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READ NOW: The New Neighbors

This week I have been smashing through the short stories, and this here is my current work-in-progress!

The New Neighbors tells the story of Carol, a lonely suburban widow who jumps to befriend a new couple who have just moved in next door. Much to her disappointment, Carol’s attempts at making a connection with the reclusive couple are rebuffed, and her curiosity turns to suspicion when a potential connection arises to an interstate missing persons case.

You can read the story in the body of the post below, or download the PDF here:
The New Neighbors

Enjoy the read, and feedback is more than welcome!

The New Neighbors

A Short Story by Kate Kelsen

Copyright © 2020. All Rights Reserved

The New Neighbors Cover 3

 

Summer had dragged on a month too long, but finally autumn had arrived in Woodbury, Connecticut. There was a chilly nip to the air, and the foliage along Maple Avenue had turned orange, brown and golden. Carol pulled her front door closed behind her, turning and walking down the front steps. In the basket on her arm were a loaf of freshly baked bread and a container of home-made pumpkin soup. The grass crunched beneath her boots as she crossed the yard to the neighboring house. Slipping the key into the door, she stepped inside, setting the basket down on the kitchen table.

“Hazel?”
Carol glanced across the way into the living room. Hazel’s armchair was empty. She

climbed the stairs to the master bedroom, knocked once, and opened the door. Hazel lay slouched against the headboard, her eyes restfully closed. Carol sat down on the edge of the mattress, placing her hand down over Hazel’s. She gasped once, closed her eyes and shook her head, a tear trickling down her cheek.

A tag was tied around Hazel’s big toe, and the black bag was zipped up over her

head. The undertaker gave Carol a small box.

“Her personal effects,” he said.

“Thank-you.”

“You take care.”
Sitting on the edge of her bed, Carol held the box in her hands. She heard the front

door open and close, and footsteps coming up the stairs. Michael stopped by the bedroom door, and Carol looked up at him.

“Hazel is gone.”

 

SYLVAN, Hazel Joan of Woodbury- Passed away peacefully on 14th August, 2011. Dearly loved neighbor of Carol and Michael. Family and Friends are invited to attend a service for Hazel, at 10am, Wednesday 31st August at the Warwick Funerals Chapel. 

 

Standing in front of her bedroom mirror, Carol ran her hands over her black dress. Michael waited for her in the hall. He looked smart in his suit and tie. It still brought Carol a tinge of sadness to think that the first suit she had bought her son was for his father’s funeral.

She turned to the bed, picking up the small box and tucking it into her bag.
“Why are you bringing that?”
“In case anyone shows.”
Next to the burial plot, Carol and Michael stood holding a handful of lilies each.

Carol extended her arm over the hole in the ground and dropped her flowers in, and Michael followed.

After the service had concluded and the priest had left, Carol and Michael returned to the car.

“I still can’t believe that nobody came,” said Carol. “Not even her son.”

Hazel’s house across the way had an eerie stillness to it during the day, and was dark and sombre at night. There was something dissimilar about it now that there was no life residing inside. Without its former custodian, it was a shell of a home, dark and dormant. Until one evening, like lungs taking in new breath, light filled the house again. From the window, Carol watched a lofty man lugging a frail-looking woman in a wheelchair backwards up the porch steps. That was the last she saw of them that evening, and the lights were out early.

The very next morning Carol marched across the way to Hazel’s house, holding the small box with her personal effects. She rang the bell, and the man of the house appeared, remaining behind the screen door.

“Can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Carol Cunningham. I’m from next door.”
The man nodded.
“Reid McKay. Nice to meet you.”
His tone was polite yet standoffish.
“You’re Hazel’s son?” Carol inquired.
Reid said nothing. Carol grinned awkwardly, extending the small box.
“ I have this. It’s a few of her things. I was hoping to give them back to her family.”
“I’m not family.”
“Oh. Well, I just wanted to stop by and welcome you to the neighborhood. My son Michael and I—”

“Thank-you, but this really isn’t a good time.”
“Oh, I see. Well, if there is anything we can do to help, I’d be more than happy. I used to care for Hazel who used to live here—”
“Excuse me.”
The door closed, and Carol huffed in defeat.
“Well, that’s that I guess,” she muttered, and turned and marched home.

Much to Carol’s disappointment, the new neighbors kept to themselves. Reid McKay left in the mornings and returned home in the evenings. His wife was nowhere to be seen.

***

Bang! Bang! Bang! went the basketball as it hit the backboard of the hoop. Jacob bounced the ball, and Michael attempted to snatch it away. Jacob posed to take a shot, and Michael watched on helplessly as the ball sailed over his head and into the yard next door.

“Ja-cob!”

