Sunday, February 27, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 7 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


**********

Five more months went by before I heard anything more about Sherri. I had just arrived home from a new client’s office just when the phone rang.

“Jack,” the voice said. It was her. I turned up the volume, straining to hear more than her voice. Any background noise would help figure out where she was calling from, but instead I only heard a slight crackle of static.

“Sherri, I -- “

“I just wanted you to know I’m alright,” she interrupted. “I’m pretty sure that everyone’s gone crazy looking for me, but I couldn’t do it.”

“What couldn’t you do?” I asked her.

“Oh, all of it. Staying with you, moving in with Sam, the whole thing. I was just sick of living a life that I thought I should have and I assumed you would be the one to make that for me. But you’re too damaged to be any good for anyone.”

I almost objected, but I could see her point. “What about Sam?”

“Oh, Sam is sweet and I know he would treat me well. But he was only going to be my rebound from you and I didn’t think that was fair to him. So I just took off.”

“You know the cops are looking for you. Good old Sam told them I must’ve done something bad to you because you never showed up. Does he know you’re okay?”

She hesitated for a moment. “Yes, I talked to him this morning.”

“Where are you?”

“That doesn’t matter, Jack, it’s over. I’m not coming back to California again, ever.”

I considered her words. Sherri turned her back on a state she said was the garden paradise of the world at one time. She must’ve been really unhappy with her life to leave it all behind like this and I was the only one to blame.

“I’m painting again,” I told her, hoping that would sway her.

“Good, I’m glad. You’re a talented artist, Jack, you need to paint.”

“I’ve gotten my life back on track, too. No more drinking, at least like I used to. No more feeling sorry for myself, either.”

“That’s wonderful. Sounds like my leaving helped you break through your blockage and now you can move on, too.”

I wanted to jump through the phone and shake her. “No, no!” I insisted. “Sure, I needed a wake-up call, but I didn’t need you out of my life and I still don’t. Damnit, Sherri, I miss you! I miss us. I have no interest in meeting another woman and starting over. You’re ‘it’ for me. Can’t we try again?”

I give her credit. She stayed silent long enough to convince me she was really thinking about it, but instead she uttered a quiet, but firm, “No, Jack” and without another word, she hung up.

Right then, I saw the entire picture. Just like that crossword I childishly ruined all those months ago, Sherri only wanted to come up with a solution to our future, but I blocked her at every turn. Instead of continuing to struggle, she chose a puzzle she knew she could solve and left me to figure out my own, whether I wanted to or not. Maybe someday I’ll do just that.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 6 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


**********

For the next few weeks, I followed every lead I could find to locate Sherri. I had a copy of her electronic address book on my computer from when we combined Christmas card lists, so I spent hours calling her old friends to see if they had any ideas. Like her family, all of them had little to share with me. For a while, I thought I could tell that they were avoiding giving me information in order to protect Sherri, but after the third or fourth call, they realized the situation was serious and I wasn’t just stalking an ex-girlfriend.

I traveled by bus or train through the Bay area and even north to Oregon and Washington, then south all the way to San Diego, but turned up empty. One of her cousins suggested I check Chicago since he recalled back when they were kids that Sherri had been drawn to the Windy City at one time. My dwindling finances prevented air travel, so I held off on that trip for a while as well as any to Florida and New York, two more leads from her friends that came in.

Officer McHenry contacted me often during this time, but I had no news to offer him nor did he have any for me. One day I received an unexpected visit from a San Francisco city detective, a tall, thin-as-a-rail kind of guy with the unlikely name of Jefferson Tremaine. He walked in like he owned the place and started poking around cabinets and drawers without so much as an explanation and certainly no search warrant. For a moment, I wasn’t even sure he was really with the city, but he whipped out his identification when I challenged him, so I let him carry on with his unconventional investigation.

