Updated: Sep 13, 2021
It Was Bound to Happen Eventually
‘They showed up and popped up that fence,’ the woman says as she stacks the donuts in the little pastry box for him. ‘Finished the job and left again, in less than twenty minutes or so.’ It is early afternoon but she looks tired already. The little donut shop opens early.
‘Really,’ he says, but it isn’t a question. ‘And then?’
She looks at him with that expression he’s gotten used to seeing. It is subtle, almost hidden, but he can tell.
‘Then what, Ed? One of them came in to buy some bottles of water. I asked if he wanted a donut with that and he said no, he didn’t.’ She pauses and shakes her head.
‘Who comes into a donut shop to buy water?’
‘What do I know, but it’s in bad taste.’ She hands him the box and smooths down her little apron—blue, like most things in the shop. It is the kind of powdery color he associates with candy or seaside cabins on Cape Cod, but not with donuts or any kind of pastry for that matter. Still, it covers the wall and the doorframes, the napkins, everything apart from the donuts themselves.
‘Maybe I should get some too.’ He looks around the shop idly, eyeing the little bulletin board with noteworthy things that have happened in town recently. She updates it every Friday, cutting out headlines and articles, usually about lost cats or bake sales.
There isn’t much to talk about in town nowadays.
‘At least you got donuts too,’ she says. ‘Do you want a bottle?’
‘Sure, why not.’ He watches as she wrestles with the plastic liner of a new pack. ‘Did they say anything about why that fence is there now?’
‘He,’ she says over the squealing of plastic. ‘It was only one of them. And no, just got his water and went on his way again—here you go. It’s warm. I didn’t think to restock the cooler.’
‘That’s alright.’ He takes the bottle and wedges it under his arm. ‘You didn’t ask?’
‘I—it was early, Ed.’ Her eyes flick to the window, but the wire mesh fence is barely visible from here. ‘I leave others to do their business when I haven’t been awake for more than an hour.’ She pauses, the hum of the small fan by the entrance filling the silence, stirring around the sweet air. ‘It’s not for me to ask, but don’t you think it might be a good thing? It’s better than leavin’ it empty, isn’t it? After all those years…’
Ed says nothing but he looks at her, small behind the counter and picking at the sleeve of her blouse.
‘Sorry, well, anyways. Did you want anything else?’
‘That’s all.’ He shakes his head, trying to look friendly as she adds up the donuts and the bottle of water in her little calculator—this one white and not blue. He already knows it is $6 for the donuts and another $1.45 for the drink. So he plucks a couple of bills from his wallet and hands them to her, enough to cover what he owes and a little extra to buy a coffee for the homeless woman who stops by just before close. He might not know everything, but he knows enough. That is something he makes sure of. ‘And don’t worry about it, I’m the one who started asking questions.’ He turns and walks to the door.
‘Okay, Ed. Have a nice day and see you next Friday.’
The air outside is warm for late May and he thinks it will be one of those summers—a little too hot for his liking. Ed walks along the sidewalk until he is out of sight from the donut shop’s window, then beelines for the fence to inspect it.
Wire mesh panels have been propped up with bright orange plastic feet that look flimsy at first, but cracks and chips at the edges reveal the solid concrete inners that hold them in place. When he taps one with the tip of his shoe, a little more of the orange breaks off, but nothing else moves. Concrete is useful like that.
Why? He thinks and glances up at the house that sits slightly off-center on the mostly barren lot. Why now?
The house has been empty for years and has remained mostly unchanged during that time. He isn’t sure who owns it nowadays. The township, probably, claimed years ago to repossess debt. He thinks back to his childhood and wonders how the years have passed so quickly. The house barely feels real anymore.
‘They’re tearing it down to build a new grocery store. One of the big ones, just not one of the good ones.’ Cathy walks quietly, like a cat. It’s one of the things he likes about her, but sometimes she catches him off guard. ‘Hey there, Ed.’ She greets him with a peck on the cheek and a hint of perfume—flowery, the one she has been wearing recently. ‘Whatcha got there?’
He hands her the box and she opens it.
‘Three glazed and one Strawberry pink.’ She brings them up to her face and inhales deeply.
‘I know you like those—’ he starts.
‘But I always get sick after eating just one. It’s sweet you remembered.’
Ed nods but says nothing more. After a moment, he finds himself looking back at the house yet again.
