It started with the flickering of the bedroom light—on off on off on—slow persistent repetitions that nibbled away her sleep. The voice was soft but measured and seemed integrated with the fluttering of the light. “I have a gun, ma’am.”
She rolled onto her back, not quite awake, and turned her head. A man was standing at the bedroom door—a tall ephemeral blur that seemed more shadow than substance. She opened the drawer to her night table and groped about for her glasses. The voice stopped her cold. “I have a gun, ma’am. Roll onto your stomach. Please place your hands slowly on top of your head.”
She squinted at her husband who was lying beside her in the bed. He was flat on his stomach with his head turned towards her. His hands were bound behind his neck. She could not make out his face, his ugly red face, but she could smell his fear.
“Bridgett, stop fidgeting,” he snapped. “Just do as he says.” His voice was habitually reproachful as though she had once again wrecked the car.
Slowly, she rolled onto her stomach and laced her fingers behind her head. She suddenly felt rebellious, not towards the intruder so much as the waspishness in her husband’s voice. It consoled her that his hands had already been tied, but she still wanted to punch his eyes. “Whatever you want, take it,” she snapped. “Take it and go.”
Her anger was so empowering that she felt she had willed it when the rope slipped loosely over her wrists. The rope tightened instantly—the knots had been pretied—but it bit only slightly into her wrists as the intruder fastened them to the railing of the headboard. That he was obviously experienced calmed her a little; she wanted the nightmare to end quickly.
The intruder spoke gently as though addressing an invalid. “There’s an easy way to do this, ma’am. Put your weight on your knees. Cooperate and I won’t take long.”
She obeyed quickly, scrunching her knees against her small breasts while the intruder lifted her nightgown. His hands were gentle and warm as if he were already familiar with her. Even so, she was startled by the coldness of the jelly that he thrust between her legs. He smelled heavily of tobacco. “Please don’t,” she whispered. “Please.”
When he entered her, she shuddered—the act was so skillful, so clinically swift that he seemed to be sparing her pain. She clenched her teeth when he shuddered also—when she felt his seed challenge the grip of the condom. He withdrew from her slowly, surgically—she could feel his hand holding the condom in place. It had taken him only a minute to rape her.
He rose from the bed and the mattress springs groaned. A droplet stung her thigh. He was fumbling with his pants. “Would you like to share my towel?” he asked.
She nodded, irritated by the messiness of the gel, and sighed when she felt the terry cloth tucked between her legs. Her husband’s tone grew shrill. “You’ve taken what you came for. Now will you please go?” She wanted to scratch her husband’s face and felt vindicated when the intruder ignored him. Her marriage, what little remained of it, was collapsing like the Twin Towers.
“Some water, ma’am?”
She shook her head angrily. “Nu-uh,” she muttered. “Nu-uh.”
She could hear his footfalls as he left the bedroom—a catlike rhythm that was soon inaudible. Her wrists had loosened slightly in the bindings, but she clung to the headboard as though it were a raft. After a minute, he returned.
“Have some water, ma’am.” His voice was calm but commanding.
She turned her head; he pressed the glass against her lips. She gulped the water slowly, haltingly, but he waited patiently until she was done. When she had finished drinking, he placed the empty glass on the night table.
“Don’t move for an hour,” he murmured. “If you don’t wait an hour, I’ll know. I’ll come back.”
He turned off the light as he left the room, and she was stunned by the totality of the darkness. She listened carefully for several minutes, convinced that he was still in the house, convinced that he had forgotten something and would return to the bedroom. And then she heard the slamming of the front door.
Two years later, she learned something about him. His name was Curtis Rollins and he was serving five years for another rape. His DNA had also marked her, but the chain of evidence had been broken, rendering the lab results useless. Even so, he had agreed to meet her through a victim program at the Indiana State Reformatory. In exchange for his participation, he hoped to transfer to a prison closer to his mother’s home in East Chicago.
