©2005 by Richard S. Crawford; 4,598 words
“Yeah.” He straightened, reached underneath the bar and took out a glass and bottle. He poured a shot, and I downed it in one gulp, coughing as it burned its way down my throat.
The bartender smirked at me. “Want another? I could make it a double.”
I shook my head, still gasping. “Just give me a beer.”
“You gonna pay for it now?” he asked, handing it over. “Or you want a tab?”
I picked up my beer and looked around. Ancient stools lined the bar, just as I remembered. Five booths huddled against the far wall, dingy and drowned in shadows. I nodded toward them. “I’ll be over there.”
The bartender nodded, then sat back down and picked up his paper again.
I took my drink over to the booth furthest from the front door, the darkest one. I wanted to relish the memories of the time I’d spent here in Beau’s: the parties, the dates, the times alone just watching people. Maggie and Brian were back at Norm’s house, but let them wait. I’d only be here for a few minutes.
I was about to slide into the seat when I saw the booth was already occupied: a tall, thin man in an old trenchcoat, with tousled hair and a ragged beard, sat hunched over half a dozen empty Mickey’s Big Mouth bottles, hidden from view by the tall bench between the booths.
“Sorry.” I started to turn and walk away to another booth. A man drunk on six beers at this time of day just wanted to be alone.
But then he looked up at me. His bloodshot eyes, beneath eyebrows that looked like dead spiders, gazed unfocused in my direction.
I looked into those eyes, and nearly dropped my drink onto the floor. I knew those eyes; they were the eyes of a dead man. Or, at least, the eyes of a man I’d thought was dead.
“My God,” I said. “Are you Edward Shoemaker?”
The man blinked, and then his eyes focused. “Wait. Wait. I know you. Where do I know you from?” His voice grated, like he hadn’t spoken in years. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed during those years either.
“Edward, It’s me. Tom Dougherty. We used to work together at Platchett and Associates. Remember?”
“Oh.” He blinked, and then his eyes opened a little wider. “Platchett. Yeah, I remember that place. Oh, hey. Sit down, okay, Tom?”
I was still rattled, but somehow I smiled and slid into the seat opposite from him. “Jesus, Edward. We all thought you were dead.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I guess I thought I was too.”
“Seriously. We had a funeral. And a wake.”
“A funeral?” Edward raised an arachnoid eyebrow.
“Yeah. You were gone for so long. We just assumed you were dead.”
“Who was there?”
“The entire company. Your whole family. Bunch of friends.”
“And Charles? Was Charles there?”
“Of course he was. He gave the eulogy. Could barely talk, of course. He was still getting over his dad’s death when you disappeared.”
Edward brought his hand to his face, squeezing the bridge of his nose, and shook his head. “Shit. Ah, shit.”
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.” He dropped his hand back to the table and looked straight at me again. “I don’t know. Everything’s all confused. Blurry. I don’t… It’s like a book that’s been left in the rain. The pages melt together and the words all run down the gutter to the sewer. How long has it been?”
“Uh…” For some reason, I looked at my watch. “Four years. Give or take a month or two.”
“Wow. Four years.” His head shook just a bit, and he got lost again in the beer bottles.
I reached over and grabbed his arm. “What happened, Edward? Can you tell me?”
He nodded and looked around. “Yeah. We’ve been looking for you.”
“What do you mean, ‘We’? Who’s with you?”
“Just listen to me, Thomas, okay?”
He took a breath. “All right. It was four years ago, I guess. I was — wait, where are we?”
He coughed, and when he continued his voice shook. “Snowy Rock. Okay. Anyway. I was driving home late that night from work, and I was so fucking tired. You still live here?”
I shook my head. “I moved to Portland a couple of years ago. I’m here with my family for a wedding.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Maggie’s her name, and Brian’s our little boy.”
“Do you know what happened to your first wife?”
I shook my head, frowning. “We lost touch after the divorce. I haven’t heard from her in years, and I lost her phone number.”
“Family’s your anchor, Thomas. Don’t ever let go of them.”
“I won’t.” At the time, I assumed he was talking about Maggie and Brian.
