I’m at a going away party, smoking alone on the deck, standing beside a group of friends. Not my friends; I don’t know any of them. I mean that the six or so of them all seem to be friends. A young woman turns from the group and asks me how I know the honoree, i.e. the guy leaving for Seattle or Portland or someplace like this. I tell her I don’t know him and admit I feel a bit foolish about it. I was invited by his sister, I explain, who I met the week before through work. Why had I come, she asks, to see the sister?
“No,” I tell her, “I was bored.”
“Who isn’t?” she says, tracing our smoke with her eyes.
According to this girl, the brother is a jerk, and his main business on the west coast is escaping his own reputation. She finds it sad that people have come, pretending to care.
“Boredom lies behind most things,” I tell her.
“Of course,” she agrees. “God, all alone, he wanted someone to talk to.”
“Now here we are,” I say.
“And to think of all that has had to happen.”
I ask her to take a walk with me. We finish our cigarettes, go inside and leave out the front door without saying bye to anyone.
It was Craig from work who told me about it. About this wooded area near the creek at the back of the park where, if you leave the path, duck beneath the oak branches and press between the shrubs, you may find two bodies undressed, engaged in the unholy act. Or, if not the lovers themselves, you find evidence, their waste and discarded possessions: hair ties, earrings, used prophylactics and their tin foil packaging, tattered under-things caught like litter in the bushes. The weight of all those meetings hanging in the air has a sweet and rotten and unwholesome stench.
Looking back it’s difficult to say why I took her there. Why her, do you know what I mean? I guess because she seemed like an excitable girl. The kind of girl who would be, I shouldn’t say turned on, but the kind of girl that wouldn’t turn up her nose, or have a total conniption. She had on glossy, corvette-red lipstick and a studded leather jacket. Huge black flowing hair that you couldn’t believe grew out from such a modest-sized head. I thought maybe the sordid little place in the woods would be right up her alley. I did: I thought it would turn her on.
I know this world has its good people, but mostly it’s full of sad sorry sacks. So while I couldn’t have known, I should have known.
These days I’d give anything not to talk about it. I try very hard not to, but the fact of it presses into every word until it’s the only thing we can talk about.
After that night it was kind of natural that we became a couple. After the hospital and telling our story to the police we went back to her place. We fell asleep on the couch as the sun came up and woke up uncomfortably slouched against one another a few hours later. We got coffee together, not saying too much really, but between the words and silences it was just plain evident we couldn’t simply go our separate ways.
Of course I was a little suspicious, considering the circumstances. I wondered if we both didn’t secretly see our relationship as an obligation.
She started seeing someone; a woman psychiatrist. She feels it is helping. Myself, I’ve observed no real notable change to date. Or if I have, it’s that she’s become more irritable and upset than ever. Apparently, this doctor tells her it’s the sort of thing that’s supposed to get worse before it gets better. But for how long does it have to get worse? That’s not an inappropriate question, I don’t think. Not if I’m helping with the cost.
Roughly twice a week, at her insistence, I call up the police to inquire about our case. I’m made to wait through a long period of holding before I’m told again about the unlikelihood of any sort of development this late in the game.
I’m hurting too. Yet I know the best thing I can do is be supportive. So that’s what I’m doing.
I enter her apartment and she is cross-legged on the floor with the dismantled parts laid out, referencing a manual titled Glock “Safe Action” GEN4 Pistols.
“What’s that for,” I ask. “Protection?”
“Dr. Warner says it’ll help me regain a sense of security.” It’s the most attention I’ve seen her devote to a task. “Have you ever held a gun?” she asks, sliding one part into place along another. “It’s kind of surreal.”
“I’ve never been interested in them,” I tell her.
“It’s not like you don’t expect it to be heavy,” she says, lifting the reassembled weapon. She holds it out, squints down the sight, and drags her aim across the room until she’s pointing the thing at me. “But the weight still surprises you.”
“Calm down,” she says, “it’s not loaded.” Metal clicks as she pulls the trigger.
I was rough, she says. My natural response was to disarm her. I shouldn’t have twisted her wrist, I admit, but I hardly think I overreacted. Because even if you’re positive it’s unloaded, you don’t point and trigger a gun at someone.