She learned this when a social worker phoned her to arrange the meeting. “You’ll talk to him in a neutral setting. It might take him out of your nightmares.”
She had answered testily, “I would rather he just stayed in my nightmares. There are far worse places he could be.”
“Let him know that if you talk to him,” the social worker replied. Her voice was smooth and sweet, like syrup. “Remember, this is his therapy too.”
She had clutched the phone as though choking a snake. Would meeting him really take him out of her nightmares? She rather doubted it, but her fear was so erratic that it frequently felt like a bat in her hair. Even death seemed better than keeping this turmoil in her life. She had therefore agreed to meet Curtis Rollins in a visiting room at the prison.
She now sat with her daughter in the prison reception foyer. Her smug, self-centered daughter whom she had begged to drive her to the prison. It was a measure of her desperation that even her surly daughter was a comfort. She could not face her assailant alone.
Although it was the Christmas season, they were the only two people in the foyer. She tried to take cheer from the synthetic fir tree in the corner of the room but its colored lights, winking steadily, reminded her of the night she had been assaulted. Colored bulbs had also been strung along the walls, but their glow did not compensate for the sterility of the room: the bare wooden floor, the hardback chairs, and the unvarnished table strewn with paintings that inmates had put on sale. She sat as though drugged, her back to the wall, and held tightly to her daughter’s hand. Soon, a representative from the program would be meeting with them.
Her daughter grimaced; she seemed personally insulted by the drabness of the room. “I still don’t believe you’re going to meet this creep.” It was the same selfish whine that had sparked their argument earlier that day—when she had angrily insisted that she would not pay her daughter’s personal phone bill. Her daughter, a freshman at Notre Dame, had been glued to the phone in her bedroom ever since returning home for the holidays.
“Answer me, Mother. How’s this going to help?”
“It’s only to talk to an aging man. That’s how it was put to me anyhow.”
“Really, Mother. The kind you find lurking in alleys? You know, people get stabbed here.”
She snickered. “So what? I’ll bite his nose off.”
“Just last month, a guard got stabbedto death. Don’t you read the papers, Mother? It’s like Iraq in here.”
She squeezed her daughter’s hand—this wasn’t a joking matter—but she found herself giggling uncontrollably.
“Mother, none of this is funny.”
“Nor is that phone bill, Missy. I’m not made of money, you know.”
She released her daughter’s hand, blotted her eyes with a Kleenex and noticed her reflection in a mirror across the room: a squat disheveled woman in her fifties with pale skin and jet-black hair. She looked flirty yet banal—like a statue in a wax museum. “You’re a closed book, Bridgett,” her husband had once said to her. “Except to any voyeur who wants to stare at your ass.”
Had two years really passed since the incident? Her night sweats, her hyper alertness, her inability to be alone had not subsided over the months. And her panic attacks were daily sieges, springing upon her with the entitlement of a household cat. She could not remember when things had been any other way.
“I’m not made of money,” she said as though repeating herself would strengthen her courage. “Don’t think for a minute I’m paying your phone bill.”
Her daughter sighed. “I promised I would pay it. Really, Mother, don’t be such a brat. I put you to bed last night, didn’t I?”
The door creaked open. A thin, sallow-faced woman tottered into the room. She was moving gingerly on her three-inch heels and reading an open file.
The woman glanced up from the file. “Bridgett?” She spoke as though surprised.
The woman’s voice irked her. It was that same haughty social worker she had talked to over the phone. She answered sharply, “Yes?”
“I’m Anna. We spoke.”
“Yes, Anna. I do remember.”
Closing the file, the social worker sat down beside her. She arched her eyebrows. “Would you prefer that I called you Mrs. Hollowell?”
“Thank you, yes. Let’s stick with Mrs. Hollowell.”
Her daughter groaned. “The name no longer suits you, Mother.”
“Or maybe it suits me a little too well.”
The social worker frowned. “When did your husband leave you?” Her voice was so saccharine that it could have been poured over waffles.
