29 Apr What Was Brought Home
“What Was Brought Home”Written by Erik Peabody Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Erik Peabody
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 46 minutes
James was back and Shelley was happy. After all, so, so many hadn’t been lucky enough to get their husbands back. Rita Clarence lived just two houses down, and hadn’t Shelley been looking out the window right at the time that the government-issue Ford had driven up and the army men had gotten out, straightened their uniforms, and walked up to Rita’s door? And she wasn’t the only one. Shelley personally knew a dozen other wives (widows now, she thought,) in Pacific Grove who had gotten notice that their husbands were dead in the jungle somewhere, and she knew that there were many others besides those. But never her. She had spent day after day at the window, hands resting on her gradually growing belly, waiting for that car to stop in front of their small house, but it had never come. Time had slowly marched by, and even though James’ last letter had been months earlier, no car had come. At least, not the car that she had been expecting. And then, one day months later in mid-July, when a car had come, and James himself had stepped out of the back, hadn’t her emotions done a slight sidestep? Hadn’t her expected and prepared grief felt a bit stolen from her, as if someone had played a little joke? It had been fleeting, and true relief had flooded her as she yanked the door open and flew down the steps to him, but that feeling of being tricked was still in there, like a small pebble in her shoe. The feeling of being tricked, and the seed of something else as well. The knowledge that she now had a problem, one that she did not know how to handle, because the months didn’t add up properly, and she wouldn’t be able to hide it forever.
So, James was back, and that meant that she was happy. Of course she was happy. She had gone from a newly-wed at eighteen to a soldier’s wife, to a pregnant soldier’s wife, to a possible widow, and to a single mother in the span of twenty months. She had been excited to get married, especially to James, who was tall and handsome. She had thrived on how she was suddenly the center of attention among her friends, the first one to be engaged. She was doted on at every step of the wedding planning, and that in itself was more intoxicating than the thought of actually getting married. It had all been like a dream, and just when she had started to feel bored with the whole thing several months after she had gone from Shelley Leonetti to Shelley Hartford, James’ number had come up and off he’d gone to fight in the war. She had cried, and she honestly did miss him, but she wasn’t terribly broken up about it. Being the wife of a soldier made her special again, in a different way, and there were plenty of ways to stay busy while he was gone. Plenty of people who wanted to give her some attention. And she had just enough time to get used to the thought of this new routine being the shape of her life, for better or for worse, and then things had changed again. James was back. He wasn’t dead in some tunnel or rotting in a POW camp in the Far East. He was back, and miraculously, he was uninjured. At least, he was uninjured physically.
There was something different about him, though, and Shelley had noticed it right away. She didn’t have a word for it at the time, but she would two years later, in 1975 when she was talking to a television salesman at the Sears and Roebuck in Monterey. They were no longer living in Pacific Grove by that point, and had a small house within the main city limits. James was doing well at the dealership and money wasn’t terrible, so when their small black and white Zenith had broken, Shelley didn’t think twice about going to buy a replacement. The salesman was showing her a Sony color model, and though Shelley wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of buying from a Japanese company, she did have to admit it looked good. The only rub was that this particular display television must have been mistreated by the shopping public, and the audio and picture weren’t quite on the same page. It was a small thing, and the salesman assured her that the one she brought home wouldn’t have the problem. “It’s a solid television, ma’am, and your family will love it. This one just took a bit of a fall earlier today and that’s why it’s slightly desynchronized.”
Desynchronized. That was the word. On the television, it was so slight that you almost wouldn’t notice it after you watched it for a minute. But it was always there. The mouth would move, and the voice would issue a fraction of a second later. What made it eerie was that it was almost perfect. The picture and the audio were both exactly as they should be, but in the end, they didn’t line up. It made everything feel like an imitation of reality instead of an actual portrayal of reality. It was like going to see a play, and sitting in just the right seat where you could sometimes see the black-clad crew behind the baffling on the side of the stage, as they were running rigging or preparing props for the actors. In that context, the suspension of disbelief that all plays, movies and television relied on was dented slightly. You were aware of being an audience member, someone to whom a story was being told, and that the telling of that story was there to influence you somehow. To make you feel happy or sad, intrigued or afraid. That you were being manipulated.
Shelley had ended up buying the Sony, or rather, a new television of the same model without that strange decoupling of audio and visuals. She had taken it home to James and little Brandon, two years old now. James had set it up in a jiffy, and they had both watched The Six Million Dollar Man in glorious color that night after they had finished dinner and Brandon was in bed. It had been a fine evening, but Shelley had looked over at her husband midway through the show, watching him as he watched Steve Austin fighting for America, and she had thought of that word again. Desynchronized.
She had first noticed it shortly after James had stepped into (her) their house from the army car, back for the first time in a year. When she had stopped hugging him on the front yard, they had gone inside so that he could meet Brandon, two months old and brand new in the world. James had been back in her life for all of three minutes, and already she could feel her relief at his return slipping aside, giving way to worry. Worry that HE WOULD KNOW. Worry about what he would do when he did know. She had led him to the small nursery with its new paint job (courtesy of Tim Matheson, and the paint wasn’t his only contribution to the nursery) and to the side of Brandon’s crib. James had stood there for a moment, silent and expressionless as he looked down into the crib, and the only thought in Shelley’s mind was that HE KNEW, that it was either the shape of the eyes, or the positioning of the cheekbones, or the slope of the brow, but that whatever it was, he somehow knew. The thought had just enough time to take traction in her mind, and she actually began to open her mouth to say something, to give voice to some excuse or explanation, and then James’ face had softened, and he said, “oh, baby. He’s beautiful.” He had leaned into Brandon’s crib to carefully scoop him up, and relief flooded into Shelley’s body for the second time that day. And now, watching James as he watched the Six Million Dollar Man two years after the day he had come home, she could finally be honest with herself. The relief at not being found out was greater than the relief of learning that her husband was still alive. Tinged with bitterness, but greater nonetheless.
* * * * * *
At the time, Shelley had quickly moved past James’ hesitation, chalking it up to the whirlwind of leaving a warzone to come home and suddenly seeing your child for the first time. She had moved past it, but she had not forgotten.
The next several weeks had been a bit of an adjustment, but nothing had happened that she couldn’t attribute to James simply acclimating back to civilized life. He slept a lot, and even though he had never been someone that drank to excess, he had apparently given up alcohol entirely. She had asked him about this and he told her, “I don’t know. It just… tastes different now.” She sometimes heard him talking in his sleep, which he had never done before. These were mainly inarticulate vocalizations, but she caught names here and there, like “Tom” and “Bevington,” and one that she thought was “Big John.”
One afternoon, she was walking down the hall, a full basket of clean laundry to be folded in her arms, when she heard him crying from inside the bedroom. The door was ajar and she nudged it open with her foot to see him lying on his back, eyes closed and hands folded on his chest, while he quietly sobbed. She was about to leave to put the laundry down when she heard his breath catch in his throat, and then he spoke, voice wavering but clear as day. “This wasn’t what I signed up for.” Shelley thought that he had woken up and was speaking to her. She quietly called his name, but he didn’t answer, and she decided that he was still asleep after all. Still, that stuck with her for a while as she folded laundry. James hadn’t signed up for anything. He had been drafted. But then Brandon was crying and she had to abandon both the laundry and this small mystery to tend to him. It seemed like something was always pulling her away from what she was doing and making life difficult.
