Department of First Stories

Last Call

by Gemma Clarke

Scott was slurping down an oyster when his cell phone began to buzz at his heart.

He put a finger up to excuse himself and fished it out of his shirt pocket, let the same digit hover over the screen for a moment. The photo that appeared when his wife called was from the distant past. She stood under the shade of a palm tree in a red bikini, smiling at him. The sight of it always loosened something in his chest.

He spoke gently into the mouthpiece, tongue tingling with vinegar and brine.

“Hey.”

In the low, flickering candlelight, the oysters glistened. He traced his finger along the edge of the table, the tablecloth starched white and stainless beneath his touch.

“How are things?” she asked. The sharpness in her voice made his chest harden again and brought him back to the present, to the woman she had become.

“Fine.”

“You said you’d call when you landed.”

He nodded as if she could see him. “I got waylaid.”

She took a sip of something. Wine, he guessed. “I hope you had a good flight.”

Her tone contradicted her words.

When he didn’t reply, she said, “Well. Nothing much to report over here.”

“Not much to report here either.”

Karina’s foot brushed against his ankle. Back and forth, caressing him with her toes. He kept his eyes on the tablecloth as he chewed the inside of his cheek, enjoying the sensation.

“Scott?”

“Sorry. I’m having dinner with James.”

How easy it was to lie to her outright. It was the quiet deceptions he found hard, like holding hands or having his tie straightened before work. Sharp pangs of guilt came at unexpected times.

“Got it,” she said. “Sorry to disturb you.”

He sighed as if she were being unreasonable. “We just ordered. I’ll call you when we’re done.”

After he put the phone back in his pocket, he apologized. Karina res-ponded with a shrug. Bare shoulders, the shimmer of youthful skin. He was a lucky man. He let her talk as they ate—about her difficult mother, a friend’s bridal shower in Florida, a tempestuous ex-boyfriend, about countless other things. He liked to watch her lips move.

When she got up to use the restroom, he startled at the sight of his reflection in the mirrored wall behind her. He looked too old, too eager, a middle-aged man with thinning white hair.

He cast his eyes down and refolded his napkin. Then he sat up straighter, raised his chin, and folded his face into a look of nonchalance. He wanted to seem a little less desperate when she returned.

*   *   *

Karina was licking ice cream off the dessert spoon when his phone began to buzz again. He pulled his lips in tight as he took it out. The screen filled with red bikini, carefree smile.

He whispered across the table, “Sorry,” as he pressed Answer.

Karina’s mouth became a thin line, a strike-through. The dessert spoon clattered against the bowl.

He’d barely put the phone to his ear when he heard his wife say, “Scott?”

“Sweetheart—”

“Something weird just happened.”

He rolled his eyes at the phone for Karina’s amusement. The thin line of her mouth turned up a fraction at the corners.

“Is there any way you could tell me about it later?” he said, his toes nuzzling Karina’s ankles. But his wife kept talking.

“The doorbell rang, which is weird because I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

Scott cleared his throat, waiting for his moment to cut in, to cut her off.

“And when I looked through the peephole there was this creepy guy standing on our doorstep. He was skinny, so skinny, and he had the blackest eyes I’ve ever seen. He was wearing shorts and sandals, but it’s, like, twenty-four degrees out here and you know how much snow is still on the ground. He kept saying, you’ve gotta let me in, you’ve gotta let me in.”

Scott took a deep breath. “Right, but you didn’t, did you?”

“No, of course I didn’t.” The contempt in her voice. “I called the police.”

“Right. Good.”

Karina yawned and stretched. He felt her foot retreat to the empty space beneath her chair. He reached for her hand but she lifted it off the table, away from him, and began adjusting her earring.

“You think I’m overreacting,” his wife said through the phone.

“No, no.” He was trying to figure out a quick way to hang up. “I think that was smart.”

“Well, they’re on their way.”

“Good,” he said. “Good. Let me know how it goes.”

He heard her bitter laugh.

“Look, it’s just kind of hard to hear you,” he said, feeling defensive. “It’s loud in here. Can I call you back when we’ve paid the check?”