“The worm, you mean. Six months ago. And I left him.”
“It’s just as well. Marriages rarely survive these things. Not even the good ones—the ones that appear to survive. Is this your daughter?”
“This is Jasmine—yes. You can see I’ve spoiled her rotten.”
Her daughter sighed like a martyr and once again took her hand.
The social worker cleared her throat. “Well, she can’t accompany you on the visit, I’m afraid. But you may need her when it’s over. Do you remember your briefing?”
“No…. Yes. I’m not to use my last name.”
“First names only. We don’t give inmates our last names.”
“So what do I call him?”
“He goes by Rashad, but I don’t believe he’s really a Muslim. He probably just uses that name to fit in.” She reopened the file, scratched a note in it and then closed it once again. “He has many disguises, you know. And many visitors.”
“Does he really?”
The woman nodded. “Church folk, Muslims, even some plainclothes detectives. I doubt that anyone sees through his masks, but that’s probably for the best.”
She felt her stomach churning. She wanted to bolt from the room. “I don’t want things to be for the bestanymore. The best is just something we have to wake up from.”
“Is that what you want to tell him, Mrs. Hollowell?’
“What I want is to bite off his nose.”
The woman sighed and nibbled her pen. “A pane of glass will separate you from him. You’ll speak to him over an intercom phone.”
“How convenient,” she snapped. “Do I wish him Merry Christmas as well?”
“Discuss only small subjects at first—like the weather, your health and what you had for dinner last night. Only afterward should you bring up the incident.”
“What should I tell him about it? Should I tell him he ruined my marriage?”
“Only if it’s true, Mrs. Hollowell.”
“It’s not. It’s a lie. But maybe it’s a lie he ought to hear.”
“He must have had something to do with it.”
She giggled. “For that, I should probably thank him.”
The woman frowned again. She brushed her skirt, as though ridding it of ants, and rose from the chair. “Keep your guard up, Mrs. Hollowell. He’s not what you might expect him to be.” She again cleared her throat. “Are you ready?”
“Must I be ready?”
“It would help, but no. You’ll see him for only an hour. Now don’t waste that time getting angry with him—I don’t think he’d care. And don’t try to write him when it’s over.”
“Why would I ever write him? What would I even say?”
“I don’t know, but it’s happened. His other victim, the one he’s serving time for, has been writing him weekly. Shall we go?”
She heard her joints snap as she rose from the chair. Her heart was pounding like a sprinter’s at the end of the race and her stomach was growing tighter. She looked frantically at her daughter. “Any bits of advice?”
Her daughter shrugged. “Just one, Mother. Try not to hog the phone.”
She accompanied the social worker into the inner prison. The hallway was narrow, freshly mopped and shiny with fluorescent lighting. The woman’s high heels exploded upon the uncarpeted floor, causing her ears to ring. And so, she felt relieved when they paused at a checkpoint and waited on the officer in the control module. “It’ll be a few minutes,” the social worker muttered. “We have a security alert.” Ignoring the social worker, she studied her image on a television monitor. Her hair needed brushing.
A plexiglass gate rolled sideways, and she followed the social worker into a cramped compartment. A mechanical drawer crept away from the module as though reaching out to grab her. A logbook lay open in the drawer. “You need to sign in,” the social worker explained.
When she had penned her name in the book, the officer in the control room asked to see the back of her hand. She turned her hand over while leaving it in the drawer. She felt coldness pressing on her wrist: an ultraviolet identification stamp that reminded her of the weekly singles dances she had been attending. She did not think much of the dances—hot spots for one-night stands—but this had not diminished their novelty. The pick-up lines, the clumsy suitors, even the thank-you-ma’am sex, were worth putting up with for a few fleeting moments of touch.
