|this will ultimately make sense|
the word that dom gave me to work with was "parking", and at first i had this idea of writing something about two people battling over a parking spot, envisioned as this epic conflict, but i don't really have the command of fantasy or medieval writing i would need to do that justice. [remember how anal retentive i said i was about details? this is the primary way in which this holds me back.] i had wanted to do something a bit humourous to go along with the tone of the difference engine, which was the story i wrote the first time dom gave me a prompt. however, my brain apparently had other ideas.
as happens from time to lucky time, this just came pouring out of me. i categorize that as 'lucky' because i don't think those sudden explosions of creativity have anything to do with my work ethic, or with my dedication to writing. the fact is that i have always had these sudden 'impulse stories', although they're infrequent. during periods when i have forced myself to make time for creativity, these bursts have happened with greater regularity. which is just proof that creative work is like exercise. it gets easier when you do it more.
at dom's suggestion, i'm posting this, but please remember, as with all the stories i post here, it is an early draft. it's like i'm showing you the ultrasound of a story that will eventually come out in its proper form.
i could talk a bit about what was going through my mind as i wrote, but i really hate to prejudice people before they get to read something of mine. [or before they get to read anything, really.] that said, i think that there's an obvious conclusion that most people will make when reading this. i'm not saying that isn't the correct conclusion, but i would ask you to consider the possibility that there are other things that could be happening. that will probably make more sense if you read the story. if it doesn't, don't worry about it.
FOLLOW ME TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE PAGE BREAK...
There it is, that grubby dark blue hatchback, sitting in the public lot, faint rust spots visible in the morning light. That stuff happens from the inside out, you know. Once you can see it, it’s like cockroaches; the real action is happening underneath he surface. It’s not falling apart yet, but it will. If it doesn’t get crushed in a compactor first, with all the other junk cars that get left around. So many of them lately, not that anyone notices. Just here and there, a lone sentinel in a lot in the morning. More than usual? Probably more than usual. One on a side street outside an indie theatre last week, a newer one, silver, not cheap, but not expensive either. Its owner was probably biding her time for something fancier.
This one looks like it’s been through more, looks like its seen a few early mornings. There are some blankets folded up in the back. Is it possible that she’d actually slept in there for a few nights? Is it possible that she fled some impossible situation and that she had nowhere else she could bring herself to go? She looked smart enough and old enough to have sussed out an abusive personality early on, but maybe not. Sometime bad habits put cataracts on you and, for all your smarts, you can’t see through that. But she looked tough, with her Irish face and curly red hair. She didn’t look the type, not that there is one. She must have been difficult to break down.
The one last week was a little more fragile, bound together with scar tissue, a bad repair job held together with duct tape. Hard to predict, though, how she might have reacted. Sometimes that outer layer just stays flexible, even though the insides are crunched up. They towed her car on Tuesday, although I’m certain they must have tried calling her first. Maybe they just think she left town. Somebody will report her missing eventually. She was too polished not to be missed. Somebody loved her.
A few weeks before that, further east and north, there was an SUV. Not a big one, one of those economy models that’s small enough that it should be a car, but someone stuck a big, clumsy frame on top and tried to make up for it with bigger tires. That one was beige, I think. And there were two women, two women who joined hands once they got out and walked off talking about some house renovation they’d undertaken. It had gotten a bit out of control and they were nervous about finishing before the shorthaired girl’s mother came to visit. They were trying to puzzle through solutions. They looked like they were very much in love.
The young ones with the long blonde hair always get reported quickly. They have new drivers’ permits and their parents cars and some people are noticing a connection, because there are three of them that look so similar. There’s another one in the same mould, but her hair is a bit darker, so they skip over her. Such a narrow palette.
They miss the two mothers, too. Assume they went crazy and just walked away. Or they suspect the husbands, suspect that they are scheming under their armour of bewilderment, waiting for insurance payments, or looking for a younger, prettier model, without a body that slumps from too many trips to school and soccer and the grocery store. Indeed, there was one boxy charcoal grey thing they found in a parking lot, half the groceries she’d just bought piled into the truck and one bag in the back seat. That bag had no explanation. There was still plenty of room in the trunk, enough room for it and the other bags that should have been there. But it was there, nestled in the grooves where a child’s safety seat had been attached not so long ago. She was gone, though. She and the remains of her groceries, gone from the afternoon sun in the middle of a fairly busy lot, busy with other moms like her, or the younger, prettier models who had replaced them. There was no sign of her, nor was there any sign of violence. No one had seen anything. She wasn’t exceptional, except in her disappearance.
