Afterwards by Jeff Poole

Listen to this story on the podcast.

They say you can’t go home again, but you can’t get away again, either.

After the divorce Fred Buckley used some of his frequent flyer miles to leave it all behind. It had been an acrimonious affair. He traveled a lot for his job, so he’d piled up enough mileage to travel anywhere on the planet he wanted to go, round trip. He chose the Croatian coast because it was June. That’s when the weather was just turning nice and the Italian tourists hadn’t overrun the place yet. Two days after the divorce was final Fred landed in Dubrovnik, rented a car and took the coastal highway to the Peljesac Peninsula and on to the town of Orebic where he caught the ferry to Korcula. It was a city on an island of the same name with the perfect mix of European mystery, age and modern amenities.

He and Marion had honeymooned in Korcula. They’d spent three days alternating between the bedroom and the restaurants located amongst the small city center’s old ramparts. 

It had been easy to find a room this time of year. People would approach you with offers, and small photo albums containing pictures of the interiors of their establishments. A young woman with hip huggers and heavy eye makeup approached him when he parked along the street near the docks.

“Look, kitchen with bath. You say me how long you stay.” She said holding her photo album aloft.

Fred dickered about the price, more out of habit than concern for finances, and settled on the equivalent of 30 bucks a night. The price would double by August, but he’d be long gone by then. He followed the woman up labyrinthine stairs; the Croatian coast was all about the stairs, until they entered a small courtyard filled with yellow and blue flowers surrounded by tan brick walls. He threw his suitcase into his new quarters, and started wandering around town.

Not much had changed since he’d last been here. It was still bright and beautiful with the same orange and blue colors, water, old brick, and large white cobblestones. The Adriatic was nearby everywhere you went. You could smell the water on the warm air. Boats were plentiful, as were the early tourists, backpackers and young lovers. The lovers depressed him so he went looking for the Café Bar Massimo. It was in one of the old castle towers of the city center. You had to climb a steep narrow ladder before stepping onto an open air platform overlooking the water. You could order a drink, which was hauled up on a manually operated dumbwaiter, and enjoy the best views in the city.

Fred found the Massimo, and since it was only seven in the evening, getting a seat wasn’t difficult. He entered the lower floor and clambered up the ladder, looking up at the wood framed sky as he ascended. He stepped up onto the platform and made his way to a table near the bartender. Everything looked the same. Same young crowd, hell, it even looked like the same bartender, but he knew that couldn’t be the case. He ordered a rum and coke, without the lime, and watched the people wandering the ancient street below.

Men had once stood guard here. Probably the last place you wanted to be back in the day. Now it was exactly where you wanted to be. Unless it brought back memories you no longer enjoyed. 

The waiter delivered his drink, which he slammed down in one gulp. After dropping a Croatian twenty kuna note on the table, Fred gingerly backed down the ladder and made his way to his rented room.

How long would it take them to find him if he meandered purposelessly from destination to destination? He’d exchanged a lot of money before he’d left home. Normally it’s always smart to use ATMs, you get the best exchange rate, but they only allowed you to take out a limited amount, and it wouldn’t be long before his account was locked anyway. Besides, they could trace his location by his withdrawals. He could take the ferries, the buses or walk. There’d be no credit card to trace, and in Croatia it could be weeks before they were able to locate him by his passport. He could wander towns, sleeping in hostels or parks for weeks. 

After returning to his room Fred realized he’d been wearing the same clothes for days. He showered and changed into jeans and his old school sweatshirt then walked down to a convenience store and bought two four-packs of Croatian beer and potato chips.

They’d find his car, and they’d assume he’d boarded the catamaran to Hvar Island, but they wouldn’t be sure. He could have taken the short ferry ride back to Orebic, rented a scooter with cash, and went back towards Dubrovnik. It was the only purpose in life left to him now, seeing how long he could elude the authorities. 

On the way to his room he stopped by the ticket office and bought his ticket for Hvar. Fred knew tickets for the six a.m. departure could go quickly, and he wanted to be one of the first passengers. It was always nice to be early and get a comfortable seat.

He and Marion had spent weeks going up and down this coast. They’d hop onto a ferry and go wherever it took them. If that meant backtracking they didn’t care. She’d been a flirt even then, but he was younger and more certain of himself in those days. But he’d gotten older and as her flirtations became more pronounced he’d become less comfortable and more irritated by it. Marion had seemed unaware of his slow, quiet wrath. She’d become more blatant in her philandering. Marion started coming home later, and then sometimes not at all, saying she’d been with a friend all night. 

When he entered the room he became aware of its furnishings for the first time or rather, the lack of them; a chair, a bed, and a small TV. The tiny adjacent ‘kitchen’ had a microwave, and a toaster oven. He didn’t care. He’d just wanted to be near the city center and the departure docks.

He’d come home early to get ready for the office party and there she was, rolling around on the floor with Mel Dyer, his boss. They hadn’t even bothered to get to the bedroom. Mel had seemed embarrassed, but Marion had just laughed while shooing him out the door. “Come back in an hour.” At the party later that night he’d endured his co-workers’ knowing looks as Mel and Marion spent most of the evening talking by the punch bowl. 

