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The Day It All Began

03/25/2019

By Gerry Boyle

The Day It All Began, an original McMorrow story and prequel to Damaged Goods, first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Spring 2019

 

The phone chimed at mid-kiss. I fell back onto the bed. Roxanne turned away and raised herself up on one elbow, picked the phone up. Her back was lovely as she peered at the text.

“Have I told you how much I hate that thing?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “You have.”

I waited. Felt her shift into work mode.

“What?” I said.

“A boy rummaging in trash cans. For food,” she whispered.

“Where?”

“Appleton.”

“Jeez,” I said.

She rolled back over toward me. Her front was lovely, too. And her dark hair against her bare shoulders. I sighed, almost silently. She had the phone at her ear now, said, “Where is he now? . . . Game warden? . . . ”

She held the phone away to see the time: 11:43. She put the phone back to her ear.

“What?” I said.

Her eyes narrowed and she scowled.

“Oh, no. Not him,” Roxanne said.

I listened more closely, my hand on her arm.

“No, I haven’t but Cheryl has. . . . Yeah, I know, a complete nut job. . . . The wife? Cheryl says she’s in thrall to him. Thrall. You know, like dominated. Right.”

I waited as Roxanne listened, then said, “No, I can handle that. . . . Sure. . . . Tell him not to call them until I’ve got a place for him. I mean, have they reported him missing? Do they even know he’s gone?”

Another pause and Roxanne said, “Forty minutes. Right. . . . We’ll get the kid situated and fed. Deal with the dad and the rest of it later. . . . Yeah. Thanks.”

She rang off. Fell back onto the pillow and looked at the ceiling.

“Sorry,” Roxanne said.

“That’s okay.”

“No, it isn’t. I can’t even make love with my husband. This is getting old.”

I squeezed her hand.

“What’s with the game warden?

“A boy was digging through somebody’s trash for food. They thought it was a raccoon.”

“How old?”

“Eight. I think he’s one of four.”

“Huh. Where are you meeting them?” I said.

“The game warden turned the boy over to a deputy. The deputy will be at that little square in Union, where the store is.”

“Why not just bring the kid home?”

“Game warden said he looked half-starved. He said he hadn’t eaten in a few days because he’d been disrespectful.”

“Huh,” I said.

“Yup,” Roxanne said.

“Where will he go?”

“Emergency foster. I’ll work it out on the way.”

She shook her head.

“What?” I said.

“Tomorrow is going to stink, too.”

“Why?”

“We’ll go to check on the condition of the other kids, the wife. If the boy’s in bad enough shape, we can have an order ready to pull the whole crew.”

She blew out a long sigh.

“Dad is this scary religious kook. Has a so-called church, orders everybody around like he’s god.”

“When is the spaceship coming to pick everybody up?” I said.

“Not soon enough,” Roxanne said.

 We looked at the ceiling for a moment, hands clasped.

“Let me guess,” I said. “A compound at the end of a gravel driveway.”

“Yup. Cheryl was telling me it’s this homemade cabin filled with trash and crap. Place is guarded by these huge vicious dogs. Guy is seriously whacked.”

Again we were quiet.

“You’ll have people with you, right?” I said.

“Deputies. Plural. I’ll be fine.”

“Wish I could come along. Bring Clair.”

“In a perfect world, Jack,” Roxanne said, and she swung herself out of the bed, walked across the room. She was a vision, naked, and then she put on her robe, swerved back to the bed on the way to the shower, and kissed me on the cheek.

“Tell Sophie I love her,” she said.

“She knows,” I said.

“Tell her anyway,” Roxanne said, the three words hanging ominously.

 

It was five when I woke up, felt the empty space beside me. I reached for my phone. Nothing.

I texted. Hey. You okay?

Put the phone down. Picked it up. Nothing.

A cardinal was whooping in the lilac below the bedroom window, a phoebe calling from the back of the shed. Inside, the house was quiet, Sophie still asleep. I got out of bed, put on jeans and a T-shirt, and walked downstairs. I put the kettle on for tea, walked into the study, and tapped my laptop awake. I sat and scrolled through the news, and it was mostly bad.

I looked at my watch, got up from the desk, and walked to the window facing the driveway. Looked at my phone again.

Still nothing.

Out the window, my truck. No Subaru. I looked at my watch again.

Had the crazy nut job gone searching for his son? Had they changed their mind and gone to the house in the middle of the night? No way would that compound not be full of guns.