No one noticed the scrawny thing that stopped for cigarettes at the strip mall on the western edge of the city. The shop owner she’d seen minutes before wouldn’t have had any clue that she was gone before she made it back to the beater she’d left edged over from one parking spot into another and a bit crooked to boot, effectively blocking two places. She’d hopped out from the truck and proceeded to the store without noticing. She could not have cared less. She had leathery skin and dirty hair. Her clothes were well-worn and rumpled, but they’d been laundered recently, so she hadn’t given up caring on everything. Her shirt still smelled like dollar store soap and like an old dryer on its last legs, and her sweat leaked out through the cotton fibres. You can bet that she rented one of those places that had been intended for upwardly mobile couples until the economy had fallen apart. Now they were rented to college desperate college students who had cars to carry them to campus and to welfare cases who sat in folding chairs on the cracked paving stones behind their houses and drank big cans of beer and talked too loudly.
One of the used cars from that neighborhood got left in the university campus parking lot. Her roommates hardly new her, but she’d been having anxiety attacks about being in university. She didn’t like being the oldest student in her classes. She’d talked about running away, about hitting the road, maybe going all the way to Mexico or Belize. They all remembered she’d said Belize. Logic dictated that she wouldn’t have gotten to Belize without her car, but she had cleared out her chequing account just an hour before she’d showed up for her last class that day. All that cash and all that anxiety. Belize was definitely a possibility.
She was young, but older than the blondes. And she wasn’t blonde or fresh-faced like they were. She wore a full face of makeup at all times. Her roommates had never seen her without makeup, not even first thing in the morning.
More beyond those. Cars left all over town, dragged away eventually when they tickets pile up and the owners don’t return the increasingly irate calls. The husbands do come and collect the cars and pay the fines and muter about her stupidity and how selfish she was, running off for a few days and leaving him with the kids to take care of when he already had work five days a week. Sometimes, they’d confide, when they were talking to a male officer with a tarnished wedding ring, you just wanted to shake them.
Deep in the bowels of the police bureaucracy, of course, there are a couple who are starting to connect the lines. All those women, all those cars. Maybe they’re tracking the parking tickets. There are more than usual, and more that end with an unclaimed car being flattened and loaded on trucks to be recycled. Maybe they keep track of all those reports of missing persons and can see that there are a lot of women besides the ones in the usual high risk group. Perhaps those clerks and junior officers suspect there’s something stalking women of all sorts, not just teenaged blondes, which many people have already accepted. Those people have daughters. Those girls, smiling in their school photos, could be their children. Others are nobody’s children.
There was a weird accident about a month ago, one of the first really lovely spring days. A man driving from the shabby postwar neighbourhood- a suburb before it had been swallowed by the expanding urban mass- was on his way up the road to the leafy, classy neighbourhood further north. He said he’d hit a woman, and there was damage to his car to prove it. He’d hit here straight on, nearly at full speed, but he’d managed to engage the brakes before he’d run her over entirely. He tried to approach her to see if she was alright, but she’d struggled to her feet and, without looking at him, dragged herself off into the scraggly wood on the other side of the street. Watching her go, he said it was clear her right leg was badly broken, but when he crossed the street and looked down the short embankment, into the woods, he couldn’t see her.
The police stared at him and pointed out the obvious: she wasn’t running at any kind of speed with a broken leg. It was impossible that she hadn’t been there when he looked. Frankly, it was impossible that he hadn’t been able to catch up with her crossing the road. Maybe he’d waited to follow her, in the hopes that she’d go away. Maybe he’d imagined the broken leg.
No, he insisted, he’d run after her while he was calling 911. Yes, her leg was broken. He was a surgeon and he knew what one looked like. But he had to concur; she couldn’t have gotten far in that condition. She must have been hidden in among the trees.
They didn’t find any blood or any tracks in the wood.
They did find her car in the parking lot of the building where she worked. Newly single woman, apparently, well liked by some but not all, even though most of them pretended they’d been her friends. She always looked very sharp, spent money on clothes and shoes, dressed for the job she wanted, not the job she had. She wasn’t above raising her voice at people, even ones above her in the pecking order. She did like to go for walks on days when she didn’t eat lunch at her desk.
