By Kathleen Zabinski
Something off kilter made him look back at the pile of rotting leaves beside the tracks. He wasn’t ever sure what it had been, but he remembered the hair on his neck rising, as his dinner rose, when he first made sense of what he was seeing. Three small fingers curled among the leaves. Then he knew what was wrong and he heaved.
What woke her was the pounding on the door. She was half sleeping on the couch, with the TV on, when it began. There was something ominous about it, filling her with dread. Maybe it was only the lateness of the hour, but she felt a chill seize her heart. She walked quickly to the door and peered out the transom. Two police officers stood there. One was an older white guy with a slight paunch, the other a young black woman. They had sent her to make it easier to bear the coming news, she thought. She leaned her back against the door and tried to breathe. Her breathing was shallow and stiff. She briefly shut her eyes before opening the door.
“Are you Eva McMann?” the female police officer asked. She could only nod in reply.
“We found your car near the old stadium by the railroad tracks. Any reason it would be there?”
“My friend, Chloe, borrowed it. She’s not home yet. I don’t know why …” It didn’t make sense. Chloe not home, leaving the car. She felt her heart twist a little tighter. She held her breath.
The woman spoke. “How do we contact Chloe’s parents? It’s important we talk to them.”
“Is she okay?” Her whisper was small and defeated.
“We’re not sure. A railroad worker found a body by the tracks. It has not been identified yet. What was she wearing when she left here? Where did she go? Time is crucial right now.”
She stared at them, her eyes wide and tearless. She felt frozen in place. No words came out of her mouth. This is what hell is like, she thought to herself and in an instant she was 13. She and her brothers had come home from school to find their mother curled up in a chair rocking herself, back and forth. That was the end; her father was dead and Eva felt this same horror, this same emptiness, this same sense of being forsaken, robbed.
“Ma’am, if you could just start by telling us what she was wearing.”
“My red boots,” she said at last. “Her pink skirt, I think. Her little, furry black jacket.”
The officers looked at each other and nodded slightly. And just like that, Chloe was dead.
When she finally shut the door on them, Eva crawled into her mother’s faded, old, down filled chair. She curled up into a ball, like her mother had before her. The awfulness of it grew like wildfire. She looked around their small living room and saw the colorful detritus of Chloe everywhere. It stunned her. She felt paralyzed. She thought about seeing Chloe last evening as she stood laughing, dressed in the bright colors that she loved, turquoise shirt, the skirt and rainbow leggings, all topped off with the red boots. She’d invited Eva to come. But she was too miserable. She had cramps that made her hold her belly; she felt her uterus aching. Eva had thought curling up in front of the TV was far more appealing than clubbing. She dozed, then, dreaming of Chloe and her father.
Tribe Called Quest, singing “We, the People,” cracked the quiet and made her lift her head. She stared at her phone. Who could be calling now? She was afraid: afraid that the call was the killer, Chloe’s parents, Jay, anyone. She reached for the phone and shut it down without looking at it because there was no one she could talk to. Everyone would want to know, but it was impossible to talk about the ugliness of it. So she went to her room and closed the door, shoved her phone in her drawer and climbed in bed and hid. But she couldn’t hide from the images of Chloe lying by the railroad tracks, thrown away like so much litter. Who could do that? Why? That was what the police wanted her to tell them – yet she couldn’t conceive, she couldn’t guess. Her imagination went to Chloe’s friends – but that was impossible. Chloe was an actor; most of her friends were actors and other theater people. Generous to a fault, she was loved. Not one of them. Please don’t let it be one of them, she thought. Ah, Chloe, why you?
She loved being on stage. On stage she became more entrancing and even larger than life. She carried herself with pride and confidence. She was beautiful, not Barbie doll beautiful, model beautiful, but scrappy and small, hard edged, yet wonder filled and joyous. Eva had been attracted to her immediately when they first met in homeroom, as high school freshman. At the time had seemed like such a betrayal. Eva was still a grieving mess over the death of her father. Chloe had reached out to her, in spite of Eva’s attempts to shut her out. Chloe was persistent and finally Eva had let her guard down and welcomed her into her heart. And this is where it had led her. Back to the deep ruin she so wanted to avoid. The tears, sobs and misery carried Eva away. In the end, she slept.
