Stranger {Free Short Story}

 

A familiar stranger stood on my step, his knuckles clattered against the steel security door.

Rain plastered his hair to his head in a dark skullcap. Errant drops of water clung to his lashes and trickled down the sharp angles of his gaunt face. They reminded me of tears. The sallow spill of my porch light did nothing to diminish the shadows that hung from him in funerary crepe. He was hollow, I didn’t need to drown myself in the black pool of his eyes to know that.

He was John Gaffin, a construction worker. Husband to a dead wife and a father to murdered children.

Jemma and Jade.

All of their faces had become as familiar to me as my own since they’d been splashed over all the media outlets for the last ten years.

I opened the door even though I’d never met him. Even though it was past midnight. Even though I, of all people, knew better.

With the barrier of the door no longer between us, a hundred different wrecking balls of sensation crashed into me. He was bigger than I thought he’d be. Something about grief makes a person seem smaller—as broken on the outside as they are on the inside. Not Gaffin. His pain made him harder, sharper, bigger. His presence sucked the air out of the space, making it hard to breathe.

Or it could have been the end of all things that lived in his eyes. They were so black, so dark, like viscous sludge. I didn’t need to look into those depths to see the things that crawled in the dark. I knew them well. I’d just never seen them in a man like him.

We stood there, staring. Each taking the other’s measure. I wondered what he saw in my face. What he was going to ask of me.

If he did ask, I wondered if I could refuse him.

He still hadn’t spoken. I could close the door, lock it against him. Against the look on his face and against my brain constantly trying to stuff me into his shoes. His girls looked like him, the shape of their eyes, their flaxen hair, and their little stubborn chins. Their jaws were square like his, but their cheeks were like the curve of an apple where his were like the edge of a blade.

Exhaling heavily, I held the door wide. “Come in, Mr. Gaffin.”

He stepped purposefully inside, his heavy boots thudding on my gleaming wood floors. “You recognize me?”

“I wouldn’t have opened the door if I didn’t.”

“Smart girl.”

I opened my mouth to correct him, that I was a woman, not a girl. I decided in the scheme of things, that didn’t matter so much.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“This is the only place I could be, ma’am.”

Now I was ma’am? Something about his voice was so desperate and it resonated with things I didn’t want to think about. I wanted to make that sound go away somewhere I couldn’t hear it.

“What do you want from me?”

“A towel?” For a second, he was human again. Just a guy standing in my kitchen, drenched from the rain. Not any sort of harbinger of destruction.

I found myself smiling as I handed him a tea towel with fat, happy pumpkins stitched on it. An incongruity to be sure.

“I’d like to spend the night with you,” he said after he’d wiped the water from his face.

A handsome man in my house who wanted to spend the night. It had been too long and for all of the hard miles on him, he was still quite the specimen. Broad shouldered, large hands, body sculpted from the hours he put in slinging concrete. That wasn’t what I found most appealing about him, though. There was something sick and twisted in me that was attracted to pain—to men who were ruined soul-deep, but with a spark of hope that refused to be snuffed. It was beautiful.

Only, I knew that wasn’t what he meant. I’m sure it would be easier if he had. Part of me wished that was all he wanted. Sex was simple. Insert tab A into slot B, and lock out the world until everything narrowed to one moment, one sensation, and one good thing.

“A vigil?”

He nodded. “I want to tell you their story. I want you to take it with you. Keep it present. Remember them tomorrow.”

A thick brew of emotions choked me and I nodded.

Human beings are endlessly creative, and my job had inured me to the darker side of that—each and every horror we could think of to inflict on each other. I could stomach it because I didn’t see this part. This part was for psychiatrists, therapists, and the people who loved them. Not for me.

If I let myself feel one thing, I’d feel them all.

But he was here and I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be John Gaffin—I didn’t want to.

I grabbed the already open bottle of bourbon and a glass for him. I’d already started. I hadn’t planned on drinking myself into a stupor, just enough to sleep. It seemed to be the only tonic that helped on nights like these.

The scene in my living room had been set: candles for soft light, that single tumbler of bourbon, the rain pitter-pattering against my window like a child’s soft knock for attention. For all I knew, it was.

Jemma and Jade were lost out in the rain and they wanted someone to look, someone to see. It was me they’d chosen to bear witness.

He accepted the tumbler of bourbon, our fingers brushed as I sat down. Sparks skittered through me, little electric jolts that set every receptor on high alert making me hyper aware of him.

“Thanks.” He downed the bourbon in one swallow and I poured him another, but he left it on the table untouched. “I thought about how I would begin a hundred times and uh…” John widened his eyes for a second before he snapped them shut, his palms braced on his thighs. “I’m getting your couch wet.”

Something warm and soft welled in me and I took his hand. “Start at the beginning.”

“My wife died when they were born. Hemorrhaged.” He breathed deeply, seeming to orient himself in the stream of memory. “She wasn’t supposed to even be able to get pregnant. Said it was God’s will. Even when the doc told her that the pregnancy was a danger to her life.”

I memorized every nuance of him, of his voice, and his story. I promised him I’d take it with me, and I would.

“You don’t have children, do you?”

