Copyright is held by the author.
HE HAD been counselling the girl for two months when she called to say she would not be coming in for her usual Thursday evening session. The girl, 17, probably had a good reason. She started therapy after discovering she was pregnant, the end result of a weekend of lost to cocaine and sex.
“But I’ll be back next week. Promise.” Her voice sounded cheerful on his answering machine.
Now Wilson Bell had an hour to fill while he waited for the last appointment of the night. He could do some of the paperwork he had in the corner of his desk. New client contracts. Each contained information about the new patients and their various problems, what medications they were on, what insurance company to bill. Each contained a statement of goals to be reached during the counselling sessions and a statement, signed by the patient that promised that he or she would do his or her best to achieve those goals.
But he was in no mood to deal with promises that would only be partially kept.
He called his apartment where his mother and father would be babysitting his five-year-old son James. Each Thursday, since Tracy had walked out two years before, his parents picked James up from daycare, and now kindergarten took him home and enjoyed the privileges of grandparents until Bell came home from work.
His mother answered the phone. “Everything is fine, son,” she said. “James talked your father into McDonald’s, so he didn’t get real food for dinner, but otherwise, he’s happy as a clam. We’ve coloured pictures and watched cartoons and played with his Happy Meal toy. He’s having a bath right now and splashing water on his grandfather.”
“No. My last appointment cancelled, so I’m just waiting around. If the last one shows early, maybe I’ll get out of here before too long.”
“No hurry, son. We’re having a ball and have no place to go.”
Bell hung up and sighed. His parents, since his father had retired, looked forward to lunch on Sundays with their only son’s family. After Bell’s wife took off, they were soon anticipating Thursday nights as well. He was grateful to them, and glad that his son could be so close to them. But each time he arrived home, he looked at his mother’s expression of worry — which was fading slowly with time, but nonetheless potent — and could not help thinking about why they had been there.
He stood abruptly. With 45 minutes until the last appointment, he was certainly not going to mull over losses. He’d be no good if he made himself more depressed than his patient. After putting a note on the door, he walked out.
The building wasn’t very big, but Bell thought he’d clear his head by walking around it a time or two. He bought a soda from a vending machine, and then went through a side door where, during the day, people went to take smoke breaks. He winced past the butts on the ground and the smell that seemed to stay no matter how long it had been since anyone had lit up.
He walked past his car, the only one he thought was in the parking lot. It was a restored 1963 Mustang. Wilson Bell was not much of a car person, but he cherished this one, particularly as it was the source of the only real fight he and Tracy had ever had. Bell turned his head quickly away as if he could avoid the memory by not looking at the vehicle.
He sipped his soda as he round the corner of the building and stepped on the sidewalk in front. A bench next to a bus stop sign was empty. A dull light shone on both.
On the opposite side of the building, the parking lot was larger and seemed more vacant than usual. Quit thinking in poems, Bell told himself as he leaned against the wall. A sign above him read that the property was under video surveillance. Bell noted the cameras mounted at the upper corners of the wall and wondered when, if ever, they had been used.
At the back of the building were two lamp posts. One had the usual bugs and dirt dimming any attempt at illumination. The other, situated near a dumpster, flickered on and off as if unsure of which direction to go. Parked beside the dumpster was an old Impala that looked beat up even in the poor light. On the passenger side a thin woman, a girl about 18 Bell judged, smoke as she hung an arm out the window.
Even before she saw Bell approaching, she had the frightened look he’d seen hundreds of times on young women over the years he spent as a therapist. When she did see Bell, her eyes widened a minute and she took a quick drag on the cigarette, as she needed to steel herself.
She kept looking at Bell as he got closer. Without taking her eyes off him, she yelled, “Harvey! Come on!”
Before Bell could say anything, he heard a voice shout, “Ah shit!” followed by “What is it?” Bell looked up and saw a man in his mid-20s perched atop the trash in the very full receptacle.
“What are you doing?” Bell asked sounded more authoritarian than he intended.
The man put one hand against his hip and waved another to keep steady. He gave Bell a cold look and said, “I’m looking for something. Any problem with that?”
Bell blinked. “No. I’m not the police. I don’t really care. Just wondering.”
“He ain’t the police, Harvey,” the girl echoed. “Lighten up.”
“Shut your trap, Nadine!” Harvey said. “It’s your fault I had to get in this damn thing in the first place.”
Bell saw the girl wince, take another drag from the cigarette and then flick it away from the Impala.