During the times when James was awake, his behavior was close to normal. He had always been a quiet man, and even though he seemed slightly more muted than usual, and with that occasional hesitation, Shelley caught herself thinking that, whatever it was he had seen and done in Vietnam, he was managing quite well to put it behind him. Several weeks after his return, the neighborhood had thrown a “welcome home” barbecue for him. She was actually surprised by the turnout. Almost all of their neighbors were there, as well as some of James’ friends from school. The crowd was so large that Shelley didn’t even recognize all of them.
James had been pleasant and conversational with everyone, and Shelley hadn’t noticed more than the slightest standoffishness from him. That being said, Shelley had been more focused on her own behavior, making sure that she and Tim Matheson both expressed just the correct amount of friendly acquaintance between them. They had done quite well, in her opinion, except for one brief moment when they had gone into the house together, for the stated purpose of Tim helping her bring out several bags of ice for the cooler.
If this had been a year earlier, Tim, who was always handsy when alone with her, would have taken the opportunity to run his hand up the inside of her thigh, or over the rear of her jeans, but the situation had changed now, hadn’t it? As soon as they were inside with the patio door closed behind them, he had said to her, “I need to see him.” Before she could answer, he had turned and started walking down the hall towards the nursery, Shelley calling after him as loudly as she dared to stop, that this wasn’t the time, that people were going to find out if they weren’t careful. Sparing a quick glance out the window to make sure no one else was heading inside, Shelley had followed after him. When she got to the nursery, he had been standing next to the crib, exactly where James had been on the day that he had come home. However, unlike James, Tim was more visibly impacted by the sight of the baby. He had broken out into a big, stupid grin, and Shelley could see that tears were welling in his eyes.
“Tim, you have to go back outside. Now,” she said, but he didn’t seem to hear her. He just stood there, hands on the edge of the crib, looking down at the child. Shelley grabbed his arm above the elbow. “Do you hear me? You are going to ruin everything if you don’t go outside right this minute!” Just then, she heard the sound of a door closing, followed by running water. Someone in the bathroom. They would have had to walk past the kitchen to get there. Had they noticed that she and Tim weren’t anywhere to be seen?
Tim had come back to himself with the sound of the latching door, and he turned to look at her. “Okay,” he said, “but I have to see him again.”
“We can talk about that later. Just get out of the house.”
They had been back with the group less than thirty seconds later, the tears gone from Tim’s eyes and both of them holding a large bag of ice. James was still talking to George Brooks from up the street about job prospects, George with a can of Budweiser and James with a Coca-Cola, and hadn’t seemed to notice that they had even been inside together. The rest of the day went by without incident, though Shelley caught Tim looking back towards the house on more than one occasion, a look of longing in his eyes.
With the amount of time that Shelley spent tending to the party, and with her distraction surrounding Tim Matheson, she didn’t have time to speak with everyone that was there that day. After all, some of them were people she had only met once or twice around the neighborhood, and some were friends of friends, or people that James knew more than she did. In fact, she never even noticed the one person there that neither she nor James knew. This man was in his thirties, and he was adept at blending in without drawing attention. He was someone that neither Shelley nor James knew, but he was also someone that Tim Matheson and George Brooks didn’t know. Someone that wasn’t a friend of a friend, or the spouse of an acquaintance, but he was someone that knew James, or rather, knew about him. Knew quite a lot about him, in fact. Even if someone had directly noticed him, which no one did, that person still wouldn’t have noticed how this man was always in just the right place to see what James was doing. He stayed at the gathering for just the correct amount of time, not being noticed when he arrived and not being missed when he left.
* * * * * *
“What have I told you about… about when I was in the war?”
She had been drifting off when his voice brought her back. They were lying in bed, she with her back to him. The room was dark. She kept silent for a minute, thinking (hoping) that he was talking in his sleep again. It had been a long day caring for Brandon, cleaning the house, doing just about everything, if she was being honest with herself. Doing everything that needed to be done while James got to go to work and leave her to take care of the messy parts of life. She was tired and didn’t care much what James had to say about Vietnam. He’d been back for three years and had barely said two words about it. Why now, of all times?
“Hmm?” Trying to sound more tired than she was, trying to dissuade further conversation.
“The war. What have I told you about it?”
He apparently wasn’t going to drop it. “Not much,” she said, doing her best to balance just the right amount of curtness and fatigue in her voice. She didn’t turn to him.
A few moments passed, and she felt sleep closing in. Just as she was about to go under, he spoke again. “I can’t remember when I forgot.”
This was strange enough to bring her back again. “What?”
“I don’t remember much of anything. I can’t… I can’t tell if I forgot when I was over there or sometime after I got back. I never told you anything?”
“Not really.” She hesitated. “Just some names.”
She heard/felt him move a bit. “Names?”
“Yeah, just names. ‘Big John’ and ‘Burlington’ or something like that. A few others.”
More silence. “I don’t remember.”
“Well, you didn’t bring them up much.”
“No, it’s not that I don’t remember saying the names. I mean, I don’t remember saying them, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t know who those people are. I can’t remember.”
Her interest was waning again. “Well, it was war, James. There was a lot going on. We should get some sleep. I have a million things I need to do tomorrow while you’re spending your day drinking coffee and selling cars.”
She closed her eyes, glad that the conversation was over. She really did have a lot to do tomorrow. There was laundry, grocery shopping, taking Brandon for a checkup at Doctor Swanson’s office. And let’s not forget about talking to Tim about fixing their fence. Dealing with him had been an increasingly exhausting task over the last few years, navigating through all of the things that they had to talk about while keeping him from talking about what he wanted to talk about. When no one was around, he would talk about how he’d see Brandon getting older and that he was feeling time slipping away. Time that he wanted to be with Brandon. To be with her. She had made it abundantly clear that there was no place in her life for him except as a handyman, and no place in Brandon’s life for him at all. Tim would always relent, but she would see in his eyes that he was already thinking of how he’d circle back to the issue. It was exhausting, but it was also a tad concerning, because that look he had was more and more desperate as time went on. If it was up to her, she would have cut him out of their life completely, but James had known him for a long time and knew that Tim needed the money, and James hadn’t picked up on her suggestions to go with someone else for repair work moving forward. Besides, it wasn’t like she could just come out and say why she didn’t want Tim around anymore.
These thoughts slowly became fuzzier and more meandering, and she was only aware that she had almost fallen asleep when James spoke again.
“I remember basic training, I remember all the guys I met there. I remember shipping out and landing in Saigon. I remember the first few months. Being in the city with some other guys, running checkpoints. I definitely remember coming home to visit you, and then… only snippets. Only… flashes. Something about me and some guys going somewhere else, and feeling relief about that, but…”
“James.” Exasperation in her voice. No answer from him. She turned over, seeing his outline in the darkness as he sat up against the headboard, looking at nothing at all. “James,” she said again, louder.
He jumped a little and turned to her. “Sorry.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. That’s all over. I’m sure you don’t want to relive it, and I know that I don’t want to. Think about how hard it was for me. Here, alone, pregnant. Not sure if you were alive or dead. It’s too much for me to go through, and it’s too late for us to be talking about anything. Go to sleep.”
He hesitated for a moment and then leaned towards her, kissing her forehead. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Get some rest.”