After he left, I called McHenry to complain and asked if I shouldn’t report this to police superiors. Much to my surprise, he almost pleaded with me to not do that. Instead, he swore that I’d never see Tremaine again unless he had a search warrant in hand. True to his word, there were no more visits from the detective until the one-month anniversary of Sherri’s disappearance. This time, Tremaine, search warrant in hand and accompanied by technicians, searched every inch of the place, dusted it for fingerprints and even used luminol to find try to find traces of blood. They spent more than two hours performing all their cop duties, then left as silently as a mime troupe. The detective thanked me at the door, perhaps a more little gruffly than necessary, but I didn’t challenge him about his attitude. I was just glad to be rid of him and his crew.

The next day, Officer McHenry called to find out if Tremaine followed protocol this time and I assured him that he did.

“Look, Mr. Gantry, I’m sorry for all this. You’re still a person of interest in this case, but unless there is any further evidence from yesterday’s visit, I’m pretty certain your status will change. In truth, more missing person cases go unsolved than solved and it’s usually because the person who’s disappeared simply does not wish to be found. Unfortunately, that means the police department and even the FBI waste a lot of manpower tracking these individual down for no reason.”

“No problem, officer, I understand. Believe me, I’m just as anxious to find Sherri as you guys are. I need closure at this point, if not for any other reason than peace of mind. But I’ve run out of ideas and also out of money. I need to get back to work.”

McHenry paused for a moment. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t do that, Mr. Gantry. If we need you, we can arrange something convenient with your schedule.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

After I hung up with him, I sat down in front of my computer. Too many months had passed since I last did anything creative or even looked for new clients and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do so in time to make a difference to my almost empty bank account. However, Desperation is a strong taskmaster, especially accompanied by his twin sister, Hunger. I had no choice but to beat my way back.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 5 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


**********

I lay on the couch and slept most of the afternoon. By the time I woke up, it was close to eight o’clock and I found myself hungry for dinner. I looked outside and saw the afternoon clouds gave way to torrential rain, so instead of going out, I called in for pizza delivery, then turned on the TV to pass the time.

An hour later, I heard a knock on the door and got up to answer it, my wallet already in hand.

“Mr. Gantry?” a uniformed policeman said when I opened the door. His partner stood next to him, a grim look on her face.

“Yeah, I’m Jack Gantry. Is there something wrong?”

“Sir, we have a report of a missing person, a Ms. Sherri, um … “ he paused, looking down at his notes. “Sherri Gibbons. Did you know her?”

“Yes, she is, I mean, was my girlfriend.”

The cop peered inside my apartment, but couldn’t see past me. Instead of blocking his view, I swung the door open and welcomed the two of them in with a sweeping motion of my hand. They hesitated.

“Look, sir, by inviting us in, you’re giving us the right to investigate. You don’t have to do that, at least until we provide you a search warrant. Also, you may want to consult a lawyer.”

I smiled and waved them in again. “Please, officers, I have nothing to hide. Come on in and investigate as much as you want.”

The male cop looked over at his partner, then led the way in. I waited until both were inside before closing the door.

“I hope you don’t mind, the place isn’t tidied up at all,” I told them. “Sherri did the housekeeping around here. Please have a seat.”

I led them to the sofa and sat down in my easy chair.

“Fire away, Officer, um … ” I said.

The cops sat down, facing me. “I’m sorry, I’m Officer McHenry and this is my partner, Officer Lauder,” the male cop said.

“Go ahead, Officer McHenry. I’m all ears. By the way, I have a pizza coming, so I may have to get up to answer the door.”

McHenry nodded and took out a pen. “I promise this won’t be long, Mr. Gantry.”

“Call me Jack, if you would. Mr. Gantry is my father’s name.”

“I prefer ‘Mr. Gantry,’ sir,” McHenry said. “Now when was the last time you saw Ms. Gibbons.”

“Last night. She packed her bags and moved out.”

McHenry scribbled notes on his pad. “Did she say where she was going?”

“No, but I overheard her on the phone with some guy named Sam.”

The female office cleared her throat. “Excuse me, why did she leave, sir?”

I looked over at her and blinked a couple of times. She wanted me to show some emotion, but I had most of that drained out of me at the bookstore.