“Look, man,” Bell said, struggling to keep his voice even, “No big deal, okay? I’m just taking a little walk and was curious was all.”
Harvey’s face softened as he looked at Nadine. His eyes remained suspicious. “Ah, man. I’m just mad at her. See, I bought me some new work boots and she got pissed and threw them away.” He scooted his foot in front of him and kicked a box large enough to hold a pair of tennis shoes.
“Did you find them? Bell asked nodding at the man’s feet, which were shod with dark, thick-soled shoes.
“Uh, no. Not yet.”
“Need some help?”
“He don’t need no help,” Nadine snapped. “He’s a stupid son of a bitch and ain’t gonna find them.” She smiled at Harvey. “Maybe I forgot where I tossed ‘em.”
Just then a car pulled into the parking lot. Bell knew it was his appointment.
“All right,” Bell said. He gave Harvey a sympathetic nod, and walked to the door and met a 16-year-old boy who walked with a hunch though he had no physical problems. The boy’s mother waited only long enough to see them go inside before driving off to run an errand.
Soon Wilson Bell was lost in someone else’s problems. The boy, who had tried to kill himself eight months previous, had had a rough week. He’d broken up with his girlfriend and was struggling with conflicting feelings now that she was seeing someone else.
Bell listened for a while before asking, “How many times did you break up before this time?”
“I don’t know. Four or five, I guess.”
“So did you just figure you’d get back together as usual?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“And what was different about this breakup?”
The boy thought for a moment. Well, we didn’t have a fight.”
“Can’t think of anything.”
“As I recall, you told her you wanted to see other people.”
“Well, you didn’t have a fight, so maybe the decision to break up, though you initiated it, and maybe didn’t really want it, was more mutual than you thought. And there weren’t a bunch of emotions guiding your words. Maybe she figured you were serious this time and if you were going to see other people, she should too.”
The boy pondered this for several seconds. Finally, he said, “You could be right.” After another pause, he added, “Or she could be messing with me.”
“There’s always that possibility,” Bell conceded.
After the session, Bell walked the boy to the side door and watched him make his way to his mother’s car. He returned to his office, made a couple of notes about the session, recapped the pen, and started to leave. He fished his keys out of his pocket and picked up his can of soda. Then he turned off his light and left. He went out the side door and pulled it firmly shut. He pushed against it to be sure it was locked. Then he headed to his car.
He had put the key in the ignition when he took a sip of the drink and realized he had let it get warm. He started the car and drove slowly to the front of the dumpster. Leaving the car running, he got out, stepped to the side of the receptacle, and slid the door open carefully.
When he saw the box, he nearly dropped the can. It had been pushed beneath several flat pieces of cardboard, wedged against the side of the dumpster in what was obviously a hasty attempt to bury it. Bell read the words “Reinforced toe” and knew it was the same box Harvey had kicked earlier. Without much effort, he freed it.
The box felt wrong in his hands. Bell carried it to the front of his car and let the headlights shine on the contents as he removed the cover. The minute baby inside was wrapped tightly in a blue bag from Wal-Mart. He could not see the feature too clearly, but he had no doubt what had happened. Suddenly, the stench of death hit Wilson Bell so hard he nearly dropped everything. Quickly, he set the box on the hood of his car and replaced the lid. Then he opened the door of the Mustang, sat in the driver’s seat, and turned off the ignition.
“Why did you do this, Tracy?” he asked. He shook his head as he realized his mistake and got out of the car. He took the box off the hood, carrying it awkwardly. It took several seconds to find the key for the side door and he had to set the box down to work the lock. Finally, it was open and Bell was running, the box cradled in his arms, to his office.
He placed it on the desk without turning on the light, picked up the phone and dialled the police. He managed to control his voice as he gave the bored dispatcher the needed information. Then he called home.
His father answered. “Dad, I’ve got a bit of a situation here. The police are on the way, and I have to talk with them. Obviously, I’ll be later than usual.”
“Are you OK?”
“Maybe. Probably not.” Bell could feel the quiver in his throat as he maintained control. “I’ll tell you about it when I get there. Is James OK?”
“Your mother is reading him a bedtime story right now.”
Wilson Bell said that was good and hung up. He looked at the box on his desk, reached his hand out, and then withdrew it. He reached out again and tapped the lid. He closed his eyes, pictured his mother’s soft reading voice and his son falling asleep, and let out a shaky sigh.