She turned her back to him again, still irritated, but with a dash of pride. She knew how to work him. She knew that he truly cared for her, and all it took was to make him feel like what he was doing was causing her grief, and he’d back off. In fact, she felt better than she had before. This little exchange had been given her a measure of confidence that would be sure to come in handy tomorrow, when she’d be dealing with a slightly less malleable male personality. This led her back to thinking about the next day and all that it would entail, which wove her down the road from consciousness to unconsciousness.
* * * * * *
James had started drinking not long after.
* * * * * *
He was almost the perfect type of drunk husband, Shelley had thought sardonically as she had looked down at him, passed out on the bedroom floor two years later. He didn’t yell, he didn’t hit, and he didn’t go sleeping around. He just opened a bottle sometime in the afternoon or evening, sat down at the small kitchen table, started quietly drinking, and didn’t stop until he was drunk and then fell asleep. Not ideal in many respects, but not bad, considering. Besides, it gave her time when she didn’t have to be around him. That desynchronization had been getting worse over the last year or so, and it gave her the willies.
Last night had been slightly different than usual, because he hadn’t stayed quiet like he normally did. Sometime around seven, he had roused himself enough to start drinking even more, and then he started crying. He had started talking as well. It was disjointed and incoherent, but Shelley had heard him from the living room, where she was watching television with Brandon. Brandon was getting upset, and Shelley was doing her best to distract him. After all, she didn’t want two people crying in the house.
She had continued to turn up the volume to drown out James’ sobbing, but she had still heard some of what he was saying. He was in the kitchen, talking to no one in particular, and she had again heard one of the names that he mentioned sometimes. “Thomas.”
He had stopped crying a half-hour later, and shortly after, she had heard him drag himself up from the table and shamble down the hall into the bedroom. She and Brandon had finished watching Captain Kangaroo and then she had put him to bed. He had school in the morning, and was already up later than usual.
Shelley had left James where he was, curled up on the floor on the side of the bed, his white work shirt halfway buttoned and his tie loose and hanging over his shoulder. She had slept peacefully, herself, and James was gone when she woke up. “That’s just fine,” she thought as she stretched out, enjoying the full width of the bed. She looked at the little clock on the nightstand and saw that she still had some time before she had to get Brandon ready for school. She lay where she was for a few minutes, enjoying the quiet and the solitude. Besides, James would benefit from having time to take a shower before she got up and had to deal with him.
But when she went into the kitchen, clad in her robe, she realized that James wasn’t in the shower. He was sitting at the table, motionless with a cup of coffee in front of him, still wearing his clothes from the previous night. She stopped when she saw him, startled. After a moment, she started forward again and walked past him to make herself a cup. As she was at the counter with her back turned to him, she heard him timidly say, “good morning” from behind her.
“You scared Brandon last night,” she replied coldly.
“I suppose I probably did. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” she said mildly.
She finished pouring her coffee and then turned around to look at him. He was hunched forward, resting his elbows on the table and generally looking worked over. There were bags under his eyes. “At least he buttoned his shirt,” she thought.
“How long is this going to go on?”
“I’m sorry,” he said again, slouching a bit further down.
“You should be. The drinking is one thing, even though you did go through more than you usually do. But crying like that in front of your son? That’s disgraceful. You were a soldier, for Christ’s sake.”
He slumped even deeper.
“What do you have to cry about anyway? You have a good job and a good family. You’re living the American dream, James.”
“You just what?”
He hesitated. “I just sometimes can’t stop thinking about things. About the war. I start trying to remember, and I can’t remember anything, but I still feel bad.”
She stepped over to the table and sat down across from him.
“James, you know I love you. But this has got to stop. You have to let it go. Get on with your life so we can get on with ours.” She looked at the clock above the sink. “Besides, you need to get to work.”
“Yeah,” he said. He reached for his cup and drained it, and then pulled himself up from the chair. As he was walking away, she called out to him.
He stopped and slowly turned around to look at her, his eyes downcast.
“You really have a lot to be thankful for,” she said.
He managed a weak smile, and then went to get ready for work.
* * * * * *
The knock on the door came at about noon that same day. She had been drinking a cup of coffee at the table and listening to the radio. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and her first thought was that it was Tim, who was someone that she absolutely did not want to deal with, so she hadn’t stood up until the second knock came, a bit louder and more insistent. With a small sigh of exasperation, she went into the living room and opened the door, already preparing to give Tim a piece of her mind about how inappropriate (and how stupid) it was for him to come by in the middle of the day.
Instead, what waited for her when she pulled open the door were two unfamiliar men, both appearing to be in their forties and wearing well-worn suits. She stopped where she was, slightly taken aback and with her mouth partway open to deliver a lashing.
“Hello,” said one of them, a tall, thin man with a mustache and a receding hairline. “Is James Hartford here?”
The man smiled disarmingly. “James Hartford. Is he home right now? My associate and I here would like to talk to him.”
She had regained a bit of her composure by that point, enough to where she was irritated at having her day interrupted. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. You’ll have to leave…”
“We’re with the police, ma’am,” said the man, still smiling and looking a little apologetic. “Monterey PD. I’m Detective Albertson and this is Detective Phillips. We just need to talk to your… husband?… for a minute or two. Is he around?”
“Oh,” she replied, taken aback. “No, I’m afraid he’s at work, over at the Ford dealership in Seaside. What is this all about?”
Albertson looked briefly over his shoulder at Phillips, who was also smiling a little now. He turned back to Shelley. “I can assure you, it’s almost certainly nothing at all. James works locally, then?”
“Yes. He’s worked there for about five years.”
“He’s been at work this week? No trips out of town recently? Didn’t head out to, oh, I don’t know. Arizona? New Mexico? Anywhere over around there?”
“Arizona? No, not at all. Our last vacation was a few years back and that was just up to Oregon. He hasn’t left town at all. What… New Mexico?”
“Well, that’s just fine with us, then,” he said with a hint of a chuckle in his voice. “We’ll go have a quick chat with him, but trust me, ma’am, this is nothing to get worried about. Thanks for your time.” With that, he smiled at her again and the two of them walked unhurriedly down the steps and to their car, which was parked in front of the house. Shelley watched them for a moment and then closed the door, feeling a little untethered and with a slight frown on her face. She heard the engine start up and looked out the small side window as they drove off. Strange thoughts were bouncing around in her mind, and she was still looking out the window several seconds later when she noticed a second car that hadn’t caught her attention before. This was parked on the far side of the street and several houses down. A beige Ford sedan. It started up and made a wide U-turn in the street to continue down the road after the detectives, accelerating slightly to catch up to them.
She stood at the window, staring out into the street after the vehicles, her frown deepening.
* * * * * *
She was on him as soon as he walked through the door, even though he wasn’t home much later than normal. He stiffly walked past her and her barrage of whos and whats and wheres, and mechanically lowered himself down onto the couch at the other end of the living room. He sat, staring ahead vacantly, as she stood above him and continued to ask questions, neither of them noticing that Brandon was peeking around the corner from the hall, a worried expression on his face. The pitch, volume, and rapidity of Shelley’s questions slowly increased as he continued to stare at the far wall, apparently unaware of her presence.
She finally realized that she wasn’t getting through and, not without effort, calmed herself down, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Renewed, she looked down at him again. “James,” she said calmly.
“James,” she said, with a bit more vigor, and when he still didn’t answer, she leaned forward, still in full control, and slapped him across the face, hard. Not in anger, she thought to herself. Just to get through to him.
