BY MICHAEL JOLL
This is the second part of a two-part story. Read the first part here. Copyright is held by the author.
SUE’S HANDS flew to her mouth when she heard the eyeball pop. She gasped at Earle’s visceral scream as he plunged forward and fell face first to the floor. Her hands flew to her ears at the grate of the screwdriver blade on bone driving deep into the eye socket and up into his brain. She watched helplessly as Earle’s boots drummed uselessly on the bare boards. She grabbed Mitch and held him close to her body, burying his face in her jeans so he could not witness what he had done. Face down on the floor, Earle thrashed his legs, writhing, grunting and gasping. Within seconds the leg spasms became less violent, then his fists relaxed, and the grunts grew fainter until the twitching ceased, and he lay still.
Mitch looked up. “I’m going to bed now, mommy,” he said. He picked up the toy pistol from the floor.
“I don’t think you want that, do you, Mitch?” she said.
The boy shook his head. She took him by the hand and led him to his bedroom. While she tucked her son into bed she whispered, “You had a bad dream, Mitch, that’s all. You’ll have forgotten all about it in the morning.” She kissed him on the forehead, tucked him into his bed, and left the night light on when she closed the bedroom door behind her. She leaned against the door, her body racked by violent shaking and an overwhelming desire to throw up.
She staggered to the bathroom, grabbed hold of the toilet bowl with both hands, and vomited. When the last spasms ended she sank to her knees and rested her hands on the floor, sucking in great draughts of air while her eyes involuntarily filled with tears from the effort of retching. Minutes passed before she could push herself up, and on shaking legs, with one hand on each wall of the corridor, she edged her way blindly to the kitchenette. She ran the tap, poured a tumbler of water and drank it down in one before forcing herself to look at the body of her ex-husband.
“I’m going psycho,” she said. “This can’t be real. It can’t have happened. I’m going mental.” With an effort of will she stopped shaking, and with her arms wrapped around her body, brought her breathing under control. For a long time she stood over Earle’s corpse with her hands over her face trying to blot out the scene before she slumped into the love seat, rocking back and forth, forcing herself to fight down the urge to panic.
“Think!” she almost screamed. She took a deep breath and released it, in, out, time and again until she had forced herself to calm down.
“Start with first things first,” she said, talking to herself. “First off, you didn’t kill Earle. Neither did Mitch. Earle died because he fell onto the screwdriver. If he hadn’t fallen forward you could have called 9-1-1 and had a paramedic here in a couple of hours. Mitch saw Earle grab me, so he hit you. Yes. That’s what happened. Mitch defended me. I’m his mom. They’d believe me, wouldn’t they?” She stopped the one-way conversation long enough to think of her next step. “So, do I call the police and explain what happened? Or do I protect Mitch, and get rid of Earle’s body?”
The more she thought about calling the police, the worse she convinced herself it looked. She got up from the couch, and began pacing back and forth across the room, muttering to herself. “No-one but Mitch and I know his dad was here. Will Mitch stay silent like he usually does? If he doesn’t, will they believe Mitch was capable of doing it? No. They’d assume I did it, that I killed Earle. With my history with Earle, will they believe self-defence? I could take a lie-detector, but where will that leave Mitch? And what will they do with Mitch while they hold me for questioning? Who’ll look after him? He’s eight, for Chrissake, and autistic. Goddammit!” she screamed, reaching up, shaking her fists in frustration and rage. “Give me answers.”
She bent over and rested her hands on her knees. She glanced sideways at Earle’s body. “I can’t just leave him here,” she muttered. “I’ve got to do something. But what?”
She came to a decision, reached up to the bookshelf above her head, pulled out a bible and thumbed through the unfamiliar pages until she found what she was looking for; Psalm 121. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” she read aloud, and continued until she reached the end, absorbing the calming metre and rhythms of the ancient verses, seeking and hoping to find inspiration in the words of King David.
She put the bible back on the shelf, took a couple of steps, and stood over Earle’s body. She took a deep breath. She knew what she had to do. She rolled Earle’s body onto his back and pulled the screwdriver from his eye. She crossed to the kitchenette and dropped the screwdriver in the sink. She ran the tap and rinsed the eye fluid, a smear of blood and a tiny piece of his brain tissue from it, dried it, and put it back in the kitchen drawer where she kept all her useful things, like string and scissors, and of course, the multi-bit screwdriver. Methodical, she told herself. Be methodical. Don’t miss a thing.