“She was tired of living with me, I guess. I’m a disappointment in her eyes and she had enough.”

Officer Lauder nodded and withdrew to let her partner continue.

“Do you know who ‘Sam’ is, Mr. Gantry?” he continued.

“No, I only met him today. A couple of hours ago, he was camped out in front of my apartment door, waiting for me to come home.”

“Where were you before that?”

I smiled. “Looking for Sherri. Sam called me early this morning looking for her, though he never said who he was. She apparently never arrived at his house as scheduled.”

“I see,” McHenry said, then looked back at his partner and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“Mr. Gantry, may I take a look around while my partner continues to question you?” Lauder asked, standing up.

“Sure thing, help yourself,” I told her.

Just then, there was a knock on the door and I got up to answer it.

“It’s the pizza. May I?” I asked McHenry.

“Sure, go ahead.”

I paid off the delivery boy and put the pizza box on the counter, then returned to the living room. Lauder hadn’t returned from her inspection of the apartment, so I took my seat and waited for more questions.

“The pizza smells good,” McHenry said, looking up from his pad again.

I laughed. “I’d offer you a slice, but I’m guessing that’s against regulations.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, looking somewhat depressed about that. I felt bad for him for a moment, then I remembered that he suspected I did something to Sherri.

“Any more questions?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, looking back at his pad. “How long have you been living with Ms. Gibbons?”

“At least five years,” I said. “We’ve known each other since college, even dated then. But it wasn’t until she moved to San Francisco and looked me up that we really got serious. Shortly thereafter, she moved in.”

“When did things start going sour in your relationship, Mr. Gantry?”

I sighed. Everyone’s a couples counselor these days.

“About a year now, I guess. I’m a freelance artist and I hadn’t been getting many commissions, so I started getting depressed, then started drinking a bit too heavily. The more I drank, the less motivated I was to look for new clients or even paint anything on my own.”

McHenry looked around and took note of the bare walls. “Where’s all your work?”

“Sold or given away,” I said. “Or thrown out.”

“You throw out your work? Why is that, Mr. Gantry?”

I shrugged. “I was disgusted by some of the pieces I painted. It was either throw them out or gouge my eyes out.”

McHenry made sure he wrote that in his notes. Obviously, I was a dangerous character if I’m talking about maiming myself. Could harming another person be the next logical step?

Just then, Officer Lauder returned from her tour of my newly created bachelor pad. I waited for her to make some sort of cop-like pronouncement, but she just shook her head. Her partner nodded and stood up.

“Well, Mr. Gantry, that’s all we need right now. We don’t see any signs of violence right now, but until we find Ms. Gibbons, we won’t be able to rule out bringing in detective to do a thorough investigation of this place,” McHenry said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Please contact us if you hear from Ms. Gibbons or learn of her whereabouts?”

I took the card from him. “Sure thing, officer, I’ll contact you right away.”

The two cops walked to the door and I let them out.

“Thank you,” I told them and watched them walk down the hall to the stairwell, then closed the door.

Later that night, I tossed and turned in bed again, occupied with concern for Sherri’s welfare. At one point, it struck me as bittersweet that here I was, caring about her when I couldn’t give a damn about her when we lived under the same roof. If God provided wake-up calls, this was mine. I had to get my life back on track, but I didn’t know if I could until I knew where Sherri was. I just had no idea where to continue looking.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 4 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


**********

I wandered around the neighborhood for a few more hours, my mood as sullen as the overcast sky above me. Fresh out of ideas, I made my way back to the apartment, still scanning the streets for Sherri’s car.

I climbed the stairs to my landing and saw a man pacing in front of our apartment door, stopping once to try to see through the peephole, the resuming his march down the hallway. No doubt this was Sam, but I wasn’t convinced I was ready for the encounter and for a moment I debated going the other way.

“Are you Jack?” I heard him call out to me. Damn my indecision!

“Yeah,” I said, striding down the hall to my apartment, keys in hand. “Do I even bother asking the obvious at this point?”

