When he rose earlier than usual, kissed her on the forehead, and whispered, “I love you,” Jane sat bolt upright and watched him slip out the door in the darkness, her heart thumping.
The words “I love you” hadn’t flown her way in years, and Clark’s lips were two old, forgotten strangers.
Jane threw the covers aside and tip-toed to the window in time to hear Clark’s truck roar to life and clamber over the dirt drive onto Indian Road, the bloodshot taillights fading out of sight.
She checked the time. 2:53 A.M.
What’s he up so early for?
With still-tingling lips, she yawned and dragged her half-sleeping body back to the bedroom and slipped her feet between the sheets and sighed.
He’s probably having an affair.
And with that in mind, she closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
The bitter February disappeared for a moment with the taste of hot, black coffee. He sipped a few times before wiping his mustache.
Thick flakes of snow blew diagonally across the windshield. He blazed the path into town, the only vehicle that would likely drive these roads for several hours. Few citizens graced Whispering Harbor with their presence at this hour. All was bleakly dark, and mercilessly cold.
He sipped more coffee and took a long breath as the truck crossed the village limits.
“You can do this, Clark,” he grunted.
Just up the road, past the white-washed golf course and mobile park populated by retirees, he slowed to a crawl as he crept into town. The crunch of snow sounded in the cab. He wiped the foggy windshield.
Then it came into view.
“Time to pay the bills,” he said with a smile, and pulled into a corner of the parking lot.
She microwaved Clark’s leftover coffee and sat at the kitchen table, resting her elbows on stacks and stacks of unpaid bills and junk mail.
Where the hell was up to?
For the last hour she had tried to dislodge the question from her mind. It shouldn’t matter. But if there was one thing she knew about Clark, it was his predictability. The man never did anything strange. In thirty-two years, he had not surprised her with a single gift or party or outlandish remark. The man was vanilla.
Jane lifted her elbows and gazed at the mountain range of bills. Past due electric. Past due Discover, Mastercard, Visa. Heck, she was working two jobs and Clark put in sixty hours a week, all for nothing it seemed.
There was a hand-written note, its scrawl hard to discern in the dark. She took her phone in hand, a pay-by-the-month flip, and aimed the glowing screen at it.
Remember my proposal, it said.
“My proposal?” she whispered. What the hell was that about?
But her fingers twitched as she picked up the note and crumpled it and threw it in the trash. If Clark was deciding it was time to get sentimental and reignite the fire, he was too late.
She swept into the bedroom and pulled a duffel bag from under the sagging bed.
“Time to pack,” she said.
He unlocked the little cashier’s booth and flipped the switch that powered the gas lines and fuel pumps.
The station didn’t open for another two hours. Neither did the attached grocery store, Carl’s Market.
He sat on the miniscule stool that had been his throne year after year, a glass prison cell for Carl Cook’s minions to watch over his gasoline kingdom, all before recommending a shopping trip at the adjoining market.
“Seven-fifty an hour,” Clark muttered to himself. “Horseshit.”
He stepped outside, coughed into the blistering wind, and lowered his battered baseball cap. The northern winter winds could really cut through the thickest coat.
He took a gloved hand out of his pocket and grabbed the nearest fuel pump. He turned and aimed the nozzle at the empty station.
“Let’s blow this place, Jane,” he smirked.
And he squeezed and locked the handle.
She pressed a hand to her chest to calm her beating heart. Snow drifted over the road before her, hiding the ghosts of a set of tire tracks from hours before. Damned school board never knows when to have a snow day, she thought.
She lit a cigarette to warm her fingers and sucked it down in a sizzling haze. Her hand trembled as she dug in her pocket and found her phone and stared. Nothing.
Keeping her eyes on the road, she danced her fingers over the phone, typing: “Are you ready?” and sent it.
Clark’s note suddenly flashed before her mind.
Remember my proposal.