Roxanne was right. This was getting old.

She sputtered occasionally but this time it had been different, as though she could envision life without the job and that life would be good. It would mean we’d need more income. I’d have to write more, cut more wood with Clair.

I walked back to the desk, looked at my list of possible stories for the Times, leafed through a stack of clippings and scrawled notes. I took one clipping from the pile.

It was a column of classified advertisement from the Waldo County Dispatch, the local weekly. The personals section.

Amber offered “playtime.” From Mercedes and Harley, it was “two-girl specials,” hourly rates. Katrina offered “the sensual experience of a lifetime.” Mandi said she could provide “companionship.” What, dinner and a movie? Coffee and conversation? Who was she? A local? Did she know her clients from grade school? In Galway, Maine, how could you keep paid sex a secret?

I put the clipping next to the keyboard. Looked at my watch. Picked up my phone and texted again: WHERE ARE YOU? ARE YOU OK? SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. JUST WORRIED.

And then I heard a thump upstairs, a book falling from Sophie’s bed. Then another thump as she slid down, crossed the room, then started down the stairs.

She rounded the corner, tore down the hallway, and skidded into the study. Climbed up onto my lap and said, “Where’s Mommy?”

“She had to go to work,” I said.

“Why?” Sophie said.

Because some kid is starving because his father is a violent, domineering narcissist nut job. Mommy would have to go to his house with the cops and take his kids away. And he has a bunch of vicious dogs.

“Because Mommy likes to help people,” I said. “It’s her job.”

“When will she be home?” Sophie said.

“Pretty soon,” I said.

I looked at my phone. It was 6:03.

I tapped for texts.

Nothing. I felt a gnawing in my stomach, the scenario forming in my mind. A shootout at the house. Cops calling in, We have shots fired. One person down. I repeat. We have one down, active shooter.

I smiled at Sophie.

“How ‘bout waffles?” I said.

“I’ll get the syrup,” she said.

  

It was a soft summer morning in Galway, the sun lifting over the bay and the light reflecting off of the windows on Main Street. Mandi opened her eyes and in a moment it all came back.

The guy—Marty, but she didn’t know his real name, forty, shaved head, goatee—pulling out a roll of cash, saying, “What does six hundred bucks get me?”

Two hundreds, the rest in twenties, stiff and crisp from an ATM. It got him dinner with her at Bennedetto’s on High Street. She wore a short red dress and heels, and she could tell that he liked that other guys were checking her out. Dinner was a forty-dollar bottle of red wine, antipasto, mussels, and linguini in red sauce, cheesecake because he was still hungry.

A short walk back to her apartment, Marty holding her hand from behind as they went up the narrow staircase, like she might try to escape. She brushed her teeth and insisted he did, too, gave him a new toothbrush from the supply in the bathroom bureau.

Marty sat on the couch, connected his phone to the Bluetooth speaker. His playlist was hip-hop, some R&B and pop. Blake and Kendrick Lamar, Prince and Bruno Mars. They sat and he kissed her when Chris Brown came on. The toothpaste hadn’t cut through the garlic.

Now she looked over at him softly snoring, smelled the garlic still.

It was 8:10 and Mandi felt like the day already was half-wasted. She didn’t do overnights, well, almost never. Didn’t like the feeling that they still owned her in the daylight. Better when, after small talk and sex, they said goodbye. Next time he called she wouldn’t answer.

But the thing with this  guy Marty—it was against her better judgment, swayed by the money. She should have known that he’d feel like he got more than a few hours, that he had bought her outright. Mandi Laselle going to the highest bidder. Do I have six hundred? Six hundred once, six hundred twice. Sold to the man with the chainsaw tattoo.

Mandi eased out of the bed, gathered her clothes from the floor, grabbed fresh jeans, a T-shirt and sweatshirt, and underwear on her way out of the room. In the kitchen she had a scary thought. What if he pulled out another roll of cash, wanted to buy more of her? What if he wanted breakfast? What if he wanted to talk over coffee?

He’d said he worked construction, mostly out of state. He had a house in Belmont, a few miles to the west. He’d bought twelve acres, cleared the site, built the place himself. She’d showed him a picture: it was a log house, like a hunting lodge, or at least like she imagined a hunting lodge would look like, having never seen one or been hunting. It had a big porch on the front and an American flag on a pole. There was another picture of the garage. He’d gone on about that: the three bays, one oversized for his camper, a workshop built on the back. He’d said he’d like her to see it.