He watched as Karina angled herself away from him as if there were other people in the room who were more interesting, more deserving of her company.

“Sure,” his wife said, her voice laced with fury.

“It’ll be okay,” he replied, as gently as he could. “You’ve got this.”

As he slipped the phone back into his pocket, he saw that Karina had hers firmly in hand. Thumb scrolling, lips pursed. Tired of him. Making her own plans.

“I have to answer her calls,” he said.

“Hmm?” Karina blinked up at him, as if he was a stranger sitting across from her, as if she had just noticed they were sitting together.

“She’s my wife. She was concerned about something.”

“Okay.” She had the tone of a petulant teenager, which made sense, Scott conceded, since she had been one only a few years before. “I get it,” she added, in a way that suggested she did not.

Scott pinched the handle of his espresso cup and held it up to her like a champagne flute. Cheers to you, his gesture said. She stared at him, chin jutting. He held the cup higher.

“You are the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

A sharp pang in his chest from somewhere remote, the treachery of a recycled compliment. A vision in the back of his mind: his angry wife, alone in the dark of their sprawling home, thousands of miles away, waiting for the police.

Then Karina’s foot was back and forth again, erasing it. His toes curled in pleasure, everything dissolving with the slow, steady stroke of her toes.

As soon as they were outside in the street-lit haze of the evening, arms flailing above the downtown traffic to hail a cab, Karina’s tongue was in his mouth. His hands crawled over her legs as their taxi rumbled too slowly towards their hotel. They were lost to each other until his cell phone began to buzz again, this time between their bodies. Karina pulled away and turned her back to him.

“I’m not answering it,” he said, reaching over to take her chin in his hand. “Look at me. I’m not answering it.”

The buzzing continued as he pushed his lips against hers. She kissed him back, holding him by the back of the head to keep him there.

When the taxi pulled up at the revolving hotel doors, the buzzing stopped. Scott felt the short whirr of a voice mail being left.

Karina stepped out of the backseat and clip-clopped into the foyer on pointy heels. Scott followed as closely behind as public decency would allow, one hand clasped to her hip.

*   *   *

Hours passed before he remembered the missed call. Karina was lying in a crumple of starched linens beside him when a sharp twinge in his chest woke him. He sat up, pulled on his shorts, and crept across the room to retrieve his cell phone.

In the bathroom, he paused to admire his reflection, more handsome somehow, the return of some long-lost youthful vigor flush in his cheeks. He had been wrong to feel guilty; he was doing this to benefit his marriage. Letting off steam, rejuvenating himself. It was like bleeding a radiator to bring the warmth back into his home.

He closed the toilet seat and perched on it, dialed up his voice mail. His wife’s voice, high-pitched and desperate, cut through the quiet.

“Scott? I’m scared.”

He felt his veins tighten, his blood flow quicken.

“The police came and they didn’t find anything so they left. But he’s back. I swear it.”

Scott’s heart thunked hard at his ribs. He tried to remember the conversation they’d had in the restaurant.

“I think he’s in the yard, but I can’t get the light to turn on.”

He’d been promising to replace the bulb for weeks. Another betrayal.

“Oh my God, oh my God.” She cried out. “He’s standing at the window. Scott. Oh my God. What do I do?”

Scott was on his feet, looking around the bathroom. Mini bottles of bath products. A shower cap in a cardboard package. Nothing of any use.

“Go away!” she yelled over the line. “Leave me alone!”

The shattering of glass. He held his breath as he heard her scream. Deep and atavistic, like an animal being slaughtered. The recording cut out.

Trembling, he pressed Call Back.

Red bikini. Carefree smile.

Click.

Hey, it’s Jennifer. I can’t get to the phone right now. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

His mouth was dry, clacking as he spoke. “Jen, it’s me. I got your message. I’m so sorry I missed your call. Please call me. Please call and tell me you’re okay.”

He tried again a couple more times. Hey, it’s Jennifer. I can’t get to the phone right now.

He called the Ryans next door. Jim answered, groggy with sleep.