Hell. How could she forget the damned thing? Clark took her out to the buggy state park, apparently thinking a wilderness proposal would be romantic. He slipped his hand up her shirt but pulled it out again with a ring on it. Then a mosquito bit her on the boob.
Whatever. Anyways, it didn’t matter anymore, whatever Clark meant by it. The bus yard had appeared on the horizon, a crater of gravel that glowed red with taillights in the pre-dawn blackness. She pulled into the lot as the wind howled, cutting with its icy daggers. Christ, she hated winter. Florida or California sounded really good right about now.
Maybe he’ll agree, she thought.
She climbed aboard Bus 5-2502, murmuring over and over to herself with a suppressed smirk, “Maybe… maybe… maybe….”
With awkward steps through the snow, Clark backpedaled from the gas station into the gloom of the parking lot. With each step, he paid out lengths of wire. He looked back and forth with every step, holding his breath.
No one comes at this hour, he told himself.
He laid the end of the wire on the ground and hurried along its length, scooping snow atop the line. With each handful, the wire disappeared, leaving nothing but a jumble of footprints in the snow.
He stopped for a moment to admire his work. The line trickled out from its snowy hiding place and curled along the asphalt surface of the fueling station. The lights were out. All was dark.
But Clark could see it all so clearly. There was no turning back.
As he opened the back door of Carl’s Market and stepped inside, a mere ten feet from the nearest pump, the light from within the store splashed over dozens of hoses and nozzles lying on the ground, gasoline gushing from their open mouths, writhing like slow, patient serpents.
For nearly an hour, she sat in the idling bus, warming her hands by the vent.
The phone sat in her lap.
She peered at it over and over again, breathless.
Why doesn’t he call?
She glanced at the floor beside her where a duffel bag sat tucked under the rumbling dashboard.
There was a tap-tap on the bus door, and she swung it open.
“Morning, Jane,” said the guest.
She smiled. “Hey Bev.”
The newcomer stepped into the bus and sat in the first row behind her. “You’re here early,” Beverly said.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Jane replied.
She kept the details of Clark’s departure to herself.
“Steve had another nightmare,” Beverly said. “Woke up in sweat and tears. Man works himself to death and can’t get a night of honest sleep.”
“What’s he dreaming about?” Jane asked.
Beverly shook her head. “He doesn’t tell me. But when he wakes up, his face tells me enough.”
Well, Clark’s about to get a rude awakening, she thought.
A horn sounded across the lot.
“Time to go,” Jane said.
“I suppose,” Beverly said, and stood. As she stepped toward the bus door, her foot grazed the duffel. She paused, glanced down, and then up into Jane’s eyes.
“What’re you up to?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
“Nothin,” Jane said with a smile, and shut the door behind her departing co-worker.
The moment he stepped inside, he realized his mistake.
The meat-cutters, Clark thought.
Through a nearby door, he spied the glow of light from the meat department. The butchers arrived around three and prepared the day’s standard cuts long before any customers could arrive with special requests.
“Shit,” he muttered.
But he couldn’t waste any time. That wire was outside, just waiting.
He lowered his ballcap and turned away from the meat department and weaved through the back passages of Carl’s Market, past the pallets of grocery stock and through the darkened deli. He emerged by the front office, with its one-sided window through which Carl ruled with a bitter smile. Carl was the only boss Clark ever had who announced pay cuts with a grin, as if it was the career opportunity everyone had been waiting for.
Well, Clark thought, this is my career opportunity.
Clark turned toward the store’s entrance where his prize awaited: the ATM. He crouched behind the large, metal box, and jerked the power cord out of the wall. Then, with a heinous squeal of metal on metal, he pulled the machine toward the front door. He unlocked it, shouldered it open, and hoisted the giant box over the threshold.
Meanwhile, his truck waited around the corner, parked in the one slice of lot that the security cameras couldn’t see.