The first of September. I will always recall the date, I suppose. Without hesitating she follows me; almost seems she knows the way better than I. We pull off our clothes and dropped them in piles. Her skin prickles with goose bumps under my touch. I get beneath her so she won’t have to lie on the ground. The sky above is dark and empty, but the city, not a hundred yards away, pollutes enough light to make our flesh visible, like milky forms in twilight.
She slides over me and I forget the discomfort of the twigs and knotted ground pressing into my back. That initial narcotic sensation is like warm food to an empty belly. My mind flattens into a pancake, and I exist only to the edges of my pleasure, dead to the world beyond.
I briefly register the flight of steps rushing towards us, and her startled cry, before I’m knocked clean out.
Lately it would seem she is getting better. We watch a crime drama sitting together on the couch. In the episode, the police are after a man who abducts women and leaves their violated bodies in the woods. I ask if she wants to switch it off. Used to be such content would upset her, but she says it’s fine.
It’s difficult to know how much the medications lend to these improvements. I think it’s a little of all things: time, emotional support, chemical balance. I think most of all she’s just ready to move forward.
The only thing to do now is move forward.
Something happens, as if to prove my point. I receive a phone call from the detective on our case, asking us to view a lineup.
Three suspects march gloomily into the room and stand along the wall. Sullen, pathetic young men.
Right away she makes a positive ID. The detective recommends she take a moment to be certain. He speaks into a microphone telling the suspects to look straight ahead. Their faces are frightened and mask-like under the cold light.
They were picked up for joyriding, the detective explains. They took off in a car left running while the owner was away for some moments. The arresting officer confiscated a pocketknife from one of the boys. The detective presents us with the object in a sealed evidence bag.
It is not the right knife and they are not the right boys, I’m sure. All of it being too small.
I come to consciousness naked in darkness with my head ringing and my face pushed into the ground. Someone is on top of me spitting threats into my ear. I try and fight him off, and for my efforts I’m punched in the temple. The pain is an intense white shock behind my eyes. Blood and dirt make gravel in my mouth.
“Try that again,” I’m told, “and I’ll cut off your prick.”
I don’t know what is happening, where I am, or even who I am. Spend a life waking up in relative comfort and safety, and you have no point of reference in such events. Whose life is this? What enemy is on my back? Who, I wonder, is that crying woman?
In the viewing room we came to agree that the boys in custody were not the perpetrators of the crime against us. But now she’s doubtful. I understand, her hopes were raised and dashed. What I don’t understand is how this is my fault.
“How do you know it wasn’t them?” she screams at me.
“They were men,” I tell her, “grown men.”
“You’re sure? Or your ego has to believe that?”
“Since when is this about me?” I ask. “I just want to help you.”
“Maybe you can’t,” she says.
I wake from a dream and find her not in bed. At the window the snug light of daybreak seeps in. I get up to see about her.
She is at the kitchen table seated with her legs curled up beneath her. She’s bent over, writing intently. The sight is nearly serene, except for the gun on the table.
“What are you doing?” I startle her, and the way she looks at me, I’m trespassing.
“Writing something,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “And the gun?”
“It’s not doing anything. I just like having it.”
“But how it looks,” I say.
“How it looks?” she repeats. “Like I’m writing a suicide letter?”
“No,” she says. “Can I please just be alone?”
“Not with the gun,” I tell her. “Let me put it away.”
She lifts it off the table and presses the barrel into her mouth. My heart braces. The trigger clicks and she tosses her head back.
“I’ve still never loaded it,” she says, setting it down. “Do you realize you didn’t even try to stop me?”
“That’s not fair,” I say.
“It’s fine if you want out. You can just go. It won’t mean you’re a bad person.”
Every possible response disappears between thought and tongue into the chasm of silence. Each moment is a missed opportunity to say something, to stop the inevitable.
“I’ve tried my best,” I finally manage. “Considering,” I add.
In theory, it seems possible to offer a person endless understanding. I can imagine what it looks like: open ears, kind eyes, and a calm breath before you speak. Still, with your ears tuned to that individual, and the kindest pair of eyes set on your face, when it’s time to speak, and the right words are not there, even the best intentions in the world will be spoiled by whatever comes to your lips in their place.
Ryan Kraemer grew up in Rowlett, TX, a suburb outside of Dallas. He received a B.B.A from Belmont University in Nashville and currently lives in Chicago where he is at work on a collection of short stories. This is the first published story from that collection.