‘It’s sad, isn’t it?’ She stands next to him and flicks the end of one of the zip-ties that have been used to link the panels together. ‘They shouldn’t be doing this to you.’
‘Do you think about them a lot?’ she asks later, when they are sitting on a bench in a park, and at first he shakes his head. No, he wants to say but that is not true.
‘Sometimes I do,’ he admits. ‘Today more than usual.’
‘Of course. If I was you, I would think about them, like, always. I mean, I couldn’t imagine losing my parents that way.’ She has eaten half of the strawberry donut and licks a little bit of pink from the corner of her mouth. ‘It might not be healthy though, you know? They say it’s good to move on, even if it’s a difficult thing to do. All that is in the past and you’re not. You’re here with me, eating donuts.’
He doesn’t think there’s ever been a time where Cathy has been lost for words. He has heard them all before, column-like wisdoms that can go with almost any occasion—in particular his occasions—but at least they touch on some sense of truth. Only, he isn’t eating donuts. He hasn’t found the appetite today.
‘Maybe if you go back, it would be better? Say goodbye?’
They have had that discussion in the past when she catches him thinking about it, and it is never one he wants to have. He said goodbye years ago, but she doesn’t believe it.
‘Or maybe you just need to get away for a bit. Go somewhere else and distract yourself. Then, when you get back and it’s all changed, it will be over and you can pretend it never happened.’
‘That doesn’t sound very healthy to me either.’
They are sitting in the sun, but the longer she keeps going on about it, the more of a chill he feels. It starts in his fingers, always in his fingers. Ed clenches his fist and unclenches it, getting some of that blood flowing back into them.
‘Maybe not, but it’s easy.’ She looks at the donut in her hand and puts it down to take one of the glazes ones instead. ‘They’re good, aren’t you hungry?’
‘I’ll eat something later,’ he says, wondering if she’s ever experienced anything that wasn’t easy. ‘Have as many as you want.’
Her brows pull together for a moment, creating a delicate little line on her forehead, but then she turns and leans into him, her body familiar and warm, her shoulder a little too sharp to be comfortable. ‘You’d tell me if you’re getting sick, right? I got stuff planned this weekend. I really can’t catch anything now.’
‘I’m not,’ he says and wonders about her plans. They always meet on Fridays and sometimes he goes over to her place, but he doesn’t think her plans include him this time. ‘Anything fun?’
She pauses for a moment, still taking small bites from her donut but not looking at him. ‘Yeah,’ she says at last, and when she doesn’t elaborate, he doesn’t press her.
It’s just as well. He’s got some things to take care of.
They sit in silence for a while longer, watching other people running, cycling, or walking their dogs. When the sun has set low enough to tell them the afternoon is fading, they get up and go their separate ways.
He has thought about it, about what she said. He has thought about it many times before and every time the idea of getting away seems like a dream. It is something he has toyed with for years, but he never found the courage to leave. To take that leap. There is something about staying, something about knowing what’s happening in the place where you are known. It comforts him, whereas uncertainty doesn’t.
Ed paces through his apartment, a small space that looks almost sterile. He has never been a messy man, able to understand the benefits of good organization even when he was younger. But now he cleans anyway, wiping away on spotless surfaces, sorting what is already sorted. There is no perfection. But if there was, he’d be pretty damn close to it.
They’re tearing it down to build a grocery store. Ed stands still and looks out into the night, vaguely in the direction of the old house, but he can’t see it from here. Why now? He shakes his head and continues cleaning, trying to take his mind off the fence for a bit.
‘Just so you know, I was against it.’ The old Sergeant slams the bottle a little too hard on the table and Ed looks past him to see if anyone noticed. ‘Heard what they were planning to do and just couldn’t believe it. It’s a crime scene for Pete’s sake.’
They’re in the town bar, sat in the back near the restrooms where the wall is draped in NFL pennants and other sports memorabilia.
‘Just couldn’t believe it,’ the Sergeant says again, a little worse for the drink and his face a little redder than sunburned. ‘They ought to know I was right, they ought to respect it, but they just don’t have the time of day for an old coot like me. After all those years, I’m telling you. Not an ounce of gratitude.’
They’d been going out like this for years now, on Saturdays, at least one Saturday every month, although it hadn’t always been to that bar. It had been the Sergeant’s idea, back when Ed had been just a boy, taking him for ice cream and treating him like he was younger than he had been back then. It had become a tradition—one where he’d never been sure if it had started out of goodwill or with hopes to get him to talk more, but after all those years that hardly seemed to matter.