Balancing unsteadily in Jacob’s cupped hands, Michael pulled himself up over the timber palings, peering over the fence into the neighboring backyard.
“I can see it!” he grunted.
Jacob let him back down to the ground, and together they ran next door and up the front steps. Michael rang the bell, and Mr. McKay answered.

“Hi, uh, my ball went over your fence. Can I get it back, please?”
“Well, now we won’t have to listen to that incessant banging day and night!”
Mr. McKay slammed the door closed, and Michael looked at Jacob, puzzled. They ran back to Michael’s house, finding Carol in the kitchen preparing dinner.

“The guy next door won’t give me my ball back!” Michael exclaimed.
“What?”
“My ball went over the fence, and he won’t give it back!”
“He’s probably busy making dinner. Go ask him again tomorrow, you might catch him at a better time.”

A few days passed, and when Mr. McKay still had not thrown the ball back over the fence, Michael reluctantly asked his mother for help. In response she put together a hamper of wine and cheeses, and Michael joined her in delivering it, trailing behind her as she led the way across the yard. Standing on the porch, Carol exaggerated a struggle with the weight of the basket in her arms.

“Ring the doorbell, will you, Michael?” she grunted.
Michael huffed as he raised a floppy arm to the button. He pressed it for a few seconds before folding his arms again and resuming his reluctant slouch. Mr. McKay appeared.

“Yes?”
“Hi, Mr. McKay. This is my son Michael; I understand he lost his basketball over your fence a few days ago.”
“Yes, it’s nice to not be woken at 6am every morning!”
“I understand,” said Carol, nudging Michael. “Michael has something to say to you.”
Michael sighed.
“I’m sorry for disturbing you,” he muttered.
“You see, it was Michael’s father’s ball,” Carol added. “They played together almost every day…”
“This really isn’t a good time…”
The door closed, and Michael looked at his mother.
“Now what?” he exclaimed.

At his bedroom window, Michael puffed clouds of pungent earthy smoke out into the chilly night air. He passed the joint to Jacob, and peered through his binoculars at the house next door. Through a downstairs window, he could see an empty plate discarded on the kitchen table. Mr. McKay appeared, stepping out onto the porch. In his hands he held Michael’s deflated basketball, and Michael watched on helplessly as he threw it in the trash can.
“You asshole!” he exclaimed. “He popped my basketball!”
“What?” Jacob coughed.
Michael lowered the binoculars. “We have to get him back, Jacob.”
“How are we going to do that?”
Michael paused thoughtfully.
“We could slash his tires.”
“What? That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? What if we get caught?”
“The ball belonged to my dad, Jacob. I should make you do it; you’re the one that lost it over there.”

Sipping her morning coffee, Carol flicked through the morning paper. A headline on page six caught her eye.

‘Former Live-In Carer Speaks Out in Case of Missing Vermont Psychiatrist.’

Carol read on.

‘A former live-in carer has spoken to Burlington Police in regards to a possible  connection to the case of missing woman Elizabeth McDermott, who vanished from her psychiatry practice four years ago. Amy Bennett, who worked for a brief time in the employ of a man who called himself ‘John Linden’ contacted emergency services from a lake house in Waterbury, Vermont following an alleged altercation. Ms. Bennet was treated in hospital for extensive injuries, including two broken legs.

Police say that Mr. Linden is traveling with a woman who is being transported in a wheelchair, and that the woman would appear malnourished and unwell. Police urge anybody with information to contact authorities immediately.’

Heart thumping, breath quivering, Carol peered across the yard to Hazel’s house. Mr. McKay’s car was gone. She crossed the yard and climbed the front steps, sliding her key into the door and slipping inside. She crossed the way to the stairs, taking each one carefully, freezing at the slightest creak in the timber beneath her feet. She made it to the top, and she thought her heart was going to thump right out of her chest as she crept along the hallway toward the master bedroom.

Turn back now! She thought. Turn back now!

She stopped outside the closed door, wrapping a trembling hand around the doorknob. Inside, an emaciated woman lay in the bed. Her hair was thin and wiry, her eyes sunken, her skin pale.

Carol’s eyes dropped to the foot of the bed. She reached for the bedspread, pulling it back to reveal the woman’s legs, horribly disfigured, bent and twisted from old fractures. Her ankles were covered in bruises and welts from the shackles that were chained to the bars at the end of the bed. Carol looked back up at the woman’s face; her eyes were strained with pure desperation. Carol took her mobile out of her pocket.

“9-1-1 emergency.”
“My name is Carol Cunningham…I need help at no.1 Maple Avenue, Woodbury…I need help, there is a woman trapped. Please hurry.”

