BARK AT THE MOON

This was the sixth night in a row that a nightmare woke me up. I’m a sound sleeper but something was throwing me off and this past week did a number on me. I felt drained and on edge. Now it was 2:00 AM and I was craving a cigarette. I got up and scoured my apartment hoping to find a smoke – which I didn’t – and thinking about why I was having these constant nightmares. I mean, nothing different happened in my life, except I’d started smoking again. 

And there was also her.

Last weekend I went to a party and this gorgeous redhead walked up to me and asked me for a light. I’d quit smoking about eight months earlier but for some reason – call it a security blanket – I continued to carry my Bic around in my pocket. This chick was way too hot to let her slip through my fingers so I reached into my jeans and pulled out my lighter. 

I flicked my Bic and damn(!) if she didn’t cup both her hands around mine as I lit her cigarette. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, the smoke encircling her head. All the while her eyes never left mine. She had the palest blue eyes I’d ever seen and the contrast against her red hair and mouth was bewitching. Then she did something to me no woman had ever done before; she took the cigarette from her lips and placed it between mine. That move was so intrinsically sexual, I couldn’t think of anything else but possessing this woman. I took a long drag, that familiar heat singeing my lungs. 

We shared her cigarette and when there was nothing left, she took me by the hand and led me into the bathroom. Locking the door, she turned her back to me and leaned against the sink staring at my reflection in the full-length mirror. She hiked up her skirt and I was not surprised to see she wasn’t wearing panties. She said two words and they weren’t “Happy Halloween”; I didn’t have to be told twice.

Fifteen minutes later we left the bathroom together. I went to get us a couple of drinks and when I turned around, she was gone. I searched everywhere but couldn’t find her. Just like that – the greatest bathroom sex I ever had and now she was gone. And I was left craving her and another cigarette. That was the night I fell off the wagon.

Now I needed a smoke so badly I tried to salvage butts from the trash but they were all buried under a soggy coffee filter. I had no alternative but to head out to the all-night 7-Eleven

I grumbled and dragged myself out of bed. I switched on the overhead lamp and immediately cringed and looked away; the damn light hurt my eyes too much.  Squinting, I staggered into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. Grabbing a towel, I wiped off and looked in the mirror. Holy shit! What I saw startled yet intrigued me. My eyes had changed from brown to ice blue. There was no denying that woman had done a number on me.

It was now 2:30 AM. I threw on yesterday’s clothes, turning up the collar of my leather jacket. Before venturing out I grabbed my shades. Stepping outside, I was momentarily caught off guard by the number of freaks walking around; then I remembered Halloween was just winding down for many partygoers. A bright moon cast strange, elongated shadows across the walls. Dressed in black clothes, I must have blended in with the silhouettes for no one took notice of me. 

As I entered the store I was pleased to see there was only one other customer – a nondescript woman wearing a hooded cape. I stood behind her at the register and when she turned to leave, I was blown away to see it was the redhead from the party. She looked directly at me, gave a little laugh and left without so much as a word. I was glad my dark glasses hid the lust in my eyes. I quickly bought my smokes and bolted from the store.

I looked up and down the street; nothing – she was gone. Then I spotted her standing across the street watching me. “Ok” I thought. “This is gonna be interesting.” As soon as I started heading toward her, she turned and began walking away. She walked slowly, her cape swaying side to side, and I followed her just as slowly. She took her time and I had no doubts she knew I was there. She climbed the steps to an old apartment building; I followed. She casually walked up three flights of stairs and down the hall to the last door where she stopped, removed a key from her pocket and unlocked the door, leaving it slightly ajar as she stepped inside. If that wasn’t an invitation, I didn’t know what was. I entered the apartment and closed the door behind me.

The room was awash in moonlight streaming through the window where she stood staring up at the night sky. I lit a cigarette, took a long drag and handed it to her. She placed the cigarette between her bright red lips, took a couple of puffs and tossed it out the window. She turned to face me and shrugged off her cape. Of course she was naked; I would have been sorely disappointed if she wasn’t. She loosened her hair and a cascade of long crimson tresses escaped and flowed silently over her flawless body. Her hair shimmered in the moonlight; the fragrance of strawberries and honeysuckle filled the room. She was intoxicating.

She drew me closer and parted her lips in a sultry smile; it was then that I saw her delicate fangs. I was aroused, my cock throbbing. A deep passion rose in me and I groaned with a fierce hunger. I turned my head and willingly offered her my neck. She feasted on me, then gave herself up to me with shameless abandon. 

Whatever I had become that night didn’t matter. Nothing mattered any more. My savage blood boiled as I barked at the moon.

