It’s an hour drive from our office in Wilmington down to Dover, and my colleagues wanted to carpool, so I’m praying something goes wrong. Getting pulled over speeding is the most likely possibility—lots of state cops patrol Route 1, snagging cars that are just over the speed limit. Maybe John could suddenly feel ill and cancel the whole thing. He’s the owner and founder of the firm, but he’s on his way out. He’s finally retiring in a few months. He’s sitting in front of me, in the passenger seat. Harris, my boss, is driving his leased BMW. The back seat is uncomfortable. It’s raining outside. Everyone on Route 1 is driving sensibly, including Harris, except for this little Kia that passed us a little while ago. And then, there it is, pulled over on the side, with a cop standing in the rain at the passenger’s window. Harris slows down to fifty-five as we go by. I’m stuck here.
The good thing is, I’ve taken the afternoon off. I knew this morning would be exhausting. I can maintain my friendly, charming, professional face for only so long before I can’t do it any more. This is an hour down, probably at least an hour meeting, and then an hour back up. My only saving grace is that Harris has an early afternoon meeting, so we can’t do lunch.
“See that, Thomas?” John says. “That’s what I was talking about. As soon as I saw that little heap fly by, I knew he was a goner.”
“He had an appointment in Samarra,” I want to say, but that’s too weird for these two.
“Especially in this rain,” I say instead.
A lot of people in business question the value of the arts. I learned to act in the theater club in school. If not for that, how would I be able to act like a normal person?
Delaware’s Public Archives are in a large brick building with a striking, glassy cylindrical façade. We’re there to deliver a presentation on a potential marketing campaign. The Division of Archives had put out a request for proposals, and John thinks it’s going to be easy pickings.
We hurry in to get out of the rain. Harris signs in for us, and the girl at the desk tells him that it’s going to be a few minutes. I walk around and look at the current displays.
It turns out that the Director of the Archives has a meeting with the Chief Deputy Secretary of State, and it’s going long. Harris and I should’ve spent more time on the presentation.
At the same time, I like it when John is revealed to be out of touch. He thinks he can just bank on his past reputation, but he can’t keep up with the present. We recently lost a client because, at an event, John took credit for some creative that the client had actually designed in-house. The conversation got back to the client.
Finally a staffer leads us into a conference room, and then the Director and two more of her staff members join us. All women. I can already hear John complaining about it. On the way home, he’s going to say that it used to be that you’d sit down with some government guys at Fraizer’s Restaurant, have some beers, and hash out a contract.
We would’ve been better off bringing John’s wife. She’s number three for him. She’d been previously divorced herself, and she went into this marriage with eyes wide open. She has a fun sort of cynicism about her. I used to flirt with her at staff parties. She ignores me now.
The Archives staff has all sorts of insightful questions that we’re not remotely ready for. At some point, I tell a lie about doing research there in college, for no other reason than to make it seem like we aren’t completely clueless.
As we’re walking out of the building, a young woman comes striding in. She’s a tall, thin redhead in a long black coat and black rain boots. I hold the door open for her, and she doesn’t acknowledge me. I recognize her from somewhere, but I can’t put my finger on it.
“Let’s get out of here,” John says.
In the car, Harris tries to put a positive spin on things. He says that the Division of Arts has just put a request out, and that we’ll have a better idea of what state agencies are looking for in the “present climate.” I want to tune them out and figure out how I know that redhead. But I know that if I do that, I’ll end up staring out the window and seeming like a nutty spacecase. So I force myself to make occasional contributions to the conversation.
I’m going to drop dead if I don’t have some coffee.
Harris and I chat for a few minutes at the office and then he takes off. I go through my emails while eating lunch at my desk. Then I’m out. I stop at Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. The weather has improved, slightly. The rain has stopped, leaving us with a miserable, gray December day. Maybe my therapist will brighten things up. I have a one-thirty appointment.
I hop onto the highway because it’s the quickest way to North Wilmington. Right now I’m driving a black Acura. I prefer the feel of my previous car, a V6 Accord, but the Acura has better looks. I roll along the Concord Pike and its various strips of retail shopping. I’m starting to relax.
I sit in the waiting room, reading an issue of Sports Illustrated and drinking my coffee. Dr. Flynn calls me in, right on time.
I sit down on the couch. Dr. Flynn makes some notes at her desk and then sits on the leather chair that faces the couch, with her white pad of paper on her thigh. She is in her 60s, older than I usually go for. She’s taller than me in her high heels and meaty.
I take stock of today’s outfit. Blue blouse under black sweater, black pants, no socks or stockings, two-inch black high-heels. Faint eyeliner, red lipstick, an odd assortment of rings and bracelets. I believe that over the course of the year or so that I’ve been seeing Dr. Flynn as my therapist, her clothes have gotten tighter and tighter.
