New Stories for February 17, 2020
I didn’t expect to see anyone in that empty park on a late Saturday evening, let alone them.
A young mother beneath the streetlights bouncing a small, sullen girl on her shoulders as she weaved down the trail, her arms stretched out like airplane wings.
I knew why I was there.
My dispensary closed late and I worked early on weekends. There was nothing else to do that balmy summer night but go jogging around Washington Park. Exercise was always a good distraction, especially with the anniversary of my girlfriend’s death approaching.
I’d finished the two-mile dirt loop and was heading towards the pull-up bars near the entrance when I jogged past the two of them. Out of the corner of my eye, the mother pointed at me as she turned her head to speak to the girl. I didn’t think much of it. I figured it was something like “See honey, that’s an ex-con. Don’t talk to those.”
I’m not an ex con.
However, I am six-foot, bald, and have the kind of face where if I make eye contact with a stranger, they usually apologize to me.
I’m used to people turning as I walk behind them and exclaiming “Oh! You scared me!”
My low smoker’s monotone doesn’t help this, or that I have what doctors would call “Resting Rage Face,” or that when I work out I look even angrier. Anyone who sees me would assume I’m blasting DMX or Mastodon through my earbuds, but usually I’m nerding out on a science or history podcast.
That night, I was learning how trees help each other during droughts. It was getting a little emotional.
I’d nearly forgotten about the two of them as I slowed to a walk and approached the pull up bars. It was odd for them to be out this late, but nothing remarkable. Midway through my reps, I heard the scrape of gravel behind me. They stood a couple of feet away, watching me.
The kid was probably five years old. Backlit by the streetlights, all I could make out was her brown hair. She waved at me blankly. I dropped to the ground and clicked off my earbuds.
“Hi,” I waved back “What’s up?”
She turned away, so the young woman spoke.
“Sorry if we’re bothering you. Her mom just died…” She opened, almost apologetically “and her dad passed away a couple years ago. So I’m taking care of her now.”
“Oh…” was the best I could do on short notice, crowding out the runner up of “Jesus, are you OK?”
“Anyway, her mom was a fitness trainer, so she’s obsessed with watching people work out.” She continued, “When you jogged by, she told me to ‘follow that man.’”
Mr. Smith,” the doctor said over the car’s speakers. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
Joe listened to the hum of the tires over the road.
“Are you there, Mr. Smith?”
“Yeah. Here,” Joe said. His voice filled the cabin. “What’s it now?”
He squinted and focused on the headlights’ path. Why must he always invite doctors to deliver him news? Use your words, he wanted to scream. I can take it.
“Well, sir,” the doctor said, “I’m afraid she’s escaped.”
Joe’s stomach knotted. The back of his tongue salivated; nausea not far behind.
“How is this possible? She’s on the nineteenth floor of the hospital.”
The doctor agreed the chances were slim. The inpatient rehab center resided high in the hospital’s North Tower partly to discourage any attempts to escape by would-be fugitives from sobriety. Most often the deterrent succeeded.
“Guards are double-checking the premises, Mr. Smith. She’s probably lost, cowering in some stairwell. Heaven knows there’s plenty in the building.”
“I haven’t ever seen her cower.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “Well, yes, about that. I know there was an incident that preceded her intake,” the doctor said, and hesitated. “We just wanted to keep you alert to the development.”
Incident. The euphemism hung in the air full of pretension. An innocent word substituted for doctors and therapists to cite incidents without blushing at their inherent shame and desperation. Jane’s was not the worst he’d heard, but the professionals employed the same word across the board, expressing a wide range of fiendish behaviors committed by the patients prior to their residence on the nineteenth-floor. Joe’s shoulder tensed. He ran his fingers over the scars climbing his right-side rib cage like the rungs of a ladder. Some of the stitches still hung together.
Joe shook his head, stopped daydreaming behind the wheel.
“Yeah. Thanks for the heads-up, doc.”
“Please call us if you find her. We can send an ambulance immediately.”
“Certainly wouldn’t want another incident,” Joe said.
“We certainly don’t. Do be careful.”
“Gotta worry about being found first. But I’ll call you if I find her. Fix your mistake.”
The doctor apologized again, and told Joe to be cautious. Then wished him luck.
Joe pressed the red button before the phrase transmitted across the line. The hum of the tires continued beneath him; its persistence filled the car. Joe swore under his breath.
Her eyes stuck out most in his memory. The primal, desperate need exposed within her when she lunged at him; her eyes red-hot, a malicious sneer upon her face, set with ironclad and singular purpose. She had wanted more. He told her she’d had enough. So she stabbed him seven times with a butter knife. He’d slammed her against the closet door to defend himself; had almost been charged in the back of the ambulance, but she recanted her story when he caught her eyes. Jane would never snitch, let the authorities run roughshod over their tidy set up. Without a doubt, though, she’d come back for him or for more.
Joe turned on the radio, but flicked it off after trying several stations, annoyed by the talking, commercials, and lack of music he sought. He looked at the road signs, surprised his exit approached. He must have been speeding.
Their street offered little light, illuminated by lamp posts at either end and a lone street lamp halfway down the road. Living rooms and kitchens, upstairs bathrooms and basement rec-areas spilled light onto the lawns, projected in rectangles of various sizes. The brick posts standing sentry at the beginning of his drive highlighted the entrance. The front porch light greeted him, and he could see the back hallway lit as he had left it. The rest of the house was dark.
The lock clicked back as he expected, but the door echoed strangely as he opened it and stepped inside. Joe sniffed. He peered into the dark front hallway, and into the living room. The silhouettes of furniture framed against the windows resembled cheap reliefs of mountain landscapes sold in wooden shanties back home.
He heard something. A creak upstairs. No. He hadn’t heard anything. Something concerned him though. Without explanation, self-preservation heightened inside him. A lump rose in his throat. He didn’t breathe. The hair on his neck stood up.
On the paved road
with the yellow line
I fly out and up
from my electric car
descending, through exhaust and honking horns.
I’ve traveled here before
I am, again, the Native Princess
the cowgirl flying her pretend pony through dust
beneath the concrete.
I kneel in the gentle dirt where I was nurse,
pat, pat, patting the legs of wounded soldier boys,
fix, fix, fix I said as I made them whole,
as I healed them
as I loved them
That stretch of road
childhood, printed there in the earth
my blossoming womanhood, too
where nighttime held us, me and my lovely boy,
till the cruiser came and shined its light on my bare breasts
cruel trick of light trading beauty for shame.
That stretch of road,
once dust, now paved,
where mother spied my feckless mate
brightly bending toward the blond
came telling me,
came giving me
sharp keys to liberation,
escape from dead illusions,
consent to fly away
On that old dirt road, I once flew free.
Now, in wheels on pavement, at 35 miles per hour