So, my father finally passed away. I say finally because he was very old and had been sick for a while. None of this was unexpected.
We moved him to a care facility near here a couple of years ago, so one of us could visit him on a daily basis. His house sat empty the entire time he was at the care facility. Now, we are tasked with emptying it out.
What follows was included in some papers my wife found while going through his old filing cabinets. Based on what we know of our father’s early history before he met Mom, we all think that this was written by him and that the person described is himself. We are divided on whether this is fictional or real. It doesn’t have a title, just the date of “September 21st, 1981.” It was in a sealed envelope addressed to a paranormal researcher who was active in the 1990’s. It was never mailed, obviously.
“A couple packs of fresh Tareyton cigarettes were what it took for me to get through a day at that lousy job. Every morning I’d get the doors unlocked, flip the Closed sign around to say Open, and turn on all the lights. That clunky, black rotary phone behind the counter would always ring when the clock on the wall showed eight fifty six. It was Juanita from the home office over in Waldorf, doing her daily check in, making sure she could tell management that their precious adult book store, just a few blocks down from the front gate of the Navy base, was open for business. After that, I’d go out back for the day’s first cigarette. The morning this all happened, my lighter stopped working.
I got finished with the Juanita call, then headed out to the alley behind the store. If anyone ever asked, I could say I was out there making sure there was no sign of an overnight burglary. Like I said, we were two blocks from the main gate to the base, and a lot of traffic in and out of that store was enlisted men. But a lot of the trouble that happened in the county came out of those gates as well, and the kind of literature we sold in the back attracted all kinds of attention. Once, right after I started there, there had been a break-in. Some fellows from the base had had a lot of drunken fun trashing the place. It was their CO that caught them when they got back and it was he who reported it. But the management up in Waldorf decided to sweep the whole thing under the rug and not press charges. Can’t lose all those customers, after all
So, anyway, there I was in the back alley, trying to fire up the first cig of the day, and my old Zippo, the one I got from my dad one time when he came for a visit, finally failed to light. I’d just put lighter fluid in there the other day so I knew it wasn’t that. Had to be the flint.
I knew Juanita wouldn’t be calling again until almost eleven. That’s when she would always make the second phone call of the day, checking on the store. So I decided there was time to go get a new lighter. I just needed a cheap one that they sold at the store down at the corner, good enough to get me through until I could acquire a new flint for my old Zippo. Mornings were usually dead anyway. People typically didn’t make the trip here until their lunch breaks. I put up the ‘back in five minutes’ sign on the front door, locked it, and turned around. Juanita was standing right there on the pavement in front of me.
I knew it was Juanita because I still recognized her from the one time we met, two years before at the management office in Waldorf. I had just been hired at the time, and was up there to sign paperwork.
I figured Juanita must have been in town that morning all along and had been sent by management to catch me ‘doing something’. I figured she had probably called me that morning from the pay phone in the hotel right across the street.
All I meant to do was walk down two blocks and across the street to the Peebles, to pick up one of those cheap plastic lighters they sell at the front counter, and then head right back and re-open the store. I started formulating all of this in my head so I could blurt it out to Juanita.
Looking back I keep trying to remember how she was dressed. It was a clear day. There was plenty of light that morning. Maybe we were in the shadow of the building? Thinking about it now, I am going to have to go back there and look. I have been meaning to go back for a while now, even just to drive by the damned place. Just to help piece together what happened that morning.
The memory is not blurry. It is just that I seem to remember everything that morning suddenly went from being nice and bright to having this veil over it. Everything went into shadow, kind of, with this somber, gray veil. The dress Juanita was wearing was just some house-dress. Dull floral print, maybe? I remember one dull red splat vaguely shaped like a rose was printed on her dress right over one of her boobs. Not flattering. But I remember her face that morning pretty well, too. Her face did not look normal. Juanita was a little overweight from the one time I actually ever laid eyes on her, back when I was first hired, but when I saw her that morning, Juanita’s face was all puffy, almost bloated. One eye and one cheek protruding more prominently than the other. Juanita was not looking directly at me, not glaring with an ‘I got you’ glare. I remember Juanita’s head bobbed and jerked around slightly while she stood there, and I could tell the hair on the back of her head was all pushed up and matted, like oily, unwashed bed-head. But her eyes were halfway open and seemed stuck in position, slightly down and to her left. They did not move at all and did not blink. The lips of her mouth were puffy, too, and parted slightly, and also just kind of frozen in place.