I couldn’t decipher the look on his face as he shook his head. “Anyway. That day. That was the day that Natasha and I signed our own papers. She got everything, but I had Charles and I finally knew who I really was. I thought I did.” His voice drifted away and he fell into silence.
“Go on,” I said.
“Well, that night, there was this storm, a really bad one, and I was on County Road 84, driving slow because I was so tired. All I wanted to do was get home to Charles…”
…have a beer in front of the TV and then go to bed. It was hot and humid in the car because of the rain and because I had the heater on full blast. The windshield kept steaming up and I had to keep leaning forward to wipe it dry. I itched inside my suit, and I kept blinking and rubbing my face, trying to stay focused. I was playing Rain Dogs, that old Tom Waits album, really loud, hoping it would keep me awake.
When the white blur flashed before me, I thought it was just the way the headlights lit up the rain. But when I saw the woman for what she really was, it was almost too late; I cried out and slammed on the brakes. The car hydroplaned and for a moment I was sure I was going to slam into a tree. But miraculously the car came to a stop before I was even at the edge of the road. I shuddered and leaned against the steering wheel, trying to calm myself down.
When I had myself under control, I looked up. I was facing the middle of the road, and the woman that I had almost hit just stood there, illuminated by my headlights. She had been walking down the middle of the road, and I don’t think she even knew I was there until I had nearly run her down.
My chest tightened and my heart pounded. The panic I’d felt a moment before had hardened into a cold anger. What the hell was she doing, walking down the middle of an unlit county road at night during a storm? I turned off the CD player, rolled down the window and leaned out, ready to chew her out. I opened my mouth and even took a breath, but before I could say anything she turned at looked straight at me.
She was a lot shorter than me, maybe five foot or five-one. She looked so pathetic as she stood there, shivering and pale, my anger evaporated. All I could feel was pity.
I wish now that the anger had stuck.
“Are you all right?” I called to her.
She didn’t answer, only stood there, staring at me. She was thin, young, maybe just fifteen or sixteen, and she was wearing nothing but a sheer white blouse and a short skirt, one of those gossamer flowery skirts that barely came halfway down her thighs She wasn’t wearing a bra, and the fabric of her shirt clung tightly and translucently to her breasts. They were perfect. She had no shoes on, and the rain had plastered her hair to her head; the locks hung like thick black snakes over her shoulders. She was shivering, but she kept her arms at her sides instead of folding them in front of her. It was like she wanted me to see everything she had.
I sat there like an idiot, my head hanging out of the car window and getting soaked, just staring at this girl who was probably just about half my age. I’m sure I was drooling at her like some teenage kid; if I was, I hope the rain hid it.
It was another twenty miles to So Low. With what she was wearing and her bare feet, she wouldn’t have made it.
“Is everything all right?” I asked. But it was a dumb question. If everything were all right, would she have been walking half naked in this storm?
But she still said nothing. She just stared at me, and I got the idea she was sizing me up for something.
I tried again. “Do you need a ride into So Low?”
Finally she talked to me. “It’s cold.” Her voice was deeper, more resonant than I would have expected from someone so small and young, and it carried perfectly through the sound of the rain and the car’s engine.
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes it is.”
I began to wonder if this girl was either stoned, drunk, or just plain dumb. “Do you need a ride?”
“Yes, a ride. Into So Low.”
She looked around, taking in the dark road and the rain. Another car was approaching from the other direction and she waited until it had passed. The driver leaned on his horn the whole time. “I’m going home.”
“Do you live in So Low?”
“Yes. May I have a ride, please?”
I didn’t mind taking on hitchhikers from time to time. Charles always got mad at me for it, but I never had any problems. This girl, though. There was definitely something wrong about her and part of me wanted to just leave her there. I wish I’d listened to it.
“Well, come in,” I said, but she didn’t move. I don’t know what she was waiting for.
So I told her, “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
Finally she got into the car. As she pulled the door shut, I reached into the back seat, grabbed my rain coat, and gave it to her. In the dim light, I thought for a moment that her hand looked red and shiny and wet.