Fred drank beer while he watched American reality shows, the only thing broadcast in English, until he dozed off. The sound of the city’s tower bell woke him. Fred showered again, put on the same clothes, and headed towards the dock. It was still dark, and wet and cold enough to be comfortable in the sweatshirt. He’d left his suitcase behind, and was carrying a plastic bag with the potato chips and the few beers he had left.

He relished the idea of having no possessions except the clothes on his back. He felt almost weightless, and carefree. Nothing he did mattered anymore. The end was a foregone conclusion, what little happiness or piece of mind he was searching for would have to be gotten in the next few days or weeks. That was all he had. 

As he made his way towards the departure point, people were starting to fill the streets. Not all for the ferry or the catamaran. Some wanted to get to the fish market before the later morning throngs swarmed the vendors. They wanted first pick of this morning’s catch.

When he came home after the divorce Marion was waiting for him with a suitcase. He said nothing as he walked in the door, and she set the case in front of him with a bored expression on her face. It was time to move on she said. He grabbed Marion’s arm and started dragging her towards the basement. At first she was amused. Marion laughed and she started to struggle, disdainfully at first, then with more urgency as he seemed oblivious to her efforts. As he started to drag her down the stairs she panicked, his emotionless blank stare, and absolute silence finally scaring her into action. Marion fought but it was useless. Fred been a wrestler in high school, a good one. He manhandled her with ease. 

Fred was nearing the dock. The catamaran already had its engines running. People were milling on the wharf waiting for the ticket booth to open. He wandered along the edge of the dock, looking at the brightly colored little boats bobbing on the small morning waves.

Marion fought as he tied her up. When she started scratching at his eyes he rained blows on her until she put her hands down. She screamed that Mel would be arriving soon. That was the only time he smiled. He gagged her, bounded up the stairs and went through the cutlery looking for the knife they used for the Thanksgiving turkey. Making his way back, he tapped the blade against the wall and strolled leisurely down the steps. It took only a few minutes with the knife to make Marion realize what the rest of the night held in store for her. He made certain she was still securely trussed and went back up the stairs to wait for Mel. 

“Sir?” A small boy with an Australian accent awoke him from his reverie. He was standing by the boarding walk. He must have gone into auto pilot.

“You here for the catamaran to Hvar? They’re getting ready to leave.”

Fred shook his head. He’d changed his mind. He tore up his ticket, and walked the half mile to the dock on the other side of the city center.

Marion must have given Mel a key. Fred allowed him to take a few steps into the house, and grabbed him from behind in a choke hold. It had been so easy. When Mel awoke he was momentarily annoyed. What kind of ridiculous game was weak old Freddy trying to play? His eyes registered concern when he realized he was bound securely. Fred watched with a satisfaction he hadn’t felt in years as Mel turned his head and saw what was left of Marion’s face and her terrified expression. Fred knelt down between them and looked into Marion’s frightened eyes. She was still alive, and she’d have a front row seat while Fred “worked” on her lover. He stood back up, leaned over Mel, and smiling down at him said, “Well now, Melvin. Let’s get started.” 

The ferry back to Dubrovnik had just arrived when he reached the dock. People were already forming a line for tickets. Fred stood behind an elderly couple, and made small talk while the line slowly inched forward. After getting his ticket he waited by one of the old walls of the city for the call to board. He could see small, dark forms moving along the bottom of the ancient brick ramparts. Cats.

He remembered now. The city had feral cats living in some of the old alleys. He was like them now—alone, separated from normal civilization, completely removed from his previous life. 

There weren’t many people on this particular crossing. It was an early Sunday morning so the heathens not at church had the ferry to themselves. Once on board, he made his way to the coffee shop and ordered a latte. It cost too much, but he ordered it anyway. He sipped his overpriced beverage while watching Korcula recede into the distance. There was a young couple sitting on a bench, holding each other, giggling and kissing. Fred paused in front of them and smiled. They smiled back. He reached into his back pocket, and pulled out his wallet. Fred looked at the Croatian notes within; purple, yellow, red.

So much more colorful than our U.S. notes. European money has such a festive appearance. 

He closed the wallet, handed it to the puzzled young man, and made his way to the back of the boat.

Later, when questioned by the police, the young man said he could swear he saw the strange man smile before he jumped into the waiting propellers below.

Jeff Poole writes sporadically and has had stories accepted in the anthology Tales of the Undead, The Undead in Pictures, Horror on the Installment Plan, Bards and Sages, The Santa Fe Reporter, Downstate Story, and roughly a dozen other publications. His upcoming story, “Paradise for Purgatory,” will be included in the anthology To Hell With Dante. Since he retired from his job as a cartographer in May of 2014, he plans on being less sporadic and more psuedo prolific in regards to his writing. He’s a member of The Horror Writers Association.

Posted in Stories Tagged with: , ,

What did you think?