This situation was awful for me in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, I was alarmed to see anyone from the management office standing there on the curb that morning. As awful as that job was, peddling smut all day, I kind of needed the money. And nobody else in the whole county would hire me for anything at that point in my life. On the other hand, the sight of that person on that sidewalk on that morning was the most unsettling, gut wrenching thing I had ever seen in my life.
I stammered something like ‘just five minutes’ or something like that, and then she started screaming. I mean, it was like someone threw a switch, and a high pitched burglar alarm started going off at the back of Juanita’s throat.
I just kind of stood there, I guess in shock. This went on for a few seconds. Juanita just screamed in this high-pitched, keening wail. Then all at once she stopped, and her face jerked up and her eyes popped open real wide and her mouth started moving. I remember when that happened I kind of jumped back very suddenly and my butt and my elbow connected very hard with the door behind me.
Juanita’s eyes were wide open, with tiny pin-prick pupils. This gurgle started coming out of some place deep in her throat, kind of like a long, growling burp. Then Juanita’s lips started to shift and move around this gurgling sound to form words.
‘You shouldn’t have done it’ is what Juanita said to me that morning.
That’s all she said. I remember I was cold and clammy and sweating while all this was occurring. I remember starting to ask her just what the hell was wrong with her. I wasn’t scared of losing the job anymore at that point. I was just very alarmed in general, and I could not figure out why she was acting like this, or what was wrong with her face. I asked her two or three times what the hell was the matter, starting to yell.
Juanita made no reply. Her bulging eyes searched the air past my right shoulder, moving her head from side to side slightly as she did this. Since all this began, her head and neck had become more bloated. The flesh on her face had taken a ghastly pallor. One wisp of black hair floated in front of her face. And I mean it floated, kind of like it was suspended in water rather than blown about by any kind of breeze or gust of air. It was like looking through a sheet of glass at someone suspended inside a big fish tank. Then this terrible, low rasp started coming out of her. I realized Juanita was trying to say something else. It slowly started to sound like Juanita was reciting something in Spanish, but this time not to me. It’s like she was just saying it into the air in front of her. Then Juanita was gone.
I do not mean that Juanita turned and walked off. She did not brush past me and disappear into the store. She did not hop into a nearby car. I did not look away at a distraction and look back and she was gone. I mean, she just vanished into thin air right in front of me in the full light of day.
There was no way for me to react to this. I was frightened, but nothing seemed to make sense in a way I could react to. I guess I was in shock. Despite my time in the army, despite having survived automobile wrecks, despite being in bar fights, I had no way to react to what had just happened to me. Still don’t. It was like nothing seemed it could be real anymore, like everything was all at once equally ludicrous. The thought of cigarettes and nicotine and a new lighter had completely left my mind, at least for a while.
Next thing I knew I was back in the store, just standing there in the front aisle like customers usually do, with the racks of magazines and the back of the cash register facing me. I don’t completely remember going back in. I was wondering what to do and simply standing there, dumbfounded. Then I snapped out of my daze a little bit and ran to lock the door. The street was sunny again. There was no sign of Juanita. She was gone.
Then I went back behind the counter, picked up the black plastic phone, and dialed the home office. I dialed Juanita. There was no answer, which was unusual. Someone was always at her desk during office hours.
I went out and paced the aisles for a few moments. There was, of course, the other number I could call, the one that went directly to management. I had never called that one before. That was actually the last number in the world I wanted to call, for a couple of reasons.
I paced some more and then finally, I did call. First I tried Juanita again. No answer. I let it ring until the beeping started. I slammed the receiver down then I picked up the phone again and pressed it to my ear and listened to the dial tone for a few moments. It took some will power but I dialed the other number. I slowly turned the dial for each number, then held my breath while the phone on the other end of the line rang. There was no answer.
I hung up and sat there in the quiet, with just the sound of the overhead lights buzzing away. My hand automatically went up to my shirt pocket where the pack of Tareytons sat. Then I remembered the lighter. Then I called the police.
It took longer than I expected to get someone on the phone who could handle what I was calling about. Waldorf, where the management office was, is in the next county over. The operator had to keep patching me through to some other place, first the other county, and then the state police barracks nearest to Waldorf. I ended up requesting a welfare check on the home office when I did finally get somebody. They told me a state trooper would drop by the main office and make sure nothing was amiss. Corporal so-and-so would get back to me if I thought it was necessary. I said it wasn’t but if they could just drop by that’d be good enough.