The gate closed behind her. A second gate parted, and she pursued the social worker into another hallway. They walked through a series of long corridors, passageways so slick and convoluted that it seemed as though the building was digesting her. Were it not for a sudden racket—shouts, laughter, the ringing of gates—she would have felt that she had been swallowed alive. The woman took her elbow. “We’re approaching the cell ranges. You’ll meet him in the anteroom the attorneys use.”
“I’ve already met him,” she replied. She glared at her escort and threw back her head, but her bravado vanished the moment they entered the visiting room: a severely-lit chamber containing several booths with chairs and hanging phone receivers. The room was otherwise bare.
“Have a seat,” the social worker said. “He’ll be here soon.”
She first saw his shadow and then she saw him: a slim, balding man in prison blues who stooped as he walked through a doorway leading to an adjacent hallway. He was taller than she remembered him to be, and his face was as expressionless as that of a cigar store Indian. He was nibbling from a box of cookies.
Noticing her, he smiled—a smile both spontaneous and sunless, as though the pregnancy of the moment, the tension in her face, even the plexiglass that separated them were of little consequence. His face was so still, his eyes so incurious, that he appeared to be in a trance.
He seated himself in the booth across from her and then guided the phone receiver to his ear. His movements were slow, sensuous—so utterly relaxed that she felt as though she were looking into a terrarium. She lifted her receiver slowly, doubting for a moment that he was capable of speech. When he spoke to her finally, her heart began to flutter. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hollowell.” His voice was deep, soothing and totally familiar to her. She was not surprised that he knew her last name.
She studied him critically through the glass. “First names only, dirtbag.”
He smiled once again and dropped his gaze, not from embarrassment but to select another cookie from the box. He chewed the cookie slowly, methodically, as though it required profound concentration. He sucked at a tooth before speaking again. “Mrs. Hollowell,” he said. “I am a man inside a cage. Do you really want me on a first-name basis?”
She felt suddenly angry, but her anger seemed puerile—a throwback to that irretrievable moment when her daughter had started to baby her. The childish tantrums, in which she now permitted herself to indulge, were simply too delicious to resist.
She snapped at him once again. “Kinda late for that, isn’t it, fella? You just walk into people’s homes and rape them?”
He stretched, shook his head and dipped into the box. He spoke patiently as though addressing a child. “It would be better, Mrs. Hollowell, if you thought of me as a stranger.”
“I’d rather think of you as a creep.”
“And not a stranger?”
Selecting another cookie, he shrugged. “Have it your way, Mrs. Hollowell. I was in your home more than once.”
He nibbled the cookie, impervious to the chill that shot through her spine. It was the same loathsome chill she had felt years ago when she had discovered that her husband had been seeing another woman.
“It’s my turn, Clyde. And I’ll have it my way.”
He nodded silently and chewed.
“So how many times were you in my home?”
“Seven,” he replied. He spoke the number softly, reverently, as though it were a standard.
Seven thieves, seven veils, seven deadly sins, she thought. Could anything be immune to so significant a number as seven? He seemed to be quoting from the Bible.
“Seven,” he repeated as though she hadn’t heard him. “I stood over you seven times while you slept—you and your husband. And each time I chose not to touch you.”
“What were you doing instead? Jacking off?”
He shrugged and averted his gaze. Looking beyond her, his face grew so still that she wondered if someone had entered the room behind her—maybe that snotty social worker she wanted to slap. She discarded the thought when she noticed the empty reflections in the plexiglass. She was alone with him.
He again looked at her and smiled. “Let’s be formal, Mrs. Hollowell—please.”
“It will make it easier to speak the truth.”
“Why is the truth so important?”
“Anna believes it will help set you free.”
“Do you believe that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t really know. But the truth is better delivered by strangers.”
“What’s the bitch think you are? A caregiver?”
He dropped his eyes and looked pensively at the cookies. Was he recalling a past life—a life he had surely abandoned? When he spoke again, he seemed amused, “No longer, Mrs. Hollowell. But once I was a surgical nurse.”
She gripped the receiver and glared at him. This was not information she wanted to hear. “A surgical nurse. Well, la-di-dah. You shoulda let ’em castrate you.”
