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Tom represented what I always wanted in a man. That he exhibited the qualities of kindness and humor and strength might not have been apparent to me at first, but the more time we spent together, the more he revealed himself to be the man I’d dreamt of finding.
Dancing around the topic of marriage, we’d discussed the future, the benefits of moving in together, the possibility of children and a dog.
Then Tom was dead, shot once in the chest and once in the head.
I wasn’t there to witness my world fall apart, wasn’t there to perhaps alter events. What happened was I was in my bedroom changing out of work clothes when my phone rang.
Tom skipped the usual endearments: “What’s your favorite kind of champagne?”
“Chilled.” I kicked my heels into the closet. “Why do you ask?”
“Just in case we find something to celebrate tonight.”
Celebrate? My pulse quickened. So much for the sweats I’d been planning to wear.
Romance casual sounded more appropriate, just in case years from now we reminisced about what I’d been wearing the day he popped the question. “If they’re out of chilled, my second favorite kind is over ice.”
“You drink champagne over ice?” Tom’s voice feigned shock and horror. “Maybe I don’t need to go into the liquor store. After all, I’ve never seen this side of you.”
“Hmm.” I sat on the edge of the bed and wiggled my toes, examining the polish. There probably wasn’t time for a touch up.
“Okay. You’ve convinced me to reconsider reconsidering. I shouldn’t be more than ten minutes late.”
“Eleven and I don’t buzz you in.” Of course Tom could take twenty minutes picking out the champagne and then let himself in. We’d exchanged apartment keys months ago.
“See you soon.”
I smiled as I tossed the phone onto the bed. Continued smiling as I stood and hunted through the closet for something to wear. Hummed as I dressed for him.
The blue silk blouse, unbuttoned low enough to show the medallion that hung around my neck. The slacks Tom never commented on but always seemed to notice.
I examined myself in the full-length mirror.
Straightened out a few wrinkles.
Winked at my reflection.
Thirty-one minutes past the time Tom should have arrived I called him from the kitchen table where I’d been sitting in front of a full glass of water. When Tom didn’t answer, I kept my message short and light.
After all, his battery could have died.
Forty-five minutes past the time Tom should have arrived, I tried again, still sitting at the kitchen table in front of the untouched water.
A stranger answered, “Hello?”
“You’re not Tom.” The stranger’s voice was deeper, for one. I moved my free arm across my chest to hug myself.
“No, I’m not.” He paused. “I found this phone at Boynton Liquors. Do you know how I would reach Tom?”
Boynton Liquors. That’s probably where Tom meant to get the champagne. He used his phone to research champagnes and left the device on a shelf while he examined bottles. “I’d call this number.”
“Are you his wife? Significant other? Family?”
Perhaps because the stranger had never offered his name, I resisted the natural tendency to answer his questions. “Are you still at Boynton Liquors?”
“I am now, but I don’t plan on staying here until Tom returns.” The bass in his voice made him hard to understand, even as focused as I was on our conversation. “If you’re at home, I could drop the phone off.”
“Why don’t you just leave the phone with whoever’s behind the counter, and I’ll let Tom know when I see him.”
“Sounds like a plan.” The stranger disconnected.
I placed my phone on the table. Watched it. Willed it to ring, Tom telling me he’d changed his flat tire, returned to the liquor store where he must have left his phone, and wanted to reassure me that he was fine and hadn’t flown to France for just the right champagne.
But the phone didn’t ring.
I rang Tom’s house and left a quick message, quick so I wouldn’t miss his call.
I placed the phone in the same exact position. For good luck. Not that I needed luck, but it couldn’t hurt.
Tom didn’t call and he didn’t call and he didn’t call.
A knock at the door. Relief turned my tensed muscles to mush. Tom had let himself into the building but knocked at my door, acknowledging he’d made a mistake in not warning me he’d be late.
I turned the knob before realizing I’d left my seat.
“Thom—” Neither of the two people on my threshold was Tom.
The man wore a suit and his hair was cut short. The woman standing slightly behind him wore the uniform of a police officer and hair almost as short.
Why would a police officer be at my door? Perhaps she’d caught this man trying to break into my car, and she’d brought him up here to check his story.
The thwarted car thief spoke with a voice low enough reverberate. “I’m Detective Peter Daniels, and this is Officer Kara Bascomb. Are you Mrs. Farley?”