He looked confused for a second, then stood straighter, almost defiant, and looked me right in the eye. “I’m Sam.”

“Sure you are,” I said, amused. I opened the door and looked behind me. “Come on in.”

He followed me and stood in the foyer, waiting for further instructions. Good, an obedient one. No wonder Sherri was attracted to him.

“I’ve been waiting for a couple hours for you to get back,” he finally said, fidgeting in place.

“Come in and sit down,” I told him, pointing to the sofa. “Want a beer? I’m getting one for myself.”

“Sure,” he said, planting himself as I suggested. Good boy.

I brought out the two open bottles from the kitchen and handed one to him. Raising it in salute, I tipped it back and took two huge gulps. He only sipped his, an obvious neophyte to imbibing. Another plus in his column, I guessed.

“You’re Sam, right?” I finally asked, sitting opposite him in my easy chair.

“Yeah. I haven’t hear from Sherri since last night.”

“Same here. She left with her bags to go to your place and I passed out in front of the TV.”

Sam considered what I told him and didn’t respond right away, instead seemed intent in trying to peel off the label from the green bottle.

“Don’t worry, I heard her whole conversation with you last night. Anyway, I just got back from looking for her. No one has seen her recently.”

“Where did you go?”

“All around the immediate neighborhood here. I stopped at her usual haunts, but most of them are closed today.”

Sam got up, walked over to the other side of the room and stood in front of me.

“I don’t believe you,” he said, looking down at me. If he was trying to appear threatening, he wasn’t doing the best job. I had to stop myself from laughing, though I couldn’t suppress the smirk on my face.

“I said I don’t believe you!” he shouted this time, a glimmer of emotion finally flashing in his eyes.

“What part don’t you believe, Sam, that I spent the morning trying to find her, because I did.”

He shook his head, his unkempt long hair flopping in his face, sticking to his unshaven chin. “No, asshole, I don’t believe that at all. I don’t believe you don’t know where she is, either. What I do believe is you hurt her or worse.”

I stood up and brought my face close to his. “Prove it, asshole,” I said, walking away from him. “Look around, see if you see any evidence of foul play. Have at it, I won’t stop you.”

For a moment, I thought he was going to comply, as compliance seemed to be something he was good at. Then he tilted his head and looked at me, again defiant and proud.

“Sure, so I can spoil a possible crime scene?” he intoned, standing even straighter than before. Intimidating, he was not. More like comical.

“So you’re calling the cops then?”

He handed me his barely touched beer. “I already have.”

I shrugged and watched him head to the front door.

“Hey, Sam?”

He stopped and looked at me, his hand on the doorknob.

“Look, I didn’t hurt her, okay? I would never lay a hand on Sherri.”

“That’s not what she told me,” he said.

I shrugged again. “Then she lied to you, man. I’ve never hurt another human being in my life, especially a woman, at least physically. And most especially Sherri. Despite everything she told you, I really do love her. I just could never be who she wanted me to be, but she apparently found that in you. And now she’s gone.”

He seemed as surprised to see tears rolling down my cheeks as I was feeling them. I really did love her, but not enough to want to change for her.

“I hope you find her,” I said to him and turned back to the living room. I heard the front door close behind me.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 3 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


**********

I had no real game plan and my meager meanderings around my neighborhood proved that handily. Most businesses kept their doors closed even during the workweek , so I drifted in and out of dimly lit entryways, hoping to find one of the local merchants available for a short heart-to-heart about my erstwhile roommate. We did all of our shopping in the immediate area, so the storeowners knew us by name, if not by the merchandise we bought from them.

After two hours of random visits to our favorite haunts, I was fast coming to the conclusion that this exercise bordered on the pointless. The more I walked, the more I resented Sherri’s wrong-headed departure, made even worse by the fact that she had apparently not arrived at her prearranged destination.

