It's been five years since her death.
After the initial courtroom drama, what with my admittedly shaky alibi and the presence of a very compelling, very possible, motive, I was free to walk due to lack of decisive evidence. Due to the same reason, her true killer was also free to walk.
Many of the memories of my dead wife are gone, blocked by whatever cruel mechanism the mind created to dull the pain of the trauma. In fact, the only remnants of our shared past lay in our early years, when we first began to truly spend quality time together, before we got married. I think the strongest memory would be when we first met, when she used to be a window-washer at the trucker stop in Prosser. You know, back when that was actually a valid job position.
She was probably the most intriguing girl I ever saw... not because she had the best figure (Although THEY were quite nice, if you know what I mean.) but because she had the strangest quirks. Like when you pulled up, instead of asking you if you wanted a full clean or just the basics, she just gave you the full treatment, no matter what you tipped her. When asked why, she would just smile and say, “Why not?”
Her smile, too, was simply... How do I put this? ...Unique. It was unique. She had this... way... where when she smiled at you, it made you feel as though she just pulled something hilarious, and you were in on it, too. It was rather endearing.
Now, this was not “love at first sight,” as they call it. No, it took a long while for me to realize just how much I cared for her... I guess what did it in for me was when she arrived with her so-called “sweetheart” of the time, a sleezeball known as Geoffry Reynolds.
Now, I had a long history with him already, to tell the truth, but I actually didn't mind that he was going out with the girl I secretly had a crush on. In fact, I expected that- I was not bad-looking, but neither was I necessarily a hunk of muscle and testosterone. I would rather play chess or make model ships than lift weights, and preferred baseball over football any day. One would generally call me an “indoorsy” person.
But when he started treating her like he was, with the degrading slaps on the rump, the overconfidence, the way he paraded her around like a trophy... I started to feel a bit, well, HOSTILE, towards him. But I managed to keep my anger in check... until the day he came to see her at work.
At first, nothing unusual happened...the normal rough banter he engaged with her went as usual, along with the usual slapping, pinching, attempting to force a kiss from her, you know the drill. Then she reached my car, boyfriend tagging along, and began to wash my windows like she always did.
Only, this time, she seemed to be trying to make eye contact far more often than was normal. When our eyes met, I saw annoyance, but also a hint of fear... it was like a silent plea for help. She was starting to get scared of him... he just wouldn't stop messing with him.
So I did something that, to this day, I consider the most noble, brave, and honorable thing I have ever done.
I rolled down my window, pulled her in close, and kissed her, right on the lips. At first, she reacted like any girl would react to that... she tried to rear back and slap me. But then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw her “boyfriend” turn white, and she caught on. Surprising even me, she let herself be drawn in and let her lips turn soft and workable. Geoffry's face, once white, now turned several shades of dark red as he saw this, and before my brain could actually recognize what was happening and start to enjoy it, he yanked her back and slammed her against one of the gas pumps.
“What the FUCK?!” His voice boomed.
“Geoffry! Calm the hell down!” Fear stained her voice as she struggled against the man's tight grip.
“Calm down? Who died and made you God, you worthless slut?”
The slap, when it came, was hard and loud, drawing several worried glances and one glare. The sound of that blow made something in me snap, and before my mind could even understand the stupidity of my next move, I got out of my car, walked over to the asshat who hit my girl, and decked him in the face.
Fast forward past two minutes of accumulating a colorful set of bruises and a bloody nose. I am rolling on the ground, tears trying to well up in my eyes, but my sense of pride preventing me from crying. I have a terrible feeling that what I did was a useless gesture, that I just made a fool of myself...
Then, her- crouching besides me, her hair tickling my skin, her hand cradling my beaten head, looking down with a bloody nose of her own, with that quirky smile. “We both look pretty pathetic, don't we?” she said, her eyes, like mine, on the border of crying.
“Hey, you got a bloody nose, too?” I said weakly, trying to smile, “We have SO much in common...”
Yes, that was it, the moment when we officially were “going out”. We didn't kiss, we didn't even hug, we just sort of shrugged off our respective injuries and went home for the day, but we both knew there was something there.