The woman’s eyes widened, and Carol screamed when a hand came over her mouth from behind. She was dragged backwards, and she grabbed at the door frame, her fingers slipping. She bit down hard on the hand, and her attacker howled in pain as she scrambled out of his grasp and down the stairs. When she had almost reached the bottom, her ankle rolled and she fell onto the floor in the hall. She cried out as Mr. McKay took a hold of her and dragged her along the hall, opening the basement door and pushing her in. She tumbled down the stairs, hitting the floor hard at the bottom. She looked up just in time to see the light disappear behind the closing door.

“Not again,” Reid muttered as he charged back along the hall. “Not again!”
He leapt up the stairs two at a time, stopping at the master bedroom.
“Time to go,” he said to the woman, approaching the wheelchair sitting in the corner.
“Come on, Lisa. I’ve got to get you out of here. Just hold on.”

Step by step, he awkwardly pushed the wheelchair down the stairs. He pushed Lisa out onto the porch across the way to the car, stopping suddenly, growling violently at the sight of his tires deflated. He threw his arms in the air, pacing a few moments, looking frantically around. Composing himself, he scooped Lisa up out of the wheelchair and carried her inside.
“Come on, Lisa! I’ve got to hide you!”
He carried her down into the basement, stepping over Carol who was cowering on the floor. He lay Lisa on a slab bench and covered her with an old drop cloth.
“I won’t leave you,” he panted, stroking her hair. “I promise.”

He ran back up the basement stairs two at a time. As he approached the front door, he stopped dead in his tracks again at the sight of the red and blue lights flashing outside.

The number of emergency vehicles on Maple Avenue was steadily increasing. A handful of news vans were among them also. Lisa was wheeled on a stretcher out of the house and into the back of an ambulance as cameramen and photographers jostled for a picture of her. Carol was next, joined by Michael who rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital.

“Is my mom going to be alright?” Michael asked the attending paramedic.
“She’s going to be fine, son,” he reassured.

The door to Carol’s hospital room opened, and in stepped a man in a suit, with brown
collar-length hair and a moustache. He showed a badge.

“My name is Detective Brendan Clements. I’m from the Burlington Police. Can I speak with you, Mrs. Cunningham?”

“Sure. Carol is fine. This is my son, Michael.”
“You should be very proud of yourself, Carol. If it weren’t for you, and whoever slashed Daniel Harrison’s tires, Elizabeth McDermott may not have been found.”
“So it really was her?”
Clements nodded.
“It was. Daniel’s mother had recently passed away, leaving him the house in Maple Avenue, and so when Amy uncovered the truth he had the perfect getaway.”“Oh my God!” Carol shook her head, reaching over and taking Michael’s hand. “I just knew something was going on over there! I just can’t believe that all this was happening right under our noses!”
Carol paused thoughtfully.
“How is she, Detective? How is Elizabeth?”
“She’s quite unwell, as you can imagine. It will be a long road to recovery. But she has the best people caring for her now.”

***

Holding her cup of coffee in her hands, Carol watched the unfolding news bulletin on the television. The headline read ‘Elizabeth McDermott returns Home’. The footage was showing a whole street lined with people cheering and waving decorated banners and signs. A car pulled up in front of a house, and aided into her wheelchair, Elizabeth McDermott hid behind the hood of her sweater as she was swept away inside.

“Daniel Harrison was a former patient of Elizabeth McDermott’s in Burlington. He had developed an unhealthy obsession with her, and one night he waited for her outside her clinic and ran her down with his car. He then kidnapped her and took her to a lake house in Waterbury in Vermont, where he kept her for four years. He eventually hired a live-in carer named Amy Bennet, and Amy has stated that she was told that Elizabeth’s vegetative state was due to a brain aneurysm. It has been revealed that Daniel kept her heavily sedated, and was slowly poisoning her to death with drain cleaner.”

The doorbell rang, and Carol reached for her crutches.
“Coming!”
She hobbled to the front door, and on the step stood a man in a collared shirt, tie and vest.
“Peter Marshall,” he greeted with a smile. “Hazel’s estate lawyer. We spoke on the phone.”
“Oh, right. Come in. Can I make you a cup of coffee or something?”
“Oh, no thanks, I’m fine.”
Carol sat with him at the kitchen table.
“You meant so much to her, Carol. You being there for her. She really loved you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s in her will.” Peter slid a piece of paper across the table at her, and she picked it up. “She left you the house, Carol.”
Carol looked up at him, speechless for several seconds.
“I thought she left it to him? To Daniel, her son?”
“Well, police and forensics have been sweeping through the place since Elizabeth McDermott’s discovery, and in the process came across an updated version of the will.”

***

Carol paced Hazels living room, shadowed closely behind by the man heading the removals team.