His head reeled for the briefest moment and then snapped back, and now he was looking at her. Shelley stepped back, surprised by the flash of anger she saw there, but it was gone as soon as she could register it, and now he just looked worn out. Worn out, and sad.
“James,” said again, “why were the police here today?”
He kept looking at her for a moment, and she was again aware of how that hesitation, that desynchronization, was getting more noticeable.
“Thomas Hughes. I remember him now.”
She didn’t respond. This was all so out of context that she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I had forgotten him, but now I remember. I saw him almost every day for six months there at the end, right before I came home. I think. I remember… I remember talking to him. Nothing serious, just chatting. But all the time. Do you understand, Shelley? I talked to him all of the time.”
“What are you talking about?”
He stood up and started walking around the room absent-mindedly while he talked. “He was someone I knew in the war. Someone in Vietnam. But not in Saigon. I know it wasn’t in Saigon, it was sometime after that. And we weren’t in uniform. I remember joking with him.. something about what we were wearing. Looking like pilots? Or astronauts or something?”
He stopped pacing for a second, his hands bunched into fists down at his side.
“FUCK!” he shouted, and suddenly swept a table lamp across the room, where it shattered against the wall. Shelley uttered a tiny scream of surprise. Peripherally, she heard the sound of small, running feet receding down the hallway.
“WHY CAN’T I REMEMBER?” James continued. He was pacing again, but it was different. It was less like he was being hunted and more like he was an animal in a cage, looking for a weak bar. “There are still just bits and pieces, but I KNOW that there’s more in there! And why the fuck can I remember him now, when I couldn’t just yesterday? What the fuck is going on?”
He stopped by the front door and braced his hands on it, his head lowered. He was breathing heavily, and his whole body looked tense, like he was trying to push the door over. Shelley stood still, not sure if she should go to him or stay where she was. Or if she should try to retreat without him noticing her.
“You know what the thing is? I was thinking about him last night. I couldn’t have told you if you had asked me then, or this morning, but I know I was thinking of him last night, right before I passed out.”
Shelley didn’t know what to say. Distractedly, she noticed that her lips felt numb. She felt rooted where she was, standing with her hands clasped together at her beltline. Her face hurt and she realized that her jaw was clenched. Without knowing that she was going to say anything, she again asked, “Why were the police here, James?”
He didn’t move, but he changed. The strength and tension went out of his body, and now he was merely leaning against the door for support. She saw his shoulders rise and fall slowly as he drew a deep breath and sighed. Without turning to her, he said, “Because Thomas Hughes is dead. He’s dead, and someone thinks that I killed him.”
* * * * * *
The rest came out fairly smoothly, at least compared to the explosive beginning. They had relocated to the kitchen, where, after briefly checking on Brandon, Shelley had sat across from James at the table while he told her everything that had happened. He had been at work with a client when Albertson and Phillips had shown up and asked to talk to him. They had inquired about his whereabouts during the week. James had told them that he had been in town, at home and at work. Neither detective had come across as taking the investigation seriously, and had relaxed even further when George Brooks, the owner of the dealership, had confirmed James’ accounting.
The only rough patch had been when they had asked James if he knew a man named Thomas Hughes. James had replied that he’d never heard of him. They had been about to leave a minute later (after Phillips took James’ card, mentioning that he himself would be in the market for a new car soon,) when James suddenly gasped and slumped to the floor.
“It was like he was suddenly just back in my brain,” he told Shelley. “Like there was a hole in there where he had been, and then all of a sudden, someone decided to take him off the shelf and shove him right back into my memories.”
Everyone present (Albertson, Phillips and Brooks) had rushed over to make sure James was alright. He was far from it. He sat on the floor, struggling to get his legs to work, sweating and gasping for air. He finally managed to stammer out, “Oh God, oh God, OH GOD! Thomas!” This had, of course, initiated a whole new series of questions. Even after he had calmed down, James couldn’t tell the police much, only that he had known Hughes back in the war and must have forgotten about him in the intervening years. However, this also resulted in the detectives giving James more information about what had happened.
Late the previous night, police in Phoenix, Arizona had been sent to a homicide. The killer had fled the scene. They had responded, and, after searching the area, had spoken with Carol Hughes, who had been married to Thomas for two years. Thomas had been dead in his bed. Strangled.
“She told the cops out there that she woke up out of a sound sleep to a struggle in the bed. Thomas was fighting with someone. They didn’t give me a play by play, not at first, but it sounds like it was ugly. Somewhere in the middle of the struggle, Thomas shouted my name. I pressed them a bit, and that one detective, the taller one…”
“Albertson?” Shelley asked.
“Yeah, him. He said that Carol had seen Thomas suddenly stop fighting, and he said, ‘Oh my God, it’s you! Hartford!’ And then he said…” James stopped, staring down at his hands, clasped on the table. Shelley waited.
“Well, anyway, I guess the guy took that chance to grab Thomas and killed him pretty quick after that. Thomas’ wife said that the killer walked out of the room afterwards and when she finally got the nerve to go out to the phone, he was gone. It was dark and she never really got a good look at him. The Phoenix cops got in touch with the army and checked some records, and then got Albertson and the other guy out here to come see if I was at home.” He looked up at Shelley and spread his hands in an “I don’t know” gesture.
Shelley was silent. The whole thing was so strange that she could only sit there.
He took a long, shuddering sigh and then stood up. “I better go check on the kid,” he said, and started towards the hallway.
Something surfaced in her mind and she called out to him. “James, what else did he say? You started to tell me that he said something else. Right before… right before the man strangled him.”
He grimaced and turned away from her, tension bunching his shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Hell, I didn’t even remember the guy until today.”
He ignored her and walked out of the room.
* * * * * *
Later, in bed. Both of them lying there, neither sleeping. James drunk, but not blacked out.
“Tell me what he said.”
“What who said?” he responded, slurred.
“Don’t play dumb with me. Tell me what he said.”
He didn’t respond, but she heard the quiet sounds of him starting to cry. She persisted.
“Tell me, James.”
“Just leave me alone,” he said, rolling over away from her. She felt the small shaking in the bed as he sobbed.
“I need you to tell me,” she said and sat up. “This involves me now. Involves Brandon. How did the police know to call the army to get your information? I don’t know what else you’re not telling me about this, but you’re going to tell me this. God damn you, James, you will tell me.”
He kept crying, but she didn’t lie back down. She let him sob, thinking about how different he was from who she had married. He had been strong, and handsome. Now he was miserable.
He sighed through the sobbing and then said something that was too quiet for her to hear.
He coughed, trying to find his voice. “He said…” Another cough, and then he slowly got control of his breathing.
“He said, ‘you bastard, I saw you die back there in the jungle.’”
* * * * * *
“Well, this is really damn weird, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” she said into the phone receiver, though she knew where he was going with it.
“That’s how you’re going to play it? Like you don’t know exactly what you’re doing?”
“Tim, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She felt her face getting hot.
He chuckled. “New cabinets, you say. Measurements for new cabinets.”
“That’s right. James wanted me to have you come take the measurements today so that we could start looking at options.”
“You know, I believe he probably did think it was his idea,” Tim said, and Shelley heard him laugh again. Her face got redder.
“I’m not sure what your problem is with this…” she began, but he cut her off.
“Oh, stop it,” he said angrily, and she stopped. “How many years did I try, Shelley? Six? No, he’s seven now, isn’t he?”