NAR © 2022

SCREAMING IN THE NIGHT

In January, 2021 I wrote a story with an unresolved ending called “On the Way”. It was one of several which I recorded and submitted to the BBC Radio show called Upload. When my story was broadcast on the air, the program host William Wright commented that he hoped some day I would write a follow-up. That comment stayed with me and fourteen months later I decided to do just that. That story was called “When the Fog Rolls In.” Recently I thought it would be interesting to combine the two stories by creating a new beginning and ending and tweaking sections within the body of the stories. Since then, I had the opportunity to enter a fiction writing contest; the call was for a 1,000 – 3,000 word mystery story. I decided to submit my reconstructed story. The word counter on my Microsoft Office page said the story was 2,654 words – not too shabby. I don’t enter many contests but every time I do I’m shocked by the number of writers who also submit stories. My stuff better be damn good if it stands a chance of winning against 400+ entries. Well, my story did not win but that’s okay; I tried my best and had fun creating this compilation. I am not deterred. The winning story was a masterpiece and deserved to come in 1st place so kudos to the author. Here is my story; I hope you enjoy ‘Screaming in the Night’.

I can see it now! I can see it! Got to get it!!”

David Stapleton screamed in his sleep. He flailed about on his bed, entangled in a mass of sweaty sheets and blankets. David slowly started to come out of his stupor, stuck in a surreal and frightening dimension between sleep and wakefulness. His eyelids felt stuck together and his mouth was parched. His body was stiff and leaden, his breathing heavy, his heart beating rapidly. David wasn’t sure of his surroundings; was this real or was he reliving his worst nightmare?

Gradually David became more aware. Yes, it was as he feared – the uncontrollable, unstoppable dream, his nightly companion. He sat up in bed and reached for a cigarette. Flipping open his old, beat up lighter, he lit a Marlboro and inhaled deeply. He sat in silence, smoking and thinking, his thoughts spinning like a Vegas roulette wheel. Each night he crawled into bed exhausted, desperately in need of sleep yet terrified that the dream would come again.

David glanced at his alarm clock; 4:17 AM – ridiculously early but he knew he would not be falling back to sleep. He slipped on his sweatpants and shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. While the coffee brewed, David stared into the oh so familiar fog. He lit another cigarette and thought about that night four years ago.

Four Years Earlier:

David drove home that dark and foggy night barely able to see the road ahead of him. An electrical storm that evening wreaked havoc with the streetlights on Route 718 causing them to flash at indiscriminate intervals. Even though his was the only car on the dimly lit road, the strobe effect from the lights was haphazard and dangerously distracting. There were shadows looming everywhere; David never saw the cyclist cross his path.

The impact was powerful yet made only a quiet thud like the subtle reload of a gun’s magazine. The visual impression, however, was appalling. The tableau switched to slow motion; David watched in horror as a mangled body performed a ‘danse macabre’ across the hood of his car while musical passages from “O Fortuna” screamed in his head. The cyclist soared through the air like an acrobat and landed in a twisted heap 20 feet or so away.

David sat motionless in his car; no other living creature was anywhere in sight. “What to do? What to do?” raced through his mind. He’d never had a car accident, not even a parking ticket. Now he had run someone down – an innocent cyclist. Was it a man or a woman? Surely this person would be missed by family and friends, perhaps his or her parents or – God forbid – their children. What a terrible fate, a horrible accident. Yes, David had a few drinks after work, just a few; the alcohol had to be out of his system by now. But wait; the cyclist wore no reflective clothing, not even a warning light on the bike’s handlebars or wheels. Out cycling in the night, alone; wasn’t that tempting fate? Maybe they got what they deserved.

Slowly David opened the door and looked around; the deafening silence was pounding in his brain, the absence of people other-worldly. With measured steps he approached the crumpled body. A gentle push of his booted foot confirmed what he already suspected: the cyclist was dead. A battered helmet sat near the edge of the road; the bright orange and black ‘KTM’ emblem of the bicycle manufacturer in Austria stared at David accusingly. The longer he looked at the emblem the more he realized he had two choices: he could report the accident to the police and face the consequences or he could clean up this mess and get on with his life.

As he walked back to his car David knew what he had to do. A look at the front end showed very little damage, a small inconvenience he could deal with later. More pressing matters prevailed; first he had to extricate the bicycle from under his car. David sat in the driver’s seat, shifted the car into reverse and gently backed up. After a couple of seconds he could feel the car and the bicycle disengage.

The bike was a wreck but there wasn’t much debris on the road. Retrieving his leather jacket, David wrapped it around the top tube bar of the bike and carried it back to the dead cyclist. Taking a few steps away from the road he realized it would be easy to throw the bike over the edge, making it look like the cyclist had swerved off the road – if the body was ever found at all. He gave the bike a hefty toss and it disappeared into the woods below. With his foot David then rolled the cyclist’s body and helmet down the hill.

