A Death in Grand Rapids: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 14, 2023
Carol Scott: Guys, Grand Rapids is weird.
Max Cook: Well, of course. Emil lives there.
Phillip Lawrence: Would he live someplace that wasn’t weird?
Carol Scott: Ha, ha. Go for the easy joke, why don’t you?
Max Cook: Somebody has to, and Emil hasn’t been around to do it…
Carol Scott: No shit. But I’m not joking. This is just… It’s weird.
Kelly Goyer: What was weird about it?
Carol Scott: the couple in the donut shop. Emil’s place. The car wreck. The…
Kelly Goyer: Sounds like a rough day. No, a weird day!
Max Cook: I’m sorry, I still don’t hear the weird part.
Carol Scott: That’s – Look, I’m telling you this all wrong. It will make more sense – or less sense, which is the point –if I tell it in order. I wrote it all down in my journal while I was in the hospital.
Kelly Goyer: Hospital!
Phillip Lawrence: No, she’s right. Let her tell it in order. Carol, can you share your journal?
I bit back the urge to curse as I leaned against my rented Nissan Rogue in Emil’s driveway. If he was home, I couldn’t tell. I tried the doorbell, I tried knocking, and I tried calling his phone over and over. Finally I tried standing on the sidewalk and shouting up. “Emil! Emil Varden, it’s Carol! Open the door!”
There were only five other houses on that block of Roscommon Street. Two were as silent as the Emil’s. At a third houses, kids were playing, maybe ages 9 to 10. They looked at me when I yelled, but then went back to whatever game they were playing. At the fourth house, a curtain parted, and an eye looked out at me. The neighborhood Gladys Kravitz, no doubt.
The fifth house, just across the street from Emil’s, was a powder-blue-paneled two-story with a front porch with 1a half wall and classic pillars holding up the gable, which bore the street number: 2523. The screen door opened, and an older woman in a light blue housecoat came out onto the porch. She was short and stooped, with a receding head of snow-white hair and a big smile. The housecoat looked warm enough for the coming Michigan nights. “Hello!” she shouted. She had a muted British accent, as if she had lived in the USA a long time.
I was getting nowhere, so what the hell? I looked both ways for the complete lack of traffic in the street, and then I crossed over to her sidewalk. In front of her house, I stopped and looked up. “Yes?”
“If you’re looking for Mr. Varden, he’s not here, dear.”
I smiled. She seemed neighborly enough. “I guessed that, but I was hoping… Do you know where he is?”
“I never know. Not unless he tells me. Sometimes he has me feed his fish when he goes out gallivanting across the world to different conferences and such.” Then, as if revealing some dark secret, she leaned down and said in a lower voice, “He’s a writer, you know.”
I laughed. “I am, too. And you are…?”
“Alice, love. Alice McKay.”
I took the two steps up to the porch, held out my hand, and shook hers. “I’m Carol Scott.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Carol Scott! The Carol Scott?”
“The one and –”
But before I could finish the week joke, Alice dashed back into her house. “Hold on!” she shouted through the screen door. “Hold on…”
I stood there, wondering what I was holding on for. I was just about ready to stop holding when all of a sudden Alice reappeared at the door, breathless. Through the screen, I saw that she held a familiar periodical: issue #61 of Trans Lunar Injection. “Oh, please,” she said, stepping back out on the porch, “might I get your autograph?”
“I’m so honored!” Dear journal, I tell you, I was proud of how I held it together. I didn’t show surprise, and I didn’t laugh at the absurdity of finding a fan out in the wild, away from all the conventions and signings and the usual places were writers meet readers. I was shocked, I was amused, and of course I was pleased as punch. I reached in my purse, scrambled past the compact and the pills and the keys and the microphone and the audio recorder and the phone, until I found what I wanted: my silver Sharpie. Leonard Sims had always taught me: Readers are everywhere. Carry a Sharpie. If Leonard were still around, he would be proud of me that day.
