I’m checking my shopping list when my cart bumps another. “Sorry.” I continue toward the bread aisle.
“Do I know you?” rises above the this-isn’t-an-elevator-but-sure-sounds-like-it music.
When I turn toward the woman, her big, beautiful, cantaloupe-colored eyes ensnare me. She appears to be in her thirties like me. “Sorry?” This might be a possibility, he thinks.
“Yes, I’m Sorry. I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”
The sun rises above the horizon in my mind, and I laugh. “Guess we’re having a ‘Who’s on first?’ moment.” If her eyes had lips, the corners would be turned down. She’s clearly not a fan of classic comedy. She starts to push away. He can’t let her leave yet. “It’s an unusual name.” I figure what’ve I got to lose and hold out my hand. Let’s see, what alias haven’t I used for awhile? “I’m Paul.”
She pauses. Her eyes frisk me as if she were an airport security agent, and I’ve just set off the metal detector. She shakes my hand. “Sorry.”
I resist the impulse to repeat my name more loudly. “Please to meet you, Sorry.” I look in her cart — avocados, celery, radishes, lettuce, apples, oranges. “Looks like you have a healthy diet.”
“Vegetarian. I’m trying to go full vegan, but haven’t quite been able to stick with it.”
He sees an opening. Fortunately he hasn’t been to meat or dairy yet. “It wasn’t easy for me either, but you’ll get there. I have a few tips I could share with you.” There’ll be something on Google.
Her eye lips stay down. “I could use the help. By the way, my full name is Sorry Mistake Kelsey. Long story.”
What did I say my name was? John? George? No, Paul. “I’m Paul McCartney. Also a long story. Maybe we could meet for a drink?” He knows a bar near a dark alley.
Sorry steps back. Uh, oh. I’ve gone a bridge too far.
“Coffee would be OK.”
He knows that’ll have to do. For now. We make arrangements to meet at a cafe Saturday morning.
I arrive first and find a seat with my back to the window so my face will be shadowed. Sorry arrives right on time. He tells himself to remember that.
After we exchange pleasantries, I go to the counter and place our order.
“Is that a latte?” Sorry says when I return.
Uh oh. Think fast. “Yes … with soy milk. And this biscotti’s vegan, too.” Change the subject. “You said your unusual name is a long story?”
Sorry stirs sugar into her black coffee then stares at me. Just as she starts to speak, her phone sounds. Don’t take the call. She takes the call. She’ll pay extra for that. “Oh, hi, Doctor. Can I call you back? But … but … Give me an hour or so … Fine, 45 minutes. Bye, Doctor.”
“My mother needs me to pick up some ice cream for her. But I have 45 minutes.”
“Your mother’s a doctor?”
“I just have to call her that.” Sorry lifts her cup. “To new friends.”
Strange, but it makes her more interesting. I raise my cup. “So tell your new friend here about your unusual name.”
Sorry sighs. “My mother wanted to be a psychologist but got pregnant with me and had to quit school. She named me Sorry Mistake and has always insisted I call her Doctor. It sounds odd, I know.”
She’s giving me a lot to work with. I dunk my biscotti. “It’s none of my business, but you could change your name, couldn’t you? Or at least go by something else. Maybe—”
“Doctor won’t let me.”
Another layer of weird. He’ll let it lie there for now. Might be able to use it later.
“Anyway, enough about me. Your turn, Paul McCartney.”
Are all biscottis stale or is it me? “Nothing special. I was named after my dad’s grandpa is all.”
“I thought you said it was a long story? I was envisioning your mother being a Beatles groupie and … you know.”
Oops. I need to keep better track of my fictions. Would he go on the offensive? No, deflect. “Hey, do I look that old?” I force a laugh and accidentally spit out a bit of biscotti. Hope she didn’t see that. “The Beatles were before Mom’s time.” Wonder if the math works? Plow ahead. That’s it. “She was a Deadhead. My middle name’s Jerry.” Now that was pretty smooth if I say so myself.
Sorry laughs. “So not a long story after all, Paul Jerry McCartney. If that is your name, I’m not sure I believe a word you say. Might be you’re the dangerous type. Might be I like that.”
What’s she up to? He’d want to regain control. “What kind of music do you like, Sorry?”
She looks side to side then leans close and whispers: “Polka. Love love love polka. It’s Doctor’s favorite, too.”
This woman’s full of surprises. “Me, too! I love polka.”
“Frankie Yankovic, Jimmy Sturr, Walt—”
“They’re the best. Can’t get enough of them.” I tell Sorry I need a comfort break. When I come back from the restroom, I chime in with the names of a couple more polka artists, holding my breath that I pronounce their names right. He’d have to control himself if she were to correct him.