“How would you describe your mood today?” she asks.
I can feel a smile pulling my lips along. I show Dr. Flynn more of myself than I show most people. “I’m pretty excited,” I say.
“Why is that?”
“I had a meeting for work today, and I saw a woman who I know I recognized from somewhere. It took me a while, but now I remember who she is.”
Dr. Flynn crosses her legs. I detect a faint bounce in her aerial foot. More and more, I feel compelled to ask her to join me on the couch. I think she would—if I asked her. What would I call her during sex? Dr. Flynn? Lisa?
“And who is she, Thomas?”
“She’s a go-go dancer. I saw her in small club on South Street in Philadelphia. She wore a leather vest and denim skirt, and she danced to ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.’ That’s an old Stooges song.”
Dr. Flynn watches me for a few seconds without speaking. Then she asks: “Do you think that’s really the case? Or were you having a fantasy?”
“John and Harris saw her too. I held the door for her.”
I realize I sound defensive. Dr. Flynn waits for me to say more.
This reminds me of our conversations about John’s wife. I get the sense that Dr. Flynn only believes around half of what I tell her, maybe not even that, which is a big part of why I feel so relaxed around her. I don’t think she takes me all that seriously.
“I’m not planning on making a big thing about it, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“What would constitute a ‘big thing’ to you?”
I enjoy her repetition of my words. I lean back and cross one leg over the other. “As in, I’m not going to go hang around the Archives to try to bump into her again, and ask her if she dances in Philadelphia.”
“I think that’s a prudent decision.” She looks down and writes something on her pad.
“I’d be more inclined to go back to that club the next time I get to Philly. I could tell her she’s very memorable.”
“Do you think she would appreciate that?”
“Wouldn’t you?” In a movie, Dr. Flynn would stride across the room and slap me, and the tension would electrify the air.
Instead, she says, “Did you ever go back to the woods? Where Jillian disappeared?”
Candy—not her real name, ha ha—is in a bathrobe when I get to her place. She lives in an apartment over a convenience store in Claymont, a couple exits up I-95. I found her in the back page section of an alternative Philly newspaper. She tells me to wash up while she gets ready. This is the downside to going to her place—the shower is not a pretty sight. I wonder if she takes baths in there? I shudder at the thought.
I’m not going to let my visit with Dr. Flynn prevent me from having a good time. Dr. Flynn brings Jillian up fairly often, often enough that I shouldn’t be surprised when she does. But when she does, she does so gradually. She asks my permission: “Can we talk about Jillian today?” She’s never come at me out of the blue like this afternoon. It feels like a new step in our relationship. It’s in the open: She wants to dominate me. Perhaps she believes she can provoke me into saying more.
Later on, when Candy and I are in bed, I ask her if she could bring me a little whiskey. She takes heavy steps into the kitchen and then practically drops the glass on my chest. Once she’s been paid and we’ve had our visit, she wants me to get out. But the lounging is one of my favorite parts.
“Next time, I’m going to ask you to dance a little bit for me,” I say.
“Drink up,” she says.
I can’t stop imagining her submerged in her bathtub, her dead face just below the surface. Like this is a movie where I can see the future, and my awareness of the possibility of her death allows me to prevent it.
It wasn’t a movie that put that image in my head though. It was the police, back when Jillian was missing. They questioned me for hours. I was twelve. My mother was fine with it—whatever it took to find Jillian.
I remember the names of every detective who spoke to me. Franklin was the worst. “You watched her drown,” he said calmly. “Her face was under the water, but her eyes were open. You kept her down there, and then her eyes were closed.” I give him credit for being so poetic about an awful incident. In hindsight, he couldn’t have been that bright. You don’t close your eyes just because you died.
I get dressed while Candy fixes herself something to eat in the kitchen. The rain has picked up again, tapping at the windows.
“If the police found you dead here, do you think they’d suspect me?” I want to ask, but I know I can’t. I keep trying to come up with some variation on that that I could get away with, but nothing doing. The silence is getting weird, so instead I say, “I’m thinking of getting a Breitling watch. Do you think I could pull it off?”
“I’ve got another appointment sweetie, so we’ll have to chat next time.” She taps my cheek twice with the palm of her hand, harder than I like, though I’d be laughed at if I called them slaps. “Oh, by the way, my rent is going up. So my prices are going up.”
I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned the Breitling.
I have around an hour before my extremely pregnant wife is going to get home from work. Ideally, I’d like to sit in front of my stereo and drink a beer and let the day melt away. But on days I visit Candy, I try to step up my husband game so Kate doesn’t feel ignored. I stop at the grocery store to buy lobster—one of Kate’s favorites—so I can cook dinner for her and surprise her.
I kill the lobsters with compassion on the cutting board in the kitchen, with a knife through the head. Quickly.
