WHY?

There wasn’t anything particularly special about the guy; he was actually rather ordinary looking but something made me uneasy. He just stood near the entrance, silently watching.

It was the usual Wednesday morning story time in the children’s room of the Lansing Library. Parents running errands could drop off their kids knowing they’d be safe and well-cared-for. The children listened intently as I read “The Adventures of Frog and Toad“.

I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable vibe I was getting from that guy. I caught the eye of my assistant, Grace, and with a slight tilt of my head I motioned toward the man. She glanced over and casually made her way across the room.

With cautious confidence Grace walked up to him and in a quiet but stern tone said “You’ve got thirty seconds to explain to me what you’re doing here”.

The man seemed rattled by Grace’s demand and stumbled over an apology. “I’m terribly sorry! I didn’t mean to alarm anyone. I’m here to pick up my son.”

Oh, really? Who’s your son?” Grace asked.

The man replied “Nathan … Nathan Fletcher. I’m Jacob Fletcher. My wife Emily isn’t feeling well. She asked me to come fetch him. She’s pregnant, you know.”

Yes, Emily. Of course! Such a lovely woman” Grace said. “Sorry to hear she’s ill. She seemed fine when she dropped Nathan off.”

Yes, she was” Jacob agreed. “It’s the morning sickness; it really knocks her for a loop sometimes. Emily said she would notify library security that I’d be picking Nathan up.”

Before Grace had a chance to call the security desk to verify Mr. Fletcher’s story, Nathan spotted his father; the boy was overjoyed to see his dad and happily raced to greet him.

Daddy! Daddy! I’m so glad to see you. Is Mommy here?” Jacob gave Nathan a big hug and scooped him up in his arms.

Hi, buddy! Mommy’s resting. She asked me to come get you.”

Yay! Can we get some ice cream? We can bring some to Mommy, too” Nathan asked, bubbling with excitement.

Sure!” Jacob replied laughing. “C’mon! We better get going.”

Grace looked questioningly at me and I nodded in approval, smiling at the happy duo of father and son.

The two left, hand in hand, Nathan gleefully skipping along beside his dad. All was right in the library once again.

Later that night as I watched TV, the show was interrupted by a news bulletin:

A police alert has been issued for the whereabouts of five-year-old Nathan Fletcher and his father, Jacob. The two were last seen leaving Longford’s Ice Cream on Lansing Street around 12:30 this afternoon. The body of Emily Fletcher, Jacob’s wife and the mother of Nathan, was found in the family’s home this evening by her sister. She had been brutally stabbed to death. Mrs. Fletcher was six months pregnant. At this time police believe Jacob Fletcher is the only suspect in the murder of his wife, unborn child and the abduction of his son.”

I sat in abject horror staring at the TV screen; in the upper right corner was the face of the man from the library.

How could I have made such an unforgivable error in judgement? Oh my God! That poor woman! My heart froze when I thought of Nathan.

Why didn’t I follow my instincts?

NAR © 2021

ON THE ROCKS

Ancient Greek temples dotted the hillside of Agrigento. “Aren’t they magificent, Helene?” I tried engaging my wife of seventeen years in conversation.

Helene always wanted to visit Sicily; now we were finally here but our vacation had been marred by the news of the death of Ruth, her friend since college. Actually, Helene had been depressed ever since Ruth’s cancer was diagnosed two years earlier. She became obsessed with illness and death and every little pain sent her running to the doctor. It had become tedious; I thought a holiday abroad would lighten both our moods.

I don’t like this place, Richard” Helene remarked. “It reeks of death and decay. You can practically see the blood stains on the altar.”

Good Lord, Helene! Why are you allowing your mind to go there?” I questioned impatiently. “Look at the glorious Mediterranean surrounding us. Let yourself be transported to another era.”

I’ve got a pounding headache, Richard. Take me back to the hotel!” Helene demanded.

But we just got here! Look at these fabulous gnarled olive trees. Impressive, aren’t they? Let’s sit and enjoy the view. You’ve always dreamed of coming here, Helene. Enjoy it!

How can I enjoy myself knowing Ruth is gone? She was my dearest friend.” Helene buried her head in her hands, sobbing.