The daily route guided her south into red-brick neighborhoods of polished glass and winterized pools. She made her stops and the yellow bus screamed with painfully shrill shouts and screeches.
“Get back in your seat!” she bellowed a half-dozen times before rolling into the elementary, the middle, and finally the high school, muttering, “Have a great day.”
When they were finally all away, she released a pent up balloon of air and dug her phone from her pocket.
She’d missed a call.
She headed for the bus lot where the yellow shuttle would lie in wait for afternoon dismissal.
But Jane wouldn’t be there to drive it.
She held the phone in a free hand and called back. There was only one ring before the other end picked up.
“Good morning, Janie” said a deep voice.
“Thank God you picked up,” she said.
“Of course,” it said.
She shuddered. It was as if he was right in the car with her.
“I’m on my way,” she said. “I just have to get my car.”
“And Dale,” she added. “I love you.”
There was a pause. “I love you too, Janie.”
When it happened, Clark knew how it would look, how it would sound, and how it would feel when Carl’s Village Gas erupted into nothing more than a hole in the earth.
It was Officer Near who set it off. It was his morning round, the first pass through town to watch for speeders and drivers who ignored bus stops. He rolled into the market parking lot at a snail’s crawl, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He crept through the gray light of early dawn, looked out over the snowy distance, and noticed something curious about the gas station.
Were the hoses spraying fuel everywhere? he wondered.
And as he crept closer, and his front-passenger tire found what Clark had hidden.
The boom and blinding flash exploded like a lightning bolt and flames spewed in every direction like the tails of dragons. The earth heaved, sending Near’s cruiser nearly a foot into the air before it crashed back down. Then the outer wall of the market, not far from where the meat-cutters were working in diligent silence, crumbled into a cloud of smoke, dust, and broken concrete blocks.
The tongues of fire stretched skyward, powered by thousands of gallons of fresh fuel. From the northbound highway, five miles beyond the borders of Whispering Harbor, Clark saw a sudden flash and orange glow in his rearview mirror.
He took a heavy breath, pressed the accelerator, and tried not to think about those meat-cutters.
She had been driving south for nearly two hours when she pulled into Rick’s Diner, a café in a dinky town that time had forgotten after the state saw fit to build a bypass. He was sitting in a booth in the back, waiting for her.
She slid across from him and he took her hand, kissed it, and met her gaze with his own eyes, shining and confident.
“Janie,” he said. “I’m so glad you came.”
Her cheeks rushed with blood and long-lost giddiness.
“Me too, Dale,” she said. “I’m sorry I look so… I don’t know….”
“You look great,” he said. “Have you eaten?”
“Not since four-thirty.”
He handed her a menu and poured some black coffee from a carafe. The smoke curled up between their eyes, dancing in mid-air.
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
She shuddered, then looked down at the menu. “W…what’s good here?” she asked.
He took her hand, his thumb running over her dried knuckles.
“You tell me, Janie.”
About six miles into the forest, he rolled the truck to a stop and opened the rear hatch. The ATM lay on its side, dark and silent. He braced a foot against the bumper and pulled.
It landed on the ground and blasted snow away in every direction. He opened his toolbox and took a crow bar in his gloved hand and began working at the machine’s creases and openings. It simply slipped off the metal.
“Damn it,” Clark muttered, rolling the machine over to its back. He jammed the bar into a possible opening and leaned into it.
This was taking too long. His tire tracks could be followed if he was here too long.
He stood tall and looked around. The lonely wood howled with a thousand heathen voices. The road ran along the level terrace of a long, sloping hill staked with tall, naked trees. He bent and lugged the ATM to the edge, stood it up, and pushed.
The box tipped easily and fell like a bomb down the hill. It slammed into a tree trunk, then another, then another, until it hit the bottom with a thud and rolled onto its side. He scrambled after, sliding down the crumbling, frozen dirt.
“Can we go to Florida?” she asked.
He continued to stroke her hand with his thumb.
