It went unnoticed, ticked by slowly more so than any other day of the week. Well that’s how it seemed; Sunday is a real lousy day to celebrate your birthday, especially worse when you have no one to share it with. Sure they had a cake and some flat Champagne the cheap stuff of course in the Campus staff room on Friday. But it isn’t really the same when everyone cheers and sings asking you to imagine it’s the big day. Then to find out the Dean has used the pretense of it all to explain that because of funding cuts you no longer had a job, well that sort of takes the sunshine out of it. After two verses of ''For she's a jolly good fellow'' Delores finally snapped and told each of her work colleagues just what she thought of them.
Forty years of being polite and understanding vanished in a verbal tsunami of what she felt , she choose her words to maximum effect, an English teacher has the ability to fire from the hip with a linguistic salvo that wouldn’t miss. And she didn’t, most stood opened mouthed, one or two left the room, a few of the Lady teachers burst out crying. Then you have got to suppose pushing a large slice of cream chateau into the Deans face more or less underpinned her frustrations. But it was done and she couldn’t go back, for a split second she stood in silence wondering if in fact it was all real, and that maybe she was just daydreaming in high definition. She thought of pinching herself but the smell of the Deans cheap cologne mixed with strawberries confirmed she was wide awake.
She ran then herself from the room and hid in the ladies toilets, blankly the cracked mirror over the hand basins did nothing to sugarcoat the tired expression of a sixty year old woman looking back. Delores's eyes pondered on the white dimple mark left on her finger were once held her wedding band; ten years had done nothing to fade it. John had left her for a younger woman that was the plain and simple truth of the matter. He never hid it, once she confronted him he was honest, there was no arguments of denial and that same evening he was gone. '' We fell out of love Delores'' was all he said as she watched him pack his suitcase behind a veil of tears and wet paper handkerchiefs. ''You loved your job more than me, I’m sorry''
She thought of asking why such a younger woman when she finally found out, but John was right she did love her job. She had poured her heart and soul into being a tenth grade English teacher, marking papers in the evenings, taking care of the school plays and attending endless seminars on how to teach better or what ever. All these and more had distracted her from him, she had taken him for granted, and that was her sin. The penance of which now was loneliness, any empty apartment bought with the money she got from her half of the house sale.
A modest single room condo overlooking the beach, a place like they had talked about moving into when they first felt the emotions of true love.
She remembered how they lay in each others arms in her collage house planning their future together, talking into the early hours of how rich they would be, and how many children they would have, John wanted four. ''Two boy's and two girls, the perfect family'', she recalled with a sigh how she had pushed him away laughing saying '' It's okay for you, I'm the one who has to give birth to them'' her voice hung like an echo in the blur of time. The cracked mirror still held her captive, only now tears of painful regret distorted the image it returned.
'' Why were you so cruel God'' the reflection cried '' What did I ever do to you?'' it said, a question she had never dared to ask. She waited for some divine incorporeal voice to speak from heaven like it does in the movies, some deep toned mellow phonation to say '' It’s me Delores, God here! I'm sorry, I'm sorry you lost your baby''
Only the silence of the washroom and the melancholy sound of a dripping facet over toned the expected spiritual apology. She had thought it many times, and was sure that thoughts were louder than words when it came to speaking to God. He never answered then, or now. Could it, would it, have been different if her son had lived. They did try of course, many times over their years together, but it never happened again; '' God loves a trier'' her Mom used to say, but did he?- she got tired of it, the pleasure was gone, intimacy was replaced by need. What’s the point of love? When there is nothing to show for it, it was her fault, of that she was sure. That’s how John, that’s why he, had an affair, his youthful dreams were shattered. Those plans they made became only partly realized but their material gain was hollow, he wanted a family, looking back she soon understood that his compassion towards her was just as empty.
Two years later he had married again and was going to be a father, she didn’t blame him for that it was just the thought of his child may one day attend her school with the possibility or most likely being taught by her.
Thankfully she needn’t have worried after Chloe was born they left for Arizona, that’s were his new wife Judy was from. She only found out that they had gone when she received a brown manila envelope in the mail; inside it were a short note and two photographs. One of the doting parents at the hospital bed holding up the baby, and another, a close up of Chloe with one petite eye open and a crooked smile.