I know it’s difficult but try not to dwell on it. Here, listen to this.” Retrieving a brochure from my pocket, I began to read. “‘In mythology, Agrigento was founded by Daedalus and Icarus.’ Just think of it – these temples have been here since the 5th Century B.C.! The contemporary glass and steel buildings back home can’t compare to these majestic structures!”

Richard, please! You think I give a damn about any of this? It’s meaningless without Ruth. She was the light of my life.”

Helene stared at me with frenetic eyes. I was beginning to believe she was losing her mind.

Your life is meaningless? What about me, Helene? I’m your husband, for crying out loud!”

Oh, come on, Richard! It’s about time we admitted the truth. Our marriage is a sham! And now Ruth is gone! There’s nothing left for me!” Helene turned and started walking away.

Ruth! All you ever talk about is Ruth!” I yelled after her. “You’ve been consumed with her for years! I always wondered but now I know why you were never interested in sex, laying in our bed like a cold fish. You were in love with Ruth, weren’t you?”

Helene started running; I caught up with her, reaching for her arm. She screamed “Don’t touch me, Richard! Just go away and leave me alone!”

Pulling away, Helene ran toward the craggy cliffs. In a horrifying instant she was gone, plunging headlong against the rocks and disappearing into the sea.

Aghast, I stood staring into the abyss. “Goddamn, you, Helene!” I shouted. “Go be with your precious Ruth!”

After a long while alone on the cliffs I walked back to my rental and drove to the hotel. I saw no reason to rush back home. Perhaps I’d head to the Amalfi Coast. Too bad Helene had to end her stay so abruptly.

NAR © 2021

SWEPT AWAY

The afternoon was damp and raw, sleet stinging my eyes. I huddled deeper into my parka, pulling the hood tighter over my head. As I waited at the busy Brooklyn intersection for the ‘walk’ signal, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a woman in the distance. It was just a brief sighting but she bore an uncanny resemblance to my late fiancé Maggie.

The woman’s clothes were nondescript – dark jeans, a silver puffer jacket and a knit scarf – but it was her black and silver sneakers and the all-too-familiar shock of flaming red hair blowing wildly in the wind that gave me pause. She ran up the front steps of a condo – the same apartment we shared for three years before Maggie died.

My mind raced back to the day of Maggie’s death. We were vacationing by Lake Michigan with our friends Jeff and Rachel. Looking for a bit of adventure we decided to go jet skiing, something new for all of us and rather dangerous considering the lake’s infamous rip tides, caves and groottoes. Feeling overly confident, we took off like the daredevils we were. We all fell off several times, laughing, but kept on going. It was an exhilarating experience.

Maggie was a gorgeous creature. I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she rode the waves, her exquisite breasts barely contained in a tiny white bikini while crimson tresses whipped around her face like the tail of a dragon. She and Jeff were natural athletes and it was difficult for me and Rachel to keep up.

Rounding a bend in the lake, we were thrown off our skis by a large wave. I lost my bearings in the current and when my head finally emerged from the water, I spotted my jet ski and swam to it. Rachel wasn’t too far away, clinging to her craft, but Maggie and Jeff were nowhere in sight. Mounting our water bikes we began our search, frantically calling out their names as we scoured the area. Unable to locate them, we headed for shore and alerted the authorities. Maggie and Jeff’s jet skis were found but there was no trace of them. After two days the search was called off. Rachel and I had no choice but to accept they had been swept away.

After the accident I returned to New York but didn’t have the heart to stay in the condo where Maggie and I lived. I drove to our beach house in Amagansett, leaving the apartment untouched; I hoped one day to return when I summoned the courage.

Now I found myself back in Brooklyn staring at my old condo and seeing ghosts.

An overwhelming force drew me closer. Slowly I entered the building and climbed the stairs to my apartment. Approaching the door I could hear faint music, laughter and the sound of familiar voices. A man and a woman were inside, unaware of my presence. I stood outside the door for what seemed a lifetime. My heart pounding, I raised my fist to knock on the door, then stepped back. Resolutely and silently I walked away.

NAR © 2021

Reposted for Sadje’s picture prompt on What do you see #164 December 12, 2022