Today brings us to the conclusion of my unpublished short story The Last Stop, which I wrote in 2009. This post is a bit longer than the others because there’s no good place to break it up. I figure if you made it this far, you’re OK with a slightly longer bit.
The Last Stop
(part 7 AKA The End)
© 2009 by Eric John Baker
At the table, Sophia asked for a Diet Coke, and he reminded her he wasn’t a co-worker who needed impressing. She laughed and changed the order to a beer.
“So what’s the dirt I need to hear?” she said, and Riley told her how to manipulate Patrick, and he told her who was a suck-up and who was fake-nice but would stab you in the back. She was free to contact him for advice, he said. Everyone needs an ally.
When the pints came, he said, “Go ahead and ask me what you’ve been wanting to ask me.”
For a moment she demurred but then said, “Ok. I have two questions. Why are you getting fired, and why are you being so nice to the person replacing you?”
Riley watched her porcelain doll hand on the glass and wondered how anyone could feel anything other than craving for her. “I’m getting fired because I’ve barely shown up for work in the past few weeks. I just can’t do it anymore.”
“That bad, huh?”
“No, it’s as good a place as any. I have other things going on. I suppose they told you about Madeline?”
“Who’s that, your dog ?”
“My wife. I haven’t seen her since February.”
She almost spit beer. “I’m sorry. You guys separated?”
“I mean she’s missing. Like milk-carton missing.”
She gripped his arm. “And you worked all this time? Your poor thing. You must be a wreck.”
He slid his chair closer and, in a quieter voice, said, “That’s the thing. I haven’t felt anything lately. Like she never existed.”
Sophia leaned in, her dark eyes electrified. “It’s got to be some kind of psychological reaction, like delayed shock.”
“That’s why I can’t work right now. Something’s changed for me and I just can’t concentrate on the banality of an office job anymore.”
He looked down and noticed her hand was still gripping his arm. She let go. “Wow.”
“To answer your other question… I’m not hostile to you because—don’t take it the wrong way—I sort of feel like I know you.”
“I used to see you on the bus stop every day, across from my building. Your building now, I guess. I kind of looked forward to seeing you there. That’s why I acted funny when I met you today.”
Sophia smiled. “That’s kind of sweet, actually. I was temping in the city, but the contract ended. My recruiter hooked me up with Patrick when she knew he was… well, looking to get rid of you.” Her pout said she was both sorry and embarrassed.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, heat coursing through him. She was so real, like in his dreams. “Is that why I stopped seeing you on the bus stop? Your contract ended?”
She laughed. “No. I bought a car. Riding the bus sucks.”
Riley stared into his pint and laughed at his insane, emotional, destroy-your-life obsession turning out to have such a stupidly mundane explanation.
“What’s so funny?”
“Your redheaded friend told me you looked upset the day before you vanished. We thought something happened to you.”
Sophia leaned back like she just found out she was the butt of a joke. “You know her?”
“No. I pulled over one morning when I saw her. She said you were upset. I was worried.”
“It’s no one’s business, but if you must know, the reason I was… upset, as you put it… was my bank screwed up the car loan.”
Riley laid his hand on her wrist. “I’ve been looking for you all over.”
She pulled her chair away. “Wait a minute. Did you put up a bunch of missing-persons fliers? Somebody showed me one and said it looked like me.”
Riley did not understand. How could she be mad? “I thought you were in danger. I tried to save you!”
She stood, withdrew a five from her purse, and tossed it on the table. “I’m sorry, that’s fucking weird.”
Why would she say that? Was she a taker, no different from Madeline?
“Wait,” he said. “I don’t want hostility between us.”
“Riley, you’re a nice guy, but obsessing isn’t the way to impress a woman. Anyway, you’re married. I’m sorry.”
Riley hated himself. He hated himself because she was just like Madeline with her superiority, but he had to say it. “I love you, Sophia.”
Far worse than anger, she showed pity. “My name is Eleanor.” Like he was stupid.
Damn her for making him feel like a scolded child. “Sophia’s the name I made up for you.”
She rubbed her wrist clean where he had touched it. “Look. I’m not a psychologist, but you’ve got problems. Guilt or whatever. Maybe you feel like you didn’t do enough when your wife left. I don’t know, but it has nothing to do me. Do you understand?”
Her eyes were no longer letting him in. “Please go get some closure,” she said. “Do the right thing. And absolutely do not follow me.”
Riley gazed upon her. She was so perfect, but he knew the women he loved would always treat him this way. He didn’t want it his love for Sophia to end the way it had with Maddie. So he showed it the purest way possible.
He let her go.
Riley caught the bus at the bottom of the hill. Not into the city, but the other way. A few rush-hour stragglers entered or alighted at various stops, but he had a seat to himself. Maybe the other passengers sensed he was on the most important ride of his life.
He stared, his forehead against the glass, watching the storefronts and bars. He saw a few of his fliers attached to telephone poles, tattered and dirty. At some point, he realized the bus was idling.
“Last stop,” the bus driver said, impatient.
Riley peered out the opposite window. So it was.
On the street, he stepped through the choke of exhaust, crossed to the other side, and entered the building. This time he shuffled, unnoticed, to the window, and asked for Detective Spinelli. Spinelli was always working.
He sat on a bench in the hall, still as a dead man, and waited. Spinelli came out.
“What’s up, Riley? News on the missing girl?”
Riley stood. “I found her. She’s fine. She will be fine.”
Spinelli gave a curious glance. “That’s good news. Thanks for updating me.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
Spinelli stepped closer, like a smart cop does. “I’m listening.”
Riley said, “I’m ready to tell you where I hid Madeline’s body.”
The detective placed a fatherly hand on Riley’s back. “Why don’t we sit at my desk.”
Riley allowed Spinelli to guide him to the door. Before passing through, the old cop patted him down and read him his rights. “I didn’t intend to kill her. I’m not like that.”
“I know,” said Spinelli, his voice caring. He was an all right guy, Riley thought. Trustworthy.
“I’m doing this for Sophia,” Riley said. “I love her.”
“Of course you do,” said the detective, leading Riley into a chair by his desk. “Tell me about it over coffee. Cream and sugar?”