“It’s nice to know we have polka in common,” Sorry says. “Favorite movies?”
Maybe I said the names correctly. Maybe she’s being nice. Either is lucky for her. I take out my phone and stream my favorite bit by Abbott and Costello.
Unlike most women I’ve known, Sorry thinks it’s funny. Or is she faking it? It might be more interesting if she were. Could be a trigger for him. Before I can give her the gift of The Three Stooges, she tells me she works in a library, walking distance from her mother’s house, where she still lives. “I enjoy being around people who don’t do all their reading on screens.”
He knows that area of town. Too many people. I tell her if books had hooves, they’d be an endangered species. She laughs again, and I notice something odd. Most people smile with their whole face, but Sorry’s eyes never seem to sync up.
She asks if I have any hobbies.
“I have a workshop in my basement where I build furniture. And I play some tennis.”
“I’m not much for tennis. What do you do for a living?”
I take her interest as a good sign. She’s prying, he thinks. Oh, she’s asking for it. “You have a lot of questions, don’t you?” I chuckle. More biscotti bits fly out. Damn it!
“Well, here I am with a stranger I met at the market. A girl’s got to know what’s she’s getting into, right?”
She’s getting into me? Don’t blow it. Be truthful. “I clerk in a parcel services store. I’m the one everyone takes it out on when they ship back a crappy product they got online.”
“Some people you have to grin and bear, I suppose.”
“Some people I’d like to cut into pieces and ship around the world in a couple dozen boxes.” Good line. Oh, no, did I say it out loud? Sorry knocks over her cup and what’s left of her coffee bleeds across the table toward me. Guess I did.
After she blots the spill with her napkin, she squeezes my hand. “I admire your restraint.”
Didn’t see that coming. I think he’d want to learn more about this woman before their date in a dark alley. I think that’s believable.
I don’t get much material during our first dinner date because we spend much of the evening talking about me. When Sorry asks how I came to be such a fan of old-time comedy, I tell her I must’ve inherited my sense of humor from my great, great grandfather, who was a vaudevillian.
“I think I’ve heard of vaudeville.” Sorry starts to butter her roll, then catches herself. “I wish they wouldn’t put that on the table. Tell me more.”
“Well, in third grade Sally Roberts and I won first prize in a talent show with our George Burns and Gracie Allen act. I promised Sally that one day, when we were married, we’d be TV stars.”
“Ah, puppy love.” Sorry smiles, except for her sad eyes. I wish I could go swimming in them and curl up the corners. “Doctor wouldn’t let me have boyfriends.”
“It didn’t last long for Sally and me. The next year Stanley Parkins moved to town. He and his thick, wavy hair.”
“Sally obviously was a foolish child,” Sorry says and chuckles. Just then her phone buzzes. “Hi, Doctor.” Sorry turns to the side to talk. I sneak a little butter onto my roll and stuff it in my mouth.
After a minute or so, Sorry puts down her phone, sighs and sips her wine. “Now where were we?” She mumbles something else.
“What’s on third.”
Sweet, sweet Sorry. What’s on second. I Don’t Know is on third, but I wouldn’t correct her for the world.
We get lost in conversation, and before I know it, the waiter’s bringing our check. I realize I’ve never met someone so easy to talk to. It’s like we’ve known each other for ages. I find I can’t wait to see her again. Can he change? After everything he’s done? Despite the urges he fights?
I don’t know if Sorry’s as smitten as I am, but she agrees to another date. And three more after that. Sorry tells me about herself in dribs and drabs each time we’re together. But I feel as if there’s so much more to know.
As usual, we meet at the restaurant. Chez Henri is dimly lit with pink tablecloths, more forks than I know what to do with, a maître de with a French accent that may or may not be authentic and —ugh — numerous vegan selections.
Sorry hardly says a word as we wait for our wine. I’m thinking that’s a bad sign, but soon after the waiter serves us cold beet soup, Sorry opens up to me. Turns out her name was only the beginning of the abuse, more emotional than physical, that her mother heaped on her. The worst seemed to be repeated threats of abandonment. When Sorry was little, her mom told her that if she didn’t obey without question, the girl would be left in a shack down the road where a man with three eyes and long crooked teeth would do horrible things to her. When Sorry was a bit older, the threat of foster care, where “monsters of the worst kind prey on girls,” replaced the shack.
“But Doctor could be kind, too,” Sorry says. “She’d reward me with toys and less time in the dark box if I were a good girl. She’d give me ice cream.”
“To this day, whenever I try to go against Doctor, I break out in a cold sweat, and the room spins, and I can’t breathe, and …”
Sorry’s lips keep moving, but nothing comes out. Sounds like her mother learned just enough about psychology to be a dangerous, evil human being. I realize my heart is thumping for Sorry. He warns himself to be careful, to remember what happened the last time he started to fall for his victim. But this isn’t him. It’s real.
