I’ve decided to serialize a short story I wrote five years ago called The Last Stop, thanks to a suggestion from a long-time colleague (dankeschön, Mike). It will appear in bite-sized pieces over the next week or so.
I have never done anything with it. It has never been beta read or edited. In fact, it has been sitting on my hard drive because it’s too long and doesn’t fit into a genre, and, honestly, I’m not sure it works. But I put the effort in to write it, so I should give it a chance to enjoy life, no?
I’ve been told one should not write stories with main characters who are unlikable or crazy. I say “fie” to that. The challenge is making you care about him anyway. Here’s bite one:
The Last Stop
By Eric John Baker © 2009
Riley Conard reported his wife Madeline missing on the third of February. All this time later, the police still didn’t have a lead!
In the cafeteria, Riley was in line behind Darnell Tubbs and that woman from accounting when he heard Darnell say, “You gotta hand it to him. He’s pretty chill for a fella whose wife is probably under a tarp in the back of some dude’s truck. She must be a pile of bones now. What’s it, eight months?”
Riley stared at the pizza on his tray, suppressing a grin. Imagine how embarrassed they’d be to know he was right behind them.
The woman from accounting, gripping a styrofoam container marked Daily Special, bumped Darnell’s arm with the back of her hand. “The IT guys call him ‘Data’ after that Star Trek robot. Anyway, I’ll bet Maddie’s in Hawaii with her boyfriend.”
There goes another one calling her “Maddie.” Ever since the disappearance, people who met his wife once at the holiday party three years ago had been talking about her like an old friend. Perhaps it made a sexier story. Oh yeah, I knew her. I knew the chick who went missing.
“I mean, have you taken a good look at him?” the woman from accounting said. “I have no clue why Maddie married him in the first place. What a blank!”
She made a face Riley couldn’t see, and she and Darnell laughed. Darnell said, “You’re bad!”
Riley didn’t care. His blankness was performance art, making their insults a compliment. They could guess all they want about what was on his mind. It wasn’t Madeline, to tell the truth. Or the police, who he had badgered incessantly in the beginning. He had no use for their nowhere investigation.
Riley only thought about one thing. Sophia.
At the crest of the hill, Riley saw the gentle rise of the bridge and the cluster of skyscrapers beyond, across the Nevasha River, sticking up like a massive crystal formation. Branford! The Big City on the other side. He’d welcomed the sight every single weekday morning for five years. Except for when Maddie went missing in February. He was a wreck that week.
On the descent, he coasted into the left-turn lane, queuing up for the traffic light into his office complex. Riley’s heart fluttered. A warm tingle washed over him. He inched forward, looking to his right through his passenger window.
There she was.
She flipped a page in the Wall Street Journal as she waited for the bus to Branford. Somehow, it made her smile. How could it be that she found such joy in the Wall Street Journal?
The big redhead showed up and stood beside her.
Sophia kept reading, but she glanced up a few times, flashing that adorable smile, her petite, almost pointy face poking out from under jet-black bangs.
Riley eased forward two or three car lengths, and the light turned red again. Now Sophia was laughing and touching the redhead’s arm, her layered bob hairstyle swaying in concert with her graceful motions.
Then that dreaded moment arrived, as every day. The light turned and he had to make the left, leaving her. Hers was the last stop before the bus crossed the bridge into Branford. His heart ached.
That night Spinelli called.
At first, Riley didn’t like him one bit. The interrogations. The dirty looks, treating Riley like a suspect. I’m the one who called you, Riley had said in desperation. Later, when the weeks stretched on without a lead, Riley’s rational side returned, and he knew the guy had just been doing his job.
Spinelli was all right. He called at least once a month, even when there wasn’t anything to say. When the phone rang, Riley figured it would be him. Nobody else called anymore. Madeline was the one with the friends.
“Hey Joe,” Riley said.
“Just want to see how you’re holding up.”
He’s got nothing again. “Keeping busy with work.”
Spinelli asked the usual “if you think of anything” question then mumbled off. Like any good cop, he hated to be beaten.
Riley sunk into the couch, fished the remote from between the cushions, and flicked on the TV. Perched on a dusty shelf above it sat a wedding picture. The man was Riley, so the woman must be Maddie. Logically, it had to be her. Who else would it be?
Riley stayed one step ahead of himself. It can’t be Sophia. That doesn’t make sense.
Then why was it?
(to be continued)