“No.” I shook my head. I couldn’t fathom his loss. It was for that very reason I wasn’t married, didn’t have children. I would never be so vulnerable.

“They say it’s like having your heart walk around outside of your chest, but that doesn’t begin to describe it.” He took another swallow of the bourbon. “As much as you fear the world they’re born into, you love it, too. Everything has wonder again because you see it through them. It’s like they’re in this bubble and everything the bubble touches is pure and new. From the soft sounds of their breathing against your ear, to their bow mouths, to the way they smell curled up into your chest right out of the bath.”

John’s mouth hardened and he closed his eyes again. I didn’t know if he was blocking out the memory or inviting it in. “The first time they laugh,” he continued, “when they’re starting to walk because the carpet tickles their feet. Or their eyes when they look up at you, wide and innocent, waiting to take in everything you have to show them.” He scrubbed his hands over his face.

I crossed my hands in my lap, imagining all of the things he’d described, picturing those girls with the chubby cheeks, golden lashes, and wide blue eyes taking in the world around them.

And what they must have thought of Thomas George Bale.

The pale, skinny guy who worked at the gas station on Second and Fine. Who’d given them free sno-cones on a blistering summer day. Who’d lured them from their babysitter’s yard…

Bile rose in my throat and I bit my lip so hard the copper tang of blood was sharp on my tongue.

John seemed to know what I was thinking. “Yeah, that’s what the world had to teach them. Deviance and pain.” He nodded slowly. “They were alone and afraid. During the trial, Bale said they screamed for me.” Then he mouthed silently, “Daddy.”

Tears gathered hot and acidic in my eyes, but they didn’t fall. If he wasn’t crying, I couldn’t cry. They weren’t even my children. This wasn’t my loss.

Yet somehow, it was.

He kept speaking. “I was with the search team in the woods behind the babysitter’s house when they were found. The sheriff tried to keep me away, but I could see her hand. Jemma’s hand, with her little baby fingers curled around a tree root.”

I didn’t want him to say any more, I didn’t want to know any more, but it was too late. I already knew the end of the story.

He turned sharply, and realized I’d dug my nails into his thigh.

“Should I stop?” His voice was oddly tender.

Yes, oh God, please. Yes. Stop. But I wouldn’t say it. No one had heard those girls screaming for this man in front of me. No one had stopped for them. I wouldn’t stop either.

John reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out two tiny peridot rings. I knew from news coverage they’d still been wearing them.

“Will you wear them for Jemma and Jade tomorrow?”

He could have asked me if I’d pull down the stars and snuff them, and I’d have found a way. I accepted them with a shaking hand.

His large, rough hand closed gently over mine and our gazes were drawn to each other like mercury. It was completely cliché, but completely real.

If the darkness in his eyes had stayed, I might have been okay.

It didn’t.

For a second, it was as if all the black parted and there was compassion there, empathy for me. For the pain his story caused me. It flickered in the depths like the tiny light of a candle flame struggling to live.

I’d seen this too many times. The way we’d all look at each other trudging to our cars after a particularly hard shift, the things we could never unsee or scrub from our brains. The camaraderie to be found only with another person trapped in the same sewer with the filth rising steadily above our chins.

For all that I’d seen, all that I endured, I couldn’t endure this. I couldn’t stand to see this on him, but there was nothing I could do. No words that would make it better, or even ease a little of his pain. I had nothing at all to give.

So instead, I took. I kissed him—fused my mouth to his in a moment of furious helplessness.

I’d be lying if I said that it was cold comfort. There was nothing cold about our encounter, only heat. So much fire it burned me through to my bones.

It was with my legs wrapped around him, my nails clawed into his back and his body having ceased shuddering against me when he said, “Wear this tomorrow, too. For me. So some part of me is inside when it happens.”

“Yes,” I swore.

He lay tangled with me until dawn. He left without a goodbye, but I didn’t need one. It was there on the coffee table in front of me next to the two tumblers and the half empty bottle of bourbon.

Those unbelievably tiny rings and a vial labeled “saline.”

I held everything he’d given me in the front of my mind and in the front of my heart as I dressed for work. I checked my appearance in the mirror before I left—adjusting the collar on my shirt and snapping the duty belt around my waist.

The one with a shiny, gold badge on it that had my name, my number and Department of Corrections embossed on it. Today, mine would be one of the last faces Thomas George Bale would ever see. That was my job—I was an escort officer for the Long Walk—The Stairway to Heaven. I escorted the condemned from their cells to their execution and stayed for the duration.

I remembered John’s hands on me, and that look in his eyes. That broken hope. I looked into my own eyes in the mirror as I slid the vial into the lining of my bra and reminded myself that no matter what I did, I’d have to be able to do the same when I came home. Look into that mirror, into my own eyes, see what was underneath my own skin.

It would be easy enough to replace the sodium thiopental, the anesthesia in the injection cocktail, with saline. No one would ever know but me. Not even John. I knew I’d never see him again and maybe it gave him some comfort just to know he’d left the saline with me.

The rings slid only to the second knuckle on my pinky finger, but it was enough.

© Sara Lunsford 2013

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