There was a loud knocking at the front and I jumped, kicking over the stool that had a box of newly shipped VHS tapes balanced on it, the contents of which went scattering. A man was peering through the front door, with his hands cupped over his eyes to see in. Sports jacket, tie, trilby. I realized the ‘back in five’ sign was still facing the street and the door was still locked. I walked over quickly and opened the door.
‘Hey, uh, you carry the, uh, anything on computers?’ he was saying. I thumbed vaguely in the direction of the periodicals and said we carry the latest copy of Byte magazine. We did also carry normal periodicals up in the front. Regular books, too. Greeting cards and a spinning-rack of comic books. The dirty stuff was all in the back behind a wall with a door.
As my customer rummaged around, I kept eyeballing the street out front, completely ignoring the guy while he went about his business. I was looking for Juanita. I could not explain it at the time but I did not want her showing up again.
My customer finally got my attention by clearing his throat. I went back and robotically rang him up, wrote the transaction in the blue ledger, then returned to the front door. The guy walked out past me with the morning edition of the Times he had bought tucked under his arm. Something on the front page about a nuclear weapons test France was carrying out that day. I locked the door again behind him and just stood there, keeping an eye on the sidewalk.
Lunch time came and went. The black phone never rang. I did not try dialing headquarters again. The P.M. editions of the Times and the Sentinel got dropped off just after when the twelve o’clock bell rang at the naval base. When that thing rang, it could be heard all over town. Going out to fetch the bundles of papers from the curb was the only other time I unlocked the door that day, until the squad car pulled up in the afternoon.
Two state troopers got out of the squad car, one in uniform and one in plain clothes. Both had little brown mustaches. When I went to unlock the front door I noticed my hands were shaking badly. The two officers noticed as well, and asked if I was alright. I stammered something about not having had a cigarette that day, lighter, flint, something, something. The one in uniform quickly offered me the use of his own lighter. I lit up a cigarette right then and there. I noticed they both had blue eyes and were giving me the exact same expression of deep concern as I tugged on the smoke. Right then and there I knew something absolutely awful had happened.
The officer in plain clothes asked if there was any place we could sit down and talk, and said that I’d better lock up ‘for a few minutes’ while we did so. I told the officers that actually other than the stools in the viewing booths in the back of the store, the only option was the stool behind the cash register. As much as they certainly wanted some privacy for what was about to take place, neither wanted to go ‘in the back’ of a store like mine. So we continued the conversation where we stood.
The two officers started out asking me what seemed like several dozen questions about the home office in Waldorf. They wanted to know everything I knew about it. They wanted names and roles and rules and titles. They wanted to know when was the last time I had been up there. They wanted to know when was the last time I talked to anyone there.
Then, they asked about my personal history. That got very uncomfortable for me. I don’t see any reason why I have to answer questions like that. What I always do in situations where someone starts asking about my personal history is start out with my years in the army. That’s the first thing I want people to know about me, that I served. It turned out the plain-clothes trooper was ex-army as well, though a little younger than me. After that, I had to explain how I came to work in a place like this. If I am being honest, it was a whole damned string of failures that led up to my then-current state of employment. But that’s nobody’s business, and I conveyed only the bits and pieces the officers needed to know about all that. They both just kind of nodded and jotted stuff down while I did this. The plain-clothes officer was surprised when he heard who my father was. Damn, they managed to extract a lot of information from me. I am pretty sure I am still considered a suspect in all this.
They asked me about the typical course of business there at my store. I told them about the prompt and daily calls from Juanita. I told them how just this morning, sure as clockwork, Juanita had called me to verify I was in and the lights were on. That is when the nature of the questions changed. The officers seemed like they needed me to say it five times and in five different ways that I had spoken with Juanita that morning, on the phone, and at what time. It was then that they told me Juanita had been murdered that morning, sometime right around nine o’clock.
It got worse. Much worse. Without going into too much detail, the officers informed me that the head manager and the owner, who had been in that morning for a meeting, were both also murdered around the same time. Of the eight other people who also worked in that building in Waldorf, none of them had yet been accounted for. In the end, it would turn out that there were only six other people in that building, because two had called out. The remaining six are still missing persons cases to this day. I guess I am a suspect in those as well.
The conversation needed to be continued at the police barracks, I was told. The troopers followed me around the store as I locked things up. They had to follow me into the back so I could lock the rear door. They each made a deliberate effort not to look to either side of them as they walked down the aisles. I understand. That stuff was all pretty awful, really. Made my stomach turn, to be honest.