Sorry’s phone buzzes. She takes the call. “Doctor, I’m having dinner with someone … I don’t think we’ll be done that soon. Can —” Sorry puts her phone down. “She hung up on me. I hate her, but somehow I love her. Did I say she used to give me ice cream?”
Not knowing whether to nod or shake my head, I end up making little circles with my nose.
“I can’t live like this any longer.” Sorry grips the edges of the table, leans close and whispers something that nearly tips me out of my chair. “Paul, remember when you talked about cutting somebody into pieces and shipping them around the world in separate boxes? Do you think you could do that for real? If I paid you? Helped you?”
Oh, Sorry, nobody deserves what you’ve had to endure, but, no, I can’t do that for real.… Can I? It’s time to come clean.
“Sorry, I need to tell you some things.” I sip my wine. “I really do work in a parcel services store, but I’ve never seriously wanted to cut up an irate customer.” Bigger sip. “See, in my spare time I write murder mysteries. Sometimes, to get ideas, I say things to people, nice people like you, to see their reactions and how I might use them in a story.”
I take a spoonful of soup and search Sorry’s face. If we were playing poker, I wouldn’t know if she had four aces or garbage. “I use conversations with people to help me develop characters, dialogue and plot lines. I had this idea about a serial killer who meets a woman in a grocery store and lures her to a dark alley where he … you know.” I can’t bear to say the words and draw my finger across my throat. “But I’ve started liking you, Sorry. A lot.” I wait for her to say something. When she remains silent, I trudge ahead.
“My real name is Peter Rogers. I send out manuscripts under different pen names like Paul McCartney or John Lennon as an attention-grabber. Have to admit, it hasn’t helped so far. I thought you’d make a great chapter in my book. I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Sorry. I’ve been looking for the right time to tell you.” Is there a better time than when she’s asked me to murder her mother? “And I’m not really a vegan. Not even a vegetarian.”
I wait for Sorry to throw curses and beet soup in my face. Instead she leans even closer. I can feel her short stabs of breath on my face. “So will you cut up my mother or not?”
I’m not exactly being truthful when I tell Sorry I’ve never thought about slicing up someone and shipping the body parts around the world. I’ve worked through some of the details for my book. The killer drags his drugged victim down the stairs to the circular saw in his basement. “You always wanted to see the world, didn’t you?” he smirks to the limp body. Dry ice and 24 pre-addressed boxes wait patiently to embrace their gruesome contents. He’ll drive for 48 hours, dropping off the parcels in six different states as he launches the remains to the four corners of the globe.
I have Sorry over to my place. We try to enjoy each other, but I get the feeling she’s not into it. That’s fine with me because my mind is too preoccupied with the real reason for our getting together. We go down to my workshop in the basement. During the course of my explaining how we’ll proceed, Sorry has to go to the bathroom twice to gag. That’s one time less than me.
When I finish describing the plan, Sorry flicks the circular saw blade with her finger. The ting of the vibrating metal cuts through my resolve. “I don’t think I can go through with it,” she says. “She’s my mother after all.”
Thank God. Trying to act casual, I grab my tennis racket. “You’re probably right. It’s way beyond both of us.” When I bounce a tennis ball, it whacks me in the nose and rolls across the floor.
Sorry hands the ball to me. “Still, I’ll never have a normal life, and we’ll never have a real relationship, as long as she’s … alive.” Sorry puts her hand to her head and collapses.
I rush over calling her name, but she doesn’t respond. I run a stream in the utility sink and cup water in my hands. When I dribble it on her face, her eyes flicker and she sits up. I fear she’s bleeding somewhere until I realize it’s from my nose. Then I notice the welt on her forehead. She couldn’t fake that. “We can do this,” I say. “Let’s go through with it.” I try to channel my fictional killer. Go through with it? He’s looking forward to it. “We’ll give each other” — I try to swallow the tremble from my voice — “strength.”
I greet Sorry and her mother at the door. Louise is nothing like the fire-breathing dragon I’d imagined, hoped for, to motivate me. She’s petite and so thin it seems as though her jaw bones might poke through her skin. She’s a bit stooped, walks with a limp and wears her grey hair in a bun. Her eyes, like Sorry’s, are big, beautiful and sad. Yet she beams warmth and makes you feel as if you’re her best friend. I should call this off. He sees through her act and can’t wait to kill the bitch.
I sit in my easy chair, Sorry and Louise on the sofa. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Mr. Rogers.” I kind of wish Sorry hadn’t told her mother my real name. “I’m afraid we’re a little late. Sorry’s not feeling well.”