It was all so familiar, you know? Like all those ghost stories that I’d been hearing since I was a kid, about the ghost that gets in your car and then disappears when you take it back to where it lives.
Her hair wasn’t black at all, I saw, but bright red; the rain and the halogen headlights had made it look darker than it really was. Her skin was deathly pale, almost translucent, and she was covered with goosebumps. Her nipples under the sheer fabric of her blouse looked hard as rocks.
Even in this state she was heartbreakingly beautiful. And in spite of the rain, she had this scent, a faint flowery perfume that reminded me of my mother, but with a little hint of licorice.
“Can you drive now?” she said.
I realized that I’d lost track of everything but her, like I was drowning in her somehow. It was like how Charles always got when he was caught up in a really good book. I shook my head, trying to clear it out.
“Where do you live?” I asked her.
She didn’t reply. She just sat in the passenger seat of my car, shivering and huddled up in my raincoat.
I asked again. “Where do you live in So Low?”
She turned and looked at me. Her eyes were the most intense shade of blue I had ever seen and for a moment I was swimming, like I was drunk. I could almost feel my soul rising up inside my chest to flow out of my mouth, my nose, my eyes. I looked away. I didn’t want to get lost.
“Cedar Drive,” she said at last. “I live on Cedar Drive.”
I nodded. “Okay. I know where that is. It’s close to my house.” I took a deep breath, put the car into drive and started forward again.
I drove slow, because of the rain. For a couple of miles, we just sat in silence. I tried to start the CD player again, but the music kept skipping. I cursed because it was a brand new disc, and then I turned on the radio. There was only static on the air. I tried all the other presets, but I couldn’t get a clear signal on any of them. I killed the radio.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
I could barely hear her reply. “Molly.”
“That’s a pretty name. It sounds Irish. Are you Irish?”
“Thank you.” She fell silent again.
The quiet made me uncomfortable after a few minutes, so I tried to talk to her again. “So what happened to you? Did your car break down or something?”
She mumbled, too soft for me to hear.
“I beg your pardon?” I asked her.
“I have to go home.”
I gave up. There was going to be no conversation from her. I tried the radio again, but there was still nothing but static. I figured we were going to just drive in silence the rest of the way.
But after we had been driving for about ten minutes, she startled me by asking, “Will you tell me a story?”
“A story?” That really threw me for a loop. “What kind of a story?”
“A story about a princess.” She paused and stared straight ahead at the road, not looking at me. “Or a killer.”
She nodded. “Yes, please. A monster.”
“I don’t know any stories like that.”
“Please?” She looked at me then, with those sad and desperate eyes. I tried to guess what had happened to her: had she been dumped by her date, or by a husband? Maybe her parents?
I thought for a moment, trying to recall any of the princess or monster stories that I had known as a child, but none came to mind. Finally I remembered the story of Sleeping Beauty, so I started telling her that one. I told as much as I could remember; I had to back up frequently because I kept forgetting little bits and pieces. I had just gotten to the part where vines and weeds overran the kingdom while the Princess slept, when Molly put her hand on my leg. The touch surprised me, and I shouted. Her skin was paper white.
“Stop,” she said.
At first I thought she meant to stop driving, but we were only beginning to reach the outskirts of town.
She faced forward again, and put her hand back into her lap. “While the Princess slept,” she said with her eyes closed, “she had such dreams, stories that she told herself while she slept. They seemed so real. They were so real they could no longer fit inside her head, and so they escaped, became real, and walked the earth, terrifying and monstrous, wanting revenge on the Princess for making them real. Right?”
That was a new twist. I figured I shouldn’t contradict her, though. “Sure. Real dreams looking for revenge.”
“No,” she said. “Not dreams. Stories.”
She fell silent again. I didn’t feel like continuing, and she didn’t ask me to.
Fifteen minutes later, we finally pulled onto Cedar Drive. I drove slowly and asked her, “Which house is it?”
“623,” she replied.
So I drove slowly, the way you do when you’re trying to find a certain address. With the rain and the dark it was almost impossible to make out the numbers, but I finally found 623 by peering hard at the curb. I pulled into the driveway and stopped. The house was a small one, an older tract home with a flat roof and painted a light color that in the dim light I thought might be pink. On either side of the garage door electric lights in iron sconces burned. Ivy crept up the wall beside the front door.