Oh, yes, the memories came flooding back to me as I stood there at the now-abandoned gas station, resting my hand against the very pump my girl had been slammed against on that fateful day. Ever since I saw that news article about how that station caught fire and went out of business, bits and pieces had been floating through my mind, but they never really formulated into anything until I traveled there and saw for myself. It's funny how things you leave behind trigger memories of your past. I remember thinking this as I began walking back to my car, prepared for another long day, in my messy apartment, alone. I remember how depressingly familiar that feeling was, how I felt the monotony of an existence without a significant other, how I missed having someone who knew me almost more than I knew myself.
I also remember how lost in my thoughts I was as I closed the door behind me...it took me a bit to find it from where it fell. It was only when I was about to shift the car into reverse that I saw the photo. The photo was nothing special, just me, smiling for my girlfriend, who had taken up photography and wanted to keep a picture of me with her when she got lonely. I remembered only pieces of that day, but one thing I did remember was how happy she was when I wrote my address down so she could come over for dinner later that week and meet my folks. Smiling at the memory, as well, I turned the photo over and read the address.
The address was to my old house, a place I remembered fondly as a grand place, but in all honesty was really a ridiculously large old hunk of junk out in the sticks between Sunnyside and Grandview, about nine miles from Prosser.
Seeing as I was already strolling down memory lane, I didn't have a problem going a bit farther, especially if it helped me unlock more memories of my beloved. Without further ado, I pulled out of the abandoned Chevron and started driving through Grandview.
As I went, I was astonished at the progress the town had made. Already, several new stores and plazas had been built, not to mention more roads, houses, and hotels.
It really is amazing what we humans can forget, given time and incentive.
That night was perfect—the sun had been down for a few hours, so the earth had time to nurse its sunburn, and the air wasn't as dry as usual, due to the sprinklers that had been going near-constantly in the nearby apple orchards. Heck, even the usual stench of manure from the dairy farm up the road was oddly muted, today, for some reason, as the wind blew the other way, carrying to us instead the fragrant scent of old leaves and apple blossoms.
This was not lost on my parents, who had demonstrated great foresight and decided to have a barbeque for dinner outside that night.
Despite this, I was nervous, of course, afraid that my parents would embarrass me in front of my woman with old baby photos or mortifying childhood stories. However, these fears proved to be unfounded, as my folks and my girlfriend got along quite well, with no incidents.
After dinner, mother looked knowingly at father, and he winked roguishly at me.
“Son, don't you think you should... walk this nice girl home?”
I knew exactly what they really were getting at, and thanked them with my eyes as I left the house with my girl, hand in hand. As we looked into each others' eyes, she looked right at me. No, looked INTO me.
“George, there's something I need to tell you.”
“If it's 'I love you,' I think we already established that point, long ago, I said jokingly. I immediately felt bad, though, as I noticed the usual sparkle in her eyes was absent.
“My parents don't have any idea about us,” she said softly, looking deep into my eyes, “and I can get into some serious trouble if they find out.”
I nodded my head, my smirk from earlier long gone. This WAS serious. Her parents were, if not rich, quite well-off. If they found out about this relationship, they could do a lot of nasty things to me and my family, not to mention HER.
“Now, I have to ask you a question. And I know this may sound stupid and irrelevant, but you need to answer honestly.” She gently, but firmly, grabbed my head and stared into my eyes again.
“Do you love me?” For a couple of seconds, I was too shocked to reply. But eventually, I spat it out.
“Of, of course! Of course I love you!” She then brought my face down to hers and kissed me, fiercely.
After that, all was bliss.
I wiped my forehead in the late afternoon summer heat as I looked up at the old, weather-beaten farm house. The house had long since been condemned, for violations of public health and safety codes. But the city never bothered to tear it down afterward- probably due to the fact that there really wasn't anything else worth being built here. I chuckled lightly to myself as I thought about all the children who probably thought the house was haunted by spirits or some such, and who dared each other to go in and check it out.
Children were so silly.
Spirits were not what haunted the place- I knew that well.