Mandi shuddered at the thought. Waiting for the tea water to boil, she shuddered again as she remembered something else Marty had said. He liked cats. He petted hers, asked its name. She said it was a stray and didn’t have one. She didn’t want him to think he’d bought the cat, too.

The water boiled and she poured it into the mug. Went and sat at the window seat that looked out on Main Street. People were out and about, the industrious citizens of Galway loath to sleep in. The cat came and jumped up on her lap, mostly because she was in his seat. She got up and put on her clothes, went to the counter and wrote a note.

Had to go out, be back at ten. Time’s up so please don’t be here.

And then she let herself out, popping out on the sidewalk, slipping anonymously into the slow promenade of shoppers and coffee drinkers, and people going into the bakery to buy bread. Mandi walked down the street, the hood of her sweatshirt up. It made her feel invisible, which was what she needed after being so exposed, so vulnerable.

The men touching her, the men on top of her, the men thinking she was as pliable as one of those mannikins weirdos bought to have sex with, like she was made of clay.

Marty had shifted into that mode as soon as their clothes came off. Gripped her wrists tightly above her head. Put his hands on her throat and squeezed, fingers digging in. It was some kinky control thing, and to get it over with she’d pretended to be excited, but inside she was thinking maybe it was time to get the knife tucked into the side of the bed frame. That he deserved it, for what he’d done, for what he hadn’t done.

Asked her one real question.

Seen her as more than an object to bring him pleasure.

Even looked at her after he was done.

Mandi reached the end of the street, where it made a loop above the harbor. There were benches lined up at the town dock, and she sat and looked out at the boats, which were all turned in the same direction like they were doing some sort of dance. She sat and listened to the sound of the metal things tapping against the masts, the mews of the gulls passing overhead.

After a few minutes a couple came—fifties, shorts and flip-flops, the woman wearing a pink sweatshirt that said, “Bar Harbor”—and sat at the next bench. They snuggled close and whispered and Mandi wondered if they were on their honeymoon, if this was the second marriage for both of them, if they thought they’d finally found true love.

Mandi took a long slow breath, tried to ignore them just as they were ignoring her. She slipped her phone from her pocket. There was a list of texts, people responding to her ad. She flipped through them: a few guys, a couple who said they were happily married, three women. Hi Mandi. I’d like to take you up on your offer of companionship. Let’s meet up!!!!! . . . Hey, babe. What’s the hourly rate? Out calls? . . . I read your ad. can I buy u coffee? U sound like a nice person.

A nice person? Right.

She smiled, was about to put the phone away when it buzzed. She looked at the number, hesitated. Then glanced at the couple, huddled and chatting. She could have someone to talk to, too.

She swiped.

“Hello.”

“Hi, is this Mandi?”

“Who’s this?”

“My name’s Jack McMorrow. I’m a reporter. I write for The New York Times.”

She didn’t reply.

“I’d like to write a story about people who do what you do in a small town.”

Mandi hesitated. He was waiting too. Finally she said, “What is it you think I do?”

“From your ad, I’d say you provide companionship for money. Like an escort.”

He waited. She considered hanging up, knew she should. A reporter? A story? No way.

“I’m interested in the sorts of relationships that come out of this,” he said. “How you keep them from going on too long. Whether guys fall in love with you. Whether they’re violent. Why they call in the first place.”

He paused. She waited.

“Still with me?” he said.

“Yeah,” Mandi said.

“I appreciate that. I mean, I know this isn’t something you’d do easily. But I’m interested in you,” he said. “What you’re thinking when you’re working, what you’re thinking when you’re not.”

She hesitated, stared out at the boats, the water. Something about him, his voice, his questions. I’m interested in you.

She felt a sudden urge to tell him who she was, what she’d been through. That a few hours ago she’d considered killing a guy, that if she had done it she’d have no regrets.

 None.

She choked the urge back and said, “It’ll cost you.”

“Talk isn’t cheap?” Jack McMorrow said.

“No,” Mandi said. “Talk is the most expensive thing of all.”

 

 

Gerry Boyle is a Maine-based novelist who has written eleven crime mysteries, including Damaged Goods, featuring his iconic character, Jack McMorrow. Boyle’s twelfth book, Random Act, will be available June 4, 2019.