Kate used to have a job working for a nonprofit, but then the money dried up. There are too many nonprofits in Delaware anyway. So then she registered for this program in Wilmington, where you get intensive training on programming for several weeks. Now, she’s programming for one of the big banks in Wilmington. You better not criticize the banking industry around her. She was always a little more conservative than me, but it shows more now. We had some political debates this past year. She likes Trump. I don’t really care anyway.
It’s nice and bright in the kitchen as it gets black and dark outside. I turn on the lights in the living room, and downstairs in the family room. I hate it when I’m home alone without Kate and the darkness is all around. For instance, and there’s no way I can ever tell her this, I think our house is haunted. I can feel the presence when I look out at our backyard. Sometimes, when I’m mowing, I have to stop and pretend like the machine seized up, because I can’t bear to be out there.
The presence seems to be female. Sometimes, when I’m downstairs alone, or if I’m up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I can feel her beside me.
Kate waddles in, eight months pregnant. She looks exhausted, but not unhappy.
She gives me a quick peck on the cheek, and then she notices the kitchen.
“Lobster!” she says. “Oh, honey, thank you. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
She goes upstairs to put on her pajamas.
We talk about our days while we eat. She reminds me that the following Thursday, we’re going to her ob-gyn after my weekly appointment with Dr. Flynn. I’d like to talk about Breitling watches—should I go for a dressy one, or maybe a big chronograph?—but I decide to wait until after the baby is born.
Later on, Kate lies down on the couch, and I rub her feet before applying nail polish. I think that what I love most about her is that if I told her too much about myself, she would leave. She gives me a normal, pleasant life. From what I’ve read, I think I’ll feel normal when I’m in my mid-fifties. And I’ll have a wife of 20 years and a kid just out of college to help me enjoy being alive. I’m looking forward to it.
That is, if I can keep this life going for the next 20 years. It’s ten o’clock and Kate is asleep in bed. She used to sleep on her stomach. Now she sleeps on her side, and she snores. My tableside light is on and I have a book open. I’m wide awake, as if all the coffee I drank today is hitting me right this second. I’ve already had a large tumbler of whiskey, so it looks like I should pour another.
Kate knows that a girl went missing when I was in the sixth grade. But I grew up in Massachusetts, and Kate’s not all that curious about it, so that’s the extent of her knowledge on the subject.
I creep down the stairs into darkness, and even though I don’t want to think about it, I’m thinking about it. I turn on the light in the dining room, where our bar is, and pour myself some more Jack Daniel’s.
Jillian and I grew up in the same neighborhood, and we used to ride our bikes everywhere. There was this big stretch of woods behind a local development, and we liked to go exploring there. The fall was better, since the poison ivy had died down by then. We would walk instead of riding our bikes, trying to be less conspicuous.
That day, I was throwing stones at a stream. It had rained the day before, so the water in the stream was rushing like a river full of dangerous rapids. I imagined being swept away by the current. Jillian hopped over the stream and kept walking.
I didn’t really mind—we got separated in the woods all the time. But then I heard a weird sound. It was like a car door slamming. It didn’t make sense, but at the same time, it wasn’t that unusual. Sound carried in a weird way in those woods, so we’d hear all sorts of things that were actually far away. It still gave me the heebie-jeebies though, so I hopped over the stream myself to find Jillian.
I followed the path all the way to this clearing, which we usually avoided because older kids hung out there sometimes. I could hear the highway nearby.
I followed the path back out, thinking Jillian must’ve taken a detour and would be back on it. Still nothing. Finally I went home and told my mother.
The police found Jillian’s body that night, around a mile from our path. She was in this deep part of the woods that’s pretty hard to get to, because there really isn’t a path. It was almost like she sailed along the stream, because she had drowned. The police never arrested anyone for it.
I know that experience messed me up. I try to live like it didn’t happen. Just a fantasy, as Dr. Flynn says.
I get back into bed. I drink my whiskey steadily, but it doesn’t relax me. I’m still wide awake, and I’m thinking of the redhead. The go-go dancer. When I don’t know a person, I imagine that we can make a connection. We can have drinks, and feel that spark, and then go out to the woods, where we can be under the sky together. So much sky, and it feels like it’s just for the two of you. And all of the things that you keep hidden can come up.
This part of me, it wants to connect with someone who will understand. I know that can never happen though. That’s what keeps me in bed, and waiting for my alarm, and being a solid chap.
Acting normal, like nothing happened.
Dennis Lawson has an MFA from Rutgers-Camden, and he teaches at the University of Delaware and Wilmington University. His stories have appeared in the Fox Chase Review, the Rehoboth Beach Reads anthology series, and the crime anthology Insidious Assassins. He received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as the 2014 Emerging Artist in Fiction. He lives in Delaware with his wife and daughter.