My thoughts turned once more to my taboo relationship with my wife, in our early years. I knew that, eventually, her parents allowed it to continue. I mean, how else could we have gotten married?
Even so, far away, in the back of my mind, I felt a nudge. Did her parents meet me before those later years, when they blessed our marriage at the wedding?
I got back into my car, debating on whether I should continue along this road of long-forgotten memories. The sun was setting fast, and although I didn't have work the next day, I had a strange feeling I should stop, that I should let the two good memories I had of her be the only things I remembered.
But my curiosity...it was piqued. If I had recalled all this in such a short time with such reminders, what ELSE could I dredge up? The prospect both terrified and intrigued me.
Eventually, it was the long drive home that decided it. I knew that it would be quite late by the time I drove back to Seattle (the trial was in Prosser), and I realized I needed to find a place to stay until morning so I could avoid falling asleep at the wheel. So I pulled in to a rather seedy-looking motel by the creative title of “The Prosser Motel.”
Strangely exhausted from the events of that day, I slipped out of my clothes and under the stained covers as quickly as possible.
As I laid my head on the pillow, thoughts of my beloved swirled around my mind, half taunting me with events I would never experience, dreams of a golden time that had long since passed. I cried myself to sleep that night.
I jolted awake, an unnameable horror racing up and down my spine.
What the hell was that?
Eyes wide open and darting restlessly around the room, I flung the covers aside and sat up ramrod straight, straining my ears for even the slightest noise.
Beyond my rasping breaths and pounding heartbeats, nothing was heard. All was calm. I even opened my curtains and window and scanned the area around my car, making absolute sure that something inside had not caused the disturbance.
All was calm. All was finished.
I took a few deep breaths, and slowly eased myself into a tense parody of a sleeping position. Knowing it would be hard to get back to sleep, I carefully took out the aged photo of myself, lovingly taken by my beloved. I smiled, but the smile didn't quite reach my eyes.
If something DID happen to me, she would have been the first to cry, I thought wistfully. I held the picture to my chest and felt a single tear trace its way down my face.
If only you were here, my love, I sighed, if only you were here...
I woke up the next morning more determined than ever to finish my self-assigned quest.
Of course, despite my eagerness to finish what I started, I knew I couldn't get anywhere if I didn't eat, so I made sure to make a stop at an old favorite of mine—a local diner by the inspired name of “The Breakfast Cafe”.
To be honest, though, my reasons for stopping there were really twofold. I could have stopped at a lot of other, higher-quality restaurants, but that place specifically held a lot of significance to me; I had a lot of firsts there.
I felt cheerful that morning, pleasant thoughts swirling through my mind as I ordered the usual, served by the charming, grandmotherly waitress. I thought back to all the times I came here with my family- the day I had my first pancake, the day I had my first cup of coffee (ick!), the day I first finished an entire Grand Slam on my own...
The day I first took Carol here.
The piece of toast stuck in my throat slightly as my mind narrowed down and focused on that day. The usual bitterness rose at the back of my throat as I thought of her death, but there was no happiness, and as the memory slowly began to come back to me, I began to understand why.
I had come to the diner just before work, without her, hoping to stuff my face with the early bird special before heading over to the assembly line (I used to work at twin-city foods, before they closed that branch and I got laid off). I was in the middle of ordering, and had just happened to glance across the restaurant. I have no idea why—random chance, I guess.
It was there that I saw my wife.
Normally, I would not mind her being there separately. In fact, I would have been just fine with it. In fact, I would not have minded if she was with another man; we were a happy couple, and, luckily, before then, had no reason not to be.
But this wasn't just any guy.
I wouldn't have minded, I tell you, I wouldn't have cared a bit who she was with, so long as it wasn't... him.
But there she was, just sipping coffee and chatting it up with none other than her ex-boyfriend, Geoffry fucking Reynolds.
I will be the first to admit, I said some things I regretted, things I REALLY regretted, that day. My anger may have been justified, but to think that I had the right to treat HER, my significant other, that way, was ludicrous.
That restaurant, home of many firsts, was also the home to our first major argument.