I signed my usual signature for that story: To Alice, Welcome to the neighborhood! CScott October 14. I carefully lifted the magazine and blew lightly upon the ink until I was sure it wouldn’t smear. Then I handed it back.
Alice beamed. “Oh, my stars! You have just made my week. Aside from Emil, yours is the only autograph I’ve ever gotten in person.”
“But you have others that weren’t in person?”
She nodded. “I do not go to the, um, the conventions, you knoe, like Emil does. I’m too old for that kind of thing, too much a homebody. But Emil… Every time I fed his fish, he made sure to bring me back an autograph. Usually one of my favorites.” She frowned. “I do wonder who he’s going to bring me this time. Do you know where he went?”
I shook my head. “I was hoping you did. I’m not aware of any big conventions this week. He would’ve told us if he was going to one of those.”
I realized I was doing it again: talking to normal people as if everyone is a writer. “The Skëlëtön Crüe Writing Forum,” I explained. “We’re a writing group. Emil’s a member. We talk about all sorts of writing business there: conventions, signings, agents, editors, scams –”
“Oh, yes, there are so many scammers who target writers, who promise us anything if we’re gullible enough to send them money.”
“It would take a low creature to do that…”
“The lowest! That’s another purpose for the Skëlëtön Crüe: we warn each other when we hear about scams. And one more big benefit of the Crüe is we help each other out as first readers.” Then I realized that I was once again succumbing to jargon. “Do you know what a first reader is?”
“Oh, certainly! I am one. Emil lets me read all of his work before he sends it off to editors. He calls me his good luck charm.”
Then I made the connection. “You’re Mrs. A?”
“No, I’m Alice McKay, dear. I told you that already, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but I think I already know all sorts of things about you. Emil told us that he had a first reader here in town whose judgment he trusted because she was a reader. She didn’t look at stories like a writer would. To protect your identity, he just calls you Mrs. A.”
“Oh, I do like the sound of that! I like a woman of mystery now. Mrs. A…”
I smiled at the old lady. I couldn’t help it. Emil had done such a good job of writing about her on the forum that I had always suspected she was imaginary, a character he had created to talk to when he wanted to say something to us without putting it in his own mouth. But now I knew better. There really is a Mrs. A. “It’s so good to meet you at last.”
“You are such a dear. Would you like to come in? I could put on a pot of tea. I should love to talk to a real writer!” Then she giggled. “Besides Emil, I mean. Sometimes I just don’t think of him as a writer. He is so ordinary, just a bloke in the neighborhood, you know? He shovels my walk in the winter, and he rakes leaves and such. Writers are supposed to be mysterious and a little mad, you know?”
“Oh, we are, but some of us hide it well.” I sighed. “No, I would love to talk. It’s so nice to meet one of Emil’s friends. But I’ve got to keep moving. I’m supposed to be at my uncle’s cottage the day after tomorrow, and I still have places to search for Emil. You’re sure he didn’t mention anywhere that he was going? Maybe fishing?”
Alice’s brow furrowed, and she pursed her lips. “No trips, necessarily, but I think the last place he said he was going was the Galaxy.”
“Myra’s Donut Galaxy. He loved to go there and meet with lads. Sometimes he spent all day there talking over coffee and donuts.”
Then I remembered. “Oh, Myra’s Donut Galaxy! Yes, he talked about that a lot.”
“They have very good doughnuts there. He would always bring me some when he came back. That’s why I was surprised a couple of weeks ago when he didn’t show up. I thought he was going to the Galaxy, but then he just never came knocking on the door.” She frowned. “I think that was the last I saw of him.”
As my GPS led me across town to Myra’s, I considered how little Emil had ever revealed about his day-to-day life in Grand Rapids. He often spoke of having a hollow network: all his writer friends were scattered all around the world, yet he knew virtually none right there in his hometown and the surrounding area. So the local part of his life just never came up much in their conversations. Mrs. A, Myra’s, Gil… These were the only local topics he discussed. He mentioned fishing on multiple occasions, but never specific lakes. The only real connection I could pin down was the Donut Galaxy.