David walked back to his car and broke off a low hanging branch from a tree which he used to sweep the road clear of any pieces of glass or metal. Getting back into the car, he turned on the radio and cranked up the volume; his adrenaline was pumping.

Ok” David murmured to himself. “It’s all gonna be ok. Just one last thing. Got to take care of that little dent in the hood of my car.” David kept driving until he reached a busy gas station. As he drove up to a pump, he intentionally smashed into a metal barrier; witnesses could attest to the fender bender.

David’s decision to flee the scene was fueled by fear and self-preservation. Now as he drove home he felt much more relaxed and confident. He reached for his jacket but it wasn’t there. His face went pale and he broke out in a cold sweat. Closing his eyes he could clearly see his jacket wrapped around the bicycle, his phone still in the pocket, as it made its final descent into the woods.

Four Years Later:

Tom Delaney sat alone at his favorite bar sipping his third bourbon. Life had quickly gone down the shitter a few months ago when he bet big time on a “sure thing” that didn’t pan out. That was one of Tom’s biggest faults; he was always looking for the quick fix, the money angle, whether legit or not. Now here he was, a 38-year-old washed up ex PI with a huge chip on his shoulder, a failed marriage and no money.

When the bartender announced closing time, Tom begrudgingly slid off his stool and made his way to his car. He took Route 718 toward his parent’s cabin which they left to him in their will. With no other known relatives, Tom was totally alone trying to get his life back on track. So far he wasn’t having much luck.

The weather was changing and when the fog rolls in, driving on 718 gets hairy.

He wasn’t on the road very long when he found himself in pea soup conditions. Suddenly a deer appeared out of nowhere and Tom swerved, coming to a screeching stop. After a brief standoff, the deer gracefully bounded down the steep edge and disappeared into the thick woods.

Shaken, Tom settled himself in his car. The glow of the headlights picked up the reflection a shiny object in the thicket below. Being a curious type, Tom drove his car closer to the edge and grabbed a flashlight from the backseat. Gingerly he made his way down the side of the bluff landing on a heavily overgrown outcropping about 15 feet below. He walked around for a few minutes before his foot came in contact with an unknown object; whatever it was rolled a couple of feet away. Tom walked over and crouched down for a better look; the item turned out to be a battered helmet with the weather-beaten orange and black ‘KTM’ emblem of a bicycle manufacturer.

Disappointed that his find wasn’t something valuable, Tom stood up to leave. He took a few steps and heard a strange ‘crunch’ under his Doc Martens. Shining his flashlight on his boot, Tom couldn’t believe what was buried under the leaves and debris.

“Holy shit! A human skeleton!” Tom immediately remembered the helmet. “Poor guy must have ridden his bicycle off the road. Wonder where the bike is?” Tom panned the area with his flashlight. He was about to give up when something caught his eye. “Well, well, what have we here?” Tom moved some leaves out of the way and discovered a fanny pack which he took, clipping it onto a loop on his jeans. Maybe he’d get lucky and find some money in the bag.

Deciding to investigate a little more, Tom eventually came across the bicycle caught up in a large bush. It was a mangled mess, certainly of no value to him; nearby was a moldy leather jacket. Tom snagged the jacket and went through the pockets; nothing. Noticing a zippered inner compartment, he found an iPhone inside. Slipping the phone into his rear pocket, Tom slowly pulled himself up the cliff to his car and drove off. He left the scene with that uneasy, suspicious feeling he’d get while working on a case. Old habits die hard.

Once home, Tom reached into his rear pocket and retrieved the phone he found in the leather jacket. He emptied the contents of the fanny pack onto the kitchen counter: assorted crap, a wallet and an iPhone. “Hmm. Two phones. Why would one person need two iPhones? Maybe two people were there that night. What the hell happened? Was this the scene of an accident or a crime?” Tom’s PI sixth sense was working overtime now.

Both phones were wet. Drying them off, Tom placed the phones and SIM cards into two separate Ziploc bags filled with silica gel packets he had stockpiled. They’d have to dry out a day or two. Next he went through the wallet: $47 which he immediately pocketed, an expired debit card and a driver’s license. The license was issued to Joseph Barnes, 312 Ogden Terrace, Sparta, NJ. – a 90-minute drive from Tom’s cabin.

Tom broke out his own iPhone and Googled ‘Joseph Barnes, Sparta, NJ’; it took a little while as he scrolled down then BINGO! There it was – a missing person flyer dated January 2018. Last known location was Bethlehem, PA – a few miles from the cabin. There was a phone number to call. A picture of Joseph Barnes on a bike holding a KTM helmet smiled at Tom; the same face was on the driver’s license.