“Here you are,” I said. “Safe and sound.”
“Please go to the door see if my mother’s home,” Molly said to me. “And could you bring me my jacket?”
I paused. And this is the part where I find out you’ve been dead for years, I thought, and when I come back you’ll be gone. I shuddered.
But I said nothing, just turned off the car’s engine. “I’ll be right back,” I told her. I got out of the car, and made my way up to the house.
The door was pale green, worn with years of weather and use. A single bare bulb shone above it. The dingy doorbell button was immediately to the left of the door, and I pushed it.
I waited for someone to answer. For a few minutes, no one did.
I was just about to ring the doorbell again when I heard footsteps behind the door. Then a woman opened it, and peered out at me.
It was Molly.
For a moment I could only stare at her; it was Molly, the same woman who was in my car, with the same bright red hair, the same intense blue eyes, and the same paper white skin. My throat closed up and my heart raced.
“What?” she asked, and suddenly I saw it wasn’t my Molly after all. Her voice was deeper and older-sounding than Molly’s; and now that I looked at her more closely, I could see that her face was different as well. Fine wrinkles lined her eyes and mouth, streaks of gray shot through her hair. Obviously this wasn’t my Molly after all. It had to be Molly’s mother.
“What do you want?” She sounded angry.
“Is… Does a woman named Molly live here?”
Her eyes widened, but at the same time her mouth narrowed until her lips looked like a thin red gash on her face. “Why are you looking for Molly?”
“Well, she’s in my car and she says she lives here.”
She peered over my shoulder. “Your car’s empty.”
I looked back. She was right, of course. “She was right there. I swear. She was on my passenger seat.”
She sighed. “What’s your name?”
“Edward,” I said.
“Come in, Edward. I’ve got some coffee and you look like you need a warm drink.”
I don’t know if things would have turned out different if I’d said no, but I was cold and wet and freaked out. I nodded and she let me inside and closed the door behind me.
“My name’s Jessica Wiley,” she said. “This has happened before. Seems like once a month for the past six years someone comes here, claiming they’ve got Molly in their car. Of course they never do. It’s like that old hitchhiker story.”
She went into the kitchen while I waited in the living room. Her place was small and sparsely furnished but clean. Something was beginning to prick the back of my mind, something I should have known, but I couldn’t quite catch it. I looked around; there were no pictures on the walls, no decorations of any kind. Just a couch, a couple of chairs, a coffee table and a television. A pile of news and celebrity magazines perched on one edge of the coffee table. There was also an open book. I picked it up and examined it: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.
“It’s very different from the movie,” she said from behind me.
I jumped and dropped the book. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
She said nothing, just handed a steaming cup of coffee over to me. The two of us faced each other for a few minutes. I couldn’t talk; it felt like my heart was beating in my throat.
“So who’s Molly?” I finally managed to blurt out. “Is she your daughter?”
Jessica sighed and shook her head. “There is no Molly. There never has been.”
I took a sip of coffee to clear the dryness from my throat. “Then who–?”
“Some sick joke you got caught in is all I can figure. Molly was just a story I used to tell myself, back when things were… Bad.”
“A story?” That nagging feeling at the back of my mind was getting stronger. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.
She looked at me, puzzled, for a moment, then opened her mouth to answer. But then her eyes suddenly widened, making her look like I’d said something shocking. She coughed, and coffee poured out of her mouth and over her chin.
But it wasn’t coffee.
She stood there for a moment, then collapsed, and I cried out and stumbled backwards, dropping my own cup and scalding my leg. I think I was screaming when I saw Molly standing right behind Jessica, her hand red and shiny. She was still wearing my rain coat, and she was smiling.
“What are you?” The words tumbled out of my mouth; I barely heard what I was saying. I took another step backwards, and bumped into the couch. I fell onto it, my head swimming.