Again she awoke to banging on the door. She had been deep asleep. She felt pulled away from the warmth and sweetness of her dreams. The banging went on and on. She went through the motions of putting on her robe and slippers, but she did not feel awake, did not want to be awake and so she clung to sleep like a toddler with their blanket. But she did move and in moving became more conscious. Whoever it was, they were not causing her the same sense of dread she’d felt before. This time she saw Jay standing on her porch. She leaned against the door and sighed. “This is happening.” She opened the door and stood looking at Jay, in his plaid shirt and jeans, grey hoodie and all.
“What the hell is going on? I’ve been calling you all day. You didn’t show up at work. Your car’s not out front. I’ve been going crazy.”
Without thought, it fell out. “Chloe’s dead,” she said. She slipped to the floor and sat there, crying. She couldn’t move or think. But Jay leaned down and slipped his arm around her, pulling her up and towards him. He stepped in the door, shut it, and gently urged her toward the lime green 60’s sofa that Chloe so loved. All the while she cried. He moved her blanket and the two sat down together. He wrapped his arms around her and let her cry. The police officers’ cards lay on the table. Then he understood; this was a swirling tornado of pain. He felt it radiating from Eva and pulled her closer, as if to take her pain inside him.
“Tell me what you can,” he said, as the sobbing eased.
“I don’t want it to be real,” Eva said. “I have to call her parents, and I can’t.”
“What happened? A car accident?” he asked. He held her head and stroked her hair.
“Someone killed her. She was found by the railroad tracks. Whoever did this just left her there, all alone.” The sobs rose up again, but she kept them in check. “Some guy, working on the railroad, spotted her. She could have been there for days if he hadn’t. Jay, somebody killed her. Why?” This time the sobs won out. She turned into his shoulder. “I’ve got to get it together. I’ve got to do something. I can’t just sit here. Fuck. This is so wrong,” she said. Again the sobs over took her.
“I’m going to get it together.” She stood up suddenly and let out a deep sigh. “I can do this. I will be okay. Dammit.” She wiped her eyes.
“This is horrific. It’s all wrong. You need time to grieve. Heck, I need to.”
“Not now. I’ve got my entire life to grieve. I need to get it together and call her parents. She’s all they’ve got. They’ve lost a lot too; her brother died. Now Chloe. They don’t deserve anymore hits. Fuck. What kind of asshole would do this? Shit. Fuck. Damn. Oh, I wish I could kill this guy, just tear him to shreds. I’d grab him like a pit bull and shake the bastard and throw whatever was left in the garbage!.” She looked down at Jay. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. Be angry,” he replied, his own anger showing. “Go ahead. Let it out.”
She gave a little half laugh and wiped her face with her hands. “I need to call her parents. You don’t have to stay. I’m okay.” She wondered if that was rude.
“I’m staying. You should have someone with you right now.”
She walked into her bedroom, wondering about Jay. Who was he to decide he should stay here? But it was dismal without Chloe. There on the end of the bed was the orange skirt she had tried on the night before, the three pairs of Eva’s shoes that Chloe had modeled for her, and one of Eva’s fedoras that she had discarded because she said she never looked good in hats anyway. Eva shut the door and sat on the bed. She looked down at the rose and soft green rug under her feet. She could remember hiding under her grandmother’s bed, looking at it. She knew every inch. But Grandma Alice had died. Her father had died. Nanna, Gramps.
She reached into her bedside table drawer and pulled out her phone. She sat there thinking about what she could say. She stared at the phone and saw the notifications from her mother, Chloe’s parents and some of their friends. Shit, she thought. This could take all night. The next few days passed in a grey fog. On the morning of the memorial meeting, Eva slept in, making them late. A crowd of people were waiting patiently to get in.
“Damn, how could I let myself be so late?” she asked Jay, as he held her arm and shouldered his way through the mass of people. “I should have been one of the first ones here. You should have woken me.” She pulled her coat tight against the raw November air.
“My fault. You needed the sleep and you looked so peaceful I couldn’t bring myself to wake you.” He led her through the crowd explaining as he went, saying again and again, “We need to get to the front, please. Excuse me, thanks.”
People moved out of their way. Some friends tried to stop and talk to Eva, but Jay kept them moving until they reached the front. Chloe’s mother and father sat in the front row alone. Eva’s family was sitting in the row behind, waiting for her. As soon as she arrived, Chloe’s father stood up and pulled Eva into an embrace.