On the way over to the barracks, they pulled into a gas station. The plain-clothes trooper got out for a minute, and came back with a three-pack of cheap plastic lighters for me.
I was taken to the ‘new barracks’ that apparently has just recently been built and was, or is, ‘state of the art.’ From the outside, it was a drab but at the same time brutal-looking, one-story building. It had no windows.
Inside, the new barracks was mostly one large room full of cubicles. There was a glassed-off conference room right in the middle. I had heard that they were getting computers in this new building. I do not know what I was expecting, but I was shocked to see there was one at almost every desk. They were just like these gray television sets with a bunch of wires coming out of the back. The screens did not look like anything out of Star Trek. They were black with glowing green letters. Each one had a keyboard and some kind of box for electronics beside it.
There were several regular rooms with doors lining the outer walls of the barracks. I was taken into one of those. At first I got a little scared that they were taking me to a jail cell. But it was an interrogation room. There was an AC unit, and that thing was cranked up really high. I told the officers that I was cold, and they brought me a cheap, flimsy blanket.
We all sat at a small table. The two officers wanted to talk more about Juanita. They started with almost the same exact questions they had asked me back at the store. I told them I knew basically nothing about her. I told them that, as far as I knew, Juanita’s sole purpose was to make phone calls to make sure the stores were open on time. The company had the one store I worked at, two others in DC (well, actually right on the border with DC), and one up in Baltimore. Someone else from the home office mailed me my paychecks. Someone else handled delivery of the inventory. I was just there to mind the place, work the cash register, and do bank deposits.
The officers asked when I had first met Juanita. I told them I had met Juanita about two years ago when I first got hired and was up in Waldorf to sign a bunch of papers. They asked how frequently I spoke to her. I told them ‘again, twice a day, on the phone.’ They seemed pretty keen about that when I told them. They wanted to know what we talked about. I had to laugh at them at that point. I told them to look back over their notes as I had already told them at least four times about the status calls. But the troopers said they just wanted to hear it from me again, that’s all.
They asked me why I left the job at the office supply store two years ago. They wanted to know why I was asked to leave the job at the power plant a month before that. They wanted to know why the teaching gig did not work out. I wanted to leave and walk out of the barracks at that point. I would be willing to walk all the way home, or hitch hike. These guys wanted to know about both my failed marriages. They wanted to know about my landlady, for crying out loud.
But I also knew this was deadly serious business. People had died. I certainly did not want to antagonize the police by standing up and walking out. So I sat through all this and just took it. But I certainly didn’t like answering all of their questions that had nothing to do with my actual job or about the murder case. My personal life was none of their damned business and I don’t like talking about it anyway. It is nobody’s damned business.
After another hour of this, I was getting to the point of walking out again. But then their questions circled back to Juanita. Was I ‘involved’ with her? Had I been involved with anybody at the home office? No, I snapped at them, I hadn’t been ‘involved’ with Juanita or any of those people.
They asked about my car. I told them I did not have a car. Or a truck. Or access to any automobile. I sold my old Sunbeam a while back because it was just too unreliable, and now I had no car.
They got really interested to hear I had no car. They almost got kind of annoyed. Who doesn’t have a car these days, they asked? How did I get to work? I lived how far from work? And I walked that far every day? Both ways? It was at that point that they both just stood up and left the room. I had to sit there wrapped in my blanket and stew for a couple of hours.
When they came back in, finally, they both thanked me very cordially and offered me a lift home. I was still mad at them but accepted the offer.
I left the blanket on the table and walked out of the room with them. I walked down the hall between them. Almost everybody else in the building had clustered in the center conference room. They were all packed around a conference table inside those big glass walls. Hanging in the air about a foot above the tallest person’s head was a thick, blueish haze of cigarette smoke. They had all stopped whatever it was they were doing to look at me as I was being walked out.
There he goes. There goes the Guy Who Had Something To Do With It.
They can all drop dead.
I don’t mind walking. I was in army special forces back during Korea. We walked quite a bit back then. When I walked out of the barracks, it was dark, and I knew I was miles from home. But I told the officers to forget the ride, turned away from them, and started walking.
I know they stood there and watched me while I walked off with my hands shoved in my pockets. I never once turned around but I did not hear them go back in.
Most of the county’s roads out there are gravel over top of the sandy loam. This made it easy to hear the car coming up behind me from quite a distance. I could tell it was coming towards me but at a slow, kind of pensive rate. I thought it was another squad car so I just kept going without turning around.