A spiting image of him, she hated that they were happy and she was not, she knew too John’s intentions were innocent with the photographs but that was just like him; never thinking of the hurt they may hold instead of the pleasure meant. Tears of heartache and loss were abundant that night mixed with French Merlot and chocolate, all the things a lady needs to feel sorry for herself. Then like a reoccurring nightmare each year he sent a new photograph of Chloe on her birthday, the last one coming only this week, she had turned into a beautiful little seven year old.
Was that the catalyst? Maybe?- The chill of realization shuddered through her body like someone had just walked across her grave and outside in the hall she could hear the commotion of people moving around, no doubt arguing about who should go into the washroom of that she was sure. Delores dried her eyes and taking care applied a new level of lipstick after slowly fixed her attire, she would save them the bother of coming in. Instead she would hold her head high and leave with dignity, or what was left of it.
Content she was now ready she opened the door.
The small crowd that had gathered outside moved away like a silent parting of the red sea as Delores stepped out and then glided through it leaving nothing other than whispering waves in her wake. The Dean was there with his strawberry stained shirt and contemptuous glare, she didn’t care, she was past it all. Only when she got to her car did she buckle, her emotions torn like ribbons in a wind The drive home was a blur of screaming traffic and sobbing palpitations only made worse by the drizzle of rain blowing across the windshield, Delores wiped her eye's with the back of her hand straining hard to see through the haze of water and tears. In that split second it took to clear her vision Delores had veered slightly, momentarily distracted. The impact was abrupt like a smack to her face, the thud of a body on her wing mirror jolted her into a phrenic swerve , from out of the water mist a blood streak flashed across her window. Delores screeched her car into shuddering stop with only the sound of the rain and her wipers reverent within her cab.
In her rear view mirror she watched her face fall into a silent scream as she seen the blurred black outline of a crumpled body on the road.
''Oh my God! Oh my God!-Jesus Christ! She screamed ''What have I done!, I've killed somebody''
For an endless moment she sat in a nervous silence her mind racing feeling the throb of tension rise within her body and the tingling sensation of oncoming shock. Uncertainty was already beginning to fog everything, Delores remembered the few glasses of cheap Champagne she had had earlier in the staff room, her emotional outburst at her colleagues and the thing with the Dean and the cake. If she called 911 the police would come, ambulances, a court case were it would all come out then-jail! ''Shit! Shit!''
Her mind was racing, ''Wait'' she thought, an Epiphany was forming, ''No one has seen me hit him; he's lying behind my car off the road. He looks like a Ho Bo—yes, yes! Just drive away' no one will know' she looked in her rear view mirror; the body was still and un-moving. Deciding that this was her solution Delores slipped the car into drive and eased down on the gas, slowly the vehicle began to roll forward its tires crunching into the light gravel that made up the side verge. But just as the car was moving so too was her guilt, she let her shoulders drop, blew out her cheeks and gave in with a sigh.
''Fuck it'' she whispered to herself lowering her head down onto the steering wheel '' It had to be me! Why me god? Are you having a bad day or something, Huh!, '' but just like in the bathroom at school there was no divine answer only the sound of her idling car and the rain on the windshield.
As soon as she stepped out onto the road the light floral dress she had put on that morning was immediately soaked, for a moment she stood staring at the crumbled body bewildered as a few cars hissed by throwing up spray. She looked at them passing, no one seemed to care that she was standing in the rain, few even turned their heads '' Nobody give's a shit'' she said to herself.
It was no more than five or six steps from the rear of her car to where the body was lying, Delores had decided on her matching blue flax pump shoe's, footwear she was quickly finding out were less than adequate in a downpour. Tentatively she approached; her eyes fixed on the cadaver each step wetter than the last. Eventually she stood overlooking the corpse; the body from what she could make out was an elderly gent, although she found it hard to put an accurate age to him. He lay on his back his face tilted to the left with his eyes staring heaven ward , this disconcerted Delores quite a lot simply because every other dead person she had seen had been well dressed and presented for burial. She felt a cold shudder electrify her as she placed her trembling fingers on his neck, there was no pulse. She detected a small trickle of blood running down from his mouth and pooling below his chin onto the wet road, it had seeped into the white collar shirt he was wearing below what looked like an old English Victorian black cloak. His skin was pale white, exceptionally more so considering the California climate making him very much out of place on this balmy wet afternoon.