While the phones dried out, Tom spent most of the following day at Wind Creek Casino in Bethlehem playing the penny slots with Joseph Barnes’ $47. He was on a roll and left the casino with $100 in his pocket. Tom couldn’t wait any longer and anxiously drove home to see if he could get the iPhones up and running.

He took the phones out of the bags, inserted the SIM cards and turned them on; both phones started up. To Tom’s amazement, neither phone needed a passcode. Checking ‘Settings’ on both phones, he found what he suspected all along: one phone belonged to Joseph Barnes and the other belonged to someone named David Stapleton from Allentown, PA.

David, David, David. Why were you on Route 718 that night and what did you do to Joseph Barnes?” he thought. Tom realized that after four years David Stapleton could be anywhere with a different identity, job and phone number but there was only one way to find out. After his win at the casino, he was feeling lucky. This could be the big break he was waiting for.

Slipping the two phones into his pockets, Tom drove to his favorite bar. On the corner was an old phone booth with a pay telephone – the untraceable kind. Tom opened David’s iPhone; there were two different phone numbers for him. Tom hesitated for a minute thinking about his days as a PI.

Instinct took over, suggesting he ignore the first number on David’s phone and go for the second one. Tom reasoned that the first number was likely David’s cell number; there was a chance the second number was for a business or a house for David – anything that might provide a clue. It was worth a shot. After all, Tom wasn’t looking to talk to David just yet; all he wanted was a lead.

Tom dropped two quarters into the public phone slot and dialed the second number on David’s cell. The call was answered on the third ring. “Hi. This is David at Stapleton Plumbing and Heating in Allentown. We’re closed now but will reopen at 8 AM. Please call back then.”

Pay dirt! Tom Delaney may be down but he wasn’t out! He’d head back to the cabin and Google Stapleton Plumbing and Heating for an address. But first a little celebration – some pleasant company at the bar with his old friend Jim Beam.

Sipping his drink, Tom could practically smell the shakedown money he’d be raking in. As he drove home from the bar, the ubiquitous late-night fog rolled in. Tom was momentarily blinded by a pair of oncoming headlights and swerved right to avoid a collision. He turned the steering wheel sharply and his car plowed through bushes, bounced off trees, rolled over itself down the steep hill and crash-landed upside down in a ravine at the bottom of the cliff before it burst into flames.

Poor Tom. Just when things were starting to look up. Karma’s a bitch.

A few hours later David Stapleton once again found himself in the clutches of his bedtime companion – the ever-present nightmare. He woke up drenched in sweat and bolted straight out of bed, his heart racing. He felt nauseous and dizzy. Staggering into the bathroom, he grasped the edge of the sink staring at his sweat-soaked face in the mirror.

How could you have been so callous leaving that cyclist? How have you been living with yourself the past four years?” This wasn’t living, he realized, knowing every day would end with the same hellish nightmare.

David stood in the bathroom and closed his eyes; he could clearly see his leather jacket wrapped around the bicycle he threw over the cliff four years ago, his phone still in the pocket, as it made its final descent into the woods – the same dream that left him screaming in the night, every night, for the past four years. “I can see it now!” he sobbed. “I can see it.”

Overcome with fear, exhaustion and remorse, David walked out the back door of his apartment above the plumbing business. Barefoot and shirtless, he was unfazed by the cold and dense fog rolling in. Blindly he went down the damp rickety steps and walked deeper in the woods behind his apartment – unseeing, uncaring.

Suddenly David felt a searing pain in his chest. Gasping for air, he clutched his arm and fell to his knees, rolling down the wet, moss-covered precipice in the woods. Ten seconds later, David Stapleton was sprawled out in the shrouded morass 30 feet below, dead from a massive heart attack.

Was it a heart attack that killed David Stapleton or overwhelming guilt? No one will ever know for sure. David never knew that with Tom’s death he was completely in the clear of any crime; the only evidence – the phone that tied him to that horrible accident – was now in the jacket pocket of Tom Delaney’s incinerated body.

Tom and David – both dead on the same night a few miles apart – one hunting and the other haunted.

Oh, the irony.

NAR © 2022

ESPERANZA

Photograph by Eileen Mroz

The #6 subway from Grand Central to my station in Ridegwood Queens was surprisingly empty for 5:40 on a Friday afternoon. At first I questioned whether I had gotten on the wrong train but as I looked around I saw some of the familiar faces.