She changed out of her cold, wet jeans and underwear and put on clean. She pulled her parka and boots on and went out to Earle’s truck. She tried the driver’s side door. He hadn’t locked it. She peered inside. Earle had left the keys in the ignition. She climbed into the cab and reached over to the passenger door, unlocked it, and pushed it open wide. She went back into the house, grabbed Earle’s body under the armpits, hauled him onto the porch and dumped him on the snow-covered planks. She went down the steps, pulled Earle’s body to the edge, and draped it over her shoulder in a fireman’s lift. She staggered through the foot-deep snow to the truck and shoved Earle head first onto the passenger seat, then went round to the driver’s side and pulled him in the rest of the way.
She turned out the living room light and shut the door. Don’t invite company, she told herself, as if anyone was likely to call. She turned the ignition key. The engine fired first time. She turned the truck and edged it down the driveway to the road. She noticed with satisfaction that in less than an hour, Earle’s incoming tire tracks had already vanished. She drove the unfamiliar vehicle carefully down the slope towards the bridge over the river, steered left, over the bridge, then right, and gunned the motor to get her up the hill to the top of the grade. The back fishtailed. She eased off the gas and corrected the skid.
The headlights shone straight back at her like a myriad dazzling mirrors as the snow swept across the road, blinding her so she could scarcely see beyond the hood as she eased the truck to the crest of the grade. At the top she slowed to a crawl, pulled over as far as she dared and swung the wheel hard over. She braked and felt the truck skid into the rock face with a jolt that left the fender crumpled. “It will look like he clipped rock face and lost control,” she told herself. Her heart responded to a surge of adrenalin. She took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down before she put the truck in reverse, edged it back up the road until it pointed straight downhill at the bridge, and applied the emergency brake.
She glanced up and down the road. No sign of headlights from either direction. She got out of the cab and pulled Earle’s body into the driver’s seat. She decided not to buckle him in. Satisfied that she had done everything she could, she put the truck into Drive, released the brake and stood back, watching the vehicle, with the open driver’s door flapping like a bird with a broken wing, gather momentum down the slope.
A quarter mile down the road, where the road curved to the left before crossing the bridge, the truck veered towards the shoulder and clipped the first guard post. The truck swung round, hovered for a second on the brink then plunged backwards down the almost sheer ravine toward the torrent that was the Skeena River four hundred feet below.
Sue listened to the shattering of glass and tearing of metal as the truck crashed over boulders she knew were as big as her cabin. She waited in vain for the explosion and the flames that would tell her the gas tank had erupted, Hollywood-style. Instead, an eerie, empty silence wrapped her in its icy cloak. She stood in the snow, staring down the hill until her ears adjusted to the sound of her breathing before she pulled her hood up and trudged to the point where Earle’s truck had left the road. The lopsided guard post bore a smear of grey paint, and shards of headlight glass lay strewn across the shoulder, disappearing under the snow even as she watched. She kicked the glass off the road and peered into the blackness of the ravine, but whatever secret it held lay hidden behind an impenetrable, moving white shroud.
Strange, she thought. I feel no emotion of any sort; no sadness, no elation, no relief. Nothing. Should I? I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. Does that make me a sociopath? A psychopath? She turned away and forced her boots through the knee deep snow, across the bridge and up the hill to her home with her questions unanswered.
She closed the front door behind her, took off her boots, and hung up her parka. Her phone rang. She jumped with the unexpected shrillness of the ring tone. Frightened, she wondered if she should answer. Out of instinct rather than conscious choice she grabbed the phone.
“Mrs. Lewicki, Sue?” the male voice enquired. She began shaking. “It’s Sgt. McKnight, Ed,” he continued without waiting for her acknowledgement. “I hope you don’t mind me calling.”
“Of course I don’t mind, Ed,” she replied, fighting the tremor in her voice. “What can I do for you?” They can’t have found the truck already, surely. It’ll stay buried until April or May. And the bears will get Earle as soon as they wake from hibernation, that’s if the wolves or the coyotes don’t get him first. Or if his body was thrown clear it will wash down the Skeena and out to the Pacific Ocean before anyone knows he’s missing. Stay calm. No-one knows Earle was here. No-one will know unless you tell them.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Ed. I wasn’t expecting you to call. You caught me by surprise.”
“I was going to swing by before the end of my shift,” he said, “if you’re still up, to wish you and Mitch a Merry Christmas, and make sure you’re okay, but the roads are pretty bad.”