Accusations flew, blame was placed, and fingers were pointed as she blamed me for being too jealous and I blamed her for being unfaithful. The fight was huge—it lasted four hours and consisted of repeated attempts to force the other into submission with flawed logic, which then escalated into shouting matches before declining into facetious remarks.
It took a while for the anger to die down, but once it did, there was an awkward near-silence that lasted for a few days as we realized just how silly we were both acting. Eventually, we both kind of looked at each other, REALY looked at each other, and, just like that, we settled it. There was a company party that night, and employees, along with their wives and kids, were allowed to come. We went, hand-in-hand, ate some food, and made small talk.
However, although our mouths spoke very little, our eyes spoke volumes.
Closure was made.
All was calm.
It was finished.
In the end, it all came down to her leaving with the ladies for a girl's night out, and me going to the bar to drink with some of the guys.
If only I had been more understanding, Carol, I thought, if only I had known...
I paid the check, leaving a generous tip and a large pile of untouched food on the table- the nasty memory took my appetite.
As I walked back to the car, bits and pieces of that night, that night of forgiveness, swirled around in the back of my mind like the mug of beer I held in my hand when I spoke with the girls. I knew what lay next on this road of shattered thought- The Lantern Lighter, the local tavern I frequented with my coworkers that evening, home of the infamous lantern ale, and the only drinking establishment that still somehow had a pool table and a jukebox.
Through the somewhat grim mood I was in came flashes of happiness... that place held a lot of good memories, as well. I smiled as I recalled how old I felt every time I walked in and recognized a song from that old jukebox. The place was charmingly retro—I remembered an inside joke my drinking buddies and I had- a member of our group had this pitch-perfect Fonz impersonation he could do, so every time he walked in, he'd always slap that old jukebox and say, “eeeeeyyyyy!” as a way of greeting.
As I pulled up, however, I was shocked to see it had closed down and was, in fact, for sale. I felt a pang of sadness rush through me as I saw this staple from my younger days in such a state.
I guess not everything is meant to last, I thought in sorrow as I got back into my car and shut the door.
The girls had come into the bar right when I was on my third beer. Already, I was beginning to get a little bit of a buzz—it had been a while since I had done something like this.
Surprisingly, they walked right up to me, no alcohol, nothing. It was obvious they were all business.
“Hey, girls, how's it going? Is Carol around?”
“Well, that was what we were going to talk about, you see, um,”
The girls traded worried glances. In my buzzed state of mind, I could think of nothing but alcohol, so I interpreted this to mean she had gotten in trouble due to consumption of the same.
I chuckled and nodded knowingly, taking another entirely unnecessary swig of my drink.
“Did she get drunk off a cup of wine again? Ugh, that woman, she's gonna need a stern talking to, she will.”
“No, she, um...” they traded hesitant, worried glances again.
“She went with another man, and she hasn't called or texted us yet. We tried calling her, but she never answered.”
“It's worrying us, because she ALWAYS texts us or calls us to keep us from worrying, but her phone is off. It never is!”
A sick feeling rose in my gut as the alcohol dissipated from my mind like fog on a sunny day – I had a pretty good idea where she was, and I knew that the scene that would unfold was not going to be pretty.
Even so, I refused to let my worry show in front of my wife's friends. I'd been taught to never air a family's dirty laundry out in public, whether I be a member of the participant of such, so I kept my composure, even as I hailed a cab. It wasn't until I got into the vehicle that my head fell into my hands and the hot, bitter tears began to flow.
“Where'm I takin' you?” the driver had spoken through a cheek full of gum or perhaps tobacco.
225 Stockwood St.
The sign caused a painful lump to rise in my chest. The house was dark except for a soft glow in a window that night, probably because it was ten PM and its sole occupant had already gone to bed. Bitterness and frustration washed over me as I glared at that lonely flicker of warmth in the cold darkness of the night. To think... my wife had cheated on me, within those very walls—the thought sent shivers of hatred and despair coursing down my spine.
I knew what had to be done... I knew I needed to confront this shred, this last nasty bit of my past. The long, horrid quest through my fading memories was finally coming to a close; the end of the road was in sight. I wanted to finish what I had started, yet also felt that same tinge of unexplained dread I'd felt when I started—the feeling that I needed to stop, that I needed to sway from this destructive path before its end, before the point of no return.
