It was her.
He didn’t need to wait for the dental records or DNA testing. He knew.
He turned away from the white suits of the forensics team and pulled the dog-eared photograph out of his jacket pocket for the millionth time. The girl in the yellow summer dress. With ice-cream on the end of her nose and a smile that put dimples in her cheeks and made him want to smile too. But not today. Today he couldn’t shift that awful feeling of tightness in his throat.
Two-hundred and thirty-six days had been and gone since she disappeared and only a few dozen less had passed since the search had been scaled down. Officially at least. In his mind, though, it had never really stopped. How could it? He had promised the mother he’d bring her little girl home. Perhaps it was small town naiveté but he had never allowed himself to imagine it ending like this. Never lose hope. That’s what he’d told her. And now he would have to snuff out what little she had left.
He wished more than anything else that there was someone else who could tell her but he knew it had to come from him. She deserved that much at least. He slipped the photograph back into his pocket and headed blindly through the trees in the direction of the road.
The officers at the entrance to the woods gave him sympathetic glances as he passed but he ignored them. It was nothing new. He’d been the crazy detective for a while. He’d heard the whispers. He should never have been involved. It was too close to home. It had pushed him over the edge. Sometimes they made him feel like a pariah. Most of the time he didn’t care.
He reached the car and slid behind the wheel. His fingers fumbled with the keys as he tried to start the engine and he punched the dashboard in anger. He had to get away from there. To clear his head. To drive until he could think again. The key finally turned in the ignition and the tires spat gravel as he put his foot to the floor and shot out onto the road.
By the time he realised which way he was driving, he couldn’t have stopped if he wanted to. The car knew the way too well. He pulled into the car park and found his usual space sitting empty. Winding down his window, he filled his lungs with the fresh air and the smell of spring blossom.
He watched as two small children played in the sunshine and the sound of their laughter floated to him on the breeze. Closing his eyes, he let himself imagine it was her. That it had all been nothing more than a bad dream and that when he opened his eyes she would be there. Waiting patiently on the swing as if she’d been there all along.
But, when he looked, the park was empty and the children were running off ahead of their parents in the direction of the ice-cream van. He pulled the photograph out of his pocket again and gazed into those clear blue eyes. His vision blurred until he couldn’t make out her features anymore and her golden hair looked like a halo. A tear fell onto her face but he brushed it away with a gentle finger.
‘I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.’
Then pulling his phone out of his pocket he scrolled through the numbers with unsteady fingers. Until he found the name he’d been looking for. The screen waited for his response to a question he never wanted to answer. Call Home?
Monthly Archives: April 2013
It was her.
Look at them all. So engrossed in their own stupid little worlds that they don’t even bother to look up as the carriage doors open. I crane my neck as I walk the aisle looking for a seat but the train is packed with commuters and I end up standing in the corner. But that suits me fine. At least that way I can keep an eye on them all.
They’re pathetic, that’s what they are. Every last stinking one of them. I can hardly stand being so close to the vermin but sometimes when a hunter stalks his prey he must crawl on his hands and knees through the same dirt as the beasts. Breathing in their polluted air is a necessary evil. An occupational hazard.
The old coin is hidden safely in my pocket but I have an urge to hold it just to be sure. I turn it over and over between my fingers and feel the reassuring firmness of the metal. The smooth contours of the shapes minted onto the two sides. Heads and tails. There are only ever those two options. I like that. It keeps things simple. White or black. Stay or go. Live or die.
Which reminds me why I’m here on the subway breathing in the stench of sweat and the carcasses of broken dreams. The tragedy of unfulfilled middle-class aspirations. How my heart bleeds for them! Poor little lambs. Yes, that’s what they are. Lambs going to the slaughter. One by one. It might make them re-evaluate. Death does that. Especially when it’s your own.
So, who’s it going to be, my little lambs? Just one of you this time. That’s all I need. One by one. I feel like a shepherd picking out the fattest, juiciest lamb for the trip to the abattoir. The coin twirls around my fingers as I scan the faces. Heads or tails?
They don’t know me. None of them do. They look through me as if I’m a ghost. As if I’m not even there. They just go right on reading their newspapers. Rags with big angry headlines and filled with petty nonsense. Oh yes, they’re definitely sheep. Blindly following the leader. Or whoever has the bell which tinkles the loudest. Mindlessly swallowing whatever’s in front of them.
The more I watch them, the more I’m convinced. They all deserve to die. That’s the best way to deal with disease-ridden livestock. Wholesale slaughter. And then torching the bodies. But, no, I can’t kill them all. That’s not how things work. There has to be some sort of order. So I’ll take them one by one.
And now I have to make my selection. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. How about that teenage boy with his headphones on? I can hear the music filling his ears. It sounds angry and I don’t like it. I can feel it making me angry too but I musn’t let that happen. I have an important decision to make and I need to stay calm.
Maybe the coin will help. I take it out of my pocket and toss it. Up and down. Up and down. That woman with the children is watching now. Her mouth smiles at me but somehow her eyes stay the same. Like she’s worried about something. She takes her children by the hands and pulls them close. I grip the coin more tightly and look away.
That’s when I see him. Shirt and tie. Talking loudly to some unseen friend about a business deal or some nonsense. I toss the coin again. Up and down. Up and down. He doesn’t even notice.
I start off across the carriage towards him but the train lurches and I have to brace myself to keep from pitching headfirst. I’m standing in front of him now. My arm hooks around a pole to anchor myself in place and I hold out the coin.
‘Heads or tails?’
He glances up and then goes back to staring at the screen of his laptop.
‘I asked you a question.’
He folds his arms and stares at me.
‘What do you want?’
‘Heads or tails?’
‘Look, I’ve not got time for this…’
‘Let’s discover your fate.’
He seems strangely lost for words so I carry on regardless. The self-confidence leaves his eyes as we watch the coin fly up from my fingers. It spins in front of our faces and time slows down as if in sympathy. The noise of a dozen conversations in the carriage behind me fades away and all I can hear is the sound of my own heartbeat. Thub dub. Thub dub. Like the gentle rhythm of the second hand on a clock.
The coin reaches the topmost point of its arc and begins to fall back down toward my waiting hand. It nestles in my palm and with one swift movement I turn it over in preparation for the moment of reckoning.
Now, at last, I have his attention. Everything else is forgotten as his eyes fix upon my hands and I feel a smile spread across my lips. This is it. Heads or tails. Life or death. His very existence decided by the toss of a coin. I lift my hand and look for the answer.
Tails. You lose. Everything.
He looks at me with confusion in his eyes. And as I reach behind my back and my hand grasps the knife, I can smell his fear. But maybe that’s how we all die in the end. Leaping blindly into the unknown. Alone and afraid.
And for a second, I almost feel sorry for him. Almost.