“There’s no need, Ed, honestly. It’s still snowing like crazy up here. I wouldn’t want you to have an accident or be stuck up here until the ploughs come.”
“I’d still like to drop by if it’s not inconvenient. I’ve got a small gift for Mitch, and a little something for you. And there are worse places to be snowed in.”
“That’s kind of you, Ed,” she replied. “Okay, if you’re sure, I’ll wait up.”
“Thanks, Sue. I’m off for four days in a couple of hours. Do you need anything?”
“No. I’m fine. We’ve got everything we need. Drive careful, okay?” She was about to hang up when she began to cry.
“What’s the matter, Sue?” he asked. “I thought you said everything was okay.”
“He’s here, Ed.”
“What do you mean? Earle’s in the house?”
“No. But he’s here, somewhere. I know it. I can feel it, like he’s close by, watching me, watching the cabin. I’m scared, Ed. I’ve never been so scared.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can, Sue. I’m leaving now. Hopefully the cruiser will scare him off, if he’s as close as you say. Make sure you lock the doors, okay? Call the Detachment if you can’t get through on my cell.” He gave her the number.
She hung up, crossed the floor, and looked out of the window. Her footprints had all but vanished already, and there was only a faint sign of the truck’s tire tracks. She reassured herself that it would take Ed at least an hour to reach the cabin in this weather, and the snow will have obliterated any sign of the truck by then. And when you get here, she told herself, you’ll be the perfect witness to — nothing.
She still had plenty of time to clean up Mitch’s mess, she decided. She mopped the floor clean of any evidence of Earle’s body fluids, poured the half bottle of rye that Earle had left down the sink, wiped it clean of prints and threw the empty into the garbage bin in the shed. She cleaned the kitchen counter top with Lysol in case he had left finger prints there. What else had he touched? The front door handle, the door frame, the door to the hall. She wiped them all down carefully. In half an hour she was satisfied the cabin looked like Earle was never there. For something to do, she swept the covered porch clear of snow.
The RCMP 4X4 pulled into the driveway in a cloud of snow a little after one in the morning.
“Thanks for coming, Ed,” she said, holding herself together as she greeted him on the doorstep. “I appreciate it, especially in this weather. Come in.”
“I’ve been worried about you ever since he got out, Sue,” he said, unzipping his parka in the warmth of the cabin’s wood stove. “And now you say you’re sure he’s around here somewhere. I hope to God you’re wrong, that you’re only imagining things.” His voice tailed off. “I can stay as long as you like. I can sleep on the couch, no problem. I’d feel much easier if you say yes.”
“Oh, God,” she said as her determination to remain calm crumbled. “Please stay.” She took a step towards him, reached inside his parka and wrapped her trembling arms around his body. She started to cry, softly at first then in gasping sobs gushing from her, sweeping her up in a cataract that raked her body across the rocks of her unbroken nightmare.
“It was horrible, Ed. He was here. I can still see him, standing right where you are, demanding to see Mitch, threatening to kill me if I got in his way. Ed, it’s like being in a nightmare that I’m awake for, but can’t stop and can’t believe is happening. It’s real, and it’s not real at the same time. Does that make any sense? Am I going crazy?”
“You’re not going crazy,” he said. “You’re probably overwhelmed by anxiety at not knowing what’s going to happen to you and Mitch if Earle shows up, and not being able to change the outcome so, yeah, it makes sense. I still wish you’d move into town for a couple of months, until we find him, until you feel you can stop looking over your shoulder all the time.” Her eyes followed his hand as it ran over the sparse bristles on the top of his head.
“Oh, God, Ed. Hug me, please” she begged. “Don’t let go until I’ve stopped shaking. I need to know you’re real, not part of my nightmare. I don’t know if I can get through this without you.”
He wrapped his arms around her, stroking her back like she was a small child, and held her tight enough to his chest that she could smell him, the faint, lingering scent of cologne and the man sweat of a 10-hour shift clinging to his shirt. Gradually the trembling subsided and her breathing calmed. She disentangled herself from his clutch, grabbed her parka and tuque from the peg behind the front door, and pulled them on. Ed watched her without saying a word, a puzzled expression creasing his forehead. She opened the door and stepped onto the porch. He put his parka and hat on and followed her.
“What . . . ?”
“Shh . . .” she whispered with a finger to her lips. “Listen.”
“To what?” he said. “You can hear him? Where? I don’t hear anything.”