And yet I also knew that my body had enough for one day. The stress was already high enough with all these unpleasant memories bringing up suppressed emotions—overdoing it wouldn't make it any better.
I let my head sag a bit and sighed, looking up under my lids at the gloom sandwiched between my headlights and the streetlight beyond.
Another night here in Prosser. Another forty dollars spent staying at a seedy motel wallowing in self-pity, I thought in resignation. That same question that had been plaguing me ever since I started this journey rose in my mind as I eased away from the damned house and headed towards the Prosser Motel.
And what for, Ol' George? What for?
The funny thing is, I had no idea.
Sleep was much more fitful that night. Every time I would close my eyes, I saw flashes of a face, a hated face, one who I knew but whose name seemed to slip my mind every time I tried to pinpoint it. Snatches of that face's smug voice and the frightened voice of my beloved rose and fell, alternating waves of malice and fear, twisting my dreams into a hellscape from which I couldn't escape.
Eventually I must have fallen into a state of dreamless bliss, because when I woke up, the faces and voices of my tormentors had disappeared.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes, wincing as the crusts in the corners of my eyes grated against my puffy skin. I squinted at the window, surprised that there was no light outside. I checked the clock. 3:42 A.M.
I rubbed my head and winced, feeling a slight headache coming on. What woke me up?
I froze. My heart skipped a beat, then rapidly switched into a higher gear. My chest began to heave slightly as I let my breath out in short gasps and huffs.
That sound—no, it couldn't possibly...
I opened the curtains.
As there were really no clear white lines in the parking lot anymore, I decided to park my car alongside the curb rather than the traditional nose-to-the-wall technique, making the car trunk situated near my window.
Could it possibly... no... there's no way...
I sat back down on my bed, shoulders slumped in disbelief. Was the thumping sound coming... from my trunk?
And there it was.
Like a thunderbolt, the truth struck me with the force of a thousand tons. Memories came flooding back. The man I caught making love to my wife, his reaction, her fear... it all made sense now.
“He killed her—he killed her out of jealous rage, because she never told him I was married to her,” I gasped out. Sweat stood out like pockmarks on my brow. I shivered as my body was racked with such a rage I felt I couldn't contain it.
“That bastard! That pathetic cunt! He—he killed my Carol!” I brushed aside my tears and stood up, yanking on my pants and shirt before marching out of the room. I didn't care that it was still dark out, or that it was this early in the morning. All that went through my head was the frightened face of my beloved, and the idea... the very idea... that that coward had killed her out of some petty jealousy, that he had the nerve to think they were actually in love, and that I didn't deserve her...
Well, never mind that. That will all come to an end soon enough, I thought. A corner of my mouth twitched upward in a grim smile as I reached for my old fishing knife I knew would be in the glove compartment. I set it on my lap, smelling its old familiar smell of salt and the coppery tang of blood.
When I arrived at the address again, the house was oddly quiet and dark. The light in the upstairs window was off, and no other lights served to brighten the otherwise dark entrance.
Rather fitting, I thought as I got out of the car, knife gripped firmly in hand. As I approached the door, I swiftly tucked the knife hilt into my shoe, letting my pants leg conceal the blade. An old trick, but one which I hoped would fool him.
Thus readied, I took a deep breath, and put on my most winning smile.
Through the frosted glass of the front window, I saw the lights in the front hallway quickly go on.
“Yeah? Who is it?”
As if you didn't know who it was, you son of a bitch.
“George. Sorry to disturb you this early in the morning, but I was passing through and noticed you were home and awake. I just wanted to apologize for calling you out in court like that.”
“Ah! Georgey! Bro! No prob! Come in!” The door swung inwards, the man inside no doubt hiding behind it, waiting for me to turn my back to him.
Regardless, I knew there was no way I could end him unless I gained his trust, so I kept calm and walked in with a casual air.
As the door closed behind me, I heard the lock and bolt turn and secure the door. I stopped, heart beginning to beat rapidly as I realized I was trapped. I started to turn around, but the man's voice boomed out.