“Or California? Somewhere warm and sunny and beautiful. Not like here.”
She sighed, her chest shaking as the air rushed out, as if months of caged wind were suddenly blowing free.
“I can’t live here anymore.”
“We’ll go wherever you want,” he said.
She turned her head, wincing briefly at a pinched nerve in her spine, but smiled at him. “Are you even real, Dale?”
“Don’t be silly, Janie,” he said.
“Why me?” she said. The hot, salty sting of tears was beginning to singe her eyes. “I mean… why….?”
“But I’m so plain!” she exclaimed, covering her mouth in surprise at her own voice. “He hasn’t… he hasn’t called me beautiful in a decade, Dale.”
He took her hand and smiled, his broad chin stretching into a wide shovel. “You are beautiful, Jane White.”
Her name was Jane Duncan – Clark’s surname.
But the sound of her maiden name in Dale’s mouth was sweet music from an old, echoing cello.
He drew her hand to his cheek and let it rest there. Its warmth surged through her entire body, and she closed her eyes and breathed at last.
He scrambled to the bottom of the hill and brushed the snow from the butt of his pants.
The ATM was cracked, its dark innards gaping at him. He pried it open further and spied evergreen cash smiling at him from within. He threw the bar to the ground and reached inside.
There was so much!
“Here we go, Jane!” he shouted, and stuffed stacks of money into his coat and trousers until bills were spilling out onto the white powder of snow. He scooped them up until his hands couldn’t hold anymore.
There was still so much inside! He’d have to make multiple trips back to the truck!
He looked up the hill. It was a long way to the top. He probably didn’t have time for more than one trip.
He looked back at the wads of cash, waiting inside the ATM. Could he stuff them inside his underwear, perhaps?
That’s when he heard the first siren in the distance.
He leaned into the angle of the hill and began climbing, kicking his boots into the hard dirt beneath the snow.
Then he slipped.
He hadn’t taken but five steps up the hill.
“Think, Clark! Think!”
The siren was getting louder.
He looked back at the ATM, then up the hill.
Was there enough time?
He had to act and couldn’t think about it anymore.
Clark unloaded all the cash from his pockets, stuffing the green paper back inside the battered ATM. He fell to his knees, glancing over his shoulder at the sound of the rising sirens, and began piling snow on top of the machine.
They parked her car in a ride-share lot. Tossing her duffel into the back of Dale’s shiny luxury car, Jane lowered herself into the passenger seat and immediately leaned over and kissed him.
“It’ll be just like it was, won’t it?” she said.
“Why shouldn’t it be?” he said.
They roared onto the interstate heading south. No destination was discussed. No stopping or resting point. Money was not an object. It was just her and Dale, that old candle she feared had been extinguished forever now burning brightly in the world of her darkness.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, inviting sleep that seemed to always evade her in the frozen wilderness of Whispering Harbor. She drew the deepest breath of her life so far, and let it go slowly, feeling every bill and debt and screaming child disappear as she sank into the chair.
“I wonder what Clark is going to think,” she whispered.
“What, Jane?” Dale asked.
But she just lay back in her seat and let Dale drive her away from home, from the busses and snow, the nightmares of reality.
They arrested him on a winding two-track about ten miles deep into the state forest. They surrounded him with armed officers and barking K9 units, and he surrendered quickly. They read him his rights and wrapped yellow tape around his truck and drove him to the police department and sat him at a cold, metal table.
Two detectives stepped into the room and began their work.
“Where’s the ATM?” they asked.
“The one from Carl’s Market,” they said. “It’s missing and the front door was unlocked.”
“I haven’t been to Carl’s since yesterday.”
“Bullshit,” one of them said. “What did Carl Cook ever do to hurt you?”
Clark laughed and shook his head.
The other detective leaned over the table, sweat shining on his forehead. “You sent all three butchers to the hospital, Clark. One’s in critical condition.”
His face fell, but he said nothing.
“We’ve got you, Clark,” they said. “Camera footage inside the store. Your vehicle matches the tires prints in the parking lot. This one is easy. So tell us: Where is the ATM?”
He looked up at them.
“I want my phone call.”
He bought drive-thru burgers, fries, and milkshakes for the two of them, just like the diner in their hometown. Then they crossed the border into a new state.
That’s when her phone rang. She hadn’t even tasted her shake yet. She took it from her pocket and saw Clark’s name on the LED screen, and sighed.
“You can take it,” Dale said.
“I don’t want to.”
“It’s up to you,” he said.
She didn’t want to answer. She wanted to throw the phone out the window and watch it shatter on the highway while taking a long sip of that delicious blend of milk and ice cream.
But perhaps it was out of habit, or some deep loyalty that crossing state lines couldn’t kill, that she brought the phone to her ear, and said, “Yes, Clark?”
She knew something was wrong right away. He was a quiet man, but he was never silent like this.
“Baby,” he said, his voice laced with gravel. “I did something…bad. Real bad. But I did it for us, so we can… we can change things. But you’re not going to like it.”
“What are you talking about, Clark?”
“I need you to come to the police station.”
“What!?” she cried.
Dale glanced over, a nervous frown framing his sturdy face.
“I need you to come down here,” he said, “and I’ll explain in more detail.”
“At the police station?”
“What the hell, Clark?” she exclaimed.
“I know, I know.”
“What did you do?”
“I can’t tell you over the phone. Please, come get me.”
“Why can’t you just tell me?”
“Because I can’t,” he said, and she instantly knew that whatever he had done, it was awful.
“Clark,” she whispered. “What did you do?”
“Listen, baby,” he said. “I did it for you. For us.”
“Please, Jane,” he said.
Dale mouthed, Hang up.
“Tell me now, Clark Duncan,” she insisted. “What in God’s name did you do?”
She heard him sniffing, taking long, difficult breaths. “Something foolish. But I did it for us.”
“You keep saying that.”
“Baby, tell me, did you get my note—”
“I’m done, Clark!” she burst out. “And no matter what you did, I don’t care why. I’m not coming down there because I’m… I’m leaving.”
The silence came heavy and sick like a plague, and she suddenly hated herself for saying it. And while she opened her mouth to say more, nothing came out.
“I love you, Jane,” he finally said.
“I’m… I’m going now,” she said, hovering her thumb over the “End Call” button.
“I blew it up!” he suddenly cried. “We’re free now!”
She held the phone away from her face. Blew it up? What did that even mean?
“I don’t care,” she said. “Good bye, Clark.”
She hung up, and immediately fumbled for her pack of cigarettes.
He dropped the phone and let his forehead fall to the cold metal table.
“You’re alone now, Clark,” they said. “Tell us where it is.”
He took a moment to gather himself, blowing his nose and wiping his mustache with a tissue.
“Come on, Clark,” they said. “Give it up. Those meat-cutters are in surgery right now, and it’s not looking good. If any of them don’t make it, you’re a murderer.”
“They’ll make it,” he said softly.
“You don’t know that. You’d better start talking about that ATM before this gets real ugly.”
“Let’s see how the surgery goes,” he said.
One of the detectives leaned over the table, his cheeks puffy and red. “We’ll find it, Clark. With or without you.”
“There’s nothing to find,” he retorted.
“So you do know what happened to it, then?”
Clark leaned back and massaged his face with his hands. “How many phone calls do I get?”
They drove for another hour before either of them spoke.
“You did the right thing,” Dale finally said.
She stared out the window, watching the corn fields scurry by. Bits of snow rested at the feet of the dead stalks, nothing like the pillows and clouds of the stuff piled up back in Whispering Harbor.
“It sounds like he did something terrible,” Dale added.
“You’ll be fine.”
“He’s never sounded so desperate,” she said, her voice barely audible.