“And the desk?” the man enquired, pressing his pen to his clipboard.
“The desk goes,” Carol confirmed. “No, wait. The desk can stay.”
“The couch?”
“Yes, please.”
The removalists moved to shift the couch.
“Wait a minute…” Carol hesitated. “The couches can stay.”
“What about the chairs?”
“They stay too. Actually, everything is going to stay.”
“Are you sure? What about the bedroom?”
“No.”
“Kitchen?”
“No.”
The man shrugged.
“So then, we’re done?”
Carol nodded.
“We’re done. Sorry to waste your time.”

Sitting by the window in the sun room, Elizabeth looked out over her parents’ back garden. On one side were tidy flower beds, stepping stones and leafy bushes, and on the other side a row of shady trees along the fence line. In many ways it was still mostly the same as she remembered, with a few differences. In an attempt to maintain some privacy for her, Elizabeth’s parents had strung up tarpaulins between the trees and the fence, so that she could still go outside without the interference of curious, prying eyes eager to get a glimpse of her. The tarpaulins were a stark reminder of her new reality, an unwanted notoriety. In a way she felt she was still captured.

Elizabeth’s mother came into the room and placed a cup of tea down next to her.
“Andrew called. He’d like to see you, if you’re up for it.”
“I am.”
“Are you sure? He did say he can talk to you on the phone if you preferred.”
“No, no. I’d like to see him.”

Andrew’s tears began to flow the moment he stepped into the room. He was the same as she remembered, yet different all at once. In his tear-sodden, screwed up expression, Elizabeth saw relief and joy twisted with anguish and grief. He sat down beside her, and she took his hands in hers, sighting a gold ring on his finger.

“I’m sorry, Liz,” Andrew whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“What for, Andrew?”
“For not waiting for you.”
“Andrew, I know you had to move on with your life. I wanted you to.” She smiled,

stroking his cheek. “I’m glad you came. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Of course I would. I never stopped thinking about you, Liz. Never. I did everything I could to find you. We had hope, but all the leads went dry…”
“And there came a time when you had to move on.” Elizabeth ran her thumb over his ring finger. “So, you’re married now?”
“Yes. We have a daughter.”
Elizabeth smiled to herself.
“I always knew you’d make a wonderful father.”
She looked out into the garden.
“I’m supposed to have a very different memory of this place. Our wedding ceremony. I had it all planned out: I was supposed to walk with Dad through the garden gate, past the flowerbeds, along the stepping stones into the garden. I can still imagine the guests, turning in their seats, smiling as they watch me walk down the aisle.” Elizabeth pointed out the window. “You would have been standing right there, waiting for me.”

She paused, sighing deeply.
“We would have bought our first home, a small house in a good neighborhood.  It would have been our little piece of heaven. We would have started a family within a year, I reckon.” Elizabeth looked back at Andrew, smiling warmly. “All I wanted was to marry you and settle down. A modest life; that was all I wanted. It was hard to imagine that anything could go wrong.”

The world on the other side of false imprisonment was a changed one. Everybody Elizabeth had loved and cared for were still there waiting for her, except for Andrew. The more time that had passed the more she had feared she was losing him. With each passing day she feared he was closer to the moment that he would decide enough was enough, that he would accept that she may never come back. That he would put the past behind him and begin again.

Seeing him again now had filled her with joy that was quickly followed by sadness. It was indeed as she had feared: he had found someone new to love, and that someone had started the family that Elizabeth had so desperately wanted with him. After having been crushed by the disappearance of the woman he loved, he had gathered the pieces of his shattered heart back together, and found the strength to let himself love again. Elizabeth’s re-emergence had surely been a shock to his attempt to forge a new life for himself.

Elizabeth had lost Andrew, but she treasured the memory of the time they spent together. She would always love and care for him. She was not angry with Andrew, but with Daniel Harrison. Along with her health and freedom, Daniel had stolen the union between her and the man who was supposed to be her husband. In order to create his fantasy of a life with her, he had taken Elizabeth’s opportunity of a life with Andrew. And she did not know if she could ever forgive him for that.

 

Blog

The Last Supper/Life Without- Two Brand New Short Stories

I’ve been meaning to tackle my backlog of short stories for a LONG time, and I’m finally doing it. You’ve probably noticed from the number I’ve posted here the past few weeks.

I’ve just finished two brand new short stories- The Last Supper and Life Without. These used to be ONE short story, however in working on them this past week I’ve decided to split them in two. I love the result, and I hope you do too.

 

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The Last Supper

A Short Story by Kate Kelsen

Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved

“One Cheeseburger, a side of fries, onion rings, apple pie and a soda.”

The Chief Steward’s voice wavered as she read out the order. She looked up, blinking back tears.

“This is the last thing I will ever do for you, Anthony. Except pray for you, and I will be praying.”

“Thank-you, Ma’am.”

Anthony had not anticipated the profound emotional effect the experience of had had on her. She had served his meals to him for the past twenty years, and in the face of certain death, it was clear she did not think he was undeserving of her mercy. Perhaps it was the ownership of his wrongdoing that had set him apart from the others.