Diagonally across from me on my left was a man wearing a ‘sorta-suit’ – my made-up name for a jacket and slacks of slightly different shades that one tries to pass off as a suit but it never quite works. Not only was it always rumpled but it needed to be cleaned. His tie was missing and probably stuffed into one of his pockets. He always stood whether there were seats available or not. With his right hand he held onto a pole while he clenched and released his left hand as though squeezing a stress ball. I guessed he was a detective. He was probably in his early 30s but he looked older. Lots of people who ride the subway every day look older than they are.

Directly opposite me sat a young guy who always traveled with an oversized orange duffel bag. He was 19 or 20 years old and naive-looking, perhaps Scandinavian with blonde hair and cool blue eyes. There were numerous tags on his bag; the most prominent identified him as a student at Queens College. Living on campus could be extremely expensive and I wondered what he was doing for accommodations. It looked like all his earthly possessions were crammed into that orange duffel bag. For a nanosecond I entertained the possibility of offering him the spare room in my parent’s house; they knew what it was like to struggle alone in a foreign country but they were elderly now and this wasn’t quite the same as bringing home a stray!

On the other side of the subway car was a nurse in royal blue scrubs. My guess was she was just starting her overnight shift; she looked refreshed and her uniform was neat and clean. Her hair was nicely done and she didn’t have that after-work jaded look on her pleasantly round face. She hugged a large black bag tightly on her lap, her phone resting on the bag with her ear buds nestled in place. From the rapturous look on her face, she was probably listening to some “Help me through another day at work, sweet Jesus” type of music.

Sitting next to the nurse on the verge of dozing off was an Asian man wearing a windbreaker, corduroys and an N95 mask. I had him pegged as an IT guy or possibly a research analyst. He always had a flat yellow plastic bag with him which looked like it had a comic book or two inside, probably for his kids. I liked him; he looked like a good dad and a decent person.

Those were the regulars; here and there a few stragglers would wander on and off but these were my daily traveling companions. We rode together every day, rain or shine, come hell or high water, yet we didn’t know each other’s names, avoided eye contact and never talked. That’s how it’s done in the subways of New York – anonymity at all costs.

Today, however, there was a young couple on the train I had never seen before. They spoke softly and their vibe was very intense. He was in a navy uniform and she wore black pants, white sneakers and a black and white checked shirt, her fingers interlocked over a slightly protruding belly – a baby bump, I was quite sure. His back was to me and he wore a mask so I could not see his face; still, by his posture, I could tell he was ill at ease and the conversation was not going well.

It eventually became obvious they had reached an impasse; talking ceased and she stood with her back to the door, a symbolic stance I’ve seen 1,000 times. The frozen expression on her face was one of utter disappointment, despair, unhappiness, hurt and rejection. They mumbled a word or two but barely looked at each other. It was not a comfortable situation.

At this point I was compelled to take out my phone and snap a photo of the couple, pretending to be busy doing something else. There was a story unfolding before me; I could sense it and needed more than my memory to remember this sad turn of events. At the next stop the sailor prepared to get off; he reached for his seabag and his fingers fleetingly touched the pregnant woman’s arm but he made no other contact. He quickly headed for the steps, never looking back.

The doors closed and the woman leaned against them, staring down at her shoes. I could see streaming tears coursing down her face and her shoulders silently shook. I knew at that moment the couple had broken up and she was beyond heartbroken; she was shattered. I thought at any moment she might drop to her knees and wail in hopelessness.

Our eyes met and I held up my hand offering her a tissue. Without a word she walked the three feet to where I was sitting, took the tissue I proffered and sat down beside me. We were now connected yet we did not speak. I felt the need to console her but I decided to stay silent; if she wanted to say something to me she would.

Shoulders shaking, hands wringing, tears silently flowing. She tore at the tissue I gave her and I thought she was about to say something when her phone buzzed. Her voice was barely more than a whisper.

Anita, Tommy is gone. Sí, just now. I don’t know. Just text it to me, por favor.”

She ended the call and looked over at me embarrassed, smiling poignantly. “Excuse me. May I?” and I nodded quickly, handing her another tissue.

Gracias.” She wiped her face and shoved the tissues into her little purse. With tentative fingers she pressed the link Anita had sent her. She spoke softly with no emotion. “Hello. My friend gave me your number. My name is Esperanza. Now? Yes, I can come now.” And that was all she said.

The train slowed down for the next stop and Esperanza stood up and began walking to the door. I impulsively called out her name and she turned looking at me with hollow eyes. I handed her my package of tissues, hoping she would stay on the train. After a moment’s hesitation, she took the tissues, turned and left the train.

So many thoughts went through my head in that instant. I remembered from Spanish classes in high school that ‘esperanza’ means ‘hope’. I thought it was one of the most beautiful words I had ever heard.

Where Esperanza was going I had no idea. I wondered if I’d ever see her again? Above all, I hoped she would be alright.

