I’m serializing a short story I wrote five years ago called The Last Stop, which is appearing in bite-sized pieces this week. It’s probably unpublishable for a few reasons, but I put effort into the thing, so I’m posting it. You are the beta readers.
The Last Stop
© 2009 by Eric John Baker
Madeline was laughing, her arm outstretched in an effort to keep her champagne from spilling. Riley stood beside her, watching, detached. Their bodies did not touch. Maddie was leaning away.
Riley hated this photo. It was her favorite, which is why she’d had it cropped and framed, despite the harsh lighting and blur of the champagne glass.
Now, lying on the living room couch and holding the photo overhead, Riley saw so clearly the resentment in his own face. Maddie being entirely her own person. Maddie so charming and flirtatious, walking two steps ahead of her husband. Maddie, gone without a trace and no closer to being found now than she was eight months ago. The resentment had come from knowing she would leave him one day, by some means or another.
People always asked how he got so lucky to land a looker like Maddie. As if were easy being married to a woman who knew she was better than him.
He replaced the picture on the end table, almost dropping it. Tired from a fruitless, foolish day wandering around the city in search of an astronomical stroke of luck, Riley closed his eyes. He obeyed a subconscious command to produce a mental image of Sophia. Her straight, black hair. Her dark, vibrant eyes, alive and intelligent yet ripe with sexuality.
“I don’t want to lose you,” he said, startling himself awake. He closed his weary eyes again. I won’t lose you, Sophia.
Tuesday greeted him with glares and concerned stares and silent avoidance from co-workers. Riley laughed to himself. He’d forgotten to shave again. No point now. In a few days it would be a decent beard.
Riley shoved spreadsheets around for hours, accomplishing nothing while he ignored the red light on his phone. At three in the afternoon, Patrick knocked on the door frame. “Hey, Buddy. Can we talk?”
After a speech, Riley promised the old Riley from now on. The blank who got his work done.
On Wednesday morning, he saw redhead on the bus stop. Riley jerked the wheel to the right and cut across two lanes of traffic, slipping between a box truck and a minivan and nearly clipping the left front fender of a Hyundai. Oh well. He pulled against the curb in front of the bus stop.
“Hey,” he shouted as he climbed out, leaving his engine running. “Can I talk to you?”
Face drawn with concern, the woman stepped back.
Riley ceased his advance. “I’m sorry. I just have a couple of questions. I’m not going to hurt you.” As if.
The woman held her handbag to her bosom. “I have to get my bus in a minute.”
“I know,” Riley said. “Just a question.” Now he had to think of a question. “Uh, I’m looking for a friend of mine who uses this bus stop, and I’ve seen you talking to her before. I wonder if you… might know where she is.”
Her eyes betrayed fear of what might happen if she didn’t give the answer he wanted. “Well, what’s her name? I don’t…”
Good question. “She’s the woman who reads the Wall Street Journal. Black hair, attractive face.”
The redhead nodded with relief. “Yes, I know who you mean. I mean, I don’t know her, but I’ve talked to her. I don’t know her name though.”
Riley went with it.
“Sophia. I haven’t seen her around lately and I thought maybe…”
The woman slung her handbag back onto her shoulder, seemingly calmed by the knowledge that the guy who almost caused a pile-up was after somebody else. “I really don’t know anything about her other than she seems like a real sweet girl. It’s not like we sit together.”
Riley glanced over his shoulder at his car blocking the bus stop. “Do you remember the last time you saw her? Did she seem upset to you?”
The woman gazed at the pavement for a moment then looked up, relieved to have an answer. “More like worried, actually. Her phone kept ringing and I think the caller said something that upset her.”
“Did she look scared?”
“I guess. Yeah. I remember on the bus she had this look like something bad was going to happen.” By now, the woman had grown pleased with the interrogation.
“Do you know where she gets off? What stop?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I get off first.”
Riley ran back to his car and slid in, pulling away from the curb with a jerk as he saw, in his rearview mirror, the bus cresting the hill behind him.
He slammed his fist into the passenger backrest. “Damn it!” Somebody was hurting Sophia while he jerked off with spreadsheets! She was suffering and scared and he did nothing for over a week.
Riley banged a U-turn right before Route 4 became a bridge, almost wrecking three cars.
(to be continued)