Thursday, March 2, 2017

Somebody's Birthday

Rob was getting shin splints after less than forty minutes on the road. He had only resumed his daily running a few weeks back. It had been many years since his cross-country days in high school, more years than he cared to admit. So he babied himself a little. He reverted to walking instead of jogging. He was nursing the shin splints. He planned to get some ice on them as soon as he got home.

It was a sunny July afternoon, so he was enjoying his stroll down a pleasant little street in a neighborhood he knew only vaguely, though it was less than a mile from the apartment he shared with his fiancee. Rosebushes were in bloom before picture windows. Sprinklers spattered abstract art on sidewalks. Little dogs yapped at the happy stranger from behind fences as he passed. 

Rob reached a part of the street where the houses became sparser, with more distance between each dwelling. There were even a few vacant lots overgrown with summer weeds and wildflowers. Rob lamented the wasted real estate. As he was approaching a strange old house that wouldn't be out of place in one of Edward Hopper's Gothic paintings, he noticed a cardboard box sitting out in the street, just past its driveway. The house had to be abandoned. The grass had grown knee-high and yes, sure enough, there was a white piece of paper with large black lettering tacked to the front door.

Rob figured the box was just a leftover from the move out. Kids had probably kicked it into the street.

But as he drew alongside the box, he saw there was a big red bow on a side of the box which had been hidden from him. And there were strange symbols drawn in magic marker all over the box. Goth kid? Rob was sure he had seen those symbols, or some very much like them, in books and movies. On the box's top, on the cardboard flaps  which were only loosely closed, someone had written (in what seemed to Rob a feminine hand) "Happy Birthday, Sister!"

Curiosity got the better of him. After a quick look up and down the street, Rob reached down and pulled back the flaps to see if there truly was a birthday present inside there. He suspected the writing was just a red herring on an old, repurposed box.

As soon as he turned the flaps back, a warm cluster of flies flew into Rob's face. Some even entered his nostrils. Disgusted, he snorted them out. The scent  coming from the box was strangely pleasant for something so horrible. For at the bottom of the cardboard box lay a heart. It was not even desiccated. It looked moist, juicy.  Rob had watched enough medical documentaries and e.r. themed shows to know it had all the appearances of a human heart. He felt his stomach pitching. The worst part was that he didn't have his phone on him. He knew he needed to dial 911 as soon as possible. Should he stop at the nearest house, knock on a stranger's door? No. This was too weird to inflict on a stranger. He would be home in a half hour or less. Probably less. Because Rob was running again, splints be damned. 

Rob could not imagine any possible explanation for what he had just seen. After only a few blocks of running, after his shin splints had kicked back in, he returned to meditative walking and began telling himself that he must have erred. It had to have been an animal's heart. Some other animal's heart. Not a human's. It was some sort of sick prank. What does a pig's heart look like? Does it look anything like a human's? He thought it might. Where was his phone, his Google, when he needed a vital question like this answered? Maybe he had just run too long. Maybe he was dehydrated. Dehydration can make you hallucinate.

Rob was now taking a shortcut road that ran somewhat rural. There were fields on one side that were sometimes planted, but sometimes left fallow. This year they were fallow. Sporadic, modest split levels with much space between their yards lined the other side of the road. Rob saw something out of the corner of his right eye. He turned and looked directly into the field and saw the shadow of a human figure on a haystack about forty feet from where he was standing. The shadow started moving towards him. Rob waited until the distance between them had closed a little further and then he ran. He must be dehydrated, he thought again. Or he had eaten something bad. Something foul. Maybe it was much hotter than he realized. Maybe he had heatstroke. 

Still running, Rob swiveled around and began to jog backwards. He was looking for the shadow. But it was gone. It never appeared in the street.

The road took a big dip down towards an area where there were patches of forest on either side of it. Rob often saw deer crossing there, when he was out running, or in his headlights when he was driving through there. The deer would often cross the road in full daylight, unabashed, unafraid. They had grown less timid through interactions with humans. Rob had often seen them noshing on birdseed fallen from backyard feeders. 

But it wasn't a deer that came out of the forest and started walking towards him on  the other side of the road. This time it was a beautiful young woman with long black hair. She was wearing a white dress, a sort of lace sheath that nearly touched the asphalt of the street as she walked. She carried in her dainty right hand a white parasol that shielded her from the sun. She smiled at Rob and he nearly forgot about the horror he had just experienced. It was like seeing a woman walk out of a Monet painting and into the world.

