“Stay in the car.”
The dark of night emphasized just how remote the location was, the shadows thick enough to swallow Officer Mueller whole just a few steps outside. More vehicles would arrive soon. I opened the door. The cold blast of air made my steps brisk, the dark never far behind.
The bowling alley was a few miles from Hillside, but it was far enough away for people to forget it existed. Though half of everyone’s absent mindedness was caused by the building’s abandonment, it was also the fault of mob mentality. This was the country. A dusty part of Illinois no one wanted to polish. Some did, decades ago. The bowling alley was evidence of that.
Mueller didn’t say anything when I meandered inside. There was another policeman with him, the one who responded to the call of a suspicious red vehicle in the parking lot. As they spoke softly by the old shoe storage, I walked elsewhere. Mueller often ignored me to make a point. That’s what I told myself. In such a progressive era, it was difficult to accept the fact that some (many) officers would see a scrawny woman with a badge and scoff.
The body laid unceremoniously between the gutters, almost halfway down a lane. The vibrant blue color of her dress was jarring against the layers of dirt. Long, dark hair was fanned out. They looked to be meticulously placed there. A regretful murderer.
“-not touching anything until the crew comes.” The officer who spoke to Mueller. How jarring, I thought. A routine call becoming something so gruesome.
“But it looks like manual strangulation.” Mueller said to the man.
The Jane Doe’s head was turned to the side, exposing the vulnerable curve of her neck. Delicate blue veins were now dark, vile looking, like toxic barbed wire. The pulse once fluttered frantically, like the wings of a trapped bird, as hands curled around the throat.
“The bruises fit the MO. You think it’s him?”
“The one from the city? Hard to say.”
I took a few steps closer to try to see the discolorations the officer mentioned. The first dead body I ever saw was my mother at the funeral, but this woman didn’t look to be sleeping. Her fingers were stiff and crooked like a spider’s legs, and there were red marks blossoming along her arms. With such pale skin, it was easy to spot the dark spots encasing the body’s neck. Several minutes would have passed before she died by suffocation. I could picture her throat raw with the effort of screaming but, with the hands wrapped around her, the shadowed building would have been quiet as she died. I stepped closer, envisioning some disembodied force holding her on the floor for so long, waiting for her shoes to stop scuffling the slippery floorboards, waiting for the body below to grow still.
I didn’t feel like an officer. I felt like a bystander scrutinizing a traffic collision.
The dark contusions, like ill-placed tattoos, possessed one with a strange indent near her pulse point, just below her jaw, the mark small enough to be from a ring. I made sure to remain clear of the disturbed dust, but I followed a trail of the frenzied footprints out another pair of graffiti covered doors. They too led to the parking lot. The carpet was littered with old wood planks and rotting chairs. Thirty years ago, with working lights and after many rounds with a vacuum, the building would look to be in the prime of construction. I dragged a fingertip down a wall. It came back grey, clumpy like oatmeal.
When Mueller snuck up beside me, I couldn’t disguise the flinch and the grab for my gun.
“Not the best habit to get into.” He said. “Make sure you’re in the right company for that. Come on.”
I looked at the woman one last time, my appetite parched, eyes ready for the ingredients of nightmares. But yet I yearned to look at her more, not out of some morbid desire to see death up close. It was more like an itch I couldn’t quite scratch, a shadowy corner of my head giving birth to an odd white noise that didn’t leave.
Mueller only spoke again when we were back in the car, heading to the station.
“Am I gonna have a problem with you?”
“Excuse me? Sir?” I learned to hide my insecurity in front of Mueller long ago. That didn’t mean I felt it any less.
“It’s a prohibitory period, Bray,” he said, staring ahead at the toad ahead of him. “We don’t mess with homicides. Let Miller handle it. We’ll make a statement. That’s it.”
“Murders are rare around here, but they do happen. Good chance you’ll see another sometime down the road.”
“Well,” he shifted in his seat, “I’m just letting you know. This isn’t some Magnum P.I shit. You gotta have tough skin.”
The mantra which became my life the first time I slipped the blue shirt on. I met his eyes, waiting for him to glance back at me so I could say, “I know.”
“Know you do. But next time, stay in the car.”
A few moments of silence. Then, “Hate those things, you know. Cops that don’t follow the book. Regulation. You know what’s badass?” He leaned over, ready to tell me a juicy secret with shifty eyes. Mueller had mood swings worse than a preteen girl. “Due process.”
“Don’t you forget it.”
The bowling center was somewhere in the rearview mirror, but night had long ago plunged it into obscurity. Mueller’s radio erupted to life in a vague blur as I thought about the body and its twisted neck. Its flat eyes staying at my forefront.
When I arrived at my home, it was quiet. Through the door, I landed on the nearest cushioned surface with a thump. I never took my work home with me, the four walls a sanctuary from homicidal designs and sadistic frames of mind. But the price of pillow serenity meant long nights at the station, the sterile labs, or crime scenes I wasn’t necessarily approved to examine. A director of the Federal Bureau once told the public a very alarming truth; there are at least 30 to 50 active serial killers in the United States. It was an ominous estimate, but I thought it was a conservative approximation. I guessed Hillside’s police station dealt with one or two in three years alone. One of those under Officer Mueller. Three just under five years. There must be a peak season for killers.
