Welcome back! In this weekly series, we present, for your reading enjoyment, some of our favorite short stories, in easily digestible serialized episodes. Each week will contain links to the previous episodes of the story (in case you miss one). Please let us know what you think — and if you have written a story you would like to see serialized, please feel free to let us know that as well.
Twin Crucibles – Dusty Grein
(Part 2 of 4)
[ Part 1 here ]
Four states were between them now, but Amy could still feel his presence.
The man her mother had chosen to become Amy’s stepfather before she died. His very name was repugnant to Amy.
It had started soon after her mother’s funeral. Howard decided, since Amy was now the ‘woman’ of the house, it was her responsibility to make sure his house was spotless, his clothes were cleaned, and his dinner was ready when he got home from work.
She and her twin brother had become his servants. Brandon was his gardener, plumber and pool-boy; and God forbid the garage floor wasn’t oiled and swept with wood shavings every day.
They had both learned early on to fear his ‘reprimands.’ The two of them were only eleven years old when they had been left with him, and Howard had decided they needed structure and discipline; in his opinion, those were best served up with a belt, a guitar string or a closed fist–depending on the severity of the infraction and his mood. His list of rules was long, and could be added to at any time.
For seven long years, the two of them had survived his abuse together.
Brandon had wanted to kill Howard for the last few years. Their stepfather was too big to fight off, and too mean to reason with. Often, he was also too drunk to be awake for long after dinner.
Brandon had gotten a gun somewhere. Amy desperately wished he never had.
The accident had been two months ago, but the pain was still as fresh and sharp as the day she heard the gunshot; the day she had found her twin brother lying in a pool of blood, and her step-father gone in his truck. The garage door had been open, but the smell of burnt gunpowder was still mixed with the smell of diesel exhaust as poor Brandon lay there, his life’s blood pouring out onto the clean floor.
It had been ruled an accident, but in her heart, Amy was sure that Brandon’s death had been Howard’s doing.
Two days after Brandon’s funeral, Howard had come into her room at night and forced her to do something. She couldn’t remember exactly what he had said or done; she had gone somewhere else in her head while it was happening. She knew afterward that she hurt from the waist down in ways she had never hurt before, and a small part of her heart had grown cold and hard that night.
The next day–a week ago now–she had grabbed what she could carry before leaving Howard’s house for the last time. The car was legally Brandon’s still, so Howard couldn’t accuse her of stealing it.
The green metal sign on the side of the road read ‘Stanville’ and her gas gauge was approaching empty. She hit her blinker and moved onto the exit ramp.
Three vehicles behind her, the green Peterbilt followed suit.
* * *
Mike sat on the picnic bench and watched as the orange sun lit the beach in a warm glow. He watched a pretty girl walking along the shore as the waves slowly bid goodnight to the land. Now that he had made his decision, his mind was calm. He wondered if that was normal for someone in his position, and then realized there was nothing normal about this.
Hell, no one would even miss him.
Sure, old man Murdock would be in a bind for a little while, trying to find someone to replace him, but there were many computer programmers in the world. There were probably five or six with their resumes in the old man’s desk drawer already.
Mike even knew how he would do it.
He had always been afraid of pain, but he read somewhere that drowning wasn’t painful. He was going to do it right over there, on the breakwater jetty. At low tide, the rocks of the jetty were exposed to the sun and salt air, but at high tide, the water covered all but the top couple of feet. He knew that there was a big rock along the water at low tide, which would make a great nap spot; it would be a permanent one as well.
The bottle of sleeping pills with Mama’s name on them was sitting in his bathroom medicine cabinet, and the warning on the side could not have been any clearer. DO NOT TAKE WITH ALCOHOL. A bottle of Vodka would mix with some orange juice; after a snack of pills and Russian firewater, he would come down here and take himself a little snooze on that rock.
With any luck, they’d never even find his body.
Hell, there’s no one around to identify me anyway.
It would be easy to find out the next time there would be a high tide during his lunch hour, easier in fact than spending another week alone in his apartment.
* * *
The guitar seemed to sing along with Amy as she played and, more often than not, the folks passing by would stop for a moment to listen.
She had Brandon’s picture–the only one she had of him– taped inside the lid, and a small wreath of flowers stood inside, next to a sign that read RIP. More than one of the passersby had to wipe away a tear as they dropped their spare change into her guitar case.
Amy knew she was quite skilled. Playing the guitar was one of the only things she did better than Brandon. He always told her that he would improve someday; now that would never happen.