His final meal carried a morbid significance, but he was not compelled to treat it as ceremonial. He had almost declined it altogether, but had eventually reconsidered, deciding to dedicate his choice of food to his former employer in an act of commemoration.

The Chief Steward placed the food down in front of Anthony on the table that had been set up in his cell. This was the last food he would ever eat. He wrapped his hands around the burger and lifted it to his mouth. This was run-of-the-mill fast food, the kind he had eaten many times throughout his life. Never before had he appreciated the tastes as he did now. He observed everything: the sugary dryness of the bun, the tang of the mustard and ketchup, the bitterness of the pickles, the plastic creaminess of the cheese, and the fatty, gristly texture of the beef patty. Next were the fries; limp, slim and salty, they were hopelessly addictive. The battery crunch of the onion rings revealed a slippery centre. All too soon, it was all gone.

The apple pie signified the grand finale of a lifetime of food consumption. Sweet, crunchy pastry with soft apple pieces inside. He washed it all down with the last mouthful of soda, and that was it. He was one step closer to death.

Forty-eight hours had whittled down to twenty four in the last two days he had been spent under Death Watch. There was always a chance, but his prayers felt empty and useless. He wondered if out of nowhere he would be overwhelmed by a sense of helpless panic. Yet as the time mercilessly slipped away, it was not fear that he felt, but the greatest sense of peace he had ever experienced.

He had found his peace long ago in the honesty of owning his guilt. During his incarceration he had made it known to the people that mattered that he took very seriously the deep harm he had caused. He had made the choice to walk into the restaurant with a pistol and shoot the manager. He had been handed own the death sentence, and his appeal to the State Supreme Court had been denied, not once but twice. Two decades had been spent waiting and hoping for the best possible outcome. His lawyer had worked around the clock, doing everything he could, but in the end it had all come to nothing. It was a great defeat, and it was almost too devastating to think about, which was hard to do when all Anthony had was time alone with his thoughts.

Anthony had thought a lot about what awaited him after death. It was a mysterious trap; from all the theories about it, he could never really know for sure what awaited him on the other side of death. He had already spent the last twenty years in Hell. In solitary confinement, he was woken at 3am, and his life had revolved around meals, and inspections every two hours. He had spent twenty-three hours a day in lockdown, and was alone for all twenty-four. Contact with other death row prisoners was not allowed. He could have no physical contact with his family, separated from them during visits by bullet-proof Perspex glass. He could have no personal belongings or photos on the wall of his cell. After he was executed, he would be buried in an unmarked grave. His body would be nothing more than worm food, but what about his soul? Would it go further, beyond the grave to the centre of the earth, damned forever?

The door to his cell opened, and two guards appeared. He stood up and they took his arms, marching him to another room with a telephone. He sat down and picked up the receiver, and heard a familiar voice on the other end.

“The Board of Pardons has commuted the death sentence,” said his lawyer. “It has been changed to life without the possibility of parole.”

The clock on the wall read 5pm. Two hours shy of the ultimate punishment.

“Why?”

“No reason was given for the decision on the ruling.”

Frozen with sombre shock, Anthony said nothing, did nothing. Why, after all his prior attempts, had this eleventh-hour clemency been granted? Twenty years of demonstrating remorse had not been enough to save his life. Why now?

He hung up the phone, and the guards took him back to his cell. There he waited. In the wake of his salvation, Anthony didn’t feel like he could let himself believe it. At any minute, he expected the guards to come for him and take him to the execution chamber. Twenty-four hours passed, and then forty-eight. Eventually the guards did come for him again. He was transported to a different part of the prison, to a cell not much different at all to the one in which he had spent the last two decades.

A Styrofoam plate of pork chops and vegetables came through the food slot in the solid steel door. The meat was processed and the vegetables were starchy, but as uninspiring it was, every meal hereon in would be significant for Anthony, for until very recently, he’d thought he’d eaten his last.

 

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Life Without

A Short Story by Kate Kelsen

Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved

Anthony didn’t know what he had expected when his death sentence had been commuted to life without parole. His situation was unique, but it was not the only time it had ever happened. For security purposes, he had been classified as a ‘special circumstances inmate’, the highest possible classification. He had been transferred to solitary confinement in Maximum Security.

In the twenty years he had spent on death row, Anthony had cherished time. Now that his death sentence had been commuted and changed to life without parole, time was all he had. Death had been removed from the equation, and all that was left was life.

The time was torturously drawn out. After lunch, he usually tried to lose an hour with an afternoon nap. He slept a lot- it was a good way to pass the time. In the outside world, time was so precious, but in prison it was empty and useless.