A wet nose nuzzled into my open palm, and the stifled tapping of paws on the rug stirred me out of my failing stupor.
“Hey, buddy…” I lifted myself off the edge of my couch, breathing deeply, “you probably want to go outside, huh?” The dog flap attached to the kitchen’s door was useful on days I was caught up with work, which was often as of late, but I knew my companion didn’t truly enjoy the outside without my throwing sticks or, at the very least, keeping him company.
Like a drunkard, I stumbled into the kitchen, poured an arbitrary amount of dog food, then went out with Agrippa. The cool air helped me wake up enough to change into loungewear and swallow a chilled glass of water. Death never bothered me before. It would fascinate me, give me strange dreams. But the woman in the bowling alley stayed uncomfortably close, just behind my eyelids, refusing to leave. Maybe there was a reason for its stubbornness. I had no idea. That bothered me.
My sleep schedule had already become erratic from the stress of a new work life, now I feared my body really wouldn’t know when to sleep. I already missed my lunch date with Kellyann a week ago due to an impromptu nap in my car, the engine running in my stone driveway. Kellyann insisted sleep was better than a conversation over expensive food, but I still felt a twinge of guilt from the ordeal. She was getting married soon, no doubt she wanted an afternoon to relax and chat like we used to.
My body stiffened at a revelation. It was amazing, actually, how fast the area behind my knees grew hot and threatened to sweat. I turned around in the dark kitchen, my eyes glancing at the calendar but too afraid to really look. My footsteps dragged.
The hard stone in my stomach settled, but just a little. The wedding was tomorrow. I hadn’t completely missed one of the biggest days of my best friend’s life…but I was still incredibly disturbed that I almost forgot. Maybe I didn’t deserve to be called a best friend anymore. I exhaled a huge sigh. I should consider wearing a wristwatch equipped with an alarm every hour to keep me attentive.
In the warmth of the small house, I fell asleep petting Agrippa. Despite the near heart-attack in the kitchen, I was swept into an immediate limbo of dreamful thoughts and relaxed muscles. There were no sounds outside my walls but the faint crooning of a lonely cricket, and a heavy night sky falling through the drapes. The shadows served as a snug blanket, sending me off to a dream of cutting apples with my dad near a bayou. There was no trace of the woman from the bowling alley.
If there ever was a time to stay in the car, it should have been at Kellyann’s wedding. The image of the corpse stayed with me that entire day, and I caught myself grasping my own neck occasionally. But I tried not to dwell on death as I got ready. I tried to look expensive that morning instead, my hair muddled up in a bun, like a delicious black donut. It wasn’t everyday Kellyann got married, nor often my plus-one was a very old friend.
I tried to undo four months of stress in three hours, perfecting my makeup and wishing Kellyann had more casual tastes in attire. To compromise, I wore Mary Janes and my best jewelry. The dress already made a statement, the boat-cut top with transparent sleeves. Everything made me look five years older, in a good way. Maybe I should start wearing the look for work. Too often people mistook me for eighteen. A joke about my being underage at the police station made a blow to my self-esteem that I still had yet to recover from. I’m twenty-seven. My badge does not mean less because there is bright-eyed girl behind it.
I was giddy as I got ready. No work today. No Officer Mueller. No patrols. When I drove to the church, I was content, thinking of mindless muses like the impending summer season and when I’d have another day off like this. Maybe Kellyann wouldn’t be too busy with her hot-shot husband and we could go bikini shopping.
But that giddiness left me when I hopped out of the car, and the first twang of dread birthed into being, refusing to leave.
The back of the church lot was filled with sleek Porsches and shiny Cadillacs. I counted three pedestrian vehicles other than my own. The church itself was something I didn’t think existed in Hillside. It was beautiful, artistically so, like I had seen a building like this in a painting with dimmed street lights with a drizzle of snow. The Perfect Place, it’d be called. More like the imposing place. The place where its porch light would burn out and the maintenance man would come minutes later with a new bulb.
I was greeted by an usher, everyone else in the foyer too busy chatting with wine glasses in their hands to notice a newcomer once inside.
I stood by a grand bouquet of golden and red flowers, flattered that Kellyann had liked my color suggestion months ago, and checked my phone for messages. My plus-one’s name was Tom Good. Although I was against things like this, my sister insisted the man hadn’t changed much since our childhood. I already knew that was a reassuring lie. Tom had at least grown since then? Surely?
I did not stand alone long enough for a stranger to feel pity. I looked through past text messages from my sister and me, and zoomed in on the photo Dylan sent me. It was copied from the Internet, the pixels a bit fuzzy, but I could make out the jus of Tom sitting in a cherry-colored truck. Brown hair. Same closed-mouth smile. Conventional face.
What if we didn’t hit it off? What if Tom grew to be a giant asshole, thinking he was just doing Dylan a favor by accompanying me? A lot can change in ten years.