Her words were so forceful, her anger so invigorating, that it disappointed her when he simply nodded his head. The suggestion seemed almost appealing to him, and his voice was pleasant when he replied.
“Don’t you want to be cured, Mrs. Hollowell? Castration would only cure me.”
“I don’t want you cured!” she spat. “Just want ’em to cut off your balls. That’s all you deserve for raping innocent women.”
A smirk touched the corners of his mouth and he sighed. “There are no innocent women, Mrs. Hollowell. But perhaps you come closer than most.”
His words, their pious judgment of her, pricked her only slightly—perhaps because she had grown charitable towards her sins: her three abortions, her chronic alcoholism, the stolen hours she had spent posing for her erotic website. Her decadence seemed an endowment now—something this creep was not going to take away. She had had that website for five precious years—long before her husband had stopped screwing her. And long before this creep had crept into her bedroom.
She looked at him sharply, narrowing her gaze. “Quit talking to me like you’re Joan of Arc.”
“Mrs. Hollowell,” he said. “I’m a man with a disorder—no more. There was nothing revolutionary about my deed.”
“Well, isn’t that a pity? Minuteman describes you rather well.”
He laughed throatily and clapped his hands—an impact she heard through the glass. “You are a piece of work, Mrs. Hollowell. Thank you for coming here today.”
“Thank Anna—not me. She does want you cured.”
He lowered his eyes and again shook his head. Dipping into his shirt pocket, he removed a packet of Camels. “Must you insult her as well, Mrs. Hollowell? Must you insult a well-intentioned woman?”
“You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“No, Mrs. Hollowell. I am only sure of you. You are far less a mystery to me than myself.”
Her hand tightened on the receiver as though she was squeezing a club. “Listen here, Clyde. I’m a closed book.” She cringed as she spoke, realizing the idleness of her boast. What was she, after all, but an estranged mother, a librarian in a hick town and a lush? She felt vaguely consoled that he already seemed to know these things.
“Who told you that, Mrs. Hollowell?”
He smiled politely as though responding to a bad joke. “Husbands,” he muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Husbands are better offblind—don’t you think? But a predator must know his prey.”
“You make it sound like a goddamn sport.”
“To me it’s more like a parlor game. Like posing for strangers or cruising in bars.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re pretty smug for a rapist.”
“Maybe so, Mrs. Hollowell. But I know you far better than your husband ever will.”
Her skin prickled as he spoke, a sensation produced less by fear than by the disapproval in his voice—the ridiculous implication that she had somehow proved unworthy of him.
“Sorry to have disappointed you,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to give rape a bad name.”
He tore at the pack of Camels then pulled away the seal. “You didn’t disappoint me, Mrs. Hollowell. But even a predator has standards. I shouldn’t have visited you an eighth time.”
She gripped the receiver and glared, hoping to break his maddening composure—a coolness he wore like a pinstripe suit. “I’m sorry I didn’t meet your highfalutin standards. My husband thinks I’m a tramp, you know.”
“Must you keep boasting, Mrs. Hollowell? He left you for a tramp, didn’t he?”
“I gave him the boot. The slut can have him.”
“I remember him—a frightened little man. You’ll do better without him and he without you. Be glad he’s bullying somebody else.”
“You’re starting to sound like Anna, now.”
“I hope so, Mrs. Hollowell. Sometimes even social workers are right.”
“If you’re so damn smart, how come they caught you?”
He sighed softly, put down his receiver and shook several cigarettes loose from the pack. When he had selected a cigarette, he returned the receiver to his ear.
“Mrs. Hollowell,” he said. “I chose to be caught. Otherwise, I would not be here.”