I stopped on the sidewalk in a fit of pique, determined to dismiss her from my brain much like she disappeared from my life. At that moment, I looked up and found myself standing in front of the All-Seeing Eye Bookstore, a hang-out for mystics and misfits and coincidentally, one of Sherri’s favorite spots when she was feeling a bit put out by something I did or didn’t do, depending on the circumstances. Much to my surprised, I saw the friendly “Open” sign lighted up, so I walked up the short flight of steps to the entrance.

“Hello,” the cashier said, looking up from her magazine. “Looking for anything in particular?”

“Um, no,” I told her, heading to the bookcase farthest from her. I could see her watching me out of the corner of my eye until I stepped out of her line of sight. Two women stood behind me, talking about some book they just found.

“Yes, I saw her on Oprah,” the shorter of the two said, a redhead with a bowl-shaped haircut, her skin the color of strawberry ice cream and just as pock-marked.

“How did she sound?” her friend asked her, clearly anxious to hear how her favorite author came off on national television.

I didn’t stick around to hear the details of their heroine’s tawdry promotion to Oprah’s adoring fans and instead slunk to the back of the shop and around the other side. Another youngish woman stood browsing the titles on the shelf and didn’t notice me in her vicinity until I brushed passed her.

“Oh!” she said, a bit startled. “Sorry, I thought I was alone.”

I was about to apologize when she held up her hand and stared into my eyes. I got the sense she wasn’t all there and hoped this wasn’t going to be one of those weird San Francisco encounters I try to avoid like a root canal.

“What?” I found myself asking in spite of myself.

“You’re here for a reason,” she told me, closing her eyes, her hand still aloft in front of my face.

“Yeah, to buy a book,” I said, sliding past her and heading back to the front of the store.

“Wait!” she insisted, now holding up both hands as though she was trying to will me to stay in one place. “You’re not here to buy a book.”

I laughed, uncomfortable at being caught in a lie. “Then why would I be in a bookstore on a Sunday then?”

For a moment, she didn’t reply and I smiled, secretly pleased with my having so easily stumped.

“You are looking for somebody,” she said, her eyes shut tight enough to highlight the wrinkles on her forehead and alongside her eyes. For a moment, I tried to figure out how old she really was, but then came back to the moment, annoyed that she felt like she had to be in my business.

“Who am I looking for?”

“It’s a woman, I’m sure of it.”

I shook my head. “Look, lady, I’m just here to buy a book, okay? It’s my niece’s birthday and she asked me to get her something different.”

If she knew I was lying, this time bald-faced, she didn’t indicate that. She kept her eyes closed, continuing to concentrate on what I now guessed were my thoughts. Great, another Bay Area psychic, I thought to myself, almost sneering. That was one of many things Sherri and I didn’t agree on at all. Anything remotely connected to the occult drew her in, while it repelled me just as equally.

“You’re looking for a woman,” she repeated. “She’s gone and you’re trying to find her.”

I shook my head again, enough so she could probably hear my brains rattling this time. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be leaving you now. Have a nice day, you freak.”

Before she could say another word, I stormed up the aisle, determined to get out of that store and away from the weirdos that patronize these kinds of places.

“She left you,” the woman called out to me. “Last night, in fact, right?”

I turned around and saw her gesturing toward me, her eyes now wide opened, a smirk on her face. What the hell was going on? Did she know Sherri and this was her way of screwing with me? Am I going to go back to the apartment and find Sherri back home, her luggage sitting in the foyer, waiting to be unpacked?

“What do you know about me?” I asked her, inching my way back to where the woman stood. “Why are you bothering me?”

The woman shrugged, lowering her hands. I could see from a distance she had tears in her eyes and on her cheeks. I fought the urge to run out of there, but I had to know what she knew, no matter how painful it was.

“So tell me,” I demanded, standing right in front of her.

“She suffered a lot,” the woman continued, grabbing one of my hands and holding it between her own. “She loved you, but you treated her badly. She had no recourse but to leave you.”

I looked down at her hands grasping mine, fighting back my own tears.

“You could’ve saved her.”

“Save her from what?” I said, looking at her with desperation. “Is she okay?”