"Good afternoon," the beautiful stranger chimed from the other side of the street as she passed him, going the opposite direction.

"Good afternoon." Rob felt how dry his tongue had become.

And that was the extent of their exchange.

Rob stole glances at the beautiful stranger over his shoulder several times as he ascended one side of that dip in the road while she ascended the other. Then she was gone around the street corner at the top, lost to view. Rob wondered what sort of get-up that had been. Was she attending a wedding? A lady's high tea? It was not everyday apparel. And why had she stepped out of the woods, anyway? What had she been doing in there dressed like that? Hadn't she heard about Lyme disease? The deer ticks were everywhere. It was a crazy day all around.

Rob was only a few blocks from home when he saw a shadow on a white wall. It was drawn plain as day. There was no figure there to cast the shadow. It was the white wall of a small garage which had gone out of business. He realized the shadow was that of a woman with a shapely figure holding a parasol. He watched as the shadow "walked" across the wall of the garage and vanished into the unsupporting air. 

After that, Rob wondered if he should seriously entertain the possibility that someone might have slipped him L.S.D. earlier in the day. What else could so tidily explain away all this madness?

By the time Rob reached his front door, he felt like a basket case and seriously wondered if he was one. He trotted up a short flight of steps and opened the front door of his apartment and nearly jumped out of his skin. His fiancee Lisa was unexpectedly standing there in the doorway. It gave him a jolt.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," she laughed.

"You have no idea. I need to make a call."

The police went immediately to the address Rob had given them. Some fifteen minutes after that, an officer had called Rob to ask him a few more questions and get some particulars he could add to his report. They had located the empty house. They explained to him that there had been no box in the street before the house. In fact, they had searched all around the house. Nothing.  He could hear the skepticism in the officer's voice. 

"Sir, I don't want you to take this the wrong way. But are you alright?"

Rob had thanked the officer for doing his job and then hung up before the officer had a chance to ask even more condescending or insulting questions.

Lisa had seemed strangely nonchalant about the whole story. He wondered whether she believed him. Though they would be husband and wife in a matter of months, she was still largely a mystery to him. He knew so little about her, really. He liked women like that. He liked the idea that he knew so little of her past or even the sorts of things she did when she was out of his sight. 

"Listen, I have to go out, hon. There's a roast for you in the slow cooker."

"Where are you going?"

"One of the girls has a birthday today. We're celebrating. It's girls' night out. I may be out a bit late. I know I'm just terrible. Forgive me?"

"How come I never meet your friends. You're like a guy with that. You know all my friends. Are you ashamed of me or something?"

"You're ridiculous. Maybe I'm worried you'll marry one of them instead of me. Don't worry. I have a special date planned for you to meet everybody. Kiss me, I'm already late. I'm so sorry you had that crazy experience. We can talk more about it when I get home, if you'd like. It sounds freaking traumatic!"

Because Lisa was so beautiful and strange, he kissed her and let her have her way. 

Minutes later, she was out the front door and warming up her car in the driveway. It seemed that whenever an argument might be possibly brewing, Lisa would uncannily head it off at the pass by leaving.

The roast smelled good. He went to give it a stir and have a little taste.

And that's when his life changed.

He had gathered up all the personal possessions he could fit into his SUV and was several states away by the time Lisa was to have been home that evening. 

In fact, he never spoke to her again. He prayed he never would. He never even called the police. Why not? Well, it wasn't because he thought they wouldn't believe him. Oh no, he was sure they would have believed him. This time. But he knew that somehow he would have ended up dead. There might have been prison in there somewhere before death. But he just knew death was what waited for him. If he told on her. And he knew, somehow, that everything which had happened to him that day on his run had been connected to her. To Lisa. He just couldn't say how.

He knew all this mere seconds after he had lifted the crock-pot lid. 

He knew after he had given that cabbagey liquid in there a good couple of stirs with the big plastic spoon, and had seen something he was sure Lisa had never intended him to see.

There are so many different types of roast you can buy in the meat department at the grocery store. So many.  But none of them you find there will ever be quite like the roast Lisa had so thoughtfully left simmering for Rob that day. 

None of them you find there will have a Guns N' Roses tattoo.

No comments:

Post a Comment