.  Something for him to love and care for in a way I would never let him love and care for me.  Sometimes I come back and watch the two of them through the chain-link fence.  They are living a life, a beautiful life, to be sure, but a life that was never meant for me.  I belong on the outside of this fenced-in world.  All I ever wanted.  I am free.

© 2014 Carrie Padian