“No, no, go on ahead into the dining room. I saw you pass by earlier, so I expected you'd be here. You'll find some coffee and toast there, just help yourself.”
I nodded once, stiffly, and proceeded into the next room, where, true to his word, two steaming cups of coffee and warm buttered toast was set out.
I heard his heavy footsteps behind me on the floorboards as he entered the room and took his seat to my left side—the side near the door.
“Go on, have a seat. Don't be shy. I ain't going to lay a finger on you... reckon you've had a tough time as it is.”
I took my seat, head lowered as I formulated my next sentence carefully. I sighed and looked up at him.
“Geoffrey,” I acknowledged.
“George,” he responded. He nodded his head once, then smiled, nearly making me grind my teeth.
“Geoffrey, I think you know why I really am here.”
The big man leaned back in his chair. A smile, or perhaps an angry grimace, tugged at the corner of his lips.
“Your coffee and toast is getting cold.”
I leaned over the table, teeth now visible gnashed together.
“You lied in court, Geoffrey. We both know who the true killer was.”
“Oh, I definitely do. Not so sure about you, though.”
I settled back into my seat and closed my mouth, shoulders tense and temple throbbing.
“I may not have been too sure about it before, but I am now.”
“Ah, so you finally figured it out then?” He crossed his burly arms and lowered his head, eyes bearing down on me condescendingly.
“Yes, of course! Only a dumbass such as yourself would ever deny the facts!” I screamed. My face turned red and my breathing quickened as I stood up and pointed my finger at him, feeling righteous anger swell in my chest.
“Oh? And who might this guy be?” That hateful, smug smile stretched his features again as he looked up at me with a hint of amusement in his eyes. “YOU! YOU KILLED HER! ADMIT IT, YOU PIECE OF CRIMINAL SHIT!”
“Hm, funny thing is, I clearly remember you doing it.”
“Did what? What did I do?” He stood up, thunder in his eyes as he started to stare me down. “Sure I slapped her around a mite, but I never did nothin' worse than that. And you have the gall to stand there and say that! You must be out of your—”
I let out a mirthless peal of laughter.
“I'M hallucinating? That's real funny, Geoffrey, real funny.” I started to walk towards him. “If you weren't a murderer, you could be a fucking comedian.”
“Oh, shut up, you little shit.”
“Shut up? You mean like how you shut Carol up?” I now stood inches away from him, and stood on my toes to look him directly in the eye.
“Guess you finally taught that woman who's boss, huh?”
“I said SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH!” He shot out his hand and struck me in the solar plexus, shoving me against the wall, knocking the wind out of me. As I gasped for air and the room turned fuzzy, I saw the outline of Geoffrey walking towards me. He grabbed my shirt and yanked me up till we were almost touching noses.
“You better be glad I ain't the killing type, because if I were, I'd kill you so fast you wouldn't even have time to scream.”
“Really,” I whispered hoarsely, “That's too bad. Because I am."
And then I shoved the knife in his throat.
The body was easy to take care of. It was surprisingly easy to toss him in the trunk, especially for a man his size. The whole process went rather smoothly, and it only took me a total of thirty minutes to tie him up with a couple of rocks and throw him into the nearest irrigation ditch.
I was startled by how easily I had killed him... I had expected at least a little bit of regret or disgust both during the act and afterward, but it really was more of a relief. It was almost as if I had freed another part of myself that night... the part that had excited Carol, the part that really made our marriage happy for the short time we were together.
For the first time, I felt at peace, both with myself, and with the world.
As I lay down on that seedy mattress for what I hoped to be the last time, I smiled and tossed the picture of carol and I into the trash, the one that started it all; I wouldn't be needing it any more. Her spirit was finally free, and was probably up in heaven, having the time of her life doing whatever the hell they do up there.
In the final moments before sleep, I made sure to say my final goodbyes to the woman I loved, ready beyond a doubt to move past the grief her death had caused, and the trouble that had followed after.
In the few seconds before my mind became lost in dreamless bliss, I felt my lips curve upwards in a smile.
From outside came the sound of the trunk opening.