The woman shrugged and dropped my hand. “She’s in a better place.”

“You mean she’s … ?”

“That’s all I know. Good luck with your life,” she said, and with a wave of her hand, she dismissed me, sharing nothing more.

I realized I could argue, cajole, attempt to bribe and generally browbeat this woman, but she wouldn’t submit to my demand to know what she meant. Whether she had psychic powers or not wasn’t clear, but that’s all I was going to learn today. I mumbled my thanks and hurried out of the shop. No one was more surprised that I was to find myself standing outside the bookstore, crying.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 2 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


**********

When I woke up several hours later, the house was pitch black except for the illuminated cat clock hanging on the kitchen wall. I stumbled to the refrigerator and pulled out my last beer. Three gulps later, I threw the empty into the recycling bin and headed to the bedroom.

She left the closet doors wide open as well as the drawers to her dresser. Every stitch of clothing, every shoe was gone. It looked as though she never lived there. A framed photograph of the two of us at Coney Island the summer before remained on her nightstand, a painful reminder of another failed attempt at reconciliation. I ruined that, like so many other times we tried to patch up our unhealthy relationship, with excess of drink and neglect. The fact she stayed with me so long was more a testament of her commitment to me than anything on my part. Now she was gone, for good it seemed.

I stripped down to my boxers and got into bed, but I didn’t sleep. Instead, I thought of the years we spent together. I resisted marrying her, telling her that once we made it legal, the romance would be sucked out like marrow through a bone. She did not appreciate either the mental image that conjured up or the sentiment behind it. I thought I was being gallant; she thought I was just being a jerk.

That didn’t stop her from campaigning for some sort of marriage, even if we just ran away to some cheesy wee kirk in Vegas and tied the knot under the steady gaze of semi-sober paid witnesses and Elvis impersonators. Instead, I kept parrying and feinting at every turn. She jabbed, I ducked. She kicked, I blocked. Love is a battlefield, after all. In the end, we remained a pair of world-weary co-habitants, me with the bottle, her with her anguish over me and the “us” she wished we could be. We were doomed.

When the digital clock on my nightstand clicked over to five, I gave up trying to get back to sleep and instead got up, threw on some dirty clothes and headed out into the early morning fog.

If you’ve never lived in San Francisco, you cannot appreciate what weather really is. Here we don’t have weather, we live it. The fog off the bay is like a damp, woolen blanket that embraces and chills you at the same time. The smells of the neighborhood hang musky and inviting, almost like an exotic dancer from some foreign land, redolent in sex and mystery.

I didn’t see her Prius in its usual spot, not that I expected her to be parked there, waiting for me to come get her before she made some terrible decision we’d both regret. Instead, traffic seemed to have receded into to brackish mist, abandoning the street to night dwellers stumbling their way back to their urban caves to sleep off the evening’s excesses, at least for those who had a place to return to. Street people slept where they fell, usually under the cover of a torn piece of greasy cardboard or if they were lucky, a blanket of fresh newsprint.

I headed down Turk Street until I reached Taylor. Lucky for me, my favorite cafĂ© had just opened their doors and I slid in before a phalanx of wage slaves beat me to the front of the line. A few minutes later, laden with a cup of coffee and a bear claw, I walked back down Turk Street to our apartment, though now it was officially “mine” alone.

Just as I managed to unlock the door without spilling my coffee or dropping my breakfast in the foyer, the phone began ringing inside. I slammed the door closed with my foot and raced to get it before it went to the machine.

“Hello?” I mumbled, my mouth still full of pastry.

For a moment, the line was silent, though I could hear a slight nasal rasp through the received. I waited.

After what seemed like forever, I heard a cough, then a man’s voice. “Is this Jack?” he asked, tenuous, almost shy. I recognized the voice immediately, but decided to play dumb.

“Yes, who’s this?” I asked, then took a swig of hot coffee. I tried to sound casually curious, but in truth, I could feel my heart pumping a mile a minute.