There were six other inmates on special circumstance status. He had become accustomed to the often aggressive ranting, the nightmarish ravings of mentally unstable patients troubling him deeply. The disembodied and idiotic chatter of the other inmates echoed along the corridor. Some men spent several hours rambling about cars, politics, sports, sex. Just about any useless, menial subject they could think of, anything to avoid boredom. And this was how Anthony would live out his days.

Anthony stirred awake when two guards came to his cell and escorted him to the Unit Manager’s office.

“Anthony, take a seat,” said Steven, gesturing to the empty chair opposite his desk.

“Thank-you, sir.”

“So it has been a few months since you came to us,” Steven continued. “How are you finding it?”

“It’s okay. Not that different to Death Row, to be honest, except there’s no death anymore.”

Steven nodded, interlocking his fingers.

“Anthony, I’ve brought you here today because to discuss the possibility of a mediation session with the family of John Reilly. At the request of the family.”

Anthony said nothing.

“The meeting would be facilitated by me and other counselling staff. John’s widow and daughter would speak, and then you would be allowed to respond. The meeting would be closely monitored, and you would have support there too.”

Steven paused thoughtfully.

“You’ve always been very forthcoming about your remorse over what you had done. And I believe that if you had the opportunity to say you were sorry to them directly, you would.”

It was true that throughout his trials and appeals Anthony had expressed his remorse, yet he had never imagined he would have the opportunity to face the family directly.

“Can I think about it?”

Steven nodded.

“Sure. When you’ve decided, I’ll be here.”

Anthony was now fifty-five years of age. He had been thirty-five at the time of the killing, with no prior criminal record. An upstanding member of his community, he had gone to great lengths to hide his secret. His addiction had started out small, but after a time it had consumed him. His every thought and action had revolved around obtaining his next hit of crack cocaine.

Despite all of his remorse in the courtroom, Anthony knew that he no longer had a welcome place in society in the court of public opinion. The people wanted him dead and buried in an unmarked grave. It was darkly confronting to be aware of the general hatred held toward him by the community that once held him in high regard. Now, someone did care that he was alive, but not because they wanted him to be.

Showered and clean-shaven, Anthony buttoned his shirt, straightened his collar. In a few hours he would meet the widow and daughter of his victim. It was an opportunity to understand the crime he had committed from their perspective. To give them closure. It was bound to be an emotional and tense interaction, and if they asked him ‘why’, he still wasn’t sure what he would say. Even after twenty years of thinking about it, he still could not fathom a satisfactory answer, and feared they would be disappointed. But he could only give them the answers he had, even if they were no answers at all. It was up to them what they did with those answers.

When the time came, Steven and two guards escorted Anthony from his cell. The nerves were nowhere near as intense as when he had been counting the hours in the Death House to his execution. Nonetheless, they were there.

They arrived at the visiting area. On the other side of the Perspex glass stood a number of men in suits who Anthony had never seen before. Mrs. Reilly and her daughter sat ready at the phone. Anthony sat opposite them and picked up the receiver.

“I’m kind of nervous right now,” she confessed with a nervous laugh.

Anthony was surprised by her ability to laugh, even nervously, and for a moment the tense atmosphere felt slightly more relaxed. The elderly woman unfolded a piece of paper, sliding her glasses onto her nose.

“Mr. Miller, I am sitting here writing this letter, trying to put into words how I am feeling. I would like to thank you for agreeing to this mediation session with myself and my daughter Louise.”

Mrs. Reilly sighed shakily.

“My family and I were too upset to address the board at the hearing earlier this year. Coming here today was incredibly difficult, knowing that I would be sitting opposite from the person who took my husband’s life. But I felt compelled to come here today.”

As she read on, Mrs. Reilly’s initially nervous demeanour became more composed.

“Mr. Miller, I don’t think you could ever comprehend the damage you did that night. I want you to know the depth of our pain. The pain of a wife, and the pain of a daughter, cannot be expressed in words. It is like our hearts have been ripped from our bodies. After twenty years, my heart is still breaking inside.”

She reached over and took her daughter’s hand.

“A few months ago I would not have had the strength to do what we are doing today. We had been fighting a battle against each other with conflicting interests for two decades; you wanted to stay alive, but I wanted you dead. And you won. But then my heartbreak turned to determination, and I felt I had to see you. You had to hear my voice and what I had to say. My family had been awaiting your punishment for twenty years. For you to suffer the same death sentence you gave my husband that day. We got so close to seeing that justice, and then it was cruelly taken away from us. That is why I was compelled to meet with you. I am sure you are happy for your success, but justice was not done for us.”

Mrs. Reilly looked up from her piece of paper.

“I cannot say I have forgiven you or your actions, Mr. Miller. I have not yet found the strength to separate you from what you did. I just can’t do it that way. I have found just enough peace in all this to help me survive day to day, and that is all.”