She didn’t answer.
“Seven years I tried to be with you, to be with Brandon, and you made it pretty clear that you wanted nothing to do with me. Seven goddamn years. And now, now that I’ve finally built something new for myself, now is when you’re gonna start this shit up again? I can’t believe you, I really can’t.”
She was angry herself, now, but kept her voice in check. “Look, Tim, you can project on me all you want, but I just want you to help me with measuring the cabinets. Can you come by and do that?”
“Your goddamn tenacity,” he said after a moment. “What was it? Finally get tired of his drinking? He doesn’t keep it under wraps as much as you might think, you know. Then again, I don’t think that’s actually what it is after all. Because it’s not really about him, is it? No, it never is. Not with you.”
She was biting her lip now. There were tears forming at the corners of her eyes, and her vision was going red.
“What happened? Did you wake up one morning and realize that you’re just a small part of the world? Did you realize it’s been too long since someone wanted you, someone that you could turn down? Get tired of the humdrum little life you’ve got for yourself?”
“Shut up, Tim.”
“What was it that was the final straw? Did you see the first hint of crow’s feet? Maybe realized that you don’t look quite the same in the mirror as you used to? So you just decided that you’d give me a call, get me on the hook again. Well, fuck that. I wanted you, Shelley. I wanted to be with you, but you made your choice, and I made mine. I moved on. I don’t need you anymore. I have Linda and I have my own life.”
“Shut up, Tim!”
“You haven’t called me for jack shit in more than a year. You’re polite when we run into each other, if James is around. Without him, you’d probably never even look my way. And now you want to play your ace up the sleeve. Call in your backup plan so you can feel good about yourself again. Well, guess what? I’m not your fucking puppet.”
“Oh, we know exactly what you are!” she yelled into the phone, and then stopped herself, startled. He didn’t say anything for a minute.
“You know what? You’re right. We do know. And we’re the only ones that know, aren’t we? Because it wouldn’t be good for either of us if anyone else were to find out. So how about you deal with your own life and let me live mine.”
The phone clicked in her ear, and she screamed her rage into the empty house.
* * * * * *
The police talked to James again in December. Phillips was still there, but not Albertson. Shelley didn’t know if he had retired or transferred (or died, for all she cared) in the two and a half years it had been since they’d last been by. It was a cold Saturday morning, dark and raining outside. James was in the living room, doing a puzzle on the floor with Brandon, now eight years old. She was in the kitchen, washing dishes, when she saw a car pull up outside. Phillips and another man got out and walked up to the house. She turned off the faucet, but didn’t leave the sink. She just stood there, listening.
The knock came, and James answered it. She stayed at the sink as she heard him open the door, and then the muted sounds of conversation. A minute later, he came into the kitchen.
“Hey, I’ve got to go for a bit.”
“What is it?” Not turning to him.
“Um… it’s the police. I have to go answer some questions.”
“I don’t know. They said it shouldn’t take long.”
“Fine. I’ll just stay here and do everything.” She turned on the faucet again. She didn’t look up when she heard the car outside start up and drive off, but she did look up when she heard the second engine, just in time to see a beige Ford sedan driving away.
* * * * * *
It had been Gabriel Bevington. Six days ago in Cheyenne, Wyoming. There was no wife this time. Gabriel lived alone. The small apartment had been trashed during the apparent struggle, and a broken chair leg had been shoved into his eye. There was a partial print on it, not enough to return a match. Nothing had been stolen and Gabriel had been known and liked in the community, so a detective out there had started looking at other possibilities besides a botched robbery. He ended up getting Gabriel’s army records, and then came across Thomas Hughes’ name. And James’. The partial print still wasn’t sufficient to be a match, but there was enough there to show that it might be the same as the one in James’ army file. But it just wasn’t possible. It was over a thousand miles between here and there. There were no witnesses that saw the killer, but there were people that could attest to James being in and around Monterey all week. So the police had let him go.
Shelley sat at the table, watching James go through the same thing as before. He remembered Gabriel, but it was the first time he’d remembered him since Vietnam. Him and Gabriel and Thomas. All part of something that he couldn’t quite piece together. Something away from the warzone, something out of uniform. Something he couldn’t remember, but he was sure, he was positive, that he’d somehow been thinking of Gabriel recently, even though he didn’t remember him until today. He just couldn’t piece it all together.
Shelley sat and listened, but she was also thinking. Doing the math. Thinking of how it had been just about six days back that James had been on his last bad drunk, crying and gibbering for the first time in years. The first time since Thomas Hughes had died, if you got right down to it.
* * * * * *
She had been loading groceries into the trunk of the car, Brandon already seatbelted in the back seat, when she saw Tim walking across the parking lot to the front of the Lucky’s. It had been a nightmare of a day, and she was tired and angry. Sick kid to deal with, house to clean, groceries to buy, then dinner to cook. The weather was beautiful, out of place in early January, but she didn’t get to enjoy it. No, never her. She had to be the responsible one. The one that cleaned up after everyone else. And today was only Tuesday. The whole week of undeserved drudgery stretched in front of her.
She had just finished putting the last bag in the trunk (with a bit more force than was necessary) when she had looked up, wiping a light sweat from her brow, and had seen Tim. Tim and that woman he was with. They hadn’t seen her, and she felt a touch of relief at that. She was in a faded plaid shirt and old jeans, which she had been wearing when she was cleaning the floor earlier after Brandon had sicked up on it.
Shelley stood at the back of the car, looking at Tim and the woman (Linda, she remembered now,) watching them. They were walking together, not exactly smiling, not holding hands or laughing, but with a comfort and ease that made it obvious they were happy. Happy and together, out enjoying their lives on a beautiful day. Shelley turned away and closed the trunk. Hard.
She walked around to the driver’s side to get in. As she reached for the door handle, she noticed that there was a small spot of dried vomit on her sleeve and she half-grimaced, half-sneered. Right before she got into the car, she looked back towards Tim and Linda just as they were about to enter the store. Some trick of circumstance caused Tim to look back at the same moment, and their eyes locked. He didn’t exactly smile, but he did hesitantly raise a hand in a brief wave. Linda noticed him stopping and turned back as well, looking at Shelley.
In the fraction of a second that they stood there, looking back at her from fifty feet across the parking lot, Tim with his hand up and the two of them together, Shelley had time to look at her own life and compare it to what she had wanted, and what she knew that she deserved. Not in terms of specifics, but in terms of emotions. She had deserved more, and other people had taken it from her. James with his weakness. Tim with his selfishness. Even Brandon, by merely existing, and that fact wasn’t her fault either, she told herself. It was unfair that she would get caught in the middle of this, her life now nothing more than standing in a parking lot with vomit on her shirt.
The rage and self-pity welled up inside of her, and the world started to spin. She closed the car door and took a few steps towards Tim and Linda (to do what, she didn’t know,) when she suddenly stopped. Something had whispered in her head, some voice from deep within the darkest part of her mind. It wasn’t whispering in words, but it had told her something important, nonetheless. That thing was blurred and amorphous, but she knew that there was a more defined shape to it floating deeper down. She didn’t yet know what it was, but seeing that initial hint of it and brought to her a sense of peace, and a sense of hope. A slight smile spread across her lips. She raised her hand back to Tim, and then got into her car and drove home.