“What… what if he needs me?”
“He needs you because you’re stronger than him.”
“Maybe,” she said.
“We have to forget about him.”
“He fathered my child, Dale,” she said.
“I’m just… I’m hurting for you right now.”
“I know,” she said.
They drove for another few minutes, and then Dale said, “How about some coffee?”
She pursed her lips and closed her fists into balls.
“Damn it,” she muttered. “Damn you, Clark!”
She turned to him, her face red with fury. “I have to go back.”
“He’s my husband, Dale.”
“You’re leaving him. We agreed to this.”
“Turn us around.”
“I can’t do that, Jane.”
“I said, Turn us around!”
And she jerked the steering wheel toward the nearest exit, and the car streamed toward the ramp like a bullet. Dale slammed on the brakes and screeched to a sudden halt.
“What the hell, Jane? Why are you doing this?”
“Turn us around, Dale.”
“Please, Janie. Don’t do this.”
But she took his hands in hers, squeezed them, and seized his gaze and held it with her sudden strength. “I want to be with you, Dale. I do. But I can’t leave him like this, whatever he did. I just can’t. Not like this.”
He drew a long, wheezing breath through his nose, and let it out like a teapot. “If you do this, there won’t be a later.”
His threat hit her slowly, and the pain spread from her middle outward until it gripped her entire body. She closed her eyes.
“Fine. Take me back.”
“I’m not going back there, Janie.”
“Then let me out.”
But she grabbed her duffel bag, opened the door, and stepped out.
Phone-in-hand, she began marching up the ramp toward the clump of gas stations and fast food joints. She dialed, and waited.
The detective stepped back into the interrogation room, a knowing smirk on his face. He held out a phone.
Clark leaned forward, breathless. “Is it Jane?”
The detective nodded. “But you speak to her on one condition: You confess.”
Clark studied his face, and then the phone. “Let me confirm it’s her.”
The detective put the phone on Clark’s ear.
“I’m coming to get you,” she said.
The detective began to pull the phone away.
“Just remember my proposal,” he yelled, and grabbed the phone away from the detective and shoved it under the table, between his legs.
“Dammit, Clark!” the man yelled, lunging for his hands.
“I did it, okay!” Clark screamed, still clutching the device. “Just let me talk to her!”
“You blew it up?”
“And you stole the ATM?”
“I’ll explain – just let me talk to her!”
The detective glared into Clark’s eyes, then slowly backed away. Clark brought the receiver to his ear. There was silence on the other end. He waited, holding his anxious breath.
Then, he heard her speak. “I remember your proposal, Clark.”
“I’m sorry I’ve forgotten,” he said.
There was another pause, and he thought he heard the roar of a semi-truck. Then she replied, her voice steady and newly calm.
“I’m sorry, too,” she said.
And then there was a click.
Clark placed the dead phone on the table and leaned back, folding his hands behind his head.
“What can I say, Detective? I love my wife.”
The detective shook his head.
“Tell me about the ATM.”
He took a deep breath. “I left it in the gas station so it would be destroyed by the blast. I would have done the same with the safe, but ran out of time.”
The detective stared, his gaze unrelenting.
“We’ll see about that,” he said.
“What about the butchers?” Clark asked.
The detective smiled. “They’re fine. Just some cuts and bruises.”
The detective shrugged before leaving him alone in the cold, gray room.
Yet Clark smiled, and a long-faded memory resurrected itself in his memory. He closed his eyes.
His knee was browned with soil, and his hand held hers. The ring shone like in the surface of a pristine lake in in the sparkling summer sun that was so rare in a place like Whispering Harbor. He slipped it delicately onto her finger and it glided over her graceful skin.
Graceful, he thought with a sigh. Graceful like a woman scampering along a snowy forest floor, burdened only with bags of green cash, disappearing into the flurried distance.
Cover art: Itzkie, via Creative Commons