Mrs. Reilly turned to her daughter, who consoled her as they cried together. Anthony waited patiently for a sign that they were ready to hear his response. Eventually they composed themselves, and he proceeded.

“Mrs. Reilly, all I can offer you is the truth about that day. It is by no means an excuse for my actions, but I just want to give you the facts. At the time, I was addicted to crack cocaine, and my addiction was out of control. It had caused me to lose my job. I was desperate, but that still does not excuse killing a person.”

Despite his efforts to the contrary, Anthony could not help but feel a shameful emptiness in his words. It had sounded better when he had written it, but now as he read it aloud, it sounded pathetic. After all this time, how could he have so little to say? How could all the suffering he had caused these people be summed up in any number of words?

“I don’t know what, if any, difference it will make to you, but during my time in prison I have successfully overcome my drug addiction. I have spent my time in here counselling other inmates with drug habits. I will never leave prison, but some of those men will, and I feel it is my obligation to help in any way I can to return them to society as better people. I have made my peace with what I’ve done by owning up to it in every way. It doesn’t make me feel any less deserving of my punishment, but if it means you and family could feel the peace that I have felt for my accountability, I can at least give you that.”

Anthony looked up from his paper. Mrs. Reilly was looking directly at him.

“How does it feel to take another person’s life?” she asked quietly. “Did you think about what you had done? Did you think about your own family?”

“I didn’t think about it.”

Mrs. Reilly shook her head.

“I know that saying sorry means nothing. I wish I could take it all back.”

“We should have had had justice, but in the end, it was you who got that. It is you, a murderer, who still has his life. My husband would have been a grandfather by now. But he’s dead.”

“Mrs. Reilly, if there is anything I wish I could take back besides your husband’s murder; it is how hard I fought to stay alive. Since the clemency, I’ve spent the last few months in Solitary Confinement in Maximum Security, and I tell you, the only difference from Death Row and Solitary is that death has been removed from the equation. The conditions are exactly the same. I live alone in a twelve-by-seven foot cell, where I spend most of the time alone. I’m not allowed to mingle with lower security inmates. I am allowed to see my family, but they are no-contact visits through bullet proof plexi-glass. You may think that I’m the one that has gotten justice, but it couldn’t be less true. I might as well be dead, and you never know, you might just get your wish.”

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Just Jane

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Just Jane

A Short Story by Kate Kelsen

Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved

 

My name is Jane Atkinson. See, there. You made the association, didn’t you? It wasn’t my face that came to mind when you heard the name. You thought of Ashley Atkinson, my sister, and that little girl that disappeared all those years ago. Through your mind flashed that innocent face that they show on the news every time they run a story on her. You see that one picture they always use, an image that has consumed my family name.

Once upon a time, my name did identify me as an individual. In fact, for five years I was the only Atkinson girl. And then along came Ashley.

Ashley was nine when she was abducted one afternoon after school. It was like she disappeared off the face of the earth- one minute she was there and the next she was gone without a trace.

We checked the homes of each of Ashley’s friends. The afternoon grew late, and panic set in. The police were called. I had never seen either of my parents cry until that day. They had always been so strong for Ashley and I, and now everything was falling apart. In the space of one afternoon, our family had come undone. Whoever had taken Ashley had pulled a thread, which had unraveled the fabric of our lives as we knew them.

That first night without Ashley was the worst night of my life. My parents and I were suspended in a state of limbo; we couldn’t eat, and we barely slept. While I was safe and sound at home, she was out there somewhere, afraid and alone, or worse. We were distraught, terrified, impatient and angry. There was no telling what news the next moment would bring. Nothing could bring us comfort, but we surrendered blindly to hope.

The sun rose the next morning without Ashley. And the next morning, and the next.

Days became weeks, and I wondered why she had not been found yet. A police investigation was under way. Whatever had happened to her was worse than I had first imagined.

My family was trapped between two places; the nightmare we faced, and the unavoidable reality of ongoing everyday life. Time mercilessly pushed on, not waiting for us, and not waiting for Ashley.

Initially my parents had kept me home from school, but the time came for me to go back. My attention easily lapsed; how could I possibly focus on anything else? Everybody was very kind and supportive, but I wished there was no need for sympathy in the first place. I just wanted Ashley home.

The world continued to carry on as it always had, and the normality of it felt surreal. Doing the most regular things was so incredibly strange. We just wanted everything to pause until she was back. It was too hard to get on with living without her; even the smallest of tasks were painful in their ordinariness.

Weeks turned into months, and with each passing day Ashley seemed to be getting further and further away. The possibility of how long she could be gone for was beginning to dawn on us. A reward was offered for information resulting in the resolve of Ashley’s case. Hundreds of tip-offs flooded in, and persons of interest came to the attention of police. I was a teenager, and my world of family and school was small. In my young mind, I could not imagine that such deplorable people could possibly exist in the world. Life had all of a sudden become very real for me.