His attire Delores concluded was that of a funeral pall bearer who was most likely walking home, up until the point she had hit him of course, although she couldn’t remember seeing or knowing of any cemeteries in the area . Once more she felt a nervous tingle ripple through her knowing that she must search him for some sort of identification. After a slight pause of looking skyward Delores picked her way through his clothes with finger and thumb attention, making this unsavory task even more enduring. Each empty wet pocket she put her hand into was related to her cringing expression. Only in the very last did she find a sodden pocketbook that more resembled an ancient leather bible, not solely however out of place she mused taking into account his strange apparel. Delores took a moment or two to flick through the wet pages, but as she did so it became more obvious that this was a book of names. Some with addresses, some without, some marked in red and others underlined. Dates, places, and times were adjacent to each, once more to do with his type of employment she concluded. It was impossible to ascertain his identity from this without more scrutiny so she decided she would take it home and dry it out and maybe then she could figure just who he was in the warmth of her apartment later. But what should she do with him; this was a dilemma of immense proportion. If she left him here he may give up clues to her personal identity, she had watched C.S.I on T.V and seen what they could do in forty minutes with a body. She would surely be caught, both the old man and his book needed to go with her-that was the only solution.
She remembered a small ravine two miles from her apartment, it would be easy for her to bring the body there and push him in. No one would ever find him and by tomorrow this would all be a distant dream or forgotten nightmare.
Delores placed the book into her dress belt that was more a fashion accessory than a practical piece of support, but it would suffice until she loaded Mr. Dead guy into her passenger seat. An accomplishment that was proving quite difficult to say the least, he may be a small man but a limp body can be hard to shift and his wet clothes adding weight to him didn’t help the situation -Delores was struggling to drag him by his under arms along the few small steps to her car. With every foot she pulled the more of a grove his heels made into the loose gravel. Soaked and exhausted she propped him up sitting against the side of her Ford and managed to open up the door. After two dead lifts he was in the seat with his chin leaning on his chest, if anyone was to look at her passenger now they would think this was just some old guy who had fell asleep during a long journey. Delores clicked the door shut then caught her reflection in the wet glass; she looked like a transparent Zombie from one of those old drive in horror 'B' movies she used to go to with John. Not that they watched much of the film she smiled to herself, those nights were more for making out than working out the thin plot. Delores breathed a sigh and wished she could go back to those care free days, those days of uncomplicated love and a hopeful future-none of which had transpired to any satisfaction especially not for her. A small tear mingled with the rain that was dripping from her dank hair onto her face, there was little point in trying to wipe it away no one was there to see it.
When she finally got back behind the wheel she was pooling water into the pedal well at her feet, and while the car had been idling the whole time she had been outside the warm California air had kept the rain balmy and bearable. But Delores soon realized she had left the air conditioning running, the result of which raised goose flesh on her arms and sent a chill down her back. Of course this is what she assumed was the reason she suddenly felt so cold as she drove along back to her condo. Every once and a while she would glance over at the old dead guy, bit by bit he had slumped further down his seat with every bump she hit along the road. Delores had decided to get off the main freeway at the next exit and take a longer but quieter route home; this road would take her to the highest point of the ravine which would be the best and easiest place to push him in. She could drive up the edge open the passenger door from her side and by spinning round in her seat she could use her feet to shove him out. He should fall at least fifty feet before any trees growing up would stop his decent, thick under growth would conceal him from view forever then she could put this day behind her once and for all. Something she wished she could do right now with the headache that was forming as the alcohol was dissipating out of her body.
After about forty minutes of driving she had reached her chosen point and as according to plan she did as she had decided. The only thing that had left her perplexed as she drove the short few miles home was when she watched him disappear out of the passenger seat after her push there was no sound; she waited, listened to hear a branch break or a rustle of woodland being disturbed as a falling body would roll through it.