* * * * * *
It took her several days to figure out exactly how she would have to make it happen, but that was fine with her. Even though Brandon was still sick, even though James was moping around as he always did during the evenings, even though she had the banality of her normal life and obligations to get through, she felt buoyant. Almost giddy at times. Because she knew that she had a way out. She was still setting it up in her mind, but as each new piece clicked into place, as she found a workaround for each new potential obstacle that she thought of, she felt her heart skip a beat in anticipation.
There was one point on Thursday afternoon, as she was scrubbing the shower, when she heard Brandon weakly call out to her from his bedroom, where he had been dozing, to ask if she was okay. It was only then that she realized that she had been audibly giggling. She called out that she was fine and that he should get back to sleep, and then she continued cleaning, a smile on her face.
She knew it was going to be tricky, and that she’d have to take things one step at a time to make sure that she didn’t get ahead of herself. There was one part in particular that would need to be timed perfectly, and would take some emotional strength on her part, but she knew she could do it. After all, she was fighting for herself. For her life. For what she deserved. She could be strong for that. For herself.
She had trouble sleeping on Thursday night, but not because she was anxious. She was simply too excited to get more than a few minutes of rest at a time. She’d start to drift off, and then would slip into a half-dream state where she couldn’t tell if she was still awake or not. Sometimes she’d dream that she was still in bed, waiting for the morning. Other times she’d think it was the next day and she was going over the preparation, or actually taking the steps. Either way, her excitement would get the best of her, and then she’d be back awake in bed, James lightly snoring next to her, and she’d think to herself, “This is the last night. This is the last time I have to put up with him. What he’s done to me. What they’ve all done to me.”
The night slowly progressed, and when she became aware that the sky was getting light outside of the window, she abandoned any thoughts of getting more sleep. She knew that she’d be tired, but it was all going to be worth it. She got up, took a shower, put on her makeup (a bit more than usual, though she didn’t really notice; she was feeling too good to notice,) and then started breakfast. She couldn’t start the actual preparation until after James was at work, and she wanted to keep herself busy until then. She thought that if she tried to sit still, she’d explode out of her skin.
The morning routine seemed to pass slower than it ever had. James eventually woke up, had breakfast, took a shower, and left for work. At one point he said to her, “you seem happier than usual today.”
“Well, I guess I just woke up on the right side of the bed today,” she responded, chipper.
He smiled over his toast and eggs, “that’s good.” After a moment, he added, “I know that I’m sometimes not easy on you and Brandon. I… I love you both very much, and I need to try to focus on that instead of… instead of anything else that might be getting me down.”
She walked over from the counter, where she had been drying dishes, and gave him a quick kiss on the forehead. “Don’t worry about me, honey. All you have to do is be yourself.”
Fifteen minutes later, he was off to work. Shelley checked in on Brandon, who was feeling better (his vomiting had finally stopped) but was still too weak to go to school. She expressed the proper amount of maternal concern, and assured him that everything would be better before next week came around. Inside, she was glad that he was still feeling sick. It wouldn’t matter too much if he was home or at school today, but taking the time to help him get ready and drive him over would take time out of her day that she wanted to spend on other things. Besides, it would also make things easier tonight.
* * * * * *
Shelley was back home in under three hours. She walked in the front door, a paper bag in her arm, and called out cautiously for Brandon. After not hearing an answer, she put the bag down, locked the door, and then picked the bag back up. She took it into the kitchen and emptied its meager contents onto the table, looking the three items over.
There hadn’t been a tremendous amount that she’d had to do, and she should have been home within an hour, two at the most. But things at Tim’s place had taken longer than normal. When she had pulled up and parked half a block down from his house, she had seen two vehicles in the driveway. She recognized Tim’s Chevy pickup, and assumed that the other car, a Volvo station wagon, belonged to Linda. That wouldn’t do at all, both of them being home, so she sat in the car and waited. Less than five minutes later, Tim had walked out the front door and turned back so he could kiss Linda, who had followed him to the threshold. He had gotten into his truck, backed onto the roadway, and drove off, waving his hand out the window at the house as he left. Linda had waved back, smiling, and then gone inside and closed the door.
Partially obscured by the Volvo, Shelley could see a small scattering of tools at the top of the driveway, near the house. Tim’s tools, whatever he hadn’t needed to take with him that day. She sat in the car for a minute, weighing the chances. It was likely that she could get what she needed and then leave without being noticed, but there was a lot hinging on this, and she didn’t want to take any chances. So, she continued to wait, humming distracted fragments of melodies, tapping her fingers on her leg, and watching the front door of Tim’s house intently.
Sometime\ later, Shelley started awake to the sound of a car engine. She looked around wildly for a moment, forgetting where she was. She saw the Volvo back out of the driveway, shift gears, and then begin to move in her direction. Remembrance flooded her mind, and she quickly scooted lower in the seat, trying to make sure she wasn’t seen. Her heart was racing. “How long have I been asleep?” she thought as the station wagon drove past her. Anyone could have walked by and seen her, and this was a small enough neighborhood that she certainly would have been recognized. She stayed there, slumped down in the driver’s seat, her knees shoved uncomfortably into the steering column, and tried to catch her breath. After a minute, she regained some of her composure. She raised her head and looked around to make sure no one else was out and about, and then she opened the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. As she did so, her neck and lower back screamed at the sudden change of position and she had to fight the urge to stand on her toes and stretch out her aching muscles right then and there. That would be quite a sight, she thought irritably.
Doing her best to ignore her body’s complaints, she quickly but casually (she hoped) strode across the roadway and over to the foot of Tim’s driveway. She looked around again, trying her best to appear as commonplace as possible, and then walked up the slight grade to the point where the driveway met the front of the house. She looked down at the discarded tools and immediately saw what she was looking for: a standard claw hammer. It was the type of thing that you’d see in any handyman’s toolbox or on any carpenter’s toolbelt.
She started to bend down to pick it up, and then stopped, her breath catching in her throat. She was still recovering from the fogginess of sleep and the racing bump of adrenaline from when she had awoken. Internally, she scolded herself for being so careless. She looked around a bit and saw a pair of dirty, used workman’s gloves. She grabbed those and put them on, and then picked up the hammer and quickly returned to her car.
The hammer now lay on the kitchen table in front of her, alongside a small bottle of liquid children’s Benadryl, and a significantly larger bottle of Jack Daniel’s No. 7. She had left the gloves in her car, where they wouldn’t be noticed until she needed them later. She looked down at the three items, unaware that she was grinning and slowly shifting her weight from foot to foot. “Three for three,” she thought, and now her grin broke into a full, toothy smile.
“Three for three.”
* * * * * *
James got home at his normal time that evening. Shelley was sitting on the couch, reading a John D. MacDonald novel and trying her best to not appear how she felt, as if she was visibly vibrating. She responded briefly to his “hello,” and again to tell him Brandon was still feeling sick, when James asked. Shelley kept her eyes on her book and did her best to feign interest in it, though she did look up briefly after he walked past her and into the kitchen. She heard his footsteps on the linoleum as he walked towards the sink, maybe for a glass of water, and then she heard them stop.
“Hey honey, what’s this hammer doing here?”
She took a quiet, shallow breath to calm herself, and then responded, “What hammer?”
She heard him walking back and focused on keeping her eyes on her book. This was one of the important parts. A moment later, she could see him standing next to the couch, just at the edge of her peripheral vision. “This hammer,” he said, and she had to force herself not to grin. Shelley looked at James, who was holding up the hammer by the shaft as he peered down at her with a confused expression on his face.