When the car pulled up beside me, it wasn’t a squad car. It was a station wagon.
‘Hey, uh,’ I heard someone say. The voice was a little bit familiar and I realized it was my one single customer from that wretched day. I don’t know if he necessarily recognized me from the store or knew who I was. He made like he was just offering a fellow a ride. By the looks of him, I figure I didn’t have much to worry about, unless he pulled a gun. So I climbed in.
‘Where ya headed, fella?’ he asked.
I told him what road I was on. The cabin I rented had no actual street address, but if my driver got me to the entrance of the property I’d be alright.
‘Waddaya do? Do ya work at the base?’ the man asked.
I told him no. Then I just gave him the name of the bookstore. He of course acted like he had never heard of the place.
‘Hear about those murders up in Waldorf?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, I know all about it,’ I said without really thinking about the conversation I was having right then and there.
The car slowed in the middle of the road, practically to a rolling stop.
‘Hold on,’ my driver said, propping one forearm on the top of the wheel. We were completely stopped, in the dark, in the middle of the road. Fortunately there was no other traffic while this was going on. I turned to look at him. The brim of the trilby cast a shadow and obscured his face.
The driver leaned over slightly. I could smell his breath. ‘You say you know all about the murders that just happened in Waldorf?’
‘Do you mean,’ he went on, ‘like you know about it like you just heard about it on the evening news? Or you ‘know about it’ know about it?’
I exhaled. Working where I work, I hate giving out any personal details. But I had already stepped in it with this guy so I just told him. I told him the office where the murders happened was my company’s main office and I actually knew the people. I told him I had just been talking with the state police all evening.
I ended with, ‘I’m helping them with their investigation.’
‘Ah,’ the man said, ‘I see.’
He straightened back up and took his foot off of the brake.
We drove on in silence. It finally occurred to me to ask him how the hell he knew about the murders. But a little voice in my head told me that somehow that was a terrible idea and to just get home.
‘Here,’ I said, once we reached a gas station near my road. ‘This is fine. Thanks.’
He stopped and said something like ‘arright.’ I got out, and immediately walked towards the rear of the car so he’d have no chance to roll down his window and speak to me any further.
I turned as fast as I could onto the dark entrance to my road, and walked it. The trail that led to the cabin was about a quarter mile down from the main drag. I walked past the dirt driveway that went off to the parked trucks out in front of my neighbors’ cabin. Then I sloshed through the wet carpet of damp fallen leaves that led up to my front door.
Once inside, I remember lighting the fire because it had started to get a little chilly that evening, and I turned on the radio. I loved listening to that large, crappy radio during nights in that cabin. It got terrible reception out there, but I always left it on a classical music station. You can always make out the piercing beauty of classical music, even through radio static.
Since all that happened, the media circus has come and gone. The case is still open but so far there aren’t going to be any trials. They never charged anyone. The old bookstore is now a boarded-up, rotting tooth in the middle of that strip of store fronts. It has been vandalized multiple times since the landlord had it emptied out. Absolutely nobody will rent that location.
Kind of as a result of all the media attention this got, I met a woman who works at the college nearby. We started seeing each other for a while but it didn’t work out. I did, however, do a lot of work on her house while we were dating. After all, I was not working and was idle, and she needed a lot of stuff repaired. When we broke up, she decided it would be more of a clean break if she wrote me a check for all the hours spent on house repairs. That’s why I’ve got my Sunbeam back beneath me again, with a fresh tank of gas in it. My clothes, my books, and the radio are all stashed in the boot. I am leaving town today, leaving the whole DC area this time. I am leaving the murder case, leaving the cabin, leaving my debts, leaving my reputation, escaping my father’s orbit. Heading out west again. Maybe back to Colorado. Maybe I’ll patch things up there.
But first I am going to drive back into town. I am going to park my car and walk back over to that stretch of sidewalk in front of the old store. I need to go over to that same exact spot, at that same exact hour and minute. I need to check the angle of the light, try to figure out how it all happened.
It has been two years to the day that the murders happened, and the weather is the same as it was that awful morning. I never told anyone about seeing Juanita that morning. I never shared that part, not with the police, not with anybody. I never told anyone how, right in the instant before she vanished, she raised her jaw just enough that I could see her neck. I never told anyone that the murder weapon was, unmistakably, a length of yellow, army-issue tripwire.“