“We’re not married.”
“May we come in?”
“I … sure.” I stepped aside, closed the door, and then led them down the hall and then the other hall to the living room. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable?”
The two sat on the couch, across from my rocking chair, she appearing slightly more uncomfortable than he. Should we have spoken in the kitchen instead? Just inside the front door?
I perched on the edge of the rocker. “So, what can I do for you?”
Detective Daniels answered, “I’m afraid we have bad news.”
My insides spasmed. No. Don’t let them be here regarding Tom, but who else would bring them to me? “You must have the wrong person.”
“I’m afraid not. Tom Farley is dead. He was shot during a liquor store robbery.” The detective’s voice rolled over me a muted rumble. “I’m the person who answered Tom’s phone when you called earlier. Your entry in his address book gave me your number, which gave me your home address.”
“But … why?”
“Department policy is to break this kind of news in person. I’m sorry for your loss. Do you know how we can get in touch with Tom’s next of kin?”
I shook my head. “To the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t have anybody.” Something we’d had in common.
“Were the two of you close?”
“I think he was going to propose tonight.” I changed the subject to keep from screaming. “How did he die?”
“Tom was leaving Boynton Liquors with a bottle of champagne when a would-be robber entered the store and panicked. Tom was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The temperature in my living room dropped twenty degrees, chilling me to the core. I tried to remember what they’d said. “You said he was shot?”
“Twice.” The detective paused. “Are you sure you want to hear this?”
“While of course this isn’t official, it looks as if the first shot hit Tom in the chest and the second shot hit him in the head, perhaps as his body dropped. My point is: Tom wouldn’t have suffered.”
Tom wouldn’t have suffered if when he called, I told him was that I never much cared for champagne, that the bubbles went flat as soon as they touched my tongue. There’s still wine in the refrigerator. We could have toasted the news with that.
I realized the two sitting on the couch were staring at me. What to say? Forming words felt too much an effort and so I bit my lip.
The detective stepped into the void. “Tom’s call history showed you spoke with him before he entered the store. Did he mention seeing anyone loitering outside or sitting in a parked car?”
I shook my head. “We just talked champagne.”
“The store’s surveillance system is a bit fuzzy on details. Literally. We can tell that Tom was leaving the liquor store when the robber came in, and that’s about all.”
The female officer leaned forward. “Is there someone you’d like to call to be with you?”
“Tom. I want Tom to be with me.” Tom could have come here first, and then we could have picked out a bottle together. Or we could have stayed here and skipped going out. I would drink pickle juice so long as I could drink it with him.
“How long have you known Tom?” Detective Daniels pulled out a small notebook.
“A year.” I heard myself answer as if from another room. “Almost a year. We met on a blind date, so I guess I’ve been seeing him even longer than I’ve really known him.”
The detective documented my answers with a thin silver pen. “And what do you know about him?”
“Other than I love him?” After swallowing several times, I told them everything, describing every nuance, repeating every story from his childhood in Maine to what we’d done last night. I meant to make Tom so real to them that he couldn’t be gone.
As I ran out of breath, the female officer nodded. She, too, must know that he couldn’t be gone. “Did Tom ever mention fearing for his life?”
“I thought there was a robbery….”
The detective grunted. “That’s how it looks, perhaps how it was supposed to look. There are inconsistencies.”
“I find it strange that the shooter fired on Tom rather than simply waiting for him to leave the store.”
“Perhaps the shooter was nervous or strung out on drugs.”
“Perhaps. But here’s the thing. We ran Tom’s prints at the scene.” The detective closed his pad. “He’s not who he told you he was.”
“I don’t understand.”
His eyes measured me. “If you actually told us what Tom told you, everything Tom told you was a lie.”
I gathered all the items Tom had left in my apartment and arranged them on top of my bedspread. These were the only physical reminders I had of him, the only physical reminders I’d ever have of him since Detective Daniels had asked for and taken my key to Tom’s place.
Two shirts, one pair of pants, and assorted underwear. A bathrobe. Slippers. Two books, one of which Tom would now never finish reading. An oversized coffee mug filled with change that Tom pulled from his pockets before undressing. Knickknacks he’d purchased with me; things that tickled his fancy, or at least made me groan at the time.
They weren’t Tom, but they were things Tom had touched, things Tom had brought into my life.