The doors opened. A group swept inside, and a simultaneous clamor erupted in the foyer as family and friends reunited. But a man departed from the crowd and stepped outside the bustle. Cue another bullet to my confidence, successfully making it bleed dry and whither on the floor.
The man had grown out of his quiet duckling phase, those eyes sparkling like a fountain, a smile that put his online photo to shame. Face of an angel with devil red hair, his presence was inharmonious in this holy place. When he spotted me across the room, I felt my stomach do a familiar churn, anxiety pushing my bowels and threatening to expunge a horrific sound. I slipped my phone away, lest he realize what I was studying moments prior. Just as he approached, I realized to my horror that I hadn’t checked my teeth before leaving the car.
“Yes,” I felt blood rush to my ears. “It’s Maddy, though.”
“Nothing’s changed.” He smiled. “I’m still Tom. It’s so great to see you.”
I was flattered by how quickly he went in for a friendly hug, but I’d be flattered by this guy shitting into his hands and giving it to me. If the men of my past were cool summer drinks with a toothpick umbrella, then Tom was a dark and unsweetened hot chocolate. The kind with cinnamon for kick.
Tom walked ahead of me after I grabbed a program, and my eyes coasted just above the slip so I could admire the man’s stride and the unrivalled glory of his red hair. Time had been good to him. I had to thank my sister for orchestrating this.
“Are you a friend of the bride?” He jested.
I laughed. “You?”
My body shook again. “Thank you for doing this. I hate going to weddings alone.”
We sat down in a pew with a polite space between us. We were never that close as children, and that was my fault. With every sketch of me he doodled, they always ended up in the trash despite my flattering lies. With every constant attempt at hanging out, I was always busy with friends or homework. Tom was too quiet of a kid and I never liked silence as a child.
“You know, my mom was supposed to be my date for one of these.”
“Oh, wow,” I said. “When your own mother stands you up, you know you’ve hit rock bottom.”
The minutes passed like seconds. Conversing with Tom was an elegant pas de deux, like I was a cat chasing a laser pointer. He was elusive, impossible to pin down. He never let conversation fall into an unwanted lapse, and he made me laugh that unflattering, loud laugh where my nostrils flared. It was like slipping into a warm bath with a long, languid sigh.
“Do you come to Hillside often?”
“Oh, every day.” I gave a posh flick of my wrist. “I live here.”
Tom smiled again. I was killing and the fact warmed me to my toes. “Well then, I hope you don’t mind telling me what’s there to do around here.”
“Yeah. I live up where your sister does.”
“Well, you drove by the square to get here, right?”
“No way.” He dismissed me. “Small towns always have something.”
“We got a crazy guy on Eighth Street.”
The benches filled and soon the pews vibrated a resounding hum of voices. The church was beautiful, but my selfishness only registered the natural light crashing through the stained-glass windows and painting an array of colors against Tom’s profile.
“So.” Tom changed his tone to something a little more serious. “I need to ask you two questions.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Are you currently with someone?”
The question caught me off guard. Surely Dylan told the man I was single? I’m positive, in fact, that she painted me in a very desperate, pathetic light.
He nodded, thinking. “Would you want to prove to me just how boring the town is? Be my tour guide?” My silence forced him to say, “You know, around Hillside.”
“We’re at a wedding.”
He laughed, and I felt a stab of fear that he was laughing at me. “I know that. I meant afterwards.”
“You mean after the reception?”
He shrugged, giving that kind of smile where only a flash of teeth showed. “Only if you planned on staying that long.”
“You said you were a friend of the bride?”
“Well, sort of.” He confessed. “Kellyann and I had a few classes together at university, then she moved back here. We lost touch.”
“Oh,” my head began to rummage through college memories, trying to recall a time Kellyann mentioned a ‘Tom’ and hoping the phrase ‘one-night stand’ wasn’t attached. But the delicate sounds of a piano interrupted my thoughts, reminding why I was here in the first place. There was one collective rustle of sound as people turned to watch the procession.
“So, what do you say?” A pause, then Tom said my name like a prayer.
When Kellyann walked through the archway, cheeks rosy and smile wide, I gushed like a mother.
I felt silly, having been so easily enraptured by my plus-one to not remember whose day this really was. My lack of a life could wait. Kellyann was in the middle of making a prominent milestone in hers. And though I found myself smiling throughout the ceremony and almost crying at the end, I also felt the occasional glance of Tom’s eyes leaving the couple to look at me. Tom Good. Maddy Good.
I put a hand to the base of my neck, imposing myself, breathing deeply.
The mahogany hall shimmered under the sun’s stained-glass filter, the smell of sweet grapes catching my nose once more as the piano keys spilled throughout the foyer and echo off the renaissance ceiling. Tom positioned a loose arm around the small of my back like a gentleman, our quiet chatter adding to the hum around us leaving the church to throw flower petals at the bride and groom. The last, pink, sunbeams fall across polished floorboards and colorful weaves. When we exited the main doors, Tom’s arm snuck up and his hand caressed the back of my neck, a large ring tangling in my curls.