I. One of Those Nights
I wound down the window of my dilapidated Oldsmobile and the breeze blowing against my face felt cool and refreshing. I was sitting by the ocean watching the lobster boats bobbing around in the harbor and enjoying a fresh cup of iced-coffee. It had been the hottest day of the summer and I had been sweltering for most of it in my office trying to make sense of the accusations of a paranoid wife. That’s the fun of being a Private Investigator in the State of Maine: half the jobs you take on board are monotonous and strictly routine business and the other half just don’t pay. It’s that other half that keeps me in the job. I could have quit years ago and moved to Boston or New York. I could have been like those TV guys who investigate homicides and disappearing heiresses. But I chose to stick near home and deal with the jealous husbands, paranoid wives and confused old ladies. Those are bread and butter cases; they pay the rent. Not much else.
The jobs I like are the ones that seem pointless from the outset. People come to me with bizarre stories and folktales looking for answers. Sometimes I am not sure if I’m a Private Investigator or the County Go-To guy. A fascination with unanswered questions keeps me taking those jobs even though they pay poorly, if at all. My late friend and fellow P.I., Jack Laveau, called them “beer jobs”: take enough regular work to pay the bills and then if there’s anything left over, you can buy beer. But to me it wasn’t the money that made those jobs interesting. It was who you meet and what you find out. Sometimes you find out more about yourself than you do the job you’re working.
This week I had finally taken on enough work to buy my asthmatic Oldsmobile a new carburetor and once more I had wheels. Public transport and taxis are not the ideal modes of transport for someone who always needs to be on the move without anyone noticing. Today was one of those days. Snooping around in small-town Maine is not the easiest thing in the world. Everyone knows everyone else, or is related to them in some way. An outsider sitting around taking notes sticks out like a fella wearing a Yankees jersey in Fenway Park.
I had a few dollars of my daily expenses left so I closed the office around five o’clock, put gasoline in the Olds, treated myself to some half-decent coffee and headed out to the coast for some fresh air and a change of scenery. The water was a deep slate blue color with little flecks of white and the sky was the color of the laundry softener my ex-wife used to buy by the truckload.
I sat there for over an hour listening to talk-radio and sipping my coffee. Gradually the cool breeze died away and it became muggy and unpleasant once again. The Olds was running again, for which I was grateful, but expecting the air conditioning to work was too much. Once my coffee was gone I decided to take a walk along the water’s edge and I found myself lost in thought until the sudden revelation that it was almost dark snapped me back to reality. I checked my watch and it was after eight thirty. Mosquitoes were gathering under the street lights and I felt them biting my arms and neck. I hate mosquitoes with a passion and I quickly bundled myself into the car and started up the engine. I drove slowly back towards town. The lanes that led out to the coast are narrow and forested and a close encounter with a deer or moose was the last thing I needed.
It took me about forty-five minutes to drive back into town. When I arrived downtown, the streets were deserted except for a group of youths standing outside “Felipe’s” Mexican place drinking beer from tall bottles and talking in Spanglish. I usually give that place a miss and head on over to the bar at the City Hotel which I contemplated doing right now but instead I instinctively took a left turn at the lights and headed up Central Street towards “Alicia’s” coffee shop. I parked my car right outside and went inside. There was a large box fan in the window blowing the warm around noisily. Alicia was standing behind her counter looking hot and bothered. Nobody else was in the café. She smiled as I entered and automatically began filling a tall mug with freshly brewed coffee. I waved my hand to stop her; it was far too humid to be drinking hot coffee.
“Give me a diet soda, please Alicia”
“You working late tonight, Rick?”
“No. Just taking in the sights and catching some air before I turn in.”
“Gonna be a hot one tonight, love. Hope you have AC at your place?”
I smiled and shook my head, sipping the iced cola. “I’m lucky the windows open in that old place!”
Alicia laughed and went back into her kitchen to attend to something. I sat at the long counter nursing my cold drink, looking out into the street. It was properly dark now and everything had taken on an orange glow from the street lamps. The door opened and an old man shuffled inside. I knew him by sight, the way people always recognize each other in small towns. I didn’t know his name or anything else about him but he was often in the café drinking espresso and reading thick novels whenever I came in late. I nodded at him and he grunted something back before taking his usual spot at a table by the window. Alicia had the TV switched on but the sound was down. Looked like the Red Sox had taken a big lead against someone but I wasn’t sure who. I downed the rest of my soda, left three dollars on the counter and stepped back outside into the warm summer night. It was ten fifteen.