“The pleasure’s all mine, Louise.” I’m hoping she’ll take offense at my familiarity and reveal her temper to help spur me on.
“I’ve learned a lot about you, Mr. Rogers. Did you make this coffee table?”
Her prying makes his cold blood even frostier. I wish it did mine. I can’t do this. “No, I bought that.”
“Sorry,” she says to her daughter, “switch places with me. There’s a glare.”
Almost as soon as Louise sits at the other end of the couch, she shivers. “Oh, my, there’s a nasty draft here.” She stands and goes back to her original spot, which Sorry vacates without a word.
Louise shoots me a saccharine smile. I can do this. Need to do this. He can’t restrain himself any longer. Time to act. “I’ve made a pot of coffee. How do you take yours, Louise?”
“How do you like yours, Peter?”
“Uh … cream and sugar.”
“That’s nice. Me, too. Sorry will take hers black, no sugar.”
“Doctor, I prefer —”
Louise shoots a look at her daughter. If words had legs, Sorry’s would be cut off at the knees.
I go to the kitchen and bring back a tray with three coffees, the one for Louise on the right. Sorry and I exchange glances. I see tears welling in her eyes, and she seems on the verge of hyperventilating.
“Peter,” Louise says before I can serve the coffee, “I always take a little water to sip with mine.” She touches her hand to her upper chest. “Helps my acid reflux, you see. Could I trouble you to get me a glass?”
Every delay shakes me by the shoulders and tells me this is crazy. I’m not a killer, I only write badly about them. He mentally slaps himself in the face. Hard. Damn hard. Snap out of it, wimp. Try to back out now, and you’ll be next.
I return from the kitchen with a glass of water for Louise and give everyone their coffee. I raise my cup. “To the future,” I say.
Sorry’s hand is shaking so much she can’t take a drink. The coffee’s cooled, and I down mine quickly.
Louise smiles. “Sorry, go get that rope out of the car.”
I come to in the basement. My head throbs as if it banged every step on the way down. My wrists and ankles are bound. A tennis ball is jammed in my mouth.
Louise goes to the circular saw. “Sweetie,” she says, “did he show you how to work this thing?”
Sorry sobs. I can barely keep my eyes open, but I think she tries to reach for her mother’s throat. Then her arms fall limply at her sides. “Yes, Doctor.”
Louise flicks the blade with her finger. The ting of the metal becomes a ringing in my ears as the room darkens.
Something cool on my face. My eyes blinking open. Sorry standing over me. Water trickling from her cupped hands.
Sorry unties my wrists. I do the rest.
I stagger to Louise, who’s on the floor, moaning, a gash on her head, my broken tennis racket beside her. Sorry and I look at each other. I motion toward Louise then the circular saw.
“She used to give me ice cream,” Sorry says and crumples onto her mother. I realize it’s time to face the music, and I don’t mean polka. I call the police.
I no longer try to write murder mysteries, don’t want that world to inhabit my thoughts. Besides, I’ve had enough dealings with the criminal justice system lately. Under terms of my plea deal, I received a suspended sentence and probation. I give my evenings to community service.
Louise is in prison awaiting trial for assault and conspiracy to commit murder. I’d hoped my testimony would put her away for a long time, but it might not. She’s concocted a story that Sorry was behind the plot to kill me and that she, Louise, was only playing along so she could come to my rescue.
Prosecutors need Sorry’s version of events but aren’t getting it. Sorry hasn’t spoken a word since that night in the basement and stares into space most of the time. If she never talks, I understand there’s a good chance Louise may receive a reduced sentence or even walk.
The institution where Sorry is being detained is a three-hour drive away. I go there every Saturday. This day I find her in the TV lounge. As always, I thank her for saving my life. I try to hold her hand; as usual, she won’t let me.
I rummage through the DVDs, find an Abbott and Costello movie and load it in the player. We watch the film for a few minutes. “Who’s on first?” I whisper. It might be wishful thinking, but I think Sorry almost smiles. It might be more wishful thinking, but I’m convinced she’ll start communicating soon. I’ll be happy for Sorry, glad for me and thrilled at the prospect of Louise being locked away for years. We watch a few more minutes of the movie then Sorry falls asleep.
I’m about to leave when I notice that Sorry’s phone, which they let her keep as an encouragement to talk, is on her lap. So the device doesn’t fall, I put it on the table next to Sorry. That’s when I see she’s received a text. There are no words, only a link. When I tap, it leads to a primer on committing suicide. I quickly close the website and notice something under the text. An emoji of an ice cream cone.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Illinois, USA. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in various journals including Idle Ink, Gone Lawn, Fiction on the Web, Pithead Chapel, Literally Stories and Moonpark Review. His website is writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8