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It had just been declared that Henrietta Ferguson was dead. Pathetically, childishly, I refused my Mother’s offer to drive me home; I wanted to be alone. I was crying quietly, asking God why she couldn’t have lived a little longer to be at my wedding. I shoved the thoughts aside, trying to suck it up as I strode down Belham Avenue, the road connecting the hospital to the road my apartment building was on. And never again will I walk down that street.
Honestly, I wasn’t engaged, but I still wanted Gran to be there when it happened. I wasn’t interested in any of the guys at work, or that my friend’s husbands worked with, hung out with, or were related to. I did not know one man I whom I liked enough to ask out. Maybe that’s why I stopped; maybe that’s why I talked to him. Me, who hated the phone and wouldn’t call anyone I hadn’t known for at least two years. Me, who liked reading a good book better than going to a party. Me, who needed at least two hours of “me time” a day. However, I stopped and talked to this lovely stranger as I walked home from the hospital, completely contradicting my mood.
He was stunningly handsome. His features were bold, but not harsh. His eyes were tear-stained and bright green, surprisingly bright as we stood in the dimly lit night. There were streetlamps of course, but we stood in between the glow of two. We stood in front of a park, which he faced, and a tear slid down his perfect, porcelain cheek. I assumed it was a park, anyway – I never really looked.
That’s when I stopped and asked him, “Sir, are you alright?”
He smiled at me. It was sweet, perfect, an angel’s smile; yet there was something off, as if it were fake. No, fake wasn’t the word; it was sincere. Yet…
“No, I’m afraid I’m not.” He spoke politely; were it anyone else, I would have thought they were being sarcastic; his voice was so deep, rich, and his tone so earnest, I couldn’t have doubted him if I wanted to.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” It was a stupid question to ask. Especially when it was nearly midnight, a strange man I didn’t know, and I was a young woman in high heels. I wish I hadn’t been so naïve and thoughtless as to ask that. But he seemed to understand what I really meant.
“Not really.” He looked back towards the park, and another tear escaped the corner of his eye. Instead of turning, dashing it away, or acting embarrassed in any way shape or form, he simply stood there, as if deep in thought. The more I studied his features, the more I saw the despondency, the sorrow; I saw what I considered a tired soul – not physically, but emotionally. As though he’d been crying for so long, he’d grown numb to whatever thing had been causing him pain.
“May I ask what’s bothering you?” ‘Bothering’ was an understatement.
“A little girl disappeared.”
I wondered who the little girl was to him. Daughter? Little sister? Niece? Or maybe the friend of his daughter?
“Her name was Mabel Sadie Trent,” he continued. “While playing in her front yard one day, a white van pulled up and the man inside it asked her if she’d help him find his puppy. She walked up to him and he grabbed her, throwing her in the back. No one was watching. No one knew, for the longest time.”
I could picture this little girl, no taller than my elbow. I imagined her with long, brown braids, beautiful green eyes, like this poor man’s. I could almost feel her shock, her fear, as he threw her into the back of his van. What kind of cruel, demented man, could ever…?
I was paralyzed, muttering, “That’s… horrible.” I nearly said “horrifying”, but decided that’d have sounded a little too focused on myself.
“He took her here. He threw her on the ground. She started to scream, but…” He looked at my terrified expression and looked down at his feet, embarrassed. “Forgive me, I shouldn’t be going into such detail.”
I couldn’t think of a way to reply. He was just screwing with my head. He knew details because he was making all this up. He was my age, college age, there was a good chance he still had the mentality of a teenager.
“I don’t mean to frighten you. It’s just that, I’ve held all this in for so long… For what feels like decades…” His voice was heavy with misery.
No, he was too sincere to be messing with me. Even though I was young, I could tell when someone was B.S.-ing me.
“She was murdered here. No one ever knew. Not even her parents. They hope she’s still alive. I was afraid to tell them. I wasn’t afraid of the cops, or the court, or jail, or the chair. But seeing her father and mother’s face… That I could never take.”
My lungs filled sharply, but my mouth stayed shut. The little girl I’d imagined ran through my head again, her face full of fear. And the emotions I felt for her? No, not for her – for her parents. I could feel what they would have, had they been standing here in my place.
“How could you?” I whispered.
“Exactly – how could I have taken it? Her father, I’m sure, would have threatened me, probably have shot me before anything else.”
“How could you kill that girl?” I growled. “What had she ever done to you? What reasons could you have possibly had?”
“I don’t know,” he chuckled. His laugh was a strangled thing; like no other laugh I’d ever heard before. He was laughing about killing an innocent little girl. And suddenly it was stronger than ever – the emotions I felt for the parents. I wanted to shoot him. I wanted to see him on the chair. I wanted revenge.
Unthinking, once more, I swung my fist at my new enemy. This was stupid for many reasons. I should have pulled out my cell phone and called the police. I couldn’t take on this man, because I was out of shape. And if he had already killed a little girl, there was no doubt in my mind that he’d kill me if he needed to.
He didn’t move; he didn’t wince. There was no cry of pain. He simply said through the broken laugh, “Try again.” I hadn’t hit him. My hand had missed completely.
There is nothing more provoking than the sight of an enemy enjoying themselves. I swung my fist at him again. I missed, and he laughed even more. “Please, try harder!” he hissed.
I realized that he wasn’t laughing - he was sobbing. His guilt was piercing him on the inside, soaking in him for so long that he wanted me to inflict physical pain on him, maybe even end it for him. “Why can’t I hit you?” I mumbled, and swung at him again. I was sure this looked ridiculous.
“It won’t work,” he sobbed. “It never works. It’ll never end.”
“Why can’t I hit you?!” I shouted angrily, all sorts of vicious emotions bursting out of me. I was angry at him for hurting her, for never telling her parents the truth. I was angry at God, for letting everyone sweet and innocent die for no reason. I was furious at myself, for blaming everyone else, and never giving another thought to how my actions would affect them, for not riding with my Mom when she needed a friend.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Forgive me, Natalie.”
“How do you know my name?!” I swung at him again.
“I am so sorry.” He walked away towards the park, passing under the streelight. As I followed, watching as he made a sharp turn, I saw something around his neck. The more I looked, the darker it became – soon I discovered it was dark red, a strange texture, and it didn’t go all the way around his neck. It looked like…
“What happened to you?” I whispered, figuring he wouldn’t hear me.
“I tried to end it,” he whispered back, so loudly that it sounded as though he were right next to me.
I froze in my tracks, watching as he walked to the park. Soon he was out of sight, too far from the light to be visible. The more I stared at the park, the more I started to see small figures. Gravestones stood there, staring me in the face, and before I was even sure of it, I was running home.
Just as the gravestones stood, macabre and immovable, so do my memories of Belham Avenue.