She finished the song she was singing and took a long swallow from the soda at her side. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and she knew the after-work crowd would be passing through the park soon. It was the best time of day to make money busking. Her obvious mourning for Brandon, enhanced by the black sweater and boots she had found at a nearby thrift store, made this the most productive time of day.
She had only been here for three days, but she had already spotted a few regulars and most of them smiled back when she made eye contact. Her life seemed almost surreal now, and it was strange that she could even do this, but she felt like someone new. This new girl was stronger than the old one had ever been.
There was an older man in a jean jacket, with a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes. She had noticed him sitting across the park every day. Something seemed a little off about him, but she wasn’t sure why. He never approached her, but spent a lot of time seated on a bench, reading a paper. She tried to ignore him, but it felt like he was watching her from a distance. His beard and those shadowed eyes frightened her. She hadn’t felt that way since leaving Howard’s house over a week ago.
Her troubled thoughts were eased somewhat by the appearance of the short guy in the cardigan. He had passed her every evening since she started playing in the park, and he always stopped to listen. He would be there, but his eyes would be far away. She had tried to smile at him, but he’d only blushed and hurried off.
She imagined his name was Pete. Somehow ‘Pete’ made her feel safer when he was standing here watching her play. He was kind of cute too, but he was probably married. That would be just her luck.
She finished her song and looked up. The strange man in the baseball hat stood, gave her a small salute, and walked off into the trees.
* * *
Her name was Amy, and Mike knew he had to see her again. This morning had come and gone, and the bright sunshine of the 11:00 a.m. low tide had gone with it.
Funny how much your mind can change in just a couple days.
Monday morning, he had been set to live out his last three days in quiet solitude–then he saw her. She was beautiful and her voice was pure and sweet as it blended with the music that poured from her guitar. He had been terrified that if she ever actually talked to him, he wouldn’t be able to form coherent speech.
He had stopped every day after work this week to listen to her sing and play. She smiled at him once, and the feeling that had coursed through his whole body had scared him. It was like electricity, and even though he had been afraid of it, he wanted more.
Somehow, he found himself preoccupied with things at work all day, unable to get her off his mind. The next thing he knew, his lunch break–and his shot at the perfect exit–was over.
He built up his courage all afternoon, and on the way home, he stopped once again to listen to her play.
There was a small crowd gathered around her, but as he approached, they seemed to part like the Red Sea. Her smile wasn’t just beaming… it was radiant. He almost wept at the sheer beauty she was projecting, and she was projecting it at him.
He smiled back, and she paused in her singing. Her fingers continued to caress sweet music from the strings of her guitar, but her eyes were trained on him. He felt as if they were the only two people in the park, although the small crowd was still rapt.
“Hello.” It was just one simple word.
Instead of his terror freezing him, it seemed to fly off at the sound of her voice. “You play beautifully.”
She gave a small laugh. “Why, thank you, kind sir.” She finished her song and stood as the people applauded and money sprinkled into her guitar case. She lifted the guitar, pulled the strap over her head, and set the instrument down.
Mike watched in awe as she casually tucked a stray blonde hair behind her ear. She was the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen.
He reached out to shake the hand she offered, and when they touched, he was sure both of their eyes dilated ever so slightly. Something strong, sweet and very real passed between them, and he continued to hold her hand.
“Amy. Pleased to Mike me. You’re as name as my beautiful eyes do.”
Her eyes crinkled at the corners and her mirth wouldn’t be contained. She laughed aloud and grinned at him. “Well, Mike, I am pleased to meet you.” She leaned closer and whispered loudly, “and I think your eyes are very cute.”
Realization of what he had said swept through him and he could feel his face turning red.
“I can’t believe I said that. Would you forgive me if I bought you dinner?”
“Oh, I’d love to, but I have plans tonight.” His crestfallen features must have been evident, because she squeezed the hand, which was still holding hers. “Are you free tomorrow? I hear the Saturday Market here is nice.”
“Sure. I’d love to take you at breakfast… I mean have you for breakfast… I mean…”
Take a deep breath.
“Yes, I’ll be here tomorrow. What time works for you?”
She continued to light up the day with a smile that started at her eyes and encompassed her whole face. “I’ll be here about 10:00, is that okay?”
“Great. I’ll see you then, Amy.”
He walked away, knowing that if he turned back around, he would never be able to leave.
His fear that this wasn’t real was only slightly stronger than the fear it was – but one way or another, he knew he had to see her again.
… more next week
[ Part 3 here ]