NAR © 2022

N.B.: My usual routine when writing is to search for an appropriate graphic after a story is complete; sometimes this process takes hours. When my photo-snapping friend Eileen posted this pic, it hit me like a ton of bricks. To say it took my breath away would not be an exaggeration. It screamed out to me that something heavy, perhaps even life-changing, was going on in an otherwise seemingly innocuous photo. Some people will gloss over a pic like this, not really seeing anything; others will be glued to it and the woman’s face. I was transfixed. In a glimpse it can look totally mundane and unimportant – except for the excruciatingly heartbroken expression on the woman’s face and the sailor’s inability to look her in the eyes. This is a first for me – a story based on a photograph; hopefully there will be more in my collection. I hope I did it justice. NAR

BACK BEFORE YOU MISS ME

Rebecca Jameson couldn’t get to sleep. She shifted her body from side to side but just couldn’t get comfortable. Maybe she should go downstairs and watch The Tonight Show.

“Can’t sleep, Becca?” Danny asked groggily.

Sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to wake you!”

Danny flipped on the nightstand lamp. Rebecca glanced at the alarm clock; it was very late and Danny had to get up early for work. She felt terribly guilty but this last month of her pregnancy was rough. She got up and waddled to the bathroom, then settled back in bed cradling her substantial belly. Danny propped himself on one elbow and rubbed Rebecca’s tummy.

“Well, I’m up now so what can I do for you, babe?”

Rebecca looked at him sheepishly and Danny grinned. “Rocky Road with Gummy Bears and rainbow sprinkles?” he asked, knowing her cravings so well.

You don’t mind?”

“For you and Danny Jr? I’d do anything, Becca. Thank God for the 24-hour Dairy Princess!”  He kissed her forehead, grabbed his wallet and bounded down the stairs. “Back before you miss me!”

That was the last time Rebecca saw Danny.

When Danny didn’t return after 30 minutes, Rebecca wasn’t worried; late Friday nights at the Dairy Princess were always busy. One hour later and she was starting to get a little anxious. After two hours she was a nervous wreck. She tried calling Danny; her calls went straight to voicemail. When she called her dad Frank, a detective with the NYPD, he answered immediately.

“Becky! Are you OK? Is it the baby?”

The baby and I are fine, Dad. It’s Danny. He went for ice cream two hours ago and hasn’t come home yet. Daddy, I’m scared” and she started to cry.

“Sweetie, Mom and I are coming right over. Try not to worry; I’m sure everything’s gonna be alright.” Frank hoped he sounded confident but he knew Danny; this was totally out of character.

Rebecca and Danny knew each other all their lives. They were childhood sweethearts and never dated other people. Rebecca was a kindergarten teacher and Danny managed Jameson’s Deli. They had the same friends and spent all their free time together; they even shared the same Facebook page. There were no secrets between them.

Danny was thrilled when he and Rebecca found out she was expecting a boy. He started calling him Danny Jr. and talked non-stop about the things they’d do together. With just two weeks to go, Danny was eager to be a dad.

When Rebecca’s parents arrived, they found her nervously looking out the window. Her mom Betty made a pot of tea while Frank talked soothingly to his daughter.

“Listen, honey. I called the station on the way over here and my guys are out combing the area. I know you’re scared but there’s got to be a logical explanation. People don’t just disappear, especially not Danny.”

The hours ticked by without a word. Rebecca became more and more agitated, certain something terrible had happened. Betty convinced Rebecca to get a little rest and she managed to doze off. When she got up to use the bathroom, Rebecca’s water broke and Frank drove them to the hospital. They went straight to the ER and a few hours later, Danny Jr. was born. He was perfect but Rebecca’s world was never the same.  

Seasons came and went without a trace of Danny. Frank and his team never stopped searching; every trail led to a dead end. It was as though Danny Jameson never existed.

Rebecca never accepted Danny’s disappearance. How could someone simply vanish and why? She took solace in caring for Danny Jr. which was a double-edged sword. He was a happy, well-adjusted child who gave Rebecca much joy but he was also the spitting image of his father. Whenever Rebecca looked at Danny Jr. she saw Danny. It was difficult.

Danny Jr. asked about his father and Rebecca explained as best she could. At first the boy seemed content with the answers his mother gave but as he got older he heard people talking about how his father “just up and left”. He asked Rebecca about that which she vehemently denied; there was no way Danny would have walked out on them. Still, restless thoughts occasionally visited Danny Jr. It didn’t help when people would comment on how much he looked like his father.

A missing person case eventually turned into a cold case. Rebecca refused to have Danny declared legally dead. As painful as the unknown was, that closure was too much for Rebecca to handle.

