by Ward Webb
The whistle howled and white smoke blossomed across people's legs as the train slowed to a halt. Downtown activity was at it's highest and the passengers stepped out of the train and vanished into the river of milling pedestrians.
Edwin spotted them the moment he stepped off the train. Plumes of blue smoke engulfed him from the waist down but he didn't flinch stepping down onto the platform. His eyes were locked on the pair of them snickering and giggling to each other like he didn't even exist at all. They were seated behind the large picture window having lunch and carrying on as if they were the only two people alive. The train station was busy and Edwin was engulfed by the crowd.
Edwin sat his weathered suitcase on the ground by his feet and looked up at the sign above the tracks. “Back home again – God help me,” he said to the old, splintered board reading Edgeboro as it swayed in the sticky summer heat.
Realizing he was standing in the open, he grabbed his bag and ducked off toward the opposite side of the station. He'd spent hours on the tiny train seat and was anxious for a good meal and a night's sleep before he could finalize his plans.
Knowing his hometown like any native should, he shuffled along with his eyes on the ground. He didn't want to be seen. He didn't need to be recognized by any old neighbor who wanted to catch up. Edwin was busy and had things he needed to do. He had to get off the streets.
He walked and walked and then walked a little bit more. He walked until he'd reached the fields that surrounded town before he stopped for a moment. Panting and wiping his brow, he sat the suitcase on the dusty road and struggled to read the sign.
He stared off to his right and down a narrow, hedge-lined lane he'd never noticed before. One eyebrow cocked and Edwin looked up at the swinging wooden sign anchored on a rusting iron archway over the entrance to the rutted path.
“Old Rosa's Home for Weary Travelers,” he spoke to no one but the curious sparrows dancing along behind him in the grass. “Sounds quaint. Looks like it's been here forever but I've never seen it before. That's weird, but it's perfect.”
He hefted his bag once more and turned into the small driveway. Weeds and wildflowers shot out from the edges and threatened to overtake the path. The house was ahead, but choked in vines of kudzu and honeysuckle.
Trees hung low and the rubbery tendrils of a million vines clambered for space along the front of the two-story structure. Flowers of all colors sprung out and dotted the entire lawn. The air danced with life as birds and insects flourished in the lush hidden creases.
“Hello! Anyone in there,” Edwin called as he stepped up onto the shadowy porch. Bees and wasps chased each other like old friends among the rich orange flowers choking the columns of the porch. “Hello? Miss Rosa? You got a weary traveler out here.”
He laughed at his own joke. The sound filled the still, dead, quiet air under all the greenery and sparrows and wrens stopped talking and listened to the strange lyrical sound rippling up to them in the tree tops.
A screeching screen door ended his laugh.
A haggard old woman came stepping slowly out onto the wood porch grunting and huffing to herself. She towed behind closely a motley opossum she kept on a thin, leather leash as a pet. Edwin leaped backwards to make way for the pair. He held his breath as she let the screen door slam behind her and settled herself in a blackened-with-time rocking chair before ever turning her eyes to look at him. “Hmph,” she snorted and turned her attention to the nest of wisteria pulling the north side of the porch into the ground.
“Evening ma'am, I'm Edwin Pool,” he waited for her to acknowledge his name, as anyone in Edgeboro should, but she just sat quiet and still and stared off toward the purple blossoms with a faint smile on her face. So he continued.
“Anyway I'm just in from the train and was looking for a place to stay. I was hopin' maybe you could help me out there. Are you Rosa like it says on the sign?”
“Trouble followin' you boy,” Rosa sniffed at him as she spoke almost as if she was winding him deception. “I don't take to no evil in my house.”
“No ma'am – ain't no trouble following me at all,” Edwin smiled his best smile. “I just need a place to stay for tonight. Then I'll be on my way first thing in the mornin'. I grew up in town and just need a place to stay for tonight.”
“How come you ain't stayin' with your folks if you're from 'round here? Don't lie to me neither. I can smell a lie from a mile away.”
The leashed opossum waddled toward Edwin's shoe and sniffed it cautiously with beaded nose and twitching whiskers. He stepped backward and looked back at Rosa who was watching him and waiting for an explanation.