“Jim, it’s Scott. Lubbock. I’m . . . I’m out of town. Jennifer called and left a scary message on my voice mail. Something about some guy trying to break in. I need you to go over and check on her.”

Jim immediately came to. “Do you need me to call the cops?”

Scott didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

He opened the bathroom door and stalked back into the bedroom, charged with adrenalin, gripping his cell phone, willing it to ring, willing it to come alive with his wife’s picture and her voice, the old voice, not the one he’d just heard.

Karina groaned as she rolled. “What’s happening?”

He couldn’t speak, just stared at her, his eyes dark and round.

She sat up, not bothering to pull the covers around herself. “What?”

It was indecent, her nudity, in light of the circumstances. He picked up his T-shirt, balled up on the floor, and threw it to her.

She scowled at him. “Why are you being all weird?”

He replayed the voice mail, on loudspeaker this time. As Karina listened, her mouth hung open. She put a hand up to cover it.

Scott let out an anguished sob as he heard his wife’s screams again. It sounded even worse the second time. He sank down to his knees and stared at the phone. As if he had willed it, it began to buzz.

“Hello?” he said, quick and desperate.

Jim Ryan took a breath. “I’m inside your house. Scott, there’s broken glass everywhere. The police just got here.” He paused before delivering the blow. “There’s no sign of Jennifer.”

Scott closed his eyes. “What do you mean? How is she not there?”

“She’s not in the house.”

“Where is she, then?”

“Hold on. The police want to talk to you.”

Another voice came on the line, a woman’s voice. “Mr. Lubbock?”

A strange ringing in his ears. He looked up and saw Karina pulling on his T-shirt, but she was blurry in the half-light. The room felt lopsided.

“Mr. Lubbock, I’m Sara Barker. I’m with the Westland County Sheriff’s Department.”

“Where is my wife?” he pleaded.

“We don’t know, sir. We’re looking for her. Where are you now?”

“I’m in D.C.”

“How soon can you get here?”

*   *   *

Somehow, he stumbled his way onto the first flight of the morning, refusing all sustenance, the sight of salted nuts and lurid orange juice churning his stomach. He could hear his wife’s words, repeating on a loop.

Oh my god, Scott. What do I do?

He tried to imagine a happy ending to all this. Jennifer safe and well somewhere, hiding out, scared of the strange man who broke the window. But the dead weight of his heart told him this was unlikely. Something terrible had happened. Because he didn’t take her call. Because he was weak. Because he didn’t change light bulbs.

He had left Jennifer alone. For what? For Karina. For cheap thrills in a hotel suite. For the most obvious reason of all.

*   *   *

Detective Barker was waiting for him at the arrival gate. She was large and squat, with long grey hair tied up and trailing down her back. Her appearance irritated him. She didn’t look the way he thought a detective should look.

“Have you found her yet?” he asked, barely making eye contact.

Barker shook her head. “Mr. Lubbock, we are doing our best to locate your wife. A search party went out an hour ago.”

“A search party?”

It seemed ludicrous, that terminology applied to his wife. It was the terminology of cop shows and cozy mysteries.

As she led him through the terminal, he noted the looks he was getting from passersby: stern and suspicious. Escorted through the airport by a uniformed officer, another blow to his equilibrium. He lowered his head, his stomach acrid with emptiness.

When they climbed into Barker’s squad car, the doors locked automatically, trapping him in his new reality. He opened the window a fraction. He wanted to go home. He wanted never to have left.

“I need to take you to the precinct,” she said, driving slowly through the concrete parking structure.

“Now?” he asked. “I want to go home. Take me to my house.”

She pulled out of the covered lot and into the blistering light of day. “I’m not your Uber driver, hon,” she said, picking up speed. “I can’t take you to an active crime scene.”

An active crime scene. He winced at the term.

In a softer voice, she added, “We’re doing everything we can to find her. But we’re gonna need your help, okay?”

He turned away from her as they drove, stared out of the window at the snow on the ground, piled up along the roadside in mud-smattered mounds. Slowly melting away.

*   *   *

At the precinct, Barker took him into an interview room, bare-walled and halogen-lit. She brought him a large coffee from Starbucks and set it down on the table. The familiarity of its packaging made him feel nauseous. He was used to seeing his wife’s fingers clasped around the logo.

“Do you need anything else?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“You spoke with your wife last night. Can you recall the conversation in as much detail as possible?”

You said you’d call when you landed.

He told Barker about the man with the dark eyes, how he was wearing shorts and sandals in the frigid weather. She took it all down, grim-faced.

“She left me a message,” he said, holding up his phone.

It was hard to admit that he hadn’t answered her call. As he played the voice mail again he stared at the floor, beige Formica stained with old grime. Jennifer’s screams rattled out of the speaker, puncturing the air. Already he was becoming numb to it.

After the message ended, Barker stood up and took the phone. “I need to pass this along.”

Alone in the room, Scott pressed his fingertips into his thighs. His cell phone was his link to his wife; he felt edgy without it. He couldn’t remember the last time he had just sat in a room and waited with nothing to look at or scroll through. His anxiety intensified when Barker returned empty-handed.

“What if she tries to call me?” He clutched his knees.

“One of our officers will take the call.”

He felt his chest caving in. “Why aren’t we looking for her right now?”

“Mister Lubbock—”

“We should be out there looking for her.”

“We are.”

A wave of emotion crashed over him, pulling him under. He held himself as he sobbed, rocking gently back and forth. Barker didn’t reach out to comfort him. She lowered her gaze.

When it had gone on long enough, she said, “This must be hard for you.”

He glared at her through water-logged eyes. Her skin had the pallor of stale baked goods. She sniffed and pinched her nose to wipe it dry.

“You were in D.C. last night.”

“Correct.”

“How long were you there?”

“One night.”

She looked up from her notepad. “And your wife knew you were there?”

“Of course she did.”

She paused, allowing his words to recede. Then, she asked, “Were you alone last night, Mr. Lubbock?”

Silence settled around them like mist.

“No,” he said.

Her face didn’t change. “Who were you with?”

He stared at her hair, so grey and brittle. He wished she would cut it.

“Her name is Karina.”

Barker noted it. When she looked up at him again, he saw something dark and unforgiving in her eyes: the unmistakable burn of contempt.

*   *   *

By the time Scott left the precinct, the sun had gone down and it was raining heavily. Headlights streaked past the windshield and the wipers flipped back and forth as a stranger drove him out of town in a taxi cab, past the winding roads that led to his house. He pictured it lurking back there in the dark, an anthill crawling with black uniforms. Broken glass on his polished floorboards. An empty house. A missing wife.

He was still without his phone, clenching and unclenching his fists in its absence. He hoped she wasn’t trying to call him, or that if she was, she got through to somebody.

Can I call you back when we’ve paid the check?

It wasn’t long before he was stumbling into the lobby of another hotel, this one cheap and bleach-fumed. The hand of fate, cruel and ironic, placing him in crisp-sheeted purgatory. He rode the elevator up to the third floor and let himself into the room Barker had reserved for him. In darkness, he searched for the slot to place his keycard. Before he could reach it, the phone on his bedside began to trill. He scrambled across the room, smashing his shin against the nightstand as he grabbed the handset.

“Hello?” he croaked, trying to shut out the pain.

“Scott?” Karina’s voice crackled down the line. “I called the police to see what was happening. They told me where I could reach you.”

The relief, the sheer relief at being connected to something sweet and pure.

“Is everything okay?”

“No,” he said, tears forming again. “No, it’s not.”

*   *   *

Days melded into nights, nights melded into weeks, a murky swamp of wakeful hours and bitter coffee and painful snatches of sleep. Since they’d spoken Karina had been busy, only checking in with him once a week or so, between shifts at the restaurant. Scott had attempted, twice, to return to work at his consultancy firm, only to find his mind would not accompany him. Jeff, Scott’s business partner, had been interminably understanding, allowing Scott to remain salaried while his life screeched to a halt, while Jennifer remained missing, while the business quietly flourished.

Scott plodded around his picturesque neighborhood, knocking on door after door, handing out fliers, presenting friends, acquaintances, and strangers with smiling photographs of his wife. Have you seen this woman?

He traipsed through the woods at the back of their home, warily searching for her remains in the undergrowth, sniffer dogs prowling up ahead. He stood in front of local news cameras and pleaded for information. If anybody knows anything . . .

Nobody came forward.

Finally, he was allowed to return home. The house looked peculiar in the grey morning light. All that remained of their Christmas décor was a blow-up Santa lying deflated on the lawn, as if the festive season had left in a hurry, not before shedding its skin.

Jim Ryan had stuck a note on the front door: Here if you need anything.

With some reluctance, Scott stepped into the hallway. It still smelled like home, still smelled like Jennifer beneath a layer of strange chemicals.

He walked to the liquor cabinet, poured himself a glass of whiskey, and slugged half of it back. He clasped his fingers around the glass and squeezed, attempting to break it into pieces with brute force. He cried out, squeezing harder and harder. But he lacked the strength to break it. For a moment, he considered smashing it on the tiled floor. It seemed like a futile gesture.

Instead, he slumped into his favorite chair, drained the rest of the whiskey, and closed his eyes. He felt the reassuring buzz of his cell phone in his pocket. He took it out, still expecting, hoping, to see her there. Red bikini, carefree smile. But it was Karina.

“I’m on my break,” she said. “Are you okay?”

Dishonesty seemed a brighter path. “I guess so.”

“The police lady called me.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. She was really nice. I liked her.”

“Right.” He didn’t know why, but that bugged him.

“I was thinking . . .” She hesitated. “Do you want some company?”

He wanted nothing more.

*   *   *

It was weeks before she found the time to fly out. Jennifer’s daffodils were wilting, hanging their yellow heads as he unloaded Karina’s weekend bag from the taxi. He didn’t need to see past the clapboard facades of the neighboring houses to know how his neighbors would see it. He told himself they didn’t understand what he was going through: Jennifer was almost certainly dead. To believe otherwise was to hold out hope, to remain in wretched, wifeless limbo.

Scott had been considerate of both Jennifer’s memory and Karina’s feelings. He had bought a new bed, mattress, sheets, pillows, and a new duvet. He had spritzed the drapes with Febreze.

But Karina didn’t want to sleep with him. She thought it would be “weird.”

She told him this as soon as she walked into the house. So, he made up a bed in the spare room for her and sat down on it, watching her rifle through her bag. As a gift, she had brought him a stack of toothpicks from the restaurant.

“I know you like them. You always used to ask for them.”

The gesture hurt his heart.

“Thank you for coming,” he said.

“Sure. I feel bad for you.” She perched on the edge of the bed. “My friends think I’m crazy, coming out here. They were like, you could be staying with a murderer!”

Scott recoiled. “What? How could they think that?”

She shrugged. He felt his temperature rising.

“Firstly, we don’t know she’s dead. Secondly, I was with you when she disappeared!”

“I know, I told them that. I guess they watch too many cop shows or something.”

Scott stood up. It pained him to be thought of that way, to be talked about, even by people he didn’t know.

“I’ll be downstairs,” he said, leaving the toothpicks behind.

*   *   *

Karina insisted on feeding him for the next two days: toaster waffles were her specialty. Otherwise, she lay around staring at her phone, scrolling through various feeds, clicking on things, laughing to herself. It was beginning to bother Scott, so he suggested they go for a walk. She rolled her eyes and reluctantly pulled on her sneakers.

As they stepped outside into the brisk afternoon, they saw Jim Ryan and his wife across the street, loading up the minivan. Jim pretended not to have seen them, while Jim’s wife stood there and glowered.

Scott shielded Karina as he led her through the neighborhood, the amiable peace of the suburbs.

“It’s so quaint,” she said, admiring the mock Tudors. “I’d like to live somewhere like this someday.”

Scott took that as a good sign.

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Copyright © 2018. Last Call by Gemma Clarke