Molly came right up to me. Without meaning to, I put my arms up in front of my face. Here I am, this six foot, two inch guy, terrified of this tiny girl who was at least half my age and probably weighed a third of what I did, if that.
But still. This was it. I waited for her to disembowel me.
Then I felt the couch sag next to me. I lowered my arms and looked over. Molly was sitting next to me on the couch, thumbing through a copy of People.
“That was bad business,” she said.
I was panting. “Wha– what?”
“Did you even recognize her?” She pointed at Jessica’s corpse. “You must have.”
I shook my head.
“All that time you spent with her? The e-mails, the chats, the late night phone calls?”
And then I did remember. I remembered how six years ago I’d spent a lot of time chatting on line with a woman who was going through some hard core recovery. She’d met a man and was trying to get away from the drugs and the alcohol and… and everything. She was trying to put everything behind her. I’d never met her in person, and I never knew her real name.
“I was Jessica’s story,” Molly told me, turning away from the magazine and looking right at me. “And you — you and her husband — you made her wake up. I couldn’t get back in. All I could do was kill her for letting me go.”
“Are you going to kill me too?”
She smiled. “Oh no, Edward. Not yet. I mean, I should, but I need your help. We’re going to find Jessica’s husband. Oh, Edward,” she said, giggling like a young girl, “this is going to be such an adventure.”
“Why me? There were hundreds of other people. Why me?”
“None of them were close enough, Edward. You helped her wake up, only you could bring me into the same place with her. ” She took my hand. I couldn’t resist. “It’s time to go.”
“I guess that was four years ago,” Edward said. “I can’t remember anything that’s happened since then.” He picked up one of his beer bottles and lifted it to his mouth. His face fell when it proved to be empty.
But I could feel myself getting shakey. “All this time,” I said.
“What?” Edward was examining the other bottles on the table. They were all empty.
“All this time and I never knew it was you she was talking to.”
Edward fixed me with a dark look. “Who, Thomas? What are you talking about?”
“Jessica,” I said. “Jessica was my first wife. I knew someone had been helping her over the Internet, but I never knew it was you. And you never knew she was my first wife.”
His eyes widened. “I never even knew her real name. She wanted to stay anonymous.”
I took a deep breath to calm myself down. Edward’s story was stupid, of course, just another vanishing hitchhiker, but it had freaked me out anyway. I stood up, wanting to move, just to calm my nerves. “I’ll go get you another beer.”
“No, Thomas! You have to get out of here. She’s going to kill you, don’t you understand that yet?”
“Edward, you’re freaking me out. Just wait here, I’ll be right back.”
I turned my back on him and went over to the bar, thinking about what I should do with Edward. Take him home with me? To a hospital? The police? Or maybe just leave him here?
The bartender was gone.
“Hello?” I called out. After a minute or so with no answer, I called again. When he still didn’t answer, I turned back to Edward to ask him if he’d seen where the bartender had gone.
Edward was lying on the floor, a fist-sized dripping black hole punched through the back of his trenchcoat.
She stood over him, looking at me and smiling. The black thing she’d been holding in her right hand dropped to the ground with a thud. It beat once, then was still.
Edward hadn’t even mentioned her legs. They were just as magnificent as the rest of her. She was younger than when I’d last seen her, but I recognized her right away.
“Jessica,” I said.
Still smiling, she said, “No, Thomas. Molly.”
I tried to breathe but my throat was closed up tight as a drinking straw; I took in gasping gulps of air. I managed to cough, then asked, “Are you going to kill me?”
“Oh, no, my Thomas, no. I was going to. I never wanted to be free. But now I have plans, Thomas, such wonderful plans.” She had been walking toward me this entire time, I realized, and I tried to turn and run away.
But before I could, she reached up, put her hand on my cheek, and I’m lost and I’m drowning and she says to me, Molly says, my Thomas, I have such plans and I have so much to share and so many things that I want to show you.
And she does.
This story has been published in a couple of places. Unfortunately, The Harrow appears to be permanently borked, and Don’t Turn the Lights On is hard to find. So now I’m putting this story — which is actually part of a cycle of stories that I’m collecting into a volume called The Winds of Patwin County — online for your enjoyment.