“Um, this is a friend of Sherri’s.” Silence.

“Sherri’s not here,” I said before he could continue. “I don’t know when she’ll be back, either. Are you a co-worker of hers or something?”

Still silent, the guy seemed to be seeking a response among the few at his disposal that would least alarm me. I felt a bit of pity for him, but I also had to admit I enjoyed screwing with his head. Then I thought of something: if he’s calling to find Sherri, then where was she?

“No, I’m just a friend,” he finally said. “I was supposed to meet her for breakfast this morning, but she never showed up.”

Never showed up, I thought. What the hell was going on?

“What time was she supposed to meet you?” I asked, trying to sound casual. Deep down, I actually was surprised to find myself feeling worried.

“Um, an hour ago.” He must’ve known I would’ve thought that was a rather odd hour to be meeting a friend for breakfast, but I didn’t call him on it.

“Well, I wish I could help you,” I said and in truth, I did wish that. “She left before I woke up and she didn’t leave a note.”

The man paused, trying to find out if Sherri confronted me before leaving. Before he had a chance to ask, I added, “Yeah, I was a little drunk last night and fell asleep in front of the TV. She must’ve seen me on the sofa and left without disturbing me.”

“I see,” the man said, sounding somewhat satisfied, but still with a question. “If you could, um, let her know I called, I’d appreciate it.”

“Sure thing. What’s your name?”

“What?”

“Who should I say called for her?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, I guess you’ll need to know. It’s Sam.”

“Sam what?” I probed.

“Um, just ‘Sam,’ She’ll know who I am.”

“Okay then. Thanks for calling, Sam. I’ll give her the message when I see her.”

“Thanks,” he said, hanging up.

I sat down on the sofa to eat the rest of my breakfast and to try to piece things together. Last night, Sherri seemed hellbent on leaving me and running to Sam. Instead, it was almost six-thirty and she’s now MIA. I didn’t know if I should call the cops or the hospitals or what.

After I finished my coffee, I turned on the television and flipped through the news channels. Nothing but the Sunday morning political shows occupied the network stations and cable news had little to offer as far as local happenings. I turned off the TV and went to take a shower. I needed to get out of that place for a while.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 1 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!

**********

I slumped on the sofa, my head lolled back and near comatose when I heard Sherri stomping into the living room, forcing me to climb out of my escapist haze.

“Why did you mess up this puzzle?" she asked, shaking the newspaper in front of my face. "Couldn't you have at least tried to solve the damn thing instead of just blackening the boxes like a four year-old?”

Snickering, I took a pull from my bottle of Stella I still held like a pacifier. I lost count of how many of them I drank, but I recalled popping open my first one around five in the morning.

"Aren't you going to answer me?"

I shook my head and downed the rest of my beer. She watch me lick the foam from the mouth of the green bottle, then stormed out of the room, muttering invectives to gods unseen.

"A-hole!" she screamed when she got to the bedroom.

I heard the door slam behind her. The immediate area settled into a blissful quiet. Even the robins perched on our porch knew it was safe to be birds again and began to chirp their happiness. I closed my eyes, relishing the calm of the day.

Riiiiingggg! Riiiiingggg!

"Damnit!" I muttered, stumbling to the telephone. "Yeah, what?”

Instead of the caller responding to me, Sherri spoke up on the extension. I was about to hang up when I heard a man's voice on the other end. Placing the phone on mute, I sat down in my chair and listened.

"I've just about had it," Sherri said, a hitch in her voice. Was she crying about that damn crossword puzzle, I wondered, both amazed and impressed.

"I know," the man said in a soothing voice. "Why are you still there then?"

"Habit, I guess.”

"Sherri, I don't know what to tell you I have already said. You have to make up your mind."

"I so confused!" she said, sobbing loud enough for me to hear her through the thin walls of our apartment. "I've been in this relationship for so long, I've lost myself."

"Honey, he's not worth all these tears, is he?"

A pause. "I guess not.”

"Then what's stopping you? Pack your bags and walk right out that door. You don't need to explain yourself, you don't have to tell him where you're going, just go."