Edwin grimaced, cleared his throat and replied, “Miss Rosa ...Um, see - I don't have much time and I was kind of hoping to visit my girl. If Ma and Pa find out I'm in town I'll have to explain to them why I'm not up at school and get in heaps of trouble. I just wanted to see my girl that's all. You can understand that, can't you? Haven't you ever been in love?”
She rocked gently in the protesting chair. His questions meant nothing to her. She simply rocked and smiled to herself a knowing smirk. The opossum curled up between her feet in a ball. Patches of its fur were missing, laying bare the speckled flesh that seemed to writhe with parasites. The spindly tail tucked underneath its gaunt belly, it sat and sniffed at Edwin's shoes suspiciously.
Rosa poked it with one toe and it ducked it's pointed face under it's arm and turned into a pulsating ball of vermin. She snorted like a bull and spoke with a stern, determined cadence.
“You don't bring no trouble in my house and I won't tell nobody you're here. You mind your business and I'll mind mine. That's how the rules are here at my place. I like to keep a nice house, and I don't much agree with lying to your folks – but that ain't none of my concern.”
“Thank you Miss Rosa,” Edwin stammered. A satisfied purr echoed from between the chair and Edwin's eyes drifted back down to the nestled opossum.
Rosa's feet were like crackled hooves with yellowed nails jutting through the threadbare socks she wore. She tapped them against the fractured wood floor boards with impatience. “Ain't gonna be no food in here. All you get's a bed and then you get on before breakfast. I ain't made of money. I can't be feedin' every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes a-wanderin' up in here. All you get is the bed. That clear?”
“Yes ma'am. How much is the price just for one night.”
“Price is a dollar and you can leave it by the bed when you leave. You don't and I'll find you one way or t'other and I'll get what's comin' to me. I don't take kindly to folks trying to get over on a simple old woman like me, you hear? Leave the dollar on the table and won't nothin' bad have to happen to you down the road.”
He ignored the threat and picked his bag up from the porch floor and said, “Sounds perfect. Can I see the room now? I'm awful tired. It was a long ride from Charlotte.”
“You can come in but you can't bring no guns in my house,” the old woman said as she creaked and popped up from the chair and stood on her wobbling legs. “You can leave that bag right there by the wall. Won't nobody mess with it. Don't nobody come up here much anymore.”
She nodded toward the suitcase and repeated, “Go on now. Set it down over yonder. Otherwise you can just keep walking on down the road. Suits me fine either way.”
Edwin held his breath and sat the suitcase down with a gulp. The opossum watched as it yawned and stretched at the end of the leather band. “Come on Cartier,” she yanked the rodent off it's tiny feet. “We got company to clean up fer.”
She waddled through the screen door cursing to herself in a throaty mumble.
Edwin didn't know how she knew he had a revolver hidden in there, but she knew. Her eyes watched him behind wrinkled lids as closely as a famished wolverine watched its prey. He nudged the suitcase with his foot without question and left it propped against the wall. He followed the pair in through the front screen door that had tiny red blossoms twinkling up the spine.
That night he sat with his back glued to the head board of the bed. He was far too nervous to sleep. His fingers drummed the mattress and sent tiny feathers of dust dancing into the candlelit room. Even if he'd wanted to sleep it would have been difficult as the sounds of Old Rosa shuffling around the house regardless of the hour gave him the creeps.
She mumbled to herself as she worked throughout the night. Waddling back and forth past his sealed bedroom door, she sniffed the air each time she went by as if checking to ensure he was still in there before continuing on.
Edwin cringed under the moldy linens each time the sniffing sound came through the old, rust-hinged door.
There was no way he could sleep. He just sat silent and waited for the sun to rise. Then he could begin with his plan and put all his worries to rest.
The next morning Edwin had dressed and slipped out before the sun was any more than a pink line on the eastern horizon. Sliding out through the open window and landing on the cool, dewy grass he paused and slipped his shoes on in complete silence. He tip-toed around the front of the house, grabbed his suitcase from the porch and shot off down the driveway at a breathless run.
He'd opted out of paying the old lady for her hospitality and kept the dollar in his pocket instead. Her threats had amused him into violating them completely.
He flailed his suitcase wildly around as he ran down the violet morning road. Ducking into a small clearing in the woods, he caught his breath and began readying himself for the day.
He opened the suitcase with a click and pulled his finest suit out proudly. Burgundy velvet that glistened so magnificently it looked slimy. The coat had long, dramatic tails and the pants fit like skin.
Admiring it with a smug expression on his face, he hung it from a low branch and brushed the wrinkles out. It was the nicest item of clothing he owned and the only other time he'd had to wear it was for his grandmother's funeral a year prior. It reeked of mothballs and innocence.
Dressed like a dandy, Edwin put his traveling clothes in the suitcase and pushed it up against the roots of an old oak tree. “You'll be fine there,” he said to his dingy suitcase as he stepped out of the limbs and into the morning sunlight. The only thing missing was a top hat.
He strolled into town like the richest man in the state. Twirling his pocket watch as he walked, he nodded to people who recognized him and felt pride swell his heart. As they gawked at the lanky spectacle marching into the rising sun, Edwin tapped his forehead where his hat should be and held his nose in the air with pride.
Edwin turned on Maple Street and then again on Magnolia Street and saw his destination facing him from the end of the road. The tiny, white house surrounded by a freshly built fence eyed him as he walked up slowly. He dropped the watch in his vest pocket and stopped smiling.
The street was still quiet and sleepy. Edwin crept up and entered the gate like a ghost. The hinges squeaked as he entered; he hunched his shoulders and grimaced at the sound, but no one heard it.
He slowly stepped up onto the porch and touched the front door knob. It had all lead up to this moment. From the time his roommate had handed him that letter from his mother informing him of Amanda's upcoming wedding, he'd put his plan into effect. She had promised on a moon-kissed jasmine-soaked evening three years earlier that she would wait for him. On bended knee and with tear-filled eyes they sat cradling each other on the banks of Brown's pond and declared that Edwin's education was the key to making a better life for themselves. All she had to do was be faithful and wait patiently.
Everything he'd done in the past three years was for her, and the notice of her wedding was an inky, black thorn in his liver that he wasn't going to stand by and permit. He'd also told her with great assurance that if she ever left him, betrayed him, or (God forbid) cheated on him – he'd kill her, and he meant it.
Edwin turned the door knob and the latch clicked. The door swung open under its own weight and the inside of the house was all darkened and purple, still rubbing its eyes at the coming day. The morning sun had not yet seared the night away and it was dark enough to allow Edwin to slither inside, close the door and vanish into the shadows without alerting Amanda or her new husband Burt.
He stood with his shoulders pressed to the wallpaper and smiled to himself. He would shoot him first, he'd already decided. That way Amanda would be awakened by the noise and have just enough time to realize what was happening before he pulled the trigger a second time. The viciousness made Edwin smile.
For three months it had taken him to save up enough money to purchase the small revolver hidden in the inside of his coat pocket. He felt proud of himself as he whispered through the dining room on the fresh carpeting and turned into the hall. One thing was true of Edwin Gallagher; when he made promises, he kept them.
“She'll see soon enough,” he mouthed the words as he talked himself into readiness. Closing his eyes and standing broad-shouldered in the bedroom door, he took three deep breaths and turned the cold, metal handle with the stealth of a thief.
He saw them both lying there pressed against each other. Her head was slightly cocked and cradled in the crook of his arm. He lay facing the door with his mouth hanging open. Both of them snored softly. Outside the open window, sparrows chirped to themselves with delight and waltzed among the azalea branches.
As Edwin stepped closer to the foot of the bed, his vision only saw Amanda. It had been several months since they had last seen each other and she was even more beautiful than before. He'd never seen her asleep. She embodied grace and simplicity even in her dreams. Her silken, auburn hair cascaded down from the pillow and spilled over Burt's chest.
Burt - who was lying dead still, the sheets balled in his fists, his eyes bulging open, glaring at Edwin with a fury so ravenous it almost leaped out from his glassy brown eyes.