It was the lack of closure that was utterly unbearable. Ashley could have been anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world. I was afraid to mourn for her. That was a reality that I shut out of my mind as quickly as the thought was made. But there came a time when I would have preferred that closure to the mystery of her disappearance. Of course I did not want it, but the more time that passed the less likely it seemed that she would be found alive. At least we would have known what had happened to her. We could have laid her to rest, and found a way to somehow move on from the tragedy.

The months pushed on, and it was clear that Ashley wasn’t coming home anytime soon. I knew that if she were found alive, she would be a very different person to who we remembered her as. She would be damaged, and she would never be the same again. This event would define her forever. What kind of life awaited her, I wondered, after having endured such a traumatic experience?

And all the while, the person that took her was out there somewhere too, smugly content in their ability to fly under the radar. I was angry with a faceless stranger, not just because of what they’d done to Ashley, but what they’d done to me.

Before Ashley was taken, I was just Jane Atkinson. Then suddenly, I was not Jane anymore. I was ‘Ashley Atkinson’s sister’. The people in our immediate community knew that I existed, but for many years after she disappeared, most people didn’t even know that Ashley Atkinson had a sister.

Not only had Ashley’s abductor taken her away, but they had also stolen my chance to live a normal life. Their actions had imprisoned me within my own name. They had permanently changed my identity; they had taken away my ability to be recognized for who I was as an individual, and condemned me to be known only for my missing sister.

How could they live with themselves, so detached from their guilt? How could such an injustice be allowed?

Over the years Ashley grew up through age progression photos. My parents continued to search exhaustively for her whilst trying to make life as normal as possible for me, to ensure that I didn’t feel overlooked or over-protected. Yet still I yearned for the regularity that we could have had if only Ashley were with us. I did not begrudge my parents; after all, what else were they to do? They could not forego the search for Ashley in favour of being fully present for me. That was not an option, and I wanted my sister back just as much.

During those times I often wondered about my own significance; what did my parents think when they looked at me? Was I a warm reminder of the child that was still there with them, or was I a painful reminder of who was missing from our family? What was I without Ashley? If she were never found, would I alone ever be enough? I had things that I wanted to achieve in my life, but would those things serve to demonstrate my own ambition, or be a sad reminder of the chances that Ashley never had? Was my life destined to become a reflection of what was stolen from my sister?

Nothing was ever the same after Ashley was gone, and the painful sting of sadness marred any opportunity that came my way to surrender completely to joy or excitement. I tried to dream about what my future as an adult would hold for me, but it was hard to believe that anything I did would matter at all. The attention was centered on the fact that I was Ashley Atkinson’s sister. It seemed like no achievement of mine could ever truly matter, so over time I lost the ambition to try at all. I had felt despair in the mission to find Ashley, but it was at this time that I felt true hopelessness in myself as a human being. I became very withdrawn, and wondered whether anybody would even notice the lack of my presence.

It was a strange predicament that I found myself in. Whether people were aware of my existence or not, it was always for the same reason, because I was Ashley’s sister. And when they heard my surname, people unknowingly made an association that really had nothing to do with me as an individual person.

I could never have imagined the power that would haunt my family name, and the thought of carrying that legacy for the rest of my life was nothing short of daunting. I wondered what would come of my future, and I resigned to the notion that I may never be able to be praised for anything of my own doing.

I turned eighteen, and then twenty-one, milestones that Ashley never had. I emerged into adulthood without her; she is now frozen in our childhood, behind that smiling face in the news that provokes such question and suspicion.

I am on my own again now, without a little sister, but not an only child. It will never go back to the way it was before Ashley was a part of our family, and there will always be a hole left where she was taken away.

I have now come to accept that I will always have to live with the legacy attached to my family name. I have grown up in the shadow of my little sister’s disappearance, sharing my parents with their tireless effort to find her. But what about me, the other Atkinson girl?

Will we ever see Ashley again, I do not know. But life has to go on. My world is bigger now, and has reached further than just my family, school and the neighbourhood I grew up in. While not everyone recognizes my face these days, they still know my surname. I have etched out an existence of my own, not for the need of gratification from others but out of necessity. I have a job. It’s nothing spectacular, but it is something.

Maybe one day a man will be able to look at me and love me for who I am. Maybe he will be brave enough to marry me, to give me a new name that no one will think twice about.

Perhaps you and I will meet someday too. Maybe you will come to the place where I work and I will serve you. I hope that, without realizing it, you will see me for who I really am.  Not just as the sister, but also as the individual. My name is Jane Atkinson, and I am the girl in the background. I am still here, and I have been here all along.