Stacie McCall Whitaker - Stone Coast, Maine

Returns

“It’s time to go, Dad,” Emily says.

She’s right, of course, but I figure I can stall for a few minutes longer. I kick the heat up a notch and wipe away a spot of condensation on the windshield.

“Dad. Really.”

“Finish your sandwich.” I thought getting the girls an early drive-thru lunch before we left town would give me some time, but all this accomplished was a growing pile of fast food wrappers and ketchup smears on the suitcases. “Just another minute.”

Emily sits back in her seat. I watch her watch me in the rearview mirror, her eyes unreadable. She knows why we’re here, which bothers me. It’s hard to mourn when you feel guilty about it. Especially when you’re not sure that’s what you’re actually doing.

I always try to park in the same place—center aisle, four spots from the doors. I always back in, leaving my view of the store unobstructed. That was a point the police kept coming back to, over and over, a stone-faced mantra: “Are you sure you backed in, Mr. Parrish? Is it possible you didn’t see your wife leave the store, perhaps leave with someone else?”

No. Not possible. No matter what the cops thought or the papers thought or the fine folks at Willingham and Sons thought. I backed in. I parked. I watched the store.

Like now.

The cold seems to have kept most shoppers away this morning—very helpful. It’s easy to pick out the straggle of customers traversing the doors, hands clutching packages, shopping carts seesawing through runnels of dirty snow. I watch as a young couple slip and slide across the lot, laughing. I watch a whey-faced mother herd her children through the crosswalk. I watch stoop-shouldered old women and stoic men in faded car coats and burly guys in lumberjack gear, gallons of milk and misshapen sacks of groceries cradled against their flannel.

And I look for her. I hate to admit it, but I still look for her.

Rachel would loathe this kind of devotion. She was always so good at putting the past behind her, shrugging her shoulders at the mysteries she couldn’t solve or the crises she couldn’t set right. No curiosity, no need for reflection—hell, she wasn’t Lot’s wife. And if she was still here, she probably wouldn’t be my wife.

But then the store swallowed her up. Sometimes I wonder if it didn’t get me, too, and I just haven’t figured it out yet.

Abigail, my youngest daughter, decides she is bored with her food. She finds a few hardened fries at the bottom of her grease-stained sack and turns them into drumsticks, whapping at her suitcase cocoon with no real sense of rhythm. The noise breaks my concentration and my focus on the front doors. I smile, despite myself. Some detective. Eagle Eye Parrish, king of the stakeout. Except there’s nothing to look for—not here, anyway. Rachel’s been gone for almost two years, and they’re never going to find her.

I turn and look over my shoulder. Emily is plugged into her MP3 player, staring out the passenger window. I wave a hand at her, get her attention. She pulls out one earbud and looks at me.

“I have to go inside for a minute,” I tell her. “Just keep the doors locked.”

She nods, turns back to the window.

The cold surprises me, even though it was expected. I suck in a sharp breath and pull my hat down tighter against my forehead. I walk at a steady pace, ignoring the reedy whisper of panic in my head. I have to do this, I tell myself. I have no choice.

I have to find a way to say goodbye.

It’s not easy getting through the doors. I haven’t been in the store since Rachel disappeared, even though I’ve made a career out of spending time in the parking lot, keeping vigil. Everything seems too bright and too loud—a poor excuse for a shrine, really—and I have to will myself forward, lurching like a sleepwalker past the corral of carts, the dead-eyed greeter, the phalanx of harried checkout girls. I look up into the barren eye of the video camera monitoring the front of the store, the camera that wasn’t working two years ago. It’s probably fixed now, even as I imagine it in my mind’s eye, spitting out miles of blurry outlines and monochrome ghosts.

There was one camera in the store whose functionality was never in question—the one centered directly above the perfume aisle, which Rachel managed to stroll down during her shopping trip that day. The video shows her grabbing a bottle off the shelf, placing it in her cart. The police were later able to determine what brand she’d planned to purchase, based on her relative proximity in the aisle. It wasn’t a brand I was familiar with. I’d never seen a dusty bottle of it amongst its neighbors on the narrow shelves of our bathroom vanity. No matter—my wife had her item and moved her cart down the aisle and out of frame.

And vanished.

I’d waited forty-five minutes before I went into the store, looking for her. There’s video footage of me arguing with one of the employees, waving my arms like a drunken swimmer, trying to get someone to care. They didn’t. Neither did the police—not at first, not until one day stretched into three, and a detective down at the local precinct  saw our recent spate of marital woes from a different perspective. Then they cared. Then they took to parking across the street from my house in unmarked cars, digging through my trash, following me to work.