II. Taking The Long Way Home
I drove up Washington Hill and then back along Park Street. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to go straight home. Maybe it was the weather that made me want to just keep moving. Whatever it was, I drove on. I cut through Middle Street and back along Washington Avenue then found myself coming back down Washington Hill the other way. I had some jazz on the radio turned way down low and with the window open it was a great night just to be driving. Eventually I left town by way of the highway and drove five or six miles north, over the river and across the county line towards Augusta. Long before reaching the state capital however, I swung the car off a dark exit and followed a tree-lined highway through some small townships I was not familiar with. I was getting pretty hungry and wished I had stayed at “Alicia’s” long enough to have gotten a hamburger or a sandwich. None of these small towns had so much as a fast-food joint let alone anything worth eating.
I crossed back over railroad lines and took a road that looked as thought it might lead back south towards home. I had been going a couple of miles when I saw the bright lights of a local pizza place. I slowed down and saw that it was open. It was only a small restaurant, if you could call it that; more like a drive-thru without the driving. Two teenage boys seemed to be running the place and the choice was limited. I ordered a couple of slices of cheese pizza and another diet soda. The interior of the place was stark and tiled and was lit with so many 300-watt light bulbs that made it feel like I was on a movie set. By the door there were two plastic tables and chairs; about enough room for four people to sit inside. Sat right inside the door was a girl. She wasn’t eating, she just sat there and stared at me while I waited for my pizza. I began to feel uncomfortable. I thought maybe she was the girlfriend of one of the pizza jockeys waiting for him to get done but neither of them seemed to notice her sitting there. She was about seventeen, wore a white turtle neck pullover and faded jeans. Her hair was fair and tied back in a pony-tail. She looked pale, almost sickly but her blue eyes continued to stare at me without blinking.
Finally one of the pizza guys served my pizza and I turned to leave the restaurant. The girl’s blue eyes followed me like surveillance cameras. I laid my pizza box down on the hood of my car as I fumbled in my pocket for my keys. As I looked up, the girl was standing beside me, her expression unchanged.
“Hi.” I mustered. “Can, I help you?”
“I need a ride.” She countered. So much for manners.
“Where you headin’?”
“Near Augusta. Can you take me?”
I took a mouthful of pizza and chewed for a few moments looking at the girl. She didn’t flinch a muscle, and I don’t remember seeing her blink. She reminded me of a robot. I slurped on my soda and then politely offered the other pizza slice to the girl. She looked hungry but didn’t accept my offer.
“Can you take me?” she asked again in the same voice.
“Oh sure, why not. It’s not really where I was going but I’m in no hurry.”
The girl moved to the passenger side and opened the door. I watched her suspicious thinking perhaps she was packing a 9mm and was about to mug me; but she seemed harmless enough. For a few seconds I thought I saw her smiling but it was soon replaced with that same mechanical stare. I started up the car and soon we were back on the highway heading north towards Augusta, hardly any other vehicles on the road. The girl was freaking me out so I tried to make conversation.
“My name’s Rick. What’s yours?”
“K.T. is my name”
“Well sure is nice to meet you Katy”
“No. Not Katy, K.T. like the letters.”
“Oh. So where you from, K.T.?”
“Around. Here and there, you know?”
I could tell this wasn’t going to be an exchange of intellect so I turned the radio up a notch and ate the rest of my pizza. K.T. was staring out the windshield and hardly moving. I couldn’t even tell if she was breathing, her movements were so inconspicuous. After about fifteen minutes of driving she suddenly turned and looked at me with that hard blue-eyed stare once more.
“Take the next left. It’s sign-posted Orchard Road. Half a mile up here”
“Is that where you live?” I asked, hesitantly, not wanting to push too hard on her.
“Yes.” She replied softly, that flicker of a smile returning to her face. “Kinda.”
I took a drink of my soda and looked at the girl sitting next to me. Every time we went underneath one of the large highway lights she almost seem to glow from deep within. She was beginning to unnerve me and I began wondering if she was on drugs or had some kind of behavior disorder like they’re always talking about on daytime TV. You meet all kinds of people in my line of work and I’m hardly the first person to judge another but this girl was one of the weirder teenager I had run into lately. And that was saying something! I took the road she requested, slowly turning down Orchard Road which turned out to be an unpaved track through some dense trees. It was totally dark and I flicked my headlights to high beam just to keep on the road. There was hardly room for another car to pass and I hoped that we wouldn’t meet any. I didn’t see any houses along the road and I begun to wonder why she had brought me this way.