“I’m so sorry, Jim,” Eva said. She started to weep along with him. They held each other.
“Please, Eva, sit with us. She would have wanted you to. You’re part of our family,” he said. He glanced at Chloe’s mom, Ann. She sat unblinking as a cat, holding herself rigid. Eva was afraid to touch her, for fear of fracturing her will. Eva turned around and reached for her mother, tears welling up again. Her mother squeezed her hand and looked at her with pained eyes. Then she looked at Jay and at Eva, raising her eyebrows as a question mark. Eva shook her head. Her brothers looked uncomfortable dressed in their unfamiliar clothes and emotions.
When it was her turn to speak, she rose and moved to the podium. Here she paused and looked out over the crowd. The space was packed with people standing along the back wall and crowding in at the door. It felt good to know that Chloe was so well loved. Last night at the wake had been the same. Eva took a deep breath and began reading Sylvia Plath’s “Prologue to Spring” a favorite of Chloe’s. She lingered over last lines, “has stopped the season in its tracks/And suspended all that might occur?” Eva picked this poem because it spoke to her heart. As she read, she choked up, but forced herself to finish the reading. As she sat down, a friend of Chloe’s began singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She shut her eyes and listened.
When it was over, there was another crush of people trying to shake Eva’s hand and commiserate. She just wanted to get away. She felt cornered and odd, as if she was experiencing déjà vu, or that she was not really there at all. The world seemed to drift. Jay’s brows contracted in concern. He took her arm and pulled her toward the nearest door. “I’m sorry, she’s not feeling well,” he said this time, as he pushed his way through the crowd. Outside in the back, Eva began to feel better. The cold wind swept her mind clean, and she felt she could breathe again.
“Thank you, Jay. I really appreciate it,” she said, giving him a small wan smile.
“It’s because I’m from New York. We know how to push through crowds.”
“I didn’t just mean. . . Anyway, thanks. I think I’ve done enough public grieving. I need to go home. I just want to crawl into bed,” she said to Jay.
But when they arrived home, Jay suggested they go for a walk in nearby Powderhorn Park. She agreed because she knew he wouldn’t break her silence. They headed down the steps that led into the big bowl that was the park. The dark had fallen and it was quiet except for the sounds of some children playing by the pond. It seemed rather late for them to be out there. Eva momentarily felt afraid. They shouldn’t be here she thought. It’s not safe. They could die at any moment, she thought. She looked at Jay in a panic. What was she doing with this guy? He’d been there all last week, sleeping on her couch, making no demands on her. She knew him well; they had been working together for two years now. He was quiet, but it never felt uncomfortable. But death could find him as easily as it had Chloe.
Eva looked up and realized they were walking across the baseball fields directly toward the pond and the children’s voices. She heard their laughter. As they got closer she heard something else. It was a small sound, a high singing sound. The ice was newly formed, the first ice of the coming winter, and the children were tossing small pebbles across it to create the sound. Eva smiled with delight in spite of herself.
“What are you guys doing out here?” Jay asked. A flicker of fear crossed their faces.
“We’re making music,” said the oldest, with a bit of bravado. The others relaxed.
“Isn’t it cool?” a young girl asked.
“It sure is,” Eva said. “Can I try?”
“Sure you can,” said the smallest one, a slight child in worn-out jeans, a shirt and just a sweatshirt for warmth. When Eva looked around at them she realized none of them were dressed for the cold.
“Here let me help,” said the girl. She grinned widely as she squatted down to pick out a handful of small pebbles. “Here you go.”
“Go on, go ahead,” the little one said.
“Just toss them softly,” said the older one.
“Wait,” said Jay. “Can I have some too?”
The kids scrambled to find pebbles for him as well. Once he had some, he and Eva stood by the edge of the pond and gently tossed their pebbles onto the ice. The ethereal music was like tiny little crystal glasses being played by having their edges rubbed.
“Angel music,” Eva said. I wish I could share this with you, Chloe dear, she thought.
“Yeah, angel music,” said the older boy.
“Thank you so much for this,” said Jay. It made Eva feel warm inside to hear his thanks.
“Yes, thank you,” Eva said. They turned back onto the walkway, and the children squatted down to find more rocks.
Jay slid his hand around her waist and pulled her close. She let out a shaky sigh. He pulled her closer. Stopping, they leaned into each other and kissed.
Category: SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing