Abby lived alone, so she couldn't allow herself to get easily spooked. But she had to admit that sometimes, when she was there late at night after the place was closed, the InnBetween scared her. When the people who usually filled it had gone, when all that human businessthe shouting and hustling, cooking, laughing, arguing and eatingwas over, the silence that followed was carved out of something solid. It had a thickness to it. There were times when it even seemed to breathe.
It was a Saturday at the beginning of September, and it was one of those nights. Abby had stayed late to do the tallies and lock up. After doing her final check of the bar and turning off all the lights except the bulb that hung in the back hall, she took the front stairs up to the main dining room. The boards of the steps creaked. Behind her, the ice machine suddenly started buzzing. Abby couldn't help itshe glanced behind her, down into the dark shadows of the underground barroom. Nothing, of course. But she was glad Dan the Dishwasher was still in the kitchen, scrubbing the pots, listening to his Christian radio station. He would be there well after she was gone, getting the work areas clean for the prep staff's arrival in the late morning. With him close by, she could keep the jitters in check.
By midnight, she closed out the cash register and credit card machine; by twelve-ten she finished the paperwork. The chairs were upside down on the tables, so that the wood floor, with all its scratches and scars exposed, was ready for the day cleaning man. The main dining room was finally silent and dark.
In the kitchen, the cooks were long gone. They had put away the food and scrubbed the counters and cutting boards. The floor, its high-traffic areas covered in thick, perforated black rubber mats, was littered with lettuce leaves, chunks of bread, orange peel, smashed tomato slices, and coated in cooking oil and the other spills from one busy night's work. The smell was a combination of grease and sweat, with a harsh overlay of bleach.
Downstairs, the bar was wiped clean, the shelves restocked, the beer cooler filled. The floor was sticky with spilled soda and the air stuffy with the smell of beer. The day man would clean here, too.
She pulled on her windbreaker and looked over the dining room one last time. Everything was in order. She went into the kitchen.
"'night, Dan," she called out.
He didn't answer. He couldn't hear over the running water and the radio. She knocked lightly on the wall and, when he looked up, waved goodbye. He raised a hand and nodded.
She pulled open the back door and took out the brick that kept it from closing all the way. It swung shut and locked automatically behind her. Standing under the yellow pool of light from the corner streetlight, she took a deep breath and zipped up her jacket; even though August was barely over, the temperature had dropped fifteen degrees since her shift began that afternoon. The night air felt damp and chilly.
Abby was bone tired. It had been a long, busy night. The County Fair ("Every Labor Day Weekend, Rain or Shine") was still going on at the edge of town, and she could see the glow of the lights from the fairgrounds. At the InnBetween, they'd done one hundred and thirty covers and the small of her back hurt from being on her feet.
There were more cars than usual on Main Street and as she crossed it to get to the Dollar Store parking lot, she went through her jacket pockets, looking for the keys to her blue and white Bronco. When she didn't find them, she put her cracked brown leather purse on the rusted hood of her car and unzipped it. She took out her wallet, address book, notepad and sunglasses and moved aside a fistful of loose paper moneysingles, tens and three or four twenties, her tips for the evening. Underneath, amongst the change and lipsticks, she found her keys.
Outside the village border, the darkness swallowed her up; there was no moon and the combination of humidity and condensation created a thick, dense fog on the tree-shrouded road. A few miles down, her windscreen began to cloud, and she turned on the heat, hoping to dry it out.
Her mind was drifting back to the shift that had just ended when suddenly the weak lights caught a movement to her right. A face appeared out of the blackness on the side of the dirt road, within a foot of the car. Abby yelled, veered to the left and slammed her foot on the brake. She cut back quickly to the right to avoid the narrow shoulder, skidded a few feet and promptly stalled. It felt like it was all over before it happened.
She turned and looked back, thinking she might have imagined the face. Maybe it was a tree branch waving in front of the car. But no, someone was there, swaying, as if hurt.
"Oh, no," Abby groaned, and jumped out of the car. "Are you okay?" she called out, as she ran back. No answer.
When she reached the person, she saw it was a woman wearing a black fur coat, which was probably why Abby had only seen a flash of white face in the darkness.
"Are you hurt?" she repeated fearfully, touching the woman's arm. She couldn't see her face very well, but she was sturdily built, shorter than Abby's 5'8" frame.
The woman only pointed towards the dark embankment on the other side of the road.
Abby looked, and caught a glimpse of something reflected off her headlights. She walked across the narrow dirt road and looked down. There, steeply angled and wedged into the trees, was a small dark-colored sports car.
"Christ," Abby said. She looked at the woman, who had limped across the road and was standing next to her. "Was there anyone in the car with you?" Abby asked.
"Just me," she whispered, shaking her head slowly.
"But I need my things, the keys"
With a glance at her own vehicle, parked askew in the center of the road and lighting up a section of the woods, Abby scrambled and slid down the embankment until she reached the car. It was a dark Miata, freshly dented where the right front side had glanced off a thick tree. The driver's door was open, as if the woman had thrown herself out. The car was empty except for a large gold leather handbag on the floor in front of the passenger seat. Abby reached in and pulled it out. The keys were in the ignition and she took them, shutting the driver's door when she was done. She put the purse on her shoulder and clambered up the hill, grabbing hold of weeds and saplings whenever she lost traction.
The woman was nowhere in sight. "Crap," Abby muttered, panting. She went to her car and threw the purse into the back seat.
"Did you get my keys?" asked a voice. The woman was sitting in the passenger seat, the fur coat wrapped tightly around her.
"Oh, there you are," Abby said. She slid into the driver's seat, leaving the door open so the overhead light stayed on and she could look at her. "Here," she said, handing her the keys.
Abby guessed she was about forty. She had no make up on, and her hair looked dark red under the interior light. It was matted and tangled, and she had a cut on her forehead, right by the hairline. It had already crusted over and was starting to swell.
"That must hurt. What happened?" Abby asked.
The woman took a breath. "A deer crossed the road in front of meI swerved, and suddenly, there I was, in the damn trees. I lost my pretty new slipper," she added, her chin trembling.
Abby wondered if she was in shock. She glanced down. One plump foot, toenails painted a bright red, was bare and stuck with mud and pieces of brown and red leaves. The other was wedged into a muddy sheepskin mule. Abby herself had never owned a pair of mules, but she was pretty sure that was what they were called. Delicate, fluffy slip-ons with little wedge heels. Mules. Half-breed donkeys. Strange footwear for a midnight drive in the country. And even stranger were the pink ruffled pajamas Abby could see sticking out from under the black coat.
Abby opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind. She shut the car door. It was none of her business, and she just wanted to go home and get into bed. "Where am I taking you?"
Her passenger paused, as if she had to think about where she lived. "Bantam Center. My father's house."
Abby nodded and started the engine. At least she was facing in the right direction. In total, there were five Bantams. Abby worked and lived in the Village of Bantam, an old railroad and tavern town and the biggest and busiest of the Bantams. The others, each with a distinct personality of its own, were West Bantam, North Bantam, Old Bantam and finally, Bantam Center.
Bantam Center was one wide main road, flanked by generously built farmhouses sitting back from the road, with fields of flat farm land behind them. Luckily, it was only about ten minutes from Abby's house.
She swallowed her exhaustion. "That's a nice car," she remarked as they proceeded down the dark road.
"Oh, damn, damn, the car. Oh, to hell with him, I'll pay for the fucking repairs, he'll get over it," the woman said angrily, as if she were arguing with herself. She turned to Abby: "It's not my car, it's Mitch's. Can I use your cell phone? I left mine at home."
"Nope. I don't have one. There's no service here anyway." Abby Silvernale worked long hours at the restaurant and then usually went home. She didn't have much use for a cell phone and didn't want the bills.
"DamnI'll have to get a tow truck or something."
Abby shrugged. "Good thing you didn't hit that tree head on. You could be dead."
"I know that." She looked at Abby with a frown, as if such thoughts were unsuitable.
Abby wondered if the woman had been drinking.
"So, who are you?" The question was abrupt.
Abby didn't feel much like talking, but the darkness around them created a sort of awkward intimacy. "Abby Silvernale. And you?"
"Germaine LeClair. What do you do?"
"I wait tables. At the InnBetween."
"The InnBetween? On the circle?"
"That's the one."
"I remember it. I used to live here a long time ago. I mean, a looong time ago."
Abby nodded. "Yeah. It was called that in the seventies and early eighties, I guess. The last people who owned it named it Chez Nous. Dulcie renamed it the InnBetween when she bought it."
"A waitressthat must be interesting."
Abby glanced at her, wondering if the woman was being patronizing, but it was too dark to see her face. "Can be. Can also be a dead end. What do you do?" she asked.
"Oh, I'm a travel writer."
Yeah, she was probably being patronizing.
"What d'you write?" Abby asked.
"I just wrote a book about fixing up a farm house in Tuscany."
Abby tried not to sound impressed. "Oh. One of those."
"No, it's not like that. It's different," Germaine LeClair said with a note of irritation in her voice.
"I'm sure it is."
A coolness descended in the car. Abby took advantage of it. Silence was easier than small talk.
Five minutes later, they turned onto the main road of Bantam Center. Most of the houses were dark, though a few upstairs windows were lit, throwing soft lights on porches and front yards.
"It's that one," Germaine said, gesturing to a mailbox on the right. The house was a large black silhouette, barely distinguishable from the night sky. Abby could see neither color nor details. Behind it, an undersized, ornamental streetlight spread a flat, circular glow.
As she turned in, her headlights lit up a section of dark siding and flower beds and she felt gravel crunching under her tires. The house was dark, though there was a faint glow from somewhere downstairs and at the back of the house. Set about twenty feet apart from the house, on the other side of the little streetlight, was a separate and smaller structure. It had probably been built as a carriage house or shed. It had a large picture window facing the driveway. A lamp was lit inside the room, creating a dramatic pyramid of white. In the light sat a person, head bowed, back to the window.
"Here you are," Abby said as brightly as she could manage, turning partway to her passenger.
The woman, however, didn't move. She stared at the picture window and the person sitting in it. Abby followed her gaze, then looked back at her, wondering how drunk she really was.
"You're here," she repeated.
Her passenger turned to her, her expression agitated, the matted hair and blood-encrusted cut adding to a sort of desperate air about her. "I'll be right back. Five minutes. Will you wait for me?"
"Whoa, whoa. What do you mean, wait for you?"
"Please. Don't leave."
"I'm going home. I can't"
Germaine LeClair didn't respond. She opened the passenger door, eyes on the picture window.
Abby was too tired to make sense of it. "What's going on?" and then, with a flash of alarm said, "what are we doing here?"
Germaine pointed a finger at Abby. "Please. Please. Don't leave." Without waiting for a response, she climbed out of the car and ran, now barefoot, toward the carriage house.
With a groan, Abby slumped into her seat. What the hell had she gotten herself into? This woman might be violent or delusional or both. If so, whoever was sitting inside the outbuilding was about to get a nasty surprise when she appeared, leaves hanging off her like a middle-aged Ophelia. With an effort, Abby climbed out of the car. She jogged after her. "Stop!" she said, trying to project a whisper.
But Germaine waved at her to go away and continued to the door of the smaller building. She began to turn the handle. Abby backed up and ran around to the front, so she was closer to the picture window and could see in, without herself being seen. From her new perspective, she realized that the person inside had white hair and shoulders stooped with age. She felt a wave of panic. Had she put an old person at risk? The woman hadn't seemed dangerous, she said to herself, already making excuses.
Suddenly, the figure in the picture window looked up and to the left. It was an old man. He must have heard the door opening because he pushed back the stool he was sitting on and slowly stood. He was small. Standing, he didn't become more than a foot taller than he'd been when he was sitting. He reached for something, and Abby saw it was a cane. He leaned on it, still staring at the entrance. Oh, god, not just an old man, but a small, frail old man. Abby moved to the right, and she could now see Germaine framed in the doorway, her red hair backlit by the little streetlight and sticking out around her, her coat open to reveal the pink ruffled pajamas.
She started to speak, but Abby couldn't hear what she was saying.
The old man said something in response.
Germaine listened, then spoke again. Her reply seemed more agitated.
He now raised his cane and pointed it at Germaine, who put her hand in her pocket, reaching for something. Abby wondered what kind of a peace offering would work in a situation like this.
However, when Germaine drew her hand out of her pocket, Abby saw with disbelief and horror that she was holding a small pistol. Slowly, she raised her arm and pointed the barrel at the old man. Her lips were moving.
Abby felt the adrenalin rush into her head and ears, drowning out sound and will. Each of the seconds that followed stretched to the length of a short lifetime, in which things should happen, but nothing did. Just like she knew she should do something, but she didn't. She didn't move. She just stood there in the dark, staring, her mouth open.
Real time was restored by the old man. While Germaine stood there, holding the gun, he began moving toward her, thrashing his stick from side to side like a blind man looking for a tree in the desert. The expression on Germaine's face changed to one of shock and surprise. Her arm with the gun dropped down. They were no more than twenty feet apart to begin with, so the old man came at her quickly.
When the heavy cane must have been close enough to create a breeze on her face, she leaped back, arms pulled up and away from him. Abby heard her scream as she backed out of the doorway. Once clear of the entrance, she turned and ran. The old man didn't follow her.
Abby turned and went after Germaine, who was running back to the car. When she reached it, she flung herself back into the passenger seat. By the time Abby climbed in, Germaine had done up her seat belt and was sitting there, panting and crying.
"Are you crazy? Where's that gun?" Abby said, kneeling on her seat, reaching for the woman's hands. They were empty. Leaning over her, she grabbed at the sides of her coat, looking for pockets. Abby's adrenalin rush was starting to make her tremble.
All she could think was that she had to get this person away from the house, away from the elderly person inside. She put the car in gear and backed out. Stopping for a moment, she looked back at the shed. The old man's outline was visible. He was standing up by the picture window, peering out into the night. One hand was up, shielding his eyes from the light. Abby wondered how much he could see. The thought crossed her mind that she should go in and make sure he was okay, but she felt it was more important to get her passenger out of here.
"I'm taking you to the police," she snapped, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. "Where's that gun? What did you do with it?"
"I would never have used it. I just wanted to scare him," Germaine said through her tears.
"Where's the gun, damn it?"
"I don't know, I dropped it somewhere," she whimpered.
Abby drove quickly, while her passenger sat hiccoughing and wet-faced. Her compassion level was lower than low. Let her stew in it. She had threatened someone at gunpoint in the middle of the night. Abby was still absorbing the fact that she'd just been part of some kind of assault. What if she'd shot him? Abby would be an accomplice.
Finally, when they were about a mile out of Bantam, she couldn't help herself. "Who was he?"
"He's my father, but he didn't know I was in town."
"That was really your father? You pulled a gun on your father?"
Germaine sniffed and wiped her nose with her hand. "Yes, well, I haven't seen him in a long time. I guess I startled him."
In disbelief Abby said: "Startled him? You said hello with a gun. In the middle of the night."
They drove into the village. They went around the dark traffic circle, past the InnBetween, with its three levels of wrap-around porches. The streetlight on the corner projected the pattern of the railings on the painted brickwork. It seemed to Abby that it had been hours before when she had stood under that light and zipped up her jacket, not just forty minutes. The building was dark, except for a faint glow from the kitchen. The thought of Dan and his Christian music helped anchor her.
Abby pulled up in front of the Lacey Memorial, the columned building that housed the village clerk, the mayor's office and the police station. Let the cops deal with this. However, the entire building was dark and shut down. There wasn't one cruiser in the reserved parking.
Abby said in frustration: "Now what do I do with you? God, why didn't you just call him, go during the day like a regular person?"
Germaine answered defensively: "I was nervous about seeing him, so I thought that I'd be better off going late."
"At one a.m.?"
"He always keeps late hours."
"This is crazy. Christ, I can't believe I drove you there so you could do that." She thought for a second. "Where are you really staying?" she asked coldly.
"Spencerville, I'm staying with friends in Spencerville."
Great. Spencerville was ten minutes on the other side of Bantam. But Abby didn't know what else to do with her.
They turned up Main Street, and drove past the movie theatre, the pet grooming shop, the Carlson building and Victor's Cafe, where Abby usually had her morning coffee. Everything was dark and shut down.
She crossed the railroad tracks and when she came to the only streetlight in town, she took a left. They headed east to Spencerville.
"Where am I taking you?" Abby asked. "Into the village?"
"No, before you get to town, on the left. Bunson Road." They rode in silence for the next five minutes. Finally, Germaine sighed heavily. "There, that's it. Turn here."
On Bunson Road, it was the second house on the right. Even though it was night, Abby could see it was a carefully renovated colonial. Abby pulled into a well-lit circular driveway in front of a red door with polished brasswork.
As soon as they came to a stop, Germaine heaved herself out of the car, slammed the door so hard Abby thought she heard bite-sized chunks of rust breaking off the sides of her precious old vehicle.
"Hey, take it easy!" Abby protested.
Germaine began walking barefoot to the front door. Abby could see wet leaves still hanging from the hem of her fur.
She remembered the woman's handbag, which she'd thrown on the back seat. She leaned across to open the passenger door and called out: "Wait!" and held up the bag. Germaine limped back to retrieve it.
As she reached into the car to take it, Abby moved it a few inches out of her reach. "I want you to ring the bell and get the owner of the house downstairs. I want to make sure they know who you are before I leave you here."
Germaine took an ineffectual swipe at the large bag. "It's really none of your business."
Germaine put her hand on the seatback to give herself support. "I'm sorry, this was all a spur of the moment thing. I'd gone to bed, but then I lay there and thought, why not now? Just get up and do it. So I did."
"Why the gun?"
Germaine leaned further in, resting one knee on the seat, her face close and fierce. "You want to know why? I'll tell you why. Because he killed my mother. I know that, I just can't prove it. So I thought I would scare him into admitting it. It was a really stupid idea, I admit it. I'll never do it again, I promise. You have to believe me. Now, can I have my purse?"
Abby ignored the request. "What do you mean, killed her?"
"Killed her. Made her die. He did something to her, I just don't know what. Give me my bag," Germaine said, and snatched it out of Abby's hand.
"Hey," Abby said, "don't forget this," and she picked up the single, matted sheepskin mule from the floor of the passenger's seat.
Germaine grabbed it and shoved it into her handbag. "Thanks for the ride," she answered, and shut the car door harder than the first time.
"Ring that bell or I'm going to start with the horn," Abby said through the open window.
Germaine gave her a black look, but she pushed the doorbell. Abby sat and waited, her car idling noisily. Finally, a light went on inside and a woman in a robe opened the front door. She looked at the car, talked for a second with Germaine, and then let her in. Germaine never glanced back at Abby.
As she drove slowly back into Bantam, Abby hoped she had done the right thing. She had probably let her tiredness get in the way. She should have used the restaurant phone, called the police and handed Germaine over. She wondered if she was still a danger to the old man she claimed was her father. He had certainly seemed able to take care of himself. God, she wouldn't want to be in Germaine's shoesher mulesangry, drinking, driving around at night with a gun.
But thoughts of the problematic situation she'd found herself in dissolved as she got closer to home, and as Abby drove up her rutted dirt driveway, all she could think about was letting her dogs out and getting into her bed.
The trailer was briefly lit by her headlights before she turned into the little parking area next to it. The dark honeysuckle that grew next to the door looked like a wide tear in the wall. She could hear her two dogs barking, one deep and the other high, with a yappy frequency. Home. Abby yawned until her jaw felt it would dislocate. She turned off the engine and rested her forehead on the steering wheel before climbing out, her legs stiff and leaden. As she unlocked her door and stood to one side, so that the white pitbull and the tiny gray mutt could rush by her, she could already feel the cool caress of her sheets against her skin.
Which brought to mind the pink pajamas. She'd handled things badly. She hadn't found out about the gun: if the gun was Germaine's, if she had a permitthough, hell, there was no permit that allowed you to go to someone's house and threaten them. Most important of all, had it been loaded?
Abby wondered if she would ever see her again. She sincerely hoped not. The evening could have ended in the emergency room, the woman's head split open with a cane. Or the old man shot to death. Abby breathed a slow sigh of relief. It was over, and no longer something she had to worry about. She shook off the nagging knowledge that she hadn't done enough: right now, she needed to sleep. She'd think about it properly in the morning.
When she finally lay down on her bed, she sighed in relief. The silence around her was restful; all she could hear was the soft, intermittent hum of her refrigerator. She shut her eyes and let her muscles relax into the mattress. Anyway, she couldn't be responsible for every nut job wandering the countryside. Even though, a little voice said, she had given the nut job a ride, watched her pull a gun, then driven her home.
Abby rolled over and shut out the chatter. Nothing had come of it. It was no longer her problem. Her problems were showing up for work, paying her bills and looking after her dogs. It was a pretty basic life and she liked it just fine.
© Julia Pomeroy
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