Saturday, May 15, 2010

Til Death

I set out today with the mission to compose a story based on someone, or something, that caught my eye. If you dig the notion, give it a whirl. May as well maximize on our daydreams...

Allison Manning unloaded her shopping cart at Wilson’s Country Mart, reviewing her mental checklist. Sodas, trail mix, granola bars, a first aid kit, make-up, an Atlas. Trivial contents compared to the magnitude of her venture. Her entire life was about to change. “Hey Jimmy, how’s it going?”

“I’m fine. Better now that you’re here.” The middle-aged clerk flashed a crooked smile and smoothed his poof of thinning gray hair.

Allison didn’t mind his ritual flirting, particularly once she realized that Jimmy was a bit “slow.” She figured he deserved her congeniality. Even if it had irked her, it wouldn’t tonight.

“Must be goin’ somewhere,” he added, lifting her book of maps. “Where are you going?”
“Good question. Depends on the wind, I suppose.” She considered, for a split-hair of a second, telling him everything. But she couldn’t, not yet.

“It’s a boyfriend-girlfriend trip, isn’t it?”

“You could say that.” The nervous carbonation in her belly surged. In contrast, Jimmy’s joy went flat.

“He sure is lucky to have a nice lady like you.” His face lit up. “Can I come?”

“Sorry, Jimmy, not this time. Don’t you think the store would be helpless without you?”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” He lifted powder and concealer from her items. “A pretty lady like you doesn’t need all this. Does Steve tell you that?”

“He does, yes.” Her eyes grew moist. “Thanks for the compliment, but I’ll take them anyway, just in case.”

He looked at the register. “Thirty-eight seventy-seven. That’s good luck—two sevens.”

She smiled, hoping he was right. She swiped her credit card through the machine. “That’s odd. It’s not going through. It says ‘error.’”

“Can I see it, and your ID? Sometimes it needs verification.” He examined both cards closely, punched numbers into the register and handed them back to her. “There you go.” She signed the electronic signature pad. “Have a good trip. If you change your mind, come back. I’ll go with you.”

“Thanks, Jimmy. Night.” She lifted her bags and walked to her car.

“What do you mean, she’s not in today? She told me to pick her up, here, at four-thirty.” Steve paced the floor at Allison’s office, glancing repeatedly at his watch.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to tell you.” Allison’s assistant, Jennifer, appeared flustered. “We tried reaching her at home and on her cell. Perhaps you could try her loved ones, or--”

“I am her loved ones.” He hadn’t meant to snap, but this wasn’t like Allison. He noted the ring box rubbing against his leg.

“If we hear anything, I’ll contact you right away. I’m sorry, I wish--”

Steve didn’t wait for her to finish. He blew out of the building, fueled by frustrated steam. Allison’s words from the previous night haunted him. “I love the way we are right now,” she’d said. “I wish I could push ‘pause’ and freeze it. Everything feels so right, I’m almost afraid I’ll do something to screw it up.” She sounded emotional but Steve hadn’t pressed. Why hadn’t he pressed? He shouldn’t have hinted at his proposal plans. He imagined her running away from him on tepid feet, further and further until she reduced to an unattainable spec on the horizon. Or what if she already had the “something” she referenced all planned out? Damn it, Allison. What did you do to screw this up?

He drove to her apartment, his hands clenched to the steering wheel as though squeezing hard enough might bring her back. But he raced his way to nothing. Allison’s parking space remained empty but for abandoned tar and litter bits. Her landlord hadn’t seen her since last night.

“She came home with shopping bags—Wilson’s, I think. That must’ve been about…eight-thirty?”

“Thanks, Phil. In case you hear anything.” Steve handed him a business card.
The inside of her apartment still smelled of her—her perfume, her shampoo. They’d argued over it, the place she insisted on keeping “until they were married.” She had said that, hadn’t she? “Until,” not “if?” He slammed his fist down on the countertop. “Fuck!”

Wait. Shopping bags. Wilson’s. He scavenged the apartment for unopened toiletries, groceries, dish soap, a receipt, then bolted out the door.

“I’m sorry, Sir, you’ll have to get in line behind the other customers,” Jimmy said.

“I’m looking for a woman. She came here last night and--” Steve upheld a photo.

Jimmy glanced at it. “Nope, haven’t seen her. But the rule is first come, first serve. If you want to talk to me you have to get in line.”

“Dip shit,” Steve said under his breath and stomped to the next register.

The clerk examined Allison’s photo. “Sorry. She looks familiar, but we see so many people every night. You can check with customer service in the back. Maybe they can help you.”

But no one would help him. Not even the police.

“Would you consider her a threat to herself or anyone else?” The stone-faced officer sat like a stubborn bulldog at her desk, glaring up at him over wire-rimmed glasses.

“What? No, she wouldn’t do anything to…What does that have to do with anything? She’s missing. My girlfriend’s missing.” His heart pounded in his chest. If he weren’t such a health nut he’d be suffering a coronary.

“And no sign of foul play?”


“History of mental illness? Schizophrenia, depression…drug or alcohol abuse…”

“Christ. No. No! What if someone took her? She’s a pretty girl, living alone. Damn it, I should never have...” He took a breath. “Can you at least send someone out to look for her?”

“Sir, have you and your girlfriend had a fight recently?”

If angry before, now he seethed. He felt it in his nostrils, flaring like a bull, prepping to fight. Officer Bull Dog seemed unaffected.

“Here.” She held out a clipboard. “Complete this form and I’ll see what we can do.”
Steve grumbled and snapped the clipboard from her hand, irony striking him with every pen swipe. Marriage license forms sat in his briefcase, blank. Fuck this. He’d find her himself.

His thoughts circulated on the last twelve hours as he drove, an ocean of 'should’ves,' 'would’ves,' 'could’ves,’ and ‘if only’s.’ Think. There had to be signs, clues, some inkling. Where are you, Allison?

As though on auto-pilot he returned to the Wilson’s parking lot. He surveyed the parking lot, eyed every shopper who came and left. He checked his phone for missed calls, messages, texts. He tried her again. Come on…Pick up! “Babe, it’s me. I’m worried about you. If…” His voice cracked. “If you get this, call me and let me know if you’re okay. If you’re hurt, or…” He couldn’t get the words out. “I love you.” Click.

He looked up and saw the clerk from earlier exiting the store, his face angled downward, his step--anxious. Steve watched him climb onto a bicycle, peruse a thick book—an atlas? He tucked it in his bike basket and took off.

Steve trailed him for half a mile, each block affirming their destination--Allison’s apartment.

Steve waited for the man to park his bike and enter the building. With pocket knife in hand, he followed.

(Part 2 en route...)

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