The room behind the glass suddenly reminded her of the animal shelter she had visited as a girl—where she had selected, at her father’s insistence, a beagle puppy with a spotted nose. The dog was her just reward for the many evenings she had allowed her father to sneak into her room while her mother was sleeping in bed or nodding in front of the television. At first, she had been content to punish the puppy—whacking its head with a rolled-up newspaper and pouring red pepper into its food—but finally she had loved it, loved it more tenderly than she had ever remembered loving. And so, she had remained silent when her father reminded her that the puppy could be taken away. Was this man behind the glass—this smug, superior interloper—an extension of the dark covenant she had made as a girl? Had she instead drowned the puppy in the bathtub or cracked its head with a rock, would this man have had the wherewithal to creep into her bedroom not once but eight times? Looking into his eyes, his soft intelligent eyes, she knew that she had sealed this moment long ago.
He had lit the cigarette and the smoke, like the tendril of a jellyfish, lazily approached the glass.
“They let you smoke in here?” she asked.
He laughed and coughed crisply. “No, Mrs. Hollowell—they don’t. But I’m only required to be honest with you.”
“Then why did you let the cops catch you?”
He sucked the cigarette slowly, deliberately, as though it were an obligation rather than a pleasure. He smiled. “I must have felt sporting, Mrs. Hollowell. They’re not very good at their game.”
“Or maybe you just couldn’t get it up anymore.”
He chuckled and lowered his gaze. “That would have been a blessing. When you have done it a hundred times, there is nothing more tiresome than sneaking into houses and taking women by surprise.”
“A hundred times?” She was stunned by the apathy of his disclosure: it was not a boast, not even a confession, but the mere recitation of a number. And so, she believed him.
“The cops should have caught you sooner,” she muttered. “Those poor damn women.”
He swallowed and rubbed his eyes. “For me it was worse—many times worse.”
“How could it have been worse for you?”
“Mrs. Hollowell, don’t you know forbidden fruit is toxic? If lightning had struck me, I would have preferred it, but God doesn’t sharemy precision.”
“So what made you do it?”
He glanced towards the doorway—hesitated—then looked back at her with hospitable eyes. “What answer would you like?”
“That you did it to get your rocks off. That you’re nothing but a fancy-talking rapist. And a voyeur to boot.”
“All right, Mrs. Hollowell. I did it for the thrill. A thrill that had vanished a long time ago. Sadly, you are not the only one chasing ghosts.”
The smoke behind the glass was now thick enough to remind her of the dances she had been attending—dim celebrations where a couple of vodka tonics and an hour’s conversation were enough for her to follow a stranger to his car or scrawl her phone number on a paper napkin. Although wary of the dances, she also ached for them and frequently counted the hours remaining until the weekend—the hours separating her from the soft-muted lights and the all-embracing smoke. She hoped never to tire of this vice—not as this creep had tired of his. Suddenly, she resented him all the more.
“It’s not a crime to be a slut.”
He looked at her tenderly and shook his head. Clearly, her presence was beginning to tire him. “Would you stop if it were?”
“Perhaps it shouldbe a crime.”
She winced and lowered her voice. “Who died and made you the law?”
He shrugged. Her triteness clearly bored him—or perhaps it was the redundancy of his reply. “Who if not you, Mrs. Hollowell?” he said. “Didn’t you surrender instantly—as though I were a cop or a magistrate? Didn’t you ask me to hurry—as though I were taking you by right? Even now, don’t you tremble obediently whenever the door shakes or the window rattles? Who if not you?”
She felt the blood draining from her face. His boast, its haunting truthfulness, was like a hard, winter freeze. “So I made you the law,” she muttered. “My, but you do like to brag.”
He laughed. “I consider that an insult, Mrs. Hollowell. I’m far less corruptible than the law.”
“Then what were you doing on my website?”
“Scouting, Mrs. Hollowell—that is all. You’re so very bad at it, you know—the stiff poses, the outdated gowns, the insincere promises of a grand time. You looked like a child playing dress up.”
“So you do want an innocent woman?”
He chuckled. “Admittedly, I do. But you were the closest thing I could find.”