I lifted the glass saltshaker he stole from the restaurant where we met. On each monthly anniversary, he’d shake out a pinch and toss it over his shoulder. For luck. Even though he said we didn’t need luck.
Feeling my stomach boiling up my throat, I ran for the bathroom and vomited into the sink, the process so violent that I thought the bile must be coming from deep within the earth, a core of magma.
How could my body so convulse without tearing itself to pieces? Earthquakes and volcanoes reshaped the planet. How could I emerge from the bathroom any less scarred?
How could Tom never again come through my front door?
I’d throw up and then run the cold water to rinse the evidence down the drain. Again and again until my muscles could no longer hold me erect, never mind plumb the depths of the earth.
I allowed myself to crumble to the cold floor. Let sobs shake me to bits. Pulled myself to my feet and stared at my reflection.
I could do this. I had to do this. And so after I rinsed out my mouth one final time, I forced myself back into the bedroom.
The sight of Tom’s things on my bed stopped me mid-stride, set me trembling.
I made myself continue forward. The detective felt so confident that Tom’s death wasn’t an accident that he voiced his suspicions. He’d probably come here half-suspecting me.
Once upon a time….
I unscrewed the saltshaker lid, tipped the container upside down, and watched the grains of salt fall to the floor and form a pyramid, an hourglass out of control.
It was my job to take control, and so I must, no matter how much I wanted to just curl up under the covers.
I set up a solid wooden folding tray next to my bed and gathered the necessary tools: knife, scissors, hammer.
If Tom wasn’t Tom, who was he?
Nothing had been sewn into any of the clothing. The slippers hadn’t been modified or altered. The knickknacks, unassembled or broken, revealed nothing. Nothing bigger than a microdot hid in the books or their bindings. I dumped the change-filled coffee cup onto the bedspread.
Atop the heap lay two keys. Connected by a ring, the smaller key was stamped MASTER, and the larger key appeared to match those issued by Evergreen Self Storage.
Stopped at the gate, I inserted the key and turned. The left LED changed from red to green. Now for the four-digit code.
After slipping into a pair of flesh-colored gloves, I entered Tom’s birthday. The right LED stayed red.
If what the detective said was true, I probably didn’t even know Tom’s real birthday, but the easiest lie to keep was the one meticulously lived.
I entered my birthday. Red.
Had Tom lied about us? He hid his keys at my apartment so no one would find them at his. Was I nothing more than a blind drop?
Unwilling to believe that, I entered the date of our first date.
The second LED changed from red to green, and the gate slid open. I retrieved Tom’s key and drove forward.
The road led down and then wrapped around Evergreen Self Storage, a large metal building divided by hallways into rows of storage units with overhead doors sealed by a lock you provided.
I coasted to a stop outside the nearest entrance. Shifted into park and killed the engine.
The key that opened the gate also opened the outside doors. Now if only Tom had written the number of his unit on a key tag.
I reached under my seat to retrieve the windbreaker and baseball cap I kept there.
Getting out of the car, I used my body to shield the bundle from the cameras until I entered the nearest door. I donned the baseball cap and slipped into the windbreaker before entering the hall that took me deeper into the building.
Left? Right? Straight?
Most of the units were in use, but most of the padlocks were combination. The first two keyed padlocks I passed were a different brand. But the next one was a Master Lock.
Was anybody monitoring the surveillance cameras covering this section of the hallway?
Tom’s padlock key didn’t fit. I glanced up at the number above the door and acted as though I’d stopped at the wrong unit. And just how many times could I get away with repeating that particular ploy?
I continued down the hallway. Four combinations were followed by another brand and then a padlock that appeared to be made entirely of plastic, perhaps won in a vending machine.
I wasted time, not following a pattern as I searched the labyrinth, but that didn’t seem to matter so much.
A man wearing jeans and a brown sweatshirt entered the hallway from the other end and walked towards me.
If Tom wasn’t Tom then his death might not have been an accident. Perhaps the killer had ransacked Tom’s apartment looking for something and had found a receipt or other evidence of a storage unit.
The man coming towards me appeared right handed, no visible weapons, and nothing obviously concealed. Mid-thirties, large build, 220 pounds. He reached into his right pocket and pulled out a ring of keys.