‘They’re acting like it’s a closed case. Not cold, closed.’
Ed just lets the man talk, has been letting him talk all these years. ‘It was bound to happen eventually,’ he says after a while. ‘It’s a sunk cost for them, bound to recover nothing if they don’t sell it. Even if they did solve the case, no one cares.’ He stops before he says too much. He should care. Ed takes a long swig from his lemonade—he doesn’t drink around others—and leans back with a sigh.
It had been a long time and still, it was always there with him. Nobody forgot when something like this happened in a small town, and they sure as hell didn’t let him forget either. He wasn’t a boy anymore, turning thirty-eight in a couple of weeks, but the past still seemed to lurk around every corner. Gone but not forgotten.
‘I’m sorry, kid,’ the Sergeant says after they shared some silence, the murmur of the other patrons draping over their thoughts like a suffocating blanket. ‘I shouldn’t be talking like this, not to you anyways. Can’t imagine what it’s like for you, seeing that old place torn down.’ He pauses again, brings the beer up to his face, but it’s empty. ‘It never sat well with me that we couldn’t figure it out, hell, that we couldn’t get close to a lead at all.’ He stares down the bottle a little longer, then shakes his head. ‘I’m sorry we never found out what happened to your folks.’
Ed forces a sympathetic smile and nods. ‘It’s alright, I understand.’
It’s a difficult thing when people go missing.
‘It’s not illegal for people to disappear,’ the Sergeant had told him before, ‘but it’s a problem when we can’t figure out why.’ It had been a problem when both parents had vanished, leaving behind their teenage son. That kind of thing was a crime, although Ed hadn’t known until later. He had thought about this a lot.
It hadn’t made sense to the officers investigating their absence. ‘Why would they do that?’ they’d asked but found no real answer. It hadn’t made sense that they had left no trace, be it physical or on paper, to where they could have gone, no motive, nothing. In the end, it had been the corpus delicti that had put their efforts on ice.
No body no crime. That didn’t mean that there couldn’t have been a crime, but without evidence, without anything, they’d had nothing. So the investigators had tried their best, had talked to him again and again, talked to anyone they could think of. But nothing had ever come of it.
As Ed had told them himself, things hadn’t been perfect behind closed doors. His mother drank, his father didn’t, and neither of them seemed too happy. Or so he had said. He hadn’t told them much more, and the interviews had eventually shifted to ice cream on Saturday afternoons. He’d been a child after all. A child who’d just lost his parents, who’d been left in the care of the state for his last years of adolescence, too old to be adopted, too old for a family, it seemed. He thought that they must have pitied him.
Ed takes the long walk home, straying along the roads of his hometown, roads he knows well but wanders with a subtle sense of unease. It is a feeling that has lasted throughout his life, the feeling that had started back then. Uncertainty, he thinks, if not apprehension. It is the feeling of an unresolved past that has yet to be buried completely.
All of these things were easier to shrug off in company but walking alone down the streets, he wonders what might hide in the shadows, who he might see, and what they might know.
And now this.
When he gets home, he just sleeps. He does nothing all Sunday and on Monday, just before dawn, he dresses and makes his way down those streets yet again, past the donut shop without slowing, all the way to the fence.
He watches when the workers arrive, one and then another, forming a small cluster of burly men dressed in bright orange vests and white hardhats. He watches when they fire up the big demolition trucks, loud creatures that fill the fresh morning air with the acrid stench of exhaust, and he stays until the work has started, until the plow has connected to one of the walls and it begins crumbling. Like papier-mâché, like a dollhouse—not a home for a long time.
When the roof begins to cave in, he finally turns and walks further down that same road, past the fence and away. He rounds the corner and waits by the sign until the greyhound shows up and takes him.
He needs to get out for a while.
Pacified by the soft rumble of the engine, he never looks back. Instead, he rides the bus as far as he can, then takes another and makes it across the country. Here is a life where he doesn’t know all the streets, where, weighed down by nothing but one carefully packed duffle, he can be what he wasn’t back home: a stranger.
After all, it is not a crime for adults to go missing. It happens all the time. And when the next Friday rolls around, he isn’t there to read the new headline pinned to the board in the donut shop, the most exciting thing to have happened in town in a long time.
Breaking: Bodies recovered after twenty-three years.