Another one had a glove compartment full of pills; painkillers, mostly, and when they tracked her doctor down, he confirmed that she’d been tortured by arthritis that ran in her family. She was in pain nearly all the time. It had started young in her case and had never let up. He thought she’d been careful about not mixing her pills with driving, but he couldn’t explain, then, why the pills would have been in the car. There were a lot of different prescriptions. Her car was parked on the street, less than a block away from one of the pharmacies where she’d routinely filled prescriptions on her way home from her job in the funky new district of refurbished warehouses. Her employers were a little uncomfortable admitting that she had already cut down to part time hours and they were looking at having to let her go because her ailment was interfering with her work and her concentration. So many eager young designers, and she was neither young nor healthy.
One of her prescriptions was for a pretty serious antidepressant, but that was to be expected, given the circumstances.
Months later, there was another car that turned up not five blocks away, on the other side of the street. Strangely enough, the woman who owned the car had reported her own daughter missing the year previously. She knew pretty much where her daughter was, which was working a corner downtown. Her mother had found her there before, falling down drunk and vomiting on the street, and hauled her back to their suburban home. She reported her missing in the hopes that the girl would get herself arrested again- she’d punched a police officer in the face once (she’d told her mother he’d called her a stupid whore, although the officer denied it). If she’d gotten arrested, a judge would probably have forced her to stay at home, where she was miserable but safe.
Then the mother goes missing. She wasn’t even far from the corner where her daughter worked. Maybe she’d been looking for her. There was a reason she might be there, which is why no one looks down the street and thinks “Isn’t this the place where that other woman went missing a few months back?”
The daughter never did go missing, not for more than a couple of days. She has a pimp, everyone knows that. The police want to know if it’s possible that her mother had had a run-in with the pimp, but at first the daughter had disappeared too. It was a bit suspicious. Then she came back and angrily denied that she or her pimp, who she calls her friend, or her girlfriends knew anything about her mother. The police have always suspected that was a lie, but the girl did seem genuinely broken up about her mother. She cried for half an hour at the station, and the beat patrol, who were keeping an eye on her, said that they saw her crying to the other girls on the corner. No one wants to pick up a crying girl, because it’s too much of a red flag that she could be complicated. One night, she had a visible shiner on her left temple and some swelling around her jaw. No one picked her up when she was bruised either, except for one guy in a flashy suit who poked at her face and seemed to find it funny that she had to work in that ugly state. After that, they didn’t see her crying again.
Of course, some of the girls from that corner would go missing as well, some for a short time, some for good. But no one connects that with any other case, because those disappearances happen almost every day. Hookers don’t count.
There’s always some clue in a case, the detectives reassure each other. Almost all the time, it’s the most likely suspect. The husband. The boyfriend. The ex. Suicide. Then there are those times when it’s just a random, unlucky thing. That’s a lot trickier. Someone will probably show them a dossier, an amateur’s collection of reports and clippings, to show that a lot of women are just gone. There’s no pattern they can discern, but there are cars. They don’t look or live alike, other than that they are all women. But maybe there’s something to it. It’s more women than usual, and they’re not hookers. Maybe someone will be impressed by that work. Or someone will feel threatened that they didn’t think of the possibility first. Or they’ll think it’s an overactive young imagination, because the young ones see serial killers everywhere. (Every one of those women is dead, they know.)
There are cars that no one’s even noticed yet, because they belonged to women who didn’t matter to anyone, or who had ceased to matter long enough before that either no one had missed them, or no one thought it was terribly surprising that they simply weren’t there anymore. An immigrant cleaning lady who just stopped calling to see if her employer had any more shifts for her. The one who’d moved to the city with the money her parents had left her, but had grossly underestimated the costs of living there, and had gotten herself deep in debt.
There’s even another one who was clipped by a car, but the drivers, a couple of college students in their late teens, were relieved when she wobbled away, clutching her hip. They’ve never mentioned that incident to anyone. They have no idea who she was.
And, of course, there’s the first one. She was pretty, highlighted blonde and very relaxed looking in her sky blue collared shirt and jeans with flats. She approached her car from the passenger side, so she could throw her oversized purse in the seat, without having to wrestle it over the gearshift of her tiny car. As she put her hand on the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the car’s side mirror and noticed how tired her eyes looked all of a sudden. She paused to scrutinize her face in the mirror and became aware of something rising behind her. Something frightening and inevitable.