He put down the phone receiver and sucked once more at the cigarette. The smoke seemed to claim him now—as though it were a mist into which he would shortly vanish. Slowly, he returned the receiver to his ear.
“Do you wish to hear my story?”
She glared. “Who am I to argue with the law?”
Slowly, serenely, he told her his story—his voice so relaxed that he appeared to be reading from a script. She listened to him doubtfully, weighing each word in the manner of a book critic. Soon the warmth of his voice made her feel reprehensible. She felt as though she were colluding in the production of a bad play.
He had grown up in a Chicago slum. He had briefly attended Indiana State University, leaving when a trespass charge had cost him a basketball scholarship. He had been drafted into the Army and had served as a cook in Vietnam. He had been married, a childless union that ended before his military service. After leaving the Army, he had roamed the Middle East where he versed himself in The Koran. Later, he had studied nursing in East Chicago. He had worked ten years at an East Chicago hospital—a career he gave up when he was caught stealing amphetamines from the pharmacy. Weeks later, he had been arrested for peeping—a charge for which he received probation. When his probation ended, he forced himself upon a prostitute who would not consent to bondage. He had been sentenced to prison for this incident—four years at the Indiana Penal Farm where he had been assigned to the prison infirmary. Paroled two years later, he began to perfect his art—studying his victims for days before committing his assaults. He had raped a hundred women before he had discovered her on her website, and he had spent eight days profiling her—watching her drive to work, reading her mail, studying her as she slept. After assaulting her, he had stalked and raped a dozen more women. The bust for which he was now serving time could not be attributed to the skill of the police, but to his having left a condom at a crime scene. He had plea-bargained for five years—one of which he had already served. With good time, he would be released in another eighteen months.
She looked at him curiously when he was finished. He had told her much and he had told her nothing. “You’re supposed to be setting me free.”
“Free to do what?” he replied. “Free to tease men and numb yourself with booze?”
“That’s better than shadowing women,” she snapped.
He stretched and rubbed his eyes. “Mrs. Hollowell,” he murmured, “isn’t it sad that I was your only real adventure?”
She stared at him, disbelievingly. The receiver was now slippery in her hand. “Let me inform you of something,” she hissed. “You’re not exactly an adventure.”
He lowered his gaze as though inspecting his pants for cookie crumbs. “The law would agree with you there, Mrs. Hollowell. Why do you think I received just five years?”
“Because the cops didn’t do their jobs. Because the judge was a real pussy.”
“No, Mrs. Hollowell. Because I’m useful to them.”
“Are you telling me you’re a snitch? That you’re dropping a dime on other crooks?”
His tone grew sharper. “I’m a registered informant, Mrs. Hollowell. Since I live among shadows, there’s much that I see. Much that the law does not. For this reason, I’m serving a nickel—no more. A nickel is all they’re requiring of me.”
“Who are they letting you snitch on?”
He looked at her protectively. “Haven’t I shocked you enough, Mrs. Hollowell?”
An ash fell from his cigarette, grazing his receiver. She studied the streak of ash and the sullen expression on his face. “You’re not proudof it, are you—being a snitch? You think it’s worse than raping and peeping.”
“I’m not proud of it—no. But at least I deliver on my promises.”
“So does the Devil.”
“And it’s not always wise to refuse him. But you know that already, don’t you?”
“All I know is you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
“I was worse offbefore I came here.”
“Stay longer. Don’t they know half of what you’ve done?”
“They don’t want to know, Mrs. Hollowell. And so, I have told only you.”
“They should have booked you for all those rapes. You should be here for at least a hundred years.”
He gently smiled, “The law will take care of me.”
“What do you mean by that?”
‘I’ve already been booked.”
He looked at her calmly, his eyes growing softer.
The cold double meaning of his words began to register in her face. Was he really a conscripted informant? she wondered. Was he really that valuable to the police—the stupid fucking police? Since he was only serving a minimal term, he had probably told her the truth. She felt her scalp prickle, her palms grow damp. “You’re getting out even sooner, aren’t you?”