III. Goodnight & God Bless
I drove for what seemed like forever along the track; the Oldsmobile’s soft suspension made the car rock and roll not unlike a boat. This was not the kind of place I wanted to be breaking down. As I thought about that, I glanced at my fuel gauge and was relieved that I had put half a tank’s worth of gasoline in earlier that evening. I was not so encouraged by the “no signal” indicator on my cell phone. That meant we were literally all alone out here.
Suddenly, the girl waved her hand and demanded that I stop. I brought the car to a halt and waited, my foot on the brake. K.T. began to open the door and step outside into the darkness. It was a little cooler here and I reckoned we had been going uphill for a couple of miles. Before I even had the car in “park”, she had walked away towards a low wall fifty yards or so in front of us. I left the high beams on and got out. I reached into the back of the car and pulled out my flashlight. I tried to follow K.T. but she was quick over the uneven ground and without a flashlight of her own I was amazed how she didn’t fall flat on her mechanical little face. I could not see any other lights and I was beginning to think she had led me on a wild goose chase when I saw where she had gone. There was a large iron fence at the top of an embankment and a gateway that read “Apple Creek Cemetery”. I paused and took a deep breath. When I clambered up the rocky steps I saw K.T. sitting on a broken gravestone ahead of me, crying. I walked up beside her and tried to put my hand on her shoulder but she pulled away, flinching instinctively like a kid who’s been touched before the wrong way. I backed off a little and shone the flashlight at her. She looked at me with the same wide stare but now her eyes were full of tears.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” I ventured.
“They hated me. They all did. Said I was a slut. Said I was a ho.”
“Who did? Who said those things to you?”
“Everyone did. Friends, parents, people in town. Everyone.”
“Your parents did?”
She nodded slowly, and the eerie glow in her eyes seemed to fade. “They hated me, I hated them. That’s how it went. They wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. They didn’t stop long enough to understand me. I was just in the way. I was just ruining their lives. I was a waste of space. I was an embarrassment to them.”
“So, K.T…..why don’t you tell me your real name and we can talk about it?”
“They called me Kathryn. Then Katy like you did. I hated that name. I asked them all to call me K.T. but nobody did. They never did anything like I wanted them to. They just yelled and screamed and called me all the names I never wanted to be called. Whore, Ho, Slut, Mongrel, and sometimes when they were feeling especially proud of me, they’d called me a Stupid C-“
“Whoa”, I interjected with a wave of my hand. I had heard plenty.
“Yeah, like you’re any different. You grown ups are all the same.”
I had to hold my tongue. She was probably right. Age always assumes the right to wisdom. I had encountered enough smart kids to know that was not always the case. I was a precocious child who thought he knew better than his parents too. Eventually you get to the point you realize they were mostly right anyway. K.T. sounded like she was a teen full of angst that needed to blow off some steam and I was the unlucky shoulder to cry on tonight. That’s often what happens when you take the long way home. I turned to look at her once more. “So, K.T. or Kathryn, or whoever you are. Why did you bring me up here in the dead of night to tell me this?”
We walked for a few hundred yards through the maze of old gravestones and overgrown paths. I followed my flashlight’s pool of milky light but K.T. seemed to be navigating her way without the need for light. Eventually we came to a small granite grave site covered in long grass. She sat down on one side of it, and pointed at the stone. “Look! See! They never listened. Never! Even when it was too late to make any difference!”
I looked down to where she pointed and read the faded words carved into the gravestone: “In Loving Memory of Kathryn Townsend, 1971-1988, Taken from us too soon but never forgotten.”
I read it twice. Kathryn Townsend — K.T. — Seventeen years old when she took her own life in 1988. That was over twenty years ago. I turned around and looked at the pale girl sitting next to me and understood in one moment more than I ever had before. “I’m sorry.” I heard myself say, “I’m so very, very sorry!”
“They always say that when it’s too late. You’re sorry. They will always be sorry!”
The young woman looked up at me, her blue eyes glowing like ice in a fire. She smiled the first real smile I had seen from her and then she faded away before my eyes and I was standing all alone and suddenly aware of my own heart beating and the sound of crickets chirping in the long grass. “Goodnight and God bless.” I said, and then slowly made my way back to my car.
Copyright ©2008 Owen Fish. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This article is protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. This story has been modified from its original 2008 form for publication on this blog.