“Oh, I found it outside. I think Tim might have left it here last time he was by.”
James’ face got even more confused. “Tim? I don’t think I’ve seen him here for a while now.”
She turned back to her book. “Well, I don’t know then. It was outside along the side of the house, and I didn’t want to leave it there, so I brought it inside.”
He stood where he was for a minute, looking at the hammer quizzically, and then walked back into the kitchen. Shelley kept pretending to read the book, her heart beating hard in her chest like her own internal hammer. She heard a sound that was likely James putting the hammer on the table or the counter, and then the slight creak as a cupboard opened, followed by the faucet. She allowed herself another quiet, satisfied sigh, and a small, secret smile.
* * * * * *
Brandon was asleep in bed, helped along by the shot of Benadryl and whiskey that Shelley had given him half an hour before. This hadn’t been hard. James was already half in the bag, sitting at the kitchen table and staring a thousand miles away at nothing in particular. She had simply walked past him, retrieved a glass from the cupboard, and mixed the concoction right there at the counter, her back to him.
Brandon was actually already asleep when she went into his room, riding the erratic cycle of waking and dozing that accompanies a bad flu, but she didn’t want to risk him coming to at the wrong moment as the evening progressed. She gently shook him awake and gave him the glass.
“Here, honey, take this. It’ll help you feel better in the morning.”
Brandon had briefly sniffed at the contents of the glass as he lay in bed, hair sticking up in every direction, but had swallowed it, grimacing, after some urging from his mother. He had laid back down, Shelley smoothing his hair and giving him a quick kiss on the forehead, and then she had left the room, already forgetting about him as she focused on what had to happen next.
She returned quietly to the kitchen and looked in. James was exactly where he was, looking into space. There was an empty glass on the table and a mostly empty bottle of Johnny Walker next to it. She smiled in approval and walked past him to the counter, busying herself by putting dishes away from the drying rack.
“When are you going to give that hammer to Tim?” she asked, striving to sound nonchalant. She heard James shift slightly in his chair and mutter a slurred, “hmmm?”
“I asked when you’re bringing Tim’s hammer back,” she replied, and then, “you know, you’re right. We haven’t seen him in a while, have we?”
James didn’t respond for a moment, but she heard him opening the bottle and pouring a bit more Johnny Walker into his glass. “No, I guess not,” he said absentmindedly.
She turned back as he was screwing the top back onto the empty bottle. Or rather, as he was trying to screw it back onto the bottle. She could see that he knew how to do it, but his hands were having a bit of trouble performing the motions. Shelley smiled to herself, appreciating that things were moving forward properly, and also taking a small, simpler enjoyment at watching him struggle.
“Oh, it looks like that one’s empty,” she said and plucked the bottle off of the table. James didn’t seem to notice. He was looking down at his glass, held in both hands and with a small amount of alcohol in it. Shelley put the empty bottle on the counter, opened the cupboard above the sink, the one that she kept her spices in and which James almost never used, and retrieved the mostly-fresh bottle of Jack Daniels. It was full, except for the small slug that she had poured into Brandon’s Benadryl. She also filled a fresh glass with water and took that and the whiskey to the kitchen table. She put the bottle down near James, and then sat down across from him with her water, which she took a small sip of.
“It would really be nice to have Tim over at some point, don’t you think?” she said.
James drank the last Johnny Walker from his glass and didn’t say anything. He was still looking downward at nothing in particular.
“I mean, it’s just been a while since we’ve had company over. Especially Tim. We used to see him all the time.”
“Yeah,” James said. “I guess we did.” He seemed to notice the bottle of Jack Daniels and looked at it with a puzzled expression.
“You’ve known him a long time, haven’t you?”
James reached for the Jack and mumbled, “Sure have,” as he began the process of opening it and pouring himself a drink.
Shelley smiled, concealing her grin with her hands and glass as she sipped water.
* * * * * *
The rest of the evening had progressed exactly as she had hoped that it would. James kept drinking, and with some slight and strategic direction on her part, had fallen victim to nostalgia as hard as he was falling victim to the whiskey. Soon, he was running on his own steam, talking about nonsense from years past, most of his words slurred to the point of unintelligibility. She had made sure that he stayed focused on Tim, on how they had been friends in school, on how much he appreciated him and missed seeing him. James had started to slip off a few times, lowering slowly from a sitting position to leaning his elbows on the table, then trying to rest his head on it, but Shelley had been attentive and had kept him awake, shaking him or calling out his name. She even poured his last few drinks when he was having too much trouble doing it on his own. She didn’t know exactly how drunk he would need to be for this to work, but she recalled that, during the previous two instances, he had been very drunk indeed.
James had finally passed out, in the middle of some string of incoherent mumbling that she couldn’t even begin to interpret. He was now slumped forward in his chair, his head and one bent arm on the table, the other hanging limply down towards the floor. Shelley sat, barely moving, watching him. He had been like this for over half an hour. She didn’t know exactly what would happen, or what it would look like, and she didn’t want to miss anything.
It took another hour. By that point, it was getting very late, almost 1:00 a.m., and Shelley, in spite of her excitement, was having trouble staying awake. She kept closing her eyes, for just a moment, and then having difficulty opening them again. She was at the point where she thought she would have to make a cup of coffee to keep herself awake, and then James was gone. He had not moved, and there had been no change in his rough breathing as he lay with the side of his face pressed against the table. He was simply there one moment, and gone the next.
Shelley blinked, not quite sure if she had fallen asleep herself, and then stood up quickly. She took a cautious step towards the chair where James had been just a second prior. She called out softly, “James?” and then slowly reached forward to put her hand and arm in the space that he had so recently occupied. Nothing. No resistance, no anything.
She probed her hand around in the area for a moment, and then pulled it back quickly, a terrible thought entering her head. What if he came back into that space while her arm was there? She stood there, clutching her hands to her chest, and then realized that she was wasting time. She had no idea how long she would have to do what she needed to do, and there would only be one chance to get this right.
Shelley quickly walked to the door that led from the kitchen to the side of the house, grabbing her car keys on the way. She stepped outside, looking around to make sure no one was around. The neighborhood was usually fairly quiet, but there was always a chance that someone would be out on a Friday night, even this late. There was nothing moving. The houses and parked cars stood silent under the occasional streetlamp.
She moved quickly around the corner of the house and to her car. She unlocked it and retrieved the gloves, closing the car door as quietly as possible and moving back inside the house. She started to close the kitchen door, and then stopped, realizing that it would make more sense if she left it ajar. After that, she went into the bedroom to put her keys in her purse.
She put on the gloves and returned to the kitchen, where she retrieved the hammer from where James had put it on the counter. Her eyes kept being drawn to the empty chair. How much longer did she have? A minute? Two? Ten? “Stop it,” she muttered to herself. She knew that she was wasting time, no matter how much of it was left. Taking the hammer, she went into Brandon’s room.
* * * * * *
Things went how she had hoped.
* * * * * *
Three months later, it was a warm April morning, and Shelley was sitting on the front step of the house. She was wearing new jeans and a linen shirt, holding a cup of coffee. There had been an outpouring of support following the tragedy, both emotional and financial, from everyone she knew. It had been increasingly difficult for Shelley to maintain the outward appearance of a shattered woman while, internally, her jubilance and sense of accomplishment were filling her to the point of overflowing.