I ended up giving them five separate statements, each of them a verbal shrug. No, I didn’t know anyone who would want to hurt Rachel. No, I wasn’t aware of any recent change in her behavior. Yes, we had been seeing a counselor, and it wasn’t really helping. They all seemed like the same question to me, posed in an endless array of guises. I didn’t have a good answer for any of them.

Still, the investigators kept pressing. For weeks, months. I’m sure they sensed an inadequacy about me, beyond my lame alibi and my empty testimony. I think they saw the fear in my eyes and read it as guilt. But it wasn’t guilt—it was dread. I was waiting for someone to ask me the real question, the one that gnawed at my stomach and kept me awake at night, the only question that mattered: “Mr. Parrish, did you love your wife?”

I still don’t know how I would have answered. That’s the only confession I can give—the only one that matters, anyway.

I move more quickly now, trying to reach my destination before I lose my nerve. There are too many people, too many faces. It’s hard to avoid eye contact—the imagined stares, the looks of dismay and accusation. I try counting my footsteps, my breaths, the number of side aisles I pass—anything to keep from thinking, from remembering. The images bubble up, regardless: Rachel in that ugly yellow sundress, spinning through the kitchen to the sound of the radio, Abigail held aloft in her arms; Rachel on her parent’s porch, waiting for me, her figure half in twilight shadow when I pull up to the curb; Rachel laughing, her head slightly tilted, her eyes shut tight. I push my hands deeper into my coat pockets to stop them from shaking.

I miss the perfume aisle on my first pass and have to retrace my steps. When I finally make the turn into the correct aisle I almost expect something to happen, something seismic. I wait for the store detective (do they have such a thing?) to come and arrest me. Or to be consumed by sudden flames. Or maybe Rachel will pop out from the end of the aisle, all smiles. She will tell me she was just joking, ha ha, and come over and gently lay a hand on my shoulder.

But nothing happens. Nothing changes. The packages lining the shelves disclose none of their secrets. I wonder if I can find the exact spot where Rachel stopped her cart on the videotape, but then realize these shelves have been restocked and rearranged hundreds of times since then. No problem—I know what I am looking for and find it quickly.

The bottle—maybe the last thing Rachel ever held in her hands—is a deep blue. It has a surprising heft when I pull it out of its package. I turn it over and over in my hands, feeling the raised glass ridges sharp against my fingertips. I uncork the stopper and take a brief whiff: wildflowers, herbs, mown grass. Not my thing, but it wasn’t meant to be. I wonder who she bought the perfume for and where he is right now. I imagine them together somewhere, someplace warm, somewhere with sailboat-dotted seas and white roofs reflecting the sun. I imagine them laughing at me while they sip from their sticky-sweet drinks, retelling their magic history, the day they gave Houdini a run for his money.

I shove the bottle roughly back into its container. I put it back on the shelf, but leave the lid open while I jimmy off my wedding ring. I drop it in the box, smiling as it pings off the perfume bottle and settles on the bottom. “Goodbye, Rachel,” I whisper, and I’m surprised when my voice catches a little. I close the lid and move the box to the back of the shelf, behind all the other bottles. Hidden, like it should be.

Then I get the hell out of there.

The girls don’t notice me when I reach the car. I knock on the windshield, get their attention. Abigail sees me and points, her chestnut curls skittering as she bounces on the seat cushion. Emily fumbles with the door lock. By the time the door pops open, I’m shaking. “God, it’s cold,” I mutter. I meet Emily’s gaze for just a moment before I turn away and jam the keys in the ignition. I know I should say something, make some cheery announcement to mark our last moments in our old hometown, but the words die in my throat. We drive out of the parking lot without speaking, listening to the tires crunch beneath us, the clacking of the turn signal, the wind whistling against the windows.

None of us look back.

 

About the Author

Gregory Martin’s fiction has appeared in several online publications, including Naked Snake Online and Dark Recesses Press. His story “The Interview” was adapted for the stage, premiering at the Around the Coyote Festival in 1993. He graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine in 2017. Martin has worked in the mental health field for the better part of three decades, specializing in the care of mentally ill adults. He has also served as a crisis counselor and an educational coordinator in a day program for troubled youth. He now directs three recovery-based residential programs for individuals with severe mental illnesses. He resides in Central Illinois with his wife and children.