"But where?"

There was a long pause. I could hear both of them breathing, almost panting. It took everything I had not to take the mute off and tell her to hurry up and go to his place. Anywhere other than this hellhole we made together was bound to be better.

"Live with me," the man said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "We can work out the details later, but right now, you need a place to live and I need you. Come on, I'll be waiting."

Sherri's sobs started anew. "Are you sure?" she squeaked, blowing her nose, the sound a muffled, staccato burst.

"Absolutely. Come on, I'll make you a nice dinner."

“Okay, I’ll do it! I'll see you in an hour."

I heard the call disconnect and turned off the phone, then placed it back on the charger. Keeping an ear open for her movements, I turned on the TV and flipped it to the sports channel. The second day of the Masters was about to start and I could easily get lost in the game, me and my beautiful Stella. Just the thought of that started me laughing and I couldn't stop.

I was still laughing when she stormed into the living room, her eyes red-rimmed and wild.

"What the hell is so funny?" she demanded, her hands planted on her hips.

I paused from my mirth to look up at her, thinking that I disliked her now as much as I loved her once before. Still, she was pretty in a way that some women are when they don't know they're pretty, a trait that makes them even more alluring. I was still attracted to her and probably would always be so. But living with her was killing me and her, the "us" already long deceased.

"Nothing's funny," I lied, wiping my eyes. "I'm just watching the golf match."

"Whatever," she said, muttering something inaudible as she stomped back to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

I waited until she emerged again, fully prepared to see her with packed luggage in hand and ready for a showdown. She didn't disappoint me.

"I'm out of here," she yelled as she left the bedroom.

"What are you talking about?" I said, my eyes fixed on the TV, but trying to sound interested.

"I can't stand living with you anymore. I'm moving out!"

I finally turned around and looked at her posing in front of me, three pieces of unmatched luggage draped over her shoulders. She reminded me of overladen donkey I saw in an old western. For the second time today, I had to force myself to stop laughing. I was going to miss her.

"Is there anything I can say to change your mind?" I asked, finishing the rest of my beer.

She stood there, defiant and proud, trying not to let her luggage topple her over. "You just sit there and drink yourself into another coma. By the time you come to, I'll be a distant memory and you'll be sorry you ever let me go."

For a moment, I thought over her prediction. I'd feel worse about her being gone while nursing a hangover, that much was true. After my headache subsided and the queasiness in my stomach lessened, I'd want to go out and get eggs and fried chicken at Dinah’s, but she wouldn't be there to take me, thanks to the DWI conviction I still had. I guess I could always call a taxi, but that would get old real quick.

"Maybe you're right," I said, gauging her reaction. If my words moved her, I couldn't tell. That setting of her jaw and squinting of her eyes looked pretty final to me.

"Is that all you have to say?" she said, standing over me now.

I looked up at her and shrugged. "Where do you want me to forward your mail?"

She clenched her fists and for a moment, I thought she was going to hit me. On one level, I hoped she would so I would feel something, anything. Instead, she gave me a look that fell somewhere between hatred and pity, which is pretty much what I deserved, then she struggled to the door.

"Hey, you want some help?" I asked her, standing up and putting my bottle on the glass coffee table.

Sherri stopped and turned toward me. "Don't you have any regrets about me leaving? Aren't you even going to try to talk me out of it?"

She started bawling, her body shaking with each sob. For a moment, I began to reflect on all the unkind things I had ever done to her over the years. I reached out to touch her shoulder, but she pulled away from me as though I tried to infect her with some fatal disease. She wiped her eyes on her jacket sleeve and made her way to the door.

"Good-bye," I managed to say in a soft voice. If she heard me, she didn't respond and left.

I stared at the closed door for several minutes before returning to the sofa. The golf match no longer seemed very appealing anymore, so I turned off the TV and lay down for a while. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought to myself that I'd be pretty pissed off at myself later, but I couldn't keep my eyes open long enough to care at the moment.