She looked out at the street, trying to focus on looking broken and introspective. It was easier now than it had been initially, because she had been feeling an increasing paranoia over the last few weeks. Shelley knew that this was irrational. If anything was going to go wrong, it very likely would have happened much earlier. Still, it was almost as if things had gone too well. Thinking back, there had been no hiccups at all. She had laid out the steps she would have to take, she had taken them, and the expected outcome had been reached.
After she had left Brandon’s room, she had returned to the kitchen to find that James was still gone. She placed the hammer on the far side of the table, where she knew that it wouldn’t intersect with him when he reappeared. After that, she went into the bedroom, changed into her sleeping clothes, and crawled into bed. She spent some time wriggling around to make sure that it would be obvious to anyone looking that someone had been sleeping in there.
After that, she got up and walked into the kitchen, where she was happy to see that James was back, exactly as he had been before he had vanished. He was leaning forward on the table, his head on its side and his one arm bent. If she hadn’t been there to see what had happened, she never would have known that he was gone. She looked at the clock on the wall. His entire vacancy had lasted about seven minutes.
She sat down across from him and did some brief calculating. It would probably take about four minutes to walk back from Tim’s house. Maybe another two for the business with Brandon. Then some time for James to have a drink and pass out, and then time for her to wake up and discover everything. At this point she had stopped, realizing that she was likely being foolish. Linda would have probably seen everything and was likely already on the phone with the police.
Shelley sat for a few minutes, regardless, looking at James as he slept what would likely be the last pleasant sleep of his life. After a few minutes, she heard the distant sound of sirens. She stood up, walked over to the phone, and picked up the receiver. Before dialing, she rapidly inhaled and exhaled several times, intentionally hyperventilating herself. She then dialed 911, and when the dispatcher picked up, Shelly began to scream.
She sipped her coffee and looked out over the neighborhood in the early April sun. Phillips had been the one that she eventually told everything to, wrapped in a blanket at the police station on a couch in an interview room. There had been no shortage of officers helping her and offering coffee, blankets, or other comforts. Everyone wanted to make things as easy as possible for the poor woman. The poor woman that had experienced such a horrible, violent night.
It had been easy to tell Phillips what happened, because so much of her story was the actual truth. While James had been in Vietnam, she had slept with Tim Matheson. She was lonely and scared, and he had been a shoulder to cry on. Luck was against them, though, and nine months later, Brandon was born. James returned from the war shortly after, but never was suspicious. He had been back home briefly before she and Tim had done their deed, and it was plausible enough that James was actually the father.
James had started to drink heavily in the years after, and then he began acting strangely. Here, she started to blend some fiction into her accounting. It eventually came out about her and Tim, and James’ drinking had worsened. He was angry all of the time, and Shelley was scared. James would threaten to hurt Tim, to hurt Shelley. To hurt Brandon. These threats were always made in their home, after he had been drinking, and she was too frightened to tell anyone. They had stopped hiring Tim as a handyman, because Shelley was scared that James would try to do something. She knew that Linda would be able to confirm part of this story, as Tim hadn’t been over to their house in over a year.
On the night of the murders, James had been drinking and angry. Brandon was sick, so Shelley had stayed with him to help him get to sleep. James had finally left the house. Shelley figured he was going to some bar, so she had gone to sleep, emotionally and physically exhausted from the day. She had managed to work up a good cry at this point as she told Phillips that she didn’t know it would be the last time that she would see her son alive.
She had woken some time later to a banging noise. She figured that it was just James getting back in, and she tried to go back to sleep. After a while, she realized that she was too scared to sleep, so she got up and went out into the kitchen, where she found James passed out with a bloody hammer near him. She raced into Brandon’s room to find him dead, the blankets pulled up over his head, his skull caved in. She couldn’t remember what happened after that, but didn’t express surprise when Phillips told her that she had managed to call 911, even though she was in a state of hysteria. He had also told her that she was lucky James had stopped with the boy, and hadn’t continued on into her bedroom while she was asleep.
Everything else had lined up perfectly. Linda had told the police that she had woken up to a struggle in the bedroom. Someone had apparently broken in and was fighting with Tim. She turned the lights on and recognized James. He had eventually forced Tim down and kicked him repeatedly in the head. The coroner’s investigation would later determine that Tim’s parietal bone had been shattered, destroying the whole left side of his brain. James had then calmly walked out, oblivious to Linda’s screaming. She had run out after him a minute later and he had been gone. Shelley had gotten lucky, because Linda had opened the front door to try to see where James had went before she called the police. There was no locked door to cast confusion on how James had gotten into the house.
The hammer was devoid of fingerprints except for Tim’s and James’. The police concluded that he must have taken it from the pile of tools in Tim’s driveway before walking home and murdering the boy. James himself had still been blacked out drunk when the police arrived, but had sobered up a little by the time they interrogated him. He didn’t remember anything, and was just drunk enough to be impressionable and untrustworthy while being sober enough that he wouldn’t have been incapable of committing them.
Things had taken their proper course after that. There was more evidence this time than there was for the prior two incidents, and there was no great distance to account for. James hadn’t traveled to Phoenix or Cheyenne. He had only been a few blocks over, in the same neighborhood.
Now, three months later, Shelley was enjoying her coffee and thinking of what she would do next. She’d have to stay in town for a few more months for the trial, but no one would blame her for leaving after that. Too many bad memories in Monterey. She was thinking about heading south, to one of the suburbs around Los Angeles. Someplace where she could start over. Someplace fun.
And still, there was that small nagging sense of paranoia. The feeling that she had forgotten some detail that would cause her trouble in the future. She frowned and took another sip of coffee, realizing that it was getting cold. She told herself that she was being stupid. All she would have to do is keep things up for a little longer, and then she’d be free. After all, the hard part was done already.
Her concern briefly mollified, she stood up and poured the last of the coffee out onto the lawn. She turned around and went into the house, the whole day stretching in front of her. As she closed the door behind her, she thought that she might drive up to San Francisco and spend the day at the shops and restaurants. No one up there knew her, and she needed to be able to be herself for a little while. All of this acting was wearing her down.
Five minutes later, Shelley was inside of the house, packing a day bag, when a beige Ford sedan pulled up. It did not park down the street this time; it stopped directly in front of the house. The man sitting in the driver’s seat was in his thirties, wearing plain, nondescript clothing. A man that you might not notice in a gathering, even if he didn’t especially belong there. On the seat next to him was a plain Manila envelope. Inside of this envelope was a packet of information on James Hartford. The first page was a notification to the reader that all material contained inside was considered classified and confidential.
Among the following reports and documents were a series of photographs taken on this very street, several months ago. The first showed Shelley Hartford looking out the side door of her house in the early morning. The second was of her walking to her parked car. The third had her returning to the house, carrying a pair of gloves.
The man in the car glanced at the packet. He wasn’t one to indulge in reminiscence, but there was a sense of impending closure in his mind. After all, he had followed this situation for over eight years. He couldn’t help but feel some small sense of failure at yet another project participant that hadn’t been able to reintegrate into civilized life, even without the… complicating factors that had arisen. After all, domestic application was the real goal of the project. Stable domestic application, that was.
The man reached into his jacket and flipped off the safety of his Beretta 92. He got out of the car, sighed briefly, and then walked up to Shelley’s door.
Erik Peabody Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Erik Peabody
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