“Who are you,” he growled. “Get the hell out of here! You can't come in here like this!”
Amanda groaned and flipped over onto her other side as Burt sat up against the head board.
He'd waited too late to draw the gun. “Damn,” Edwin snarled at his own poor judgment. He'd meant to have the weapon out before opening the door but the excitement had made him forget and now his first victim was sitting there staring at him with a rage so pure it was turning his face maroon.
Edwin patted his jacket and went to reach for the pistol and blow a hole through Burt, but the comforting, familiar lump was not where it was supposed to be.
He flung open his coat and plunged his hand into the empty pocket where his pistol used to be. Burt swung his legs from the mattress and stood up. Edwin stepped backwards, with one hand stuck in his jacket pocket, toward the hall door. He waved the other in front of him protectively.
“Who the hell do you think you are coming in here like this and why are you wearing clothes like that? Don't just stand there like a fool,” Burt shouted, jabbing his finger at Edwin who's flesh went ashy and cold. “Who are you! Answer me! Amanda, wake up! Call the police honey!”
Amanda sat up in the bed and croaked, “Edwin? What in the world are you doing here? I thought you were away at college. Edwin? Is it really you?”
He turned to face the love of his life and her polished skin, gleaming in the veiled light sifting through the windows hypnotized him. Edwin stopped moving and stood there at the foot of the bed, speechless. There were so many things he wanted to say. So many things he wanted to ask, everything came rushing up at once but nothing came out.
Edwin was still fumbling for words when Burt slid the drawer in the bedside table open with a groan. There was a blur of motion followed by a blast that made the glass in the windows ring.
The gunshot shook the floorboards and the new house trembled with the rugged, clamorous violence. A purplish cloud lingered in the air between the bed and Edwin who toppled over backwards into the hall clutching his chest. His head and shoulders fell into the darkened corridor and his heart bled out on the threshold as Burt rapidly dialed the police. The pistol his father had given him on their wedding night fell from his trembling hands as he struggled to dial the numbers.
Amanda screamed and lunged from the bed. Burt dropped the phone and grabbed her from behind as she clawed out for Edwin. He tried to hold her back from her fallen high school love as she flailed in his arms; boneless and primal.
“Burt what have you done! Oh Edwin! You didn't have to shoot him!” Amanda wailed and tried to tear free from Burt's iron grip. Outside on the sidewalk, people stopped and stared.
Edwin's vision faded and the last thing he saw was the veiled, milky-white face of the woman he loved staring down at him in confusion and horror. Her lips formed words that he would never hear. Edwin's final breath trickled out with a whistle. A tiny bubble popped in the corner of his lips and silence drifted down around him like a blanket.
In small towns, news spreads faster than wildfire, faster than lightning, faster than a team of horses at a dead run – it was instantaneous. Almost before Edwin's body had been removed from the newly built house on Magnolia Street, word of the tragedy had reached Old Rosa by way of the postman.
While the postman ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the excitement of the lover's quarrel, Old Rosa smiled to herself and pet the cold,steely lump under her thigh where Edwin's repossessed pistol rested, “Should have left me a dollar like I said. Folks need to learn to pay their bills. Then things like that wouldn't have to happen. It's called being responsible. Young folks don't have no idea what that means anymore. This ruckus just proves it. I don't feel a bit of blame, naw sir.”
“What Miss Rosa? What are you talking about now? Here I am telling you about a juicy piece of gossip and you're rattling on about being responsible. I don't know about you anymore. You ain't losing your mind are you?”
She laughed like a bag being crumpled and threw her head backwards against the rails of the rocking chair. The awkward smile on the man's face faded to a look of confusion. He stepped backwards off the front porch and jogged away down the path – eager to be away from the cackling, victorious old woman and her pet opossum, Cartier.
Ward Webb is a lifelong writer from Edgecombe County, North Carolina. He grew up surrounded by tobacco and cotton fields and now lives in New York City where he is surrounded by concrete and strangers. Mr. Webb is 39 years old, the author of numerous short stories and the forthcoming novels The Binding and Becoming Bardin. He welcomes new friends at http://www.facebook.com/