He looked down at the keys, flipping through them. He stopped at the next storage unit, undid the padlock, pulled the door up with a rattle, and stepped inside.
I knelt as if to tie my sneakers. If he came out of the unit with a gun, his aim would be high, which would buy me a second or two but not much else.
The hall behind me was long enough that he could take his time aiming.
Several seconds passed.
I heard something fall, perhaps break. The man in the unit swore. Then I heard things banged about while he vented, sounding more frustrated than threatening.
Relaxing, I stood and continued the search.
Combination. Combination. Keyed.
Tom’s key turned, and the lock slipped down off the hasp.
The man in the other unit still swore, and I gathered he was trying to move heavy furniture that didn’t want to cooperate, and the reason he had to do so was because of an ex.
After removing the padlock, I slid the door up, the inside light automatically coming on as the door passed the sensor.
Tom’s storage unit was empty except for what declared itself to be a case of photocopy paper.
The cardboard box had been placed in the far left corner.
My neighbor still railed against the tight fit in his own unit.
I closed the door and approached the box, wondering what Tom had felt the need to hide here. While he may have been hiding the contents from others, he had also felt the need to hide them from me, or so I inferred from the fact that he hadn’t picked his access code until we were familiar enough for him to think the day we met significant.
What had Tom been determined I shouldn’t accidentally discover in his apartment?
My hands shook as I lifted the cover.
The box — like the storage unit — contained mostly emptiness.
Just like me, although my emptiness provided a vacuum that welcomed my past.
I lifted the thick manila folder that rested at the bottom of the box.
Tony Fredericks. He’d kept the same initials. He’d gone to grammar school in Iowa, and Miss Taylor had been his favorite high school teacher. His chunk of flyaway hair had never changed.
I closed the folder and took a deep breath.
Tom was Tony. Had been Tony. Had been Tom, for now he was only a memory.
I resumed flipping through what he’d kept, the photographs and documents that traced a life I’d never known he led. At the back of the folder lurked the newspaper clippings.
A reputed crime boss had ordered a competitor killed, and a witness stepped forward to testify. The unnamed witness had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The man who pulled the trigger went to prison. The reputed crime boss, one Stanley Myers, went free. The last clipping dated a year and a half ago contained a story about witnesses who went into hiding, and the man who recently testified against Stanley Myers was mentioned as an example and only by his first name, Tony.
My Tony. My Tom.
I replaced the items in the cardboard box and fitted the cover. And so I laid my lover to rest.
After a moment of silence and a moment for tears, I readied myself to move on. I reversed my coat before leaving and securing the unit.
Then I relocated to mine. Left, right, left again through the maze.
I fingered the medallion that hung around my neck and removed the hidden key. Unlocked my unit, slipped inside, and dropped down the door.
Tom’s unit contained a single cardboard box. Mine contained a single gun cabinet, delivered here by the store.
Images of Tom filled my consciousness. The smell of him. The touch.
I entered the combination to the gun cabinet and swung open the door.
Out came the duffel bag into which went the rest of the contents of the safe: long guns, handguns, ammunition, prepared identities, and laundered cash.
I’d been here two years now. Long enough to have loved and have lost. Long enough that I’d managed to almost forget the life I’d vowed to leave behind. Until they killed Tom.
Now I returned to that life for one final engagement before moving elsewhere with a new identity and without the love of my life.
I hefted the duffel bag and made my way to the car.
Tom represented what I always wanted in a man. He might have invented much of that to meet my expectations, redefining himself after going into hiding, but the man he made himself into was the man I learned to love.
Then he was murdered.
I adjusted for a sudden increase in wind speed. Even a slight increase could cause havoc at a thousand yards. At least the direction remained consistent.
Tom’s keys had unlocked more than his past. Mine, too, opened before me. How hard I’d worked to forget who I’d been, the things I’d done.
How easily the skills had come back. The sighting of the rifle. The researching of possibilities. The creation of a killing ground.
I’d be long gone by the time anyone found my blind in these trees, long gone and someone else.
Someone who locked away a tragic loss.
The target stepped out of his favorite restaurant and into my scope. He exuded confidence, confidence in himself, confidence in the three men there to protect him.
I thought about Tom, the truth we’d created together while living our separate lies, and then I made my mind blank.
Took a deep breath. Exhaled slowly.
Shot Myers twice. Once in the chest. Once in the head.