When Danny Jr. was in his late teens, Rebecca was diagnosed with breast cancer. Whenever Rebecca went for a chemo treatment she’d say “Back before you miss me”. She struggled for 8 years, finally succumbing at the age of 52. Danny Jr. was 26 years old, happily married with one daughter.

On the day of Rebecca’s funeral, Danny Jr. and his family stood near the side of his mother’s grave. His mind was whirling with memories of his mother and questions about his father. Would he ever know what really happened to Danny?

As the priest recited the final prayers, Danny Jr. stared straight ahead, his eyes filling with tears. Just then he noticed a man standing across the street from the gated cemetery. Danny Jr. was shaken to the depths of his soul by the appearance of this man; their resemblance was uncanny. At that moment Danny Jr. realized he was looking at the face of his long-lost father. Even at a distance the men’s eyes locked and Danny Jr. began to slowly walk across the cemetery.

As he drew near to the man a large bus rolled by, momentarily obscuring his view. When the bus had passed and Danny Jr. had a clear view, the man was gone.

In his heart Danny Jr. knew that man was his father. He would have given anything for just one hour with him.

NAR © 2022

WHEN THE FOG ROLLS IN

This is a follow-up to my January 2021 story, “On The Way”. To see how it all began, click here first: https://wp.me/pc3LSm-yr

Tom Delaney sat alone at his favorite bar sipping his third bourbon. Life had quickly gone down the shitter a few months ago when he bet big time on a “sure thing” that didn’t pan out. That was one of Tom’s biggest faults; he was always looking for the money angle, whether legit or not. Now here he was, a 38-year-old washed up ex PI with a huge chip on his shoulder, a failed marriage and no money.

When the bartender announced closing time, Tom grudgingly slid off his stool and made his way to his car. He took Route 718 toward a friend’s cabin which he was using until he got his life on track.

The weather was changing and when the fog rolls in, driving on 718 gets hairy. He wasn’t on the road very long when he found himself in pea soup conditions. Suddenly a deer appeared out of nowhere and Tom swerved, coming to a screeching stop. After a brief standoff, the deer gracefully bounded down the steep edge and disappeared into the thick woods.

Shaken, Tom settled himself in his car. The glow of the headlights revealed a shiny object in the thicket below. Being a curious type, Tom drove his car closer to the edge, grabbed a flashlight from the backseat and gingerly made his way down the side of the bluff settling on a heavily overgrown landing about 15 feet below. He walked around for a few minutes before his foot came in contact with something hard. Crouching for a better look, he discovered a battered helmet with the weather-beaten orange and black ‘KTM’ emblem of a bicycle manufacturer.

Disappointed that his find wasn’t something valuable, Tom stood up to leave. He took a few steps and heard a strange ‘crunch’ under his shoe. Shining his flashlight on his foot, Tom couldn’t believe what was buried under the leaves and debris.

“Holy shit! It’s a human skeleton! Poor guy must have ridden his bike off the road. Wonder where his bicycle is? What have we here?” Tom moved some leaves out of the way and discovered a waist bag which he took. Maybe he’d get lucky and find some money in the bag. Deciding to investigate a little more, Tom eventually came across the bicycle caught up in a large bush. It was a mangled mess, certainly of no value to him; nearby was a moldy leather jacket. Tom snagged the jacket and went through the pockets; nothing. Noticing a zippered inner compartment, he found an iPhone inside. Slipping the phone into his rear pocket, Tom climbed up to his car and drove off. He left with that uneasy, suspicious feeling he’d get while working on a case. Old habits die hard.

Once home, Tom emptied the contents of the waist bag: assorted crap, a wallet and an iPhone. “Hmm. Two iPhones. Why would one person need two cells? There had to be two people there that night. What the hell happened? Was this the scene of an accident or a crime?” Tom’s PI sixth sense was really kicking in now.

Both phones were wet. Drying them off, Tom placed the phones and SIM cards in two separate Ziploc bags filled with silica gel packets he had stockpiled. They’d have to dry out a day or two. Next he went through the wallet: $47 which he immediately pocketed, an expired debit card and a driver’s license. The license was issued to Joseph Barnes, 312 Ogden Drive, Sparta, NJ. – a 90-minute drive from the cabin.

Tom broke out his own phone and Googled ‘Joseph Barnes, Sparta, NJ’; it took a little while then BINGO! There it was – a missing person flyer dated January 2021. Last known location was Bethlehem, PA – a few miles from the cabin. There was a phone number to call. A picture of Joseph on a bike holding a KTM helmet smiled at Tom; the same face was on the driver’s license.