So I followed the little voice in my phone through side streets and down the down a busy commercial route that would’ve been right at home in San Diego traffic. At last I pulled the Rogue into a big lot shared by Myra’s and a truck stop. (That had to be good for business!) I still wasn’t comfortable with the Rogue, so I looked for a parking spot far from the crowd of cars near the bakery entrance. The spot I found was almost without any neighboring vehicles. The only other car in that area was a dark blue Kia parked right near an embankment. That was as isolated as I was going to get; so I turned off the Rogue and got out.
But I was only two steps away when I remembered a picture from Emil’s Facebook page: a dark blue Kia with the vanity plate with the Michigan vanity plate CEMWRLD. It was short for Cemetery World, Emil’s most popular series.
I turned back and looked at the Kia. The plate with the backdrop of the Mackinac Bridge left no doubt. I didn’t need the 186,000 miles per second bumper sticker to know that this was Emil’s car.
I was still wondering who to approach and how to approach them as I walked around the front of Myra’s and up to the glass double doors of the entrance. As I approached, I saw a heavily bandaged man in a wheelchair rolling up to the doors. I hastened my step, grabbed the big flat door handle, and pulled it open for him. “Here, let me help,” I said. He thanked me, and he rolled in. A woman in her early thirties followed behind him. She wore a neat gray track suit and battered maroon nurse’s shoes, the kind with the slip-resistant soles. I held the door open for her as well, and she walked in. “Thank you.”
I stepped in behind them, but it was a tight squeeze at first. They had paused in the opening, and the man had stared in the mirror mounted on the right arm rest of his chair. Then he rolled up to the counter, she followed, and I had room to step away from the door.
It was just as Emil had described the place. The room to the east was full of tables and chairs, while this main room was half filled with big bakery display counters. A giant menu hung over the counters with pricing for donuts, muffins, croissants, bagels, donut holes, cakes, and more. The prices… I sighed heavily. I’d forgotten how good the cost-of-living was in Michigan compared to San Diego. The prices had to be forty percent lower than what I usually paid.
But I really wasn’t there for the donuts (not that that would stop me from trying them, of course). I needed information about Emil; and immediately I found some. Along the east wall of the main room was a giant board full of photographs. Some were new, printed on ordinary printer paper. Others were older, traditional snapshots. Some were even faded Polaroids. And some might be older than that. A sign overhead said Fifty years of the best customers in the Galaxy! I realized that these were five decades of photos of Myra’s loyal customers’ but one immediately caught my attention. It’s like they say if you take a hologram of a word and hover it over a page of text, the hologram will “light up” wherever it passes over that word. In a similar way, I came there looking for Emil, and it was Emil’s picture that immediately stood out to me. This was one of the printer paper pictures, though it was inside a protective sleeve. It was Emil and another man, a little younger, standing on what I recognized as the Grand Haven Pier. Each man held up a big lake trout on a line. The other man had to be Emil’s fishing buddy, Gil, on one of their fishing expeditions.
I had come to the right place. Emil was a regular here. People had to know him.
I turned to a heavyset man in an apron who was cleaning the nearest table. “Excuse me, do you know this gentleman?” I pointed at the picture.
“I’m sorry…” He looked up from his cleaning. Then he noticed the picture I was pointing at, and his eyes turned down. “Yes… I’m sorry, were you a relative? Did you want the picture for a memento?”
“A relative?” My heart sank. “You mean he’s…”
“You did not know? I assumed… It was a horrible fishing accident just this week.”
“Fishing… Emil’s dead?”
Then his eyes grew wide. “Emil? I’m sorry, I thought you meant Gil. Gil Epperson. The other man in the picture.”
