short story3: cheat

cheat

We arrived, Jonathan and I, well before the hour indicated on the invitation. I say “invitation,” but it was really just a quarter-sheet of card stock, inkjet printed on both sides, laid out in postcard format.

It was addressed to us both. On the side where artwork would go, a single word, centered:

closure

Jonathan had seen it first, and looked at me, without speaking, for a good while. When he did, he lied.

“It’s probably an art opening, or something.”

He threw it in the trash, and I let him. Later, I dug it out.

Our fifteen-year-old daughter, Jennifer Anne, was murdered four months ago by a repeat offender. He’d been identified, and was on a “most wanted” list, somewhere. We’d learned, in the ensuing weeks, quite a bit about this man, whose mother had named Bobby, not Robert. We’d learned more than we’d ever cared to, actually, but there was little else for us to do.

The postcard had, in the message section, an address, along with a date and time. Jonathan said, when he realized I was not going to let it go, that we should call the police, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to stir anything, call attention to anything, disturb anything. I wanted to be left alone, in any way that was possible. We both knew there was no recovering from this, no end to the pain. Part of me hoped they’d never catch him, so we wouldn’t have to relive any of it, hear any new detail, visualize anything more unspeakable than what we already had, despite our best efforts.

I drove by, later that same day, while running errands. It was the address of an industrial park, near a freeway overpass. The unit indicated was at the end of a row of similar buildings, next to an avocado grove. It was locked. Unoccupied, by all appearances.

Now, on the date indicated, though well ahead of the appointed time, I again rapped my knuckles on the thick glass of the front door. It was Sunday. All the units were unoccupied, no cars in the lot but ours.

No one answered. The door, however, moved.

It was unlocked. I pushed it, and Jonathan took hold of my arm.

“Don’t.”

I understood Jonathan’s concern. What if this was some kind of trap? That it had to do with our child was now unquestioned, in my mind, as well as Jonathan’s, and the killer was still on the loose.

I didn’t care. If I was to end up like my daughter, so be it. So be it.

I pulled Jonathan’s hand off me, and entered. The front office was empty, unclean. I tried the next door, the entrance to the rear space, but it was locked. It had one of those combination-style locks on it, with three buttons.

The only other thing on the postcard was hand written, below the address, date and time: 384. In the days following the card’s arrival, I’d exhausted any and all interpretations of the number, explored a good many fascinating numerological concepts in the process. With no commas or dashes, I’d decided it would be a room or locker number, perhaps a telephone extension.

I smiled as I punched them in � it was a game, for a moment � then entered the darkened rear space, over Jonathan’s protestations, as he hurried to catch up.

A light clicked on, motion-sensitive. I stopped, and stared. Jonathan followed me in, stopped next to me, and did exactly the same thing.

There was a man lying on the bare cement floor, naked, huddled against a wall, blinking in the glare. Awakened, apparently, by our entrance.

Anxious, muffled grunts echoed in the silence. His face was battered, bloody, and when he squinted up at me, I could see that he was gagged tightly, forced to breathe through his nose. He was sitting up now, in a smeared puddle of blood. Cut in several places, some still bleeding, some scabbed over.

He had tattoos, a swastika on one shoulder, a cross on the other. I already knew the words emblazoned across his back, before he turned to show us his tied hands, show us that they were tethered to a ring in the wall. He didn’t recognize us, or so his behavior would seem to indicate. Why would he? There had been no trial, obviously, and it hadn’t been that much of a news story.

Jonathan took my arm, again. Once more, I pulled it free.

“Becky,” he said.

Our daughter had been tortured, they told us. Raped, repeatedly, then bludgeoned to death. A piece of her clothing was found in an abandoned car. Fingerprints and a semen sample had confirmed the identity of the killer. Were he to be caught, he would face a life in prison, maybe the death penalty, to be carried out after a decade or so of appeals and interventions from well-intentioned intellectuals and believers.

Jenny had always been self-conscious about her body, was always a bit on the plump side until recently, when a surge in height surprised her, and us, with a new leanness, a suddenly grown-up figure. Her wisdom teeth were arriving, and though the dentist assured her they were coming in fine, she’d fretted about the effect they might have, altering what even she had to agree was her best feature � her unrestrained, toothy smile.

There were several thick pieces of rusty pipe on the floor. Not strewn, but placed, deliberately. Arranged by length, almost at my feet.

Jonathan took my arm again, this time firmly, using the muscles I knew he had, but usually kept in check. Jonathan was a former fireman, driven to safer work by a knee injury. I knew I’d never break his grip, if he didn’t let me.

“Go back to the car,” he said quietly.

“No,” I half-whispered, though we both knew there was no need to be quiet. “No.”

Whoever knew, already knew. Whoever didn’t, wouldn’t. Maybe there was a hidden camera, someone watching, waiting to see what we would do. An experiment, of some kind. I didn’t care. That wasn’t the question in my mind.

Jenny had learned about karma from a Yoga instructor, earlier in the year. The idea of a cosmic balance, of things “evening themselves out” was something a young mind could whole-heartedly embrace, and Jenny did. We’d spoken about it several times. She’d found it reassuring, and so did I. We agreed that karma was something the universe took care of, that it wasn’t something you did, actively. “That would be cheating,” she laughed, and I was pleased she understood the distinction.

A month after Jenny died, an old boyfriend called me, out of the blue, in town on business, and I met him for drinks. I didn’t mention Jenny. Instead, I fucked him, in the parking lot. Overwhelmed him, I imagine, with the ferocity of my need. Spent the next day getting sick, coming down with a flu that stayed for another three weeks. Jonathan and I fought often, lately, with a degree of independence and ruthlessness that each of us knew was dangerous, and yet it continued.

There were rags, loosely wrapped around the end of each pipe. We took the rags with us, afterward, used them to wipe down each doorknob, anything we might have touched.

Jonathan had to pull over, once, on the way home. I vomited into the gutter, watched it splatter onto a long-dead creature of some kind, flattened and dried, fur and cracked leather. I coughed, and spit, then studied the spray of red I’d noticed, on my bare leg. It was still wet, and I was able to wipe most of it away, with one of the rags. When I sat back inside and slammed my door, I didn’t buckle my seatbelt, and I was having trouble catching my breath.

“Are you alright,” Jonathan asked, without inflection.

“I fucked Mark, when he visited,” I said, and struggled to focus on his face.

I wanted him to hit me. To hurt me, or kill me.

“I fucked him, Jonathan… I sucked his cock!” I shouted, and pressed close, breathing vomit breath in his face. I dug my nails into his arm until I could feel them cutting in, and Jonathan hit me. A hard slap, unchecked, instinctive, and it hurt.

His wedding band hit a tooth, left a craggy notch that I could feel with my tongue. My face was numb, stinging, and I could hear the traffic outside, humming past. I closed my eyes, and savored the salty, metallic warmth slowly replacing the sourness inside my mouth.

Jonathan put the car back in gear, and rejoined the flow.

* * * * *

copyright � victor bornia

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