Tom spent most of the following day at Wind Creek Casino in Bethlehem playing the penny slots with Joseph Barnes’ $47. He was on a roll and left the casino with $100 in his pocket. Tom couldn’t wait any longer and anxiously drove home to see if he could get the iPhones up and running. He took the phones out of the bags, inserted the SIM cards and turned them on; both phones started up. To Tom’s amazement, neither phone needed a passcode. As he suspected, one phone belonged to Joseph Barnes; the other belonged to someone named David Stapleton from Allentown, PA.

David, David, David. Why were you on Route 718 that night and what did you do to Joseph Barnes?” thought Tom.

Tom realized that after 14 months David Stapleton could be anywhere with a different phone number but there was only one way to find out. After his win at the casino, he was feeling lucky. This could be the big break he was waiting for.

Slipping David’s phone into his pocket, Tom drove to his favorite bar. On the corner was an old phone booth with a pay telephone – the untraceable kind. Tom opened ‘Settings’ on David’s iPhone; there were two different phone numbers for David. Tom hesitated for a minute thinking about his days as a PI. Instinct took over, suggesting he ignore the first number on David’s phone and go for the second one. Tom reasoned that the first number was likely David’s cell number; there was a chance the second number was for a business, a house or a place where David used to work – anything that might provide a clue. It was worth a shot. After all, Tom wasn’t looking to talk to David just yet; all he wanted was a lead. Tom dropped two quarters into the public phone slot and dialed the second number on David’s cell. The call was answered on the third ring.

“Hi. This is Dave at Stapleton Plumbing and Heating in Allentown. We’re closed now but will reopen at 8 AM. Please call back then.”

Pay dirt! Tom Delaney may be down but he wasn’t out! He’d head back to the cabin and Google David’s business, maybe get an address. This called for a little celebration – some company at the bar with his old friend Jim Beam. Sipping his drink, Tom could practically smell the shakedown money he’d be raking in.

As he drove home from the bar, the ubiquitous late night fog rolled in. Tom was momentarily blinded by a pair of oncoming headlights and swerved right to avoid a collision. He turned the steering wheel sharply and his car plowed through bushes, bounced off trees and crash-landed upside down at the bottom of the cliff before it burst into flames.

Poor Tom. Just when things were starting to look up. Karma’s a bitch.

NAR © 2022

REBEL WITH A CAUSE

“Come in here please, Connor!” I called out to my son.

Connor came bounding into the kitchen. “What’s up, Mom?”

“Have you seen the bag of frozen French fries and the burgers we just bought?”

“Not since we left the store. Aren’t they in that bag on the floor by the fridge with all the other frozen stuff?”

“No” I replied. “I just looked through the bag. Funny, I could have sworn they were right on top. You know, this happened the other day; Dad couldn’t find the box of donuts or the hot dogs.”

“Did you check the receipts, Mom?”

“Yes. Everything was listed, even the missing food. Dad said he was going to call Costco but I’m not sure he did. They obviously forgot to pack those items.”

“Yeah, that store was super busy; I can see how they might have overlooked something. Well, good luck, Mom. If I can help let me know.”

“Actually Connor, there is something you can do for me when you have a minute. There’s a box of old photos you can bring down from the third-floor storage room.”

“Sure, Mom, but I was heading over to Joey’s to play video games for a while. OK if I bring the box down when I get home?”

I gave him a “thumbs up”.

I texted my husband to see if he had called Costco; he replied with an eye-roll emoji and wrote that he totally forgot about calling. “OK, no worries. I’ll handle it” I texted back. Now to call the store about my dilemma.

After speaking to a couple of people and being put on hold several times, I was assured nothing was left behind at the store. The manager said I could bring in my receipts and they’d issue a refund. That was fine with me but it still didn’t explain what happened to our lost items.

When Connor came home, he went straight into the den to watch TV. “Excuse me, bud. Aren’t you forgetting something?” He looked at me with a blank face. “My photos?”

Smacking his forehead and groaning, Connor headed upstairs. “And don’t forget to walk the dog!” I called after him.

Not even a minute went by before I heard Connor yelling for me.

“Mom! Come up here – quick!”

I raced up the stairs.

“What’s wrong? Are you OK?” I asked nervously.

“I’m fine, Mom. I heard noises in here; check this out.”

We entered a guest bathroom which we never used.

“Look what I found” he said. Balanced on the edge of the bathtub was our missing bag of French fries – half-eaten.

“What’s going on here?”

“Take a look.” Connor drew back the shower curtain. Peering over the edge of the tub was our golden retriever, Rebel, moaning. Surrounding him were the empty packages of all our missing food. He look at us with those big sad doggy eyes.

“Oh, Rebel! What have you done?” I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. “You little thief! Poor baby. Sounds like you gave yourself a nasty bellyache. C’mon boy, let’s get you to the vet. It’s gonna be OK.”  

Rebel

NAR © 2021