“Just listen, Ed and you’ll hear it. Not Earle. He’s not here now. He left the moment you came in the door, but he’s still out there, somewhere, waiting. I know it.”
“Hear what? I give up.”
“The snow. If you’re real quiet you can hear the snow falling.”
They stood on the porch in silence for several minutes. “I hear it,” he said at last. “I’ve never heard it before.”
“That’s because you live in town,” she said. “Too much background noise. The silence is one reason I like living out here.” She slipped her arm through his and snugged him to her, feeling the momentary resistance before he relaxed. “I know,” she said. “You’re not off duty for another 40 minutes. Surely they must owe you some overtime.”
“No such luck. I used it all on a fishing trip. That tuque,” he said, “with the ear flaps and the long woollen dangly things.”
“What about it?”
“They look like blond braids. The way the hat frames your face you look like you’re 12 years old.”
She beamed. “Flattery will get you everywhere. I’m 37 and you know it.”
He grinned, took the porch steps gingerly and waded through the snow his knees to the RCMP 4X4. “And I don’t think Earle will come within a country mile of here with the cruiser parked out front,” he called over his shoulder. A moment later he returned to the porch carrying a canvas duffel bag. She raised her eyebrows.
“If you promise not to tell a living soul,” he said in a serious voice, “there’s a bottle of Crown Royal and a couple of bottles of wine in here, in case you invited me to Christmas dinner. And even if you didn’t, they’re for you anyway.”
“I hope you remembered to pack a razor and a toothbrush.”
He gave her a sheepish grin. “And a change of clothes. Just in case.”
Sue opened the front door and ushered him inside. He gave the living room a police officer’s careful scrutiny. She watched his eyes as they stopped briefly at the rug where Earle had lain. Had Ed spotted something she had missed in her haste? His eyes moved on, to the couch. “You’re right, Ed. It’s only a love seat. I don’t need anything bigger for Mitch and me. You might find it a bit short for you.”
“Well,” she said, breaking the silence. “What you see is what you get plus two bedrooms and the bathroom out back.” She pointed to the door leading to the back corridor.
He nodded again. “Uh-huh,” he grunted.
She looked at him, searching for any sign that he might understand what she was suggesting. “We’ve known each other for a long time, Ed,” she murmured.
He nodded. “Uh-huh. Since I arrested him.”
Sue rested her hands on his chest, felt the hard muscles and his breath on her neck. “I’m safe as long as I’m with you, Ed. I’ve lived alone for a long time, long enough that I’ve gained strength and become used to it. But it doesn’t have to be always like that. It’s time for me to get out from under his shadow, and get on with my life. The doctors rebuilt my body long ago, and the therapists have mostly fixed my mind. I’m just a file in the hospital archives now.”
Ed said nothing. She could not read his expression either. “Or I can put the cushions on the floor,” she added. “That would be more comfortable than sleeping on the couch.”
He swallowed noisily. “Can we go outside for a few minutes and listen to the snow again?” he asked. “Then I’ll be off duty.”
They shut the door behind them and huddled together under the porch roof, listening to the faint hiss of the falling snow. Ed checked his watch and put an arm around Sue’s shoulders.
“It’s two o’clock,” he said quietly. “I’m off duty for four days.”
Sue slipped her arms around his waist. “He’s gone, Ed. He’s not here any more. He’s not watching me. He’s not in my head. I think I must have woken up from my nightmare. I don’t think he’ll ever come back, not so long as you’re here. Say you’ll stay. Please.”
Ed squeezed her shoulder. Reassurance? He must have felt her stiffen at his touch because he glanced at her, a frown creasing his forehead. Did he think she was resisting him? She forced herself to relax the tension still gripping her body. She grabbed his gloved hand with both of hers. “I’m sorry, Ed,” she said. “It’s not you. It’s maybe there’s still a little bit of me that can’t get over being afraid of him. Not yet.” She brushed his lips with hers.
She wondered if the policeman in Ed believed her. She could not tell, not for sure. Even when he returned her kiss.
“It’s Christmas,” she said softly when they broke apart. “And I don’t have a gift for you.”
“The only gift I want is to see you and Mitch safe and free from fear,” he said.
Sue bear-hugged him. When she let go she looked up into the eyes of the tall police officer. “I’m getting cold,” she said. “Let’s go back inside and get warmed up.”
She closed the door behind her and rested her hand on the sleeve of his parka.
“If you would still rather I put the cushions on the floor . . .” she said.