But there was nothing, nothing but silence other than a blanket of eerie quiet still air like it is just before a thunder storm.
Delores parked her car in her usual spot outside her Condo block and sat silently for a few moments staring at the small black book that was resting on her lap; she could smell the dampness off its leather bound covering above the moistness of her clothes. A familiar odor, one of which she had encountered before but she just couldn’t remember where. She shook her head and emptied it of thoughts and long forgotten aromas; she was heading for a shower and some hot coffee.
Delores apartment was three of six, a glass and wooden framed construction with a large steel and concrete balcony that overlooked Monterrey Bay. A contemporary building that was just starting to show its age, much like Delores contemplated on the many days she came back alone to her one bedroom, living room come kitchen. The afternoon sun was just beginning to emerge from the rain clouds as she climbed the stairs at the side of the building and much like always there was no one around. In-fact she only ever heard her neighbors above her moving about now and again, maybe shifting a chair while eating or opening the veranda doors on a balmy hot evenings in their summer vacation homes. A car driving away or parking at night, sometimes she felt that she was the only one that lived there. She clicked the door behind her and turned the dead lock and small chain with a bolt was slid into place. With the apartment secure she set the book on a glass coffee table that was in front of her black leather couch. Delores stepped into the shower and tried to wash away the remnants of a bad day.
The warm spraying water seemed to ease her liquor and stress induced headache, it washed over her body and cascaded down her legs into a frothy puddle at her feet. Delores moved her head under the flow to allow the force of the water to run down and off her thin shoulders. While she bathed in the soothing spray she could hear the rushing noise it made as it bounced off the glass shower screen, but she also heard another sound that rose above the descending shower water. Delores looked to the door; she could swear she could hear someone moving around in her apartment. But that would be impossible she had made sure to engage the dead lock, so unless someone had a key it was unlikely anyone was there. For a few seconds she tuned her ear for any more noise but when there was none she dismissed it as a neighbor from the floor above.
Delores finished her bathing, slid on a white woolen bathrobe that hung behind the door and wrapped her head in a clean towel. With her concern pushed to the side she decided a good stiff drink of Bourbon might just help her sleep. Her day had been a nightmare after all, so she figured she had earned a nightcap, and besides she wanted to have another good look at the old dead guy’s book.
Barefoot Delores sauntered along the short hall that led from the bathroom to the main living area that had at its end a small opaque glass door. She had continued to dry her hair as she walked along so her eye line was concealed by the towel when she strolled into the living room, confidently she made her way to her drinks cabinet lifted out a clean crystal cut glass and poured herself that Bourbon she had promised. Delores took a long sip and let the smooth whiskey make love to her throat as it went slowly down.
''Mmmnn'' she whispered closing her eyes, it felt like a warm caress on a cold winters night. Delores raised her glass to her lips again anticipating another loving embrace from John Barleycorn. But what she got riveted her to the spot. She felt the tingle of fear stroke her body, she was suddenly conscious that someone was standing not far behind her. She moved her eyes quickly back and forth daring to turn her head but yet so afraid if she did she would look upon her intruder and with out doubt seal her fate.
''Who, Who's there'' she choked and stammered nervously '' Who ever you are I haven’t seen your face so take what you want and leave-please!''
She could feel the disturbance in the electrified air as someone moved slowly around the room, she became aware of a person and a smell of dampness just like the odor of the book. Suddenly she remembered where she had first come across that dank aroma before. She recalled when she was nine or ten how herself and her best friend Rosie Dickson had explored the old cemetery that sat behind the towns church next door to Rosie's house, a storm the night before had brought down the power lines, some buildings had lost their roofs and no one was watching them during the big clean up. Both girls had played between the fallen trees and broken grave stone's most of the morning. Rosie had dared her to go into the old crypt that had been there ever since the church had been built in 1946. The storm had blown away the old wooden door and it lay lopsided against the crypts mold covered wall. '' Go on!'' Rosie had pointed to the inside.
''I betcha there’s a dead body in there''
'' I can't '' she had protested '' I feel scared '' but Rosie kept taunting her to go in.
Delores anxiously climbed the three cracked marble steps that were covered in thick bracken and storm blown twigs, cautiously looking back at Rosie who was watching her from behind her hands. '' Can you see anything?'' Rosie asked in a stifled voice.
'' Its dark inside'' Delores replied ''Come with me''
''Uh huh!'' Rosie said shaking her head ''No way!''
Delores remembered how she thought of turning back, but her curiosity was consuming her fear, she had never been so close to death or seen anyone who had died. Her expectations were intensifying her bravery and soon her eyes became accustomed to the semidarkness. The room was cold, so cold it raised gooseflesh on her arms and bare legs. She could make out three coffins stacked one on top of each other along the wall facing her. She could see a small discolored white casket sitting center of them on the crypts floor; she knew that this belonged to a child. It would seem that the storm had not managed to disrupt the inhabitants; no bodies had fallen from their caskets she was sure that nothing had been disturbed since the door was last locked. But yet something still didn’t feel right, she had an impression she wasn’t alone in the crypt, it was here that her memory had dragged her back to, back to the first time she had encountered that smell. It was present on the book and now it was here in her apartment. She remembered that day so long ago when she was just a girl, recollected the fear she felt just like now. And just like then she felt the disturbance in the air behind her. She had run screaming from the crypt, not stopping till she reached home and the safety of her bedroom. Over the years she had put that day out of her mind and as she grew older she believed it had all been a bad dream. But now it seemed she was back there and that same benevolence was standing just over her shoulder. What ever was in that room that day was now here in her apartment.
Delores closed her eyes sucked in air and tried to calm herself '' Who are you?'' she whispered.
She waited breathless for an answer and for a few seconds she thought that maybe her intruder had left, but deep within her awareness she knew that what ever was here had unfinished business.
'' Ms. Hoffman'' a mans voice spoke softly from the silence, '' We meet again''
''Jesus Christ!'' Delores screamed '' Please don't hurt me'' she pleaded to the stranger who was standing behind her. '' What do you want?''
''I think you have something that belongs to me'' the voice continued.
''I don’t understand!'' Delores replied without moving. '' Why are you here?''
'' Oh I think you know Ms. Hoffman, try a little harder''
Slowly Delores began to turn her body; she was frightened of what stood there and what the entity may do if she opened her eyes. But she felt compelled as if an unseen hand was forcing her to look. She sensed that something terrible was approaching, something so strange, inhuman.
''Open your eyes Delores'' the voice instructed.
'' You!'' she said nervously confused when she finally looked. '' But, But, I killed you..I pushed you into the ravine, How can this be?''
The little old man she had hit with her car stared back with blank eyes unfazed by her surprise, a water pool was forming at his feet and he clutched a bloody handkerchief in his left hand.
''You have my book Delores, I want it back''
''Is that all!'' Delores exclaimed pointing to the book on the coffee table ''Take it, take and leave''
The little man looked to the book then shook his head '' I'm afraid it’s not that simple Ms. Hoffman''.
''What do you mean?''
''You read my book''
''Only for a moment after I, I,-, hit you.But I was only trying to find an address, something to tell me who you were. That all!'' Delores implored. '' What does it all mean?, the names, numbers-dates?''
''There are consequences Delores''
''What are you talking about?''
'' Your actions, your....'' the little man paused and trailed off as if in thought '' Lets just say you upset the balance''
''What do you mean?'' Delores asked. '' Who the hell are you?''
The little man walked to the table and lifted his book; Delores followed him with her eyes.
''How did you get in here?'' she asked. The little old man paid her no heed and continued to lift his book and scroll through the pages. Delores watched with uneasy interest while his bone thin fingers worked their way through the lists of names one by one until he stopped, holding the book to her face he pointed to his selection.
''I believe you know this child'' he said '' And her Father''
Delores took the book from him and read the line he was indicating '' Chloe Hoffman, aged seven, John Hoffman? '' She looked at him confused. '' You kept his surname Delores, was that your way of being a part of him?''
''Yes But,-what dose this mean, why do you have my ex husband in your book and what has his daughter Chloe have to do with anything''
''Keep reading Delores'' the little man instructed with a quiet air of authority.
Delores read again the details imprinted in the old mans ancient foul smelling book, beside both names there was a date, a time and three words inscribed in Latin. Its information spoke of how both Father and child would be traveling on the same highway in the direction of the city at the exact same time that she had struck and when she thought killed the old man that was now standing dripping onto her living room floor. The lettering was old and fashioned in a hand writing long since forgotten; composed in an ink she neither recognized nor had seen in all her years as an English teacher.
As she read on Delores was slowly beginning to understand just what was happening, her breathing became faster to the point of hyperventilation, she began to repeat the Latin words de vita exire-
de vita exire , '' leave this life''.
She raised her head and looked straight into the old mans eyes. '' That day in the Crypt, you were there with me''
'' Yes'' the old man nodded.
'' Why there?''
'' Why Ms. Hoffman?. Even the Angel of death must reside somewhere''
'' Chloe and John they were supposed to die today in a car accident, weren’t they''
Again the old man agreed without speaking.
'' Why them?''
''No reason'' the old man replied closing his book and returning it back to his pocket '' It was their time is all, I have no power of who is chosen. Each day the names appear in my book along with the time it is to happen and how it should be carried out, you did read that for yourself did you not?''
Delores dropped her shoulders and sat down on her couch, '' You took my baby too'' she whispered to him as he joined her sitting. '' Yes'' he nodded.
''And my parents?''
''Yes, I'm sorry both to cancer if my memory serves me right''
''I stopped you didn’t I,-today when I ran you over you couldn’t carry out the road accident you had planned, their time passed and now they are still alive''
'' Yes, but there lies the problem'' the old man says, '' One death I can exclude, two I cannot, a life is owed the book must balance''
'' Who?'' Delores asks quivering with anxiety.
'' Chloe'' he says so calmly he stops her heart.
''No!'' Delores screams at him ''She's only a baby for Christ's sake''
'' I'm sorry'' he says '' There can be no void; there is nothing I can do''
'' Sunday at six pm, she will be killed by a drunk driver''
'' That’s my birthday''
'' They were coming to see you at school, to surprise you, but you left early remember after your little spat with your head master and so called friends- and of course they were never meant to arrive, such a tragedy that would have been ''.
'' Yes, yes, Ms. Hoffman I get that a lot'' the old man sighs, ''now I must leave you, I do have work to do you know-goodbye!''
'' Wait!, what if-'’ Delores whispers.
'' Speak up Ms. Hoffman, I must hurry''
'' What if I take her place, what if I die instead of her, Would that balance your book?''
The old man pauses at the door briefly and seems to be considering her offer, or waiting for some divine intervention much like she had wished for in the collage bathroom today. Eventually he speaks to her in a non presumptuous voice ''Pacto-onis f'' Ms Hoffman we have a contract, I will come for you at 6pm on Sunday be ready''
'' How will it happen?'' Delores asks him.
'' Why don’t you choose Delores’’?
In the next few days after they found Delores the Daily Tribune reported on the day she died and the events before. Amy Talbot the reporter wrote as follows.
The Daily Tribune : Amy Talbot Reporting Monday August 6th 1995
English school teacher Delores Hoffman was found dead yesterday at her home in the Monterrey Beach Condo Complex. Police were called when her ex-husband John Hoffman and his daughter Chloe failed to gain access to her apartment. Both were on a surprise visit to Ms. Hoffman who was celebrating her 60th Birthday.
A spokesman for the sheriffs department confirmed that two officers broke down the door and found her body slumped on her couch. An empty bottle of sleeping pills were also found at the scene.
Ms. Hoffman was last seen on Friday the 4th of August aimlessly wandering along the highway in the pouring rain talking to her self. Her Dean also mentioned that Ms. Hoffman may have been depressed after her dean explained her post was being removed due to cuts in the school budget. He also stated that Delores had ‘Drank quite a few glasses of Champagne at the school that day’ and had also gotten into an argument with some of her work colleagues.
The police are treating this as suicide, no note was found
Will Neill 2014