The man’s eyes lowered, and he nodded. “Yes, that’s our tragedy this week. I’m sorry, I just assumed that since you were so broken up…”
I understood. But that left me with a question. “You don’t suppose Emil was in the accident, too?”
“No, Gil’s wife said their family went out to a lake. Emil wasn’t with them. At the end of the day, Gil went back out on the dock for some gear he left behind. He must’ve tripped and hit his head. He was gone by the time she found him.”
I felt… I felt the sort of emotional mix that you can hardly write about. I was sad that Emil’s friend, a man I’d never known, was gone. I was glad that Emil hadn’t been lost, too. I felt guilty at my relief, there in the face of this man’s mourning, just because it hadn’t touched me directly. And at that analytical level that rises up above all of that, I made mental notes: How to write mixed emotions at the wrong death. I would have to use those feelings in a story someday.
As the man resumed work, I turned back to the room, wondering what to do next. I saw a line forming as more customers arrived, including three men wearing the protective pants of firefighters, topped with T-shirts and suspenders. They weren’t covered with soot, so I was pretty sure they hadn’t just come off a fire. Maybe they were working at a fire barn nearby.
Then past them, I noticed the guy in the wheelchair and the woman seated at a handicapped table on the west wall. She was enjoying coffee and a doughnut, but he seemed to be ignoring his own food. He was staring at the mirror on the arm of his wheelchair.
That was when I realized that the mirror was angled. I saw his eye and the bandages around it in the mirror. I was sure he was looking directly at me.
I looked away. I had to be imagining things, right?
But when I glanced back, there was no doubt that the mirror was pointed straight in my direction.
I tried to make a mental joke of it. If you have to have a stalker, a wheelchair stalker is the easiest to escape. But the joke did nothing for my comfort. I had had too many dangerous encounters before, just part of life in a big city. Creepers abound, and it looked like I had found one.
But I didn’t have to make creeping easy for him. I ducked into the dining room next door, looking for the sign for the ladies room. As soon as I saw the door, I made a beeline for it, and I rushed in.
Once inside, I realized my pulse was racing. I had to be imagining things, didn’t I? A random stranger in a wheelchair wasn’t watching me at all, was he?
It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to take any chances. I would wait until I was calm. Then I would get out of the ladies room, out of the Galaxy, and out of the neighborhood.
I took a stall, closed the door, sat down, and started counting to one hundred. My breathing slowed, and soon I was comfortable. My anxiety passed. I would still leave the Galaxy, but I would do it calmly. I’d found out found out nothing, other than about Gil. It was time to move on.
Then the restroom door opened, soft footsteps came in, and someone entered the other stall. When she sat, I saw maroon nurse’s shoes. It was the wheelchair man’s wife.
I got out as fast as decorum allowed. Then when I stepped out into the dining room, I saw the man in the wheelchair with his back to me, staring at me in his mirror once more. I mumbled, “Fuck decorum!” I made double time toward the exit.
When I was almost to the door, the man shouted, “Miss! Wait!” But I wasn’t waiting. I slammed open the door, ran through, and ran as fast as my heels would allow back to the rented Rogue. I got in, cranked it over, blessed Enterprise for doing good maintenance on their cars, and slammed out onto the main street, too frantic to even take time to put on my seatbelt.
That was a mistake. At the highway entrance, I turned right and sped away. I almost regained my calm once more… when suddenly the wheel developed a mind of its own, spinning back and forth, taking me across all three lanes of the highway before finally steering me down a steep ditch to the right.
I smashed through a thin line of small trees and into a shallow pond. Without the seatbelt, the exploding airbag was the only thing that kept me from going through the windshield and into the water. I do not recommend this experience!
Carol Scott: Obviously I survived. No ghost journal here. But the doctor is back. I’ll get to the really weird part later.
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Possessed Guild Hall.
No, I’m not really paying attention to the prompts at all, now. The story (stories) have taken on a mind (minds) of their own by now. They’re heading somewhere. With just over half the month remaining, I hope I figure out where soon…