He shrugged. “We must all make sacrifices.”
“Hogwash. Why are they taking care of you?”
“Not every devil is courteous—or content to remain in your nightmares.”
“That doesn’t exactly console me,” she snapped.
“Read what’s in the newspaper, Mrs. Hollowell, if you wish to be consoled. Those horrors would multiply tenfold if it were not for devils like me.”
“Well aren’t you a hero.”
He laughed and shook his head. “In the land of the blind, a voyeur is king. But know there are far greater monsters than me.”
Her eyes flashed. “I’d rather stay innocent.”
“Well and good, Mrs. Hollowell. But know this, at least. Even to the law—the people responsible for your protection—you don’t amount to much.”
“So how many more will you rape?”
He stretched. “Maybe a hundred—if I get what’s coming to me.”
“Must you repeat that number?”
“Yes, Mrs. Hollowell, I must. Haven’t I sworn to be honest with you?”
“That’s too much information.”
He laughed. “Then put it out of your mind, Mrs. Hollowell. There is only one thing you really need to know.”
“And what is that?”
“I won’t be back to see you. You barely interested me the first time. But another will take your place.”
These words teased her like the smoke, not because she disbelieved them but because she suddenly felt ostentatious. It seemed as though she were the one in the cage.
“I’m glad you keep your promises,” she spat.
He sighed and spoke sadly. “Be glad for small things, and be glad that I have remained a stranger to you.”
He pinched the cigarette, killing the smoke, and tucked it into the pocket of his shirt. He then scooted his chair back and casually smiled, a smile that conveyed neither warmth nor concession—only her unimportance. He winked.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hollowell.”
She did not remember her return to the visitors’ foyer—the monotonous hallways, the sterile lighting, the inspection of her wrist by the checkpoint officer. She did not remember the debriefing from the social worker—probably a reminder that she not write him. And when she arrived at the foyer, she barely recognized her daughter—perhaps because she had buried her face in a copy of Sports Illustrated.
As she entered the foyer, her daughter looked up.
“So how was your date?”
She shrugged. “He was late.”
“But was he a gentleman? That’s what I want to know.”
“No. No, he was a monster, all right.”
Irritated, she folded her arms and stared at her daughter. The gulf between them suddenly seemed wider—an abyss that even sarcasm could not breach. Given the demeanor of her assailant, his thoughtfulness and reptilian calm, she was especially annoyed at her daughter’s lack of empathy.
“What did you expect, Mother?”
She looked across the room, noticing the fir tree once again—the artificial branches, the searing light bulbs, the cheap plastic angel perched on top of it. It was only its banality, its sapless fidelity to the season, that prevented her from knocking it over. Who had decorated that monstrosity anyway?
She looked back at her daughter and glared. “I expect you to drive me home.”
On Sundays, she worked in her garden—a half-acre plot behind her suburban home. She grew squash, tomatoes and melons—arranging the plants in orderly rows, which the rabbits consumed the following day. She did not mind the rabbits devouring her garden; they were somehow consistent with a lush’s philosophy: Sow your wild oats Saturday. On Sundays, pray for crop failure.
Six months had passed since her visit to the prison, and he had disappeared from her nightmares. This was not something she had anticipated or fully desired: having lost the dignity of martyrdom, she now felt cheated whenever she went to the dances. Now, when she looked in the barroom mirrors, she saw a tramp and nothing more. And so, on Sundays, she worked in her garden—planting the seedlings, tilling the rows and sweating out the booze from the previous evening. She detested the work—a filthy, gritty business—but she took solace in the rustling of the trees, the darting of the hummingbirds and the orbiting of the turkey vultures overhead. In the distance, they looked like kites
“Another Will Take Your Place” was originally published in The Red Wheelbarrow Review and is included in the author’s anthology: A Second, Less-Capable Head and Other Rogue Stories.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.