Dr. Lowery never said I’d still be THIS fucked up. I mean c’mon! It’s been nearly six months. She’s gone now and Nell’s almost back with me.
Richard slams the gearshift up in one swift motion so that the red line is positioned on the “P.” The blue Escape rocks to a sudden halt, spraying gravel from beneath it’s tires. Richard can nearly hear the engine scream back in response; Make sure I’m not moving when you place me in ‘Park,’ you dumbass.
“Ah, shut ya’ trap.” Richard responds to himself. Richard looks down and embarrassingly wipes away crumbs from his shirt. He remembers the way his “supposingly dead” wife had always nagged him about his eating problem. No matter how hard he concentrated, he just couldn’t walk away from the dinner table without placing a new stain or leaving a few kernels of corn on the tablecloth. Richard smiles, To hell with you hon! I told you I never liked that damn tablecloth to begin with.
His smile faded as his eyes fell upon a small picture he placed on the dash to cover some annoying light. It was a wallet-sized picture of Nell, courtesy of some local Wal-Mart holiday special. It was the picture that brought him back into the reality of his life. He began thinking about the things that led him to see Dr. Lowery, and ultimately about the reasons the ‘State Folks’ felt it was necessary to take Nell out of his custody for a little while, after his wife disappeared. Richard knew that he was always the type that didn’t care about what others thought about him. He didn’t care until he found out exactly why Nell was taken away. Until he found out exactly what SHE thought of her father.
“I don’t know where she is,” Richard says aloud. “I-I didn’t do anything to h-her.” His voice drops dramatically as he says the last of this under his breath. We all know you’re a MURDERER, a voice yells within his head with a raspy, thorn-coated throat. A tear stings from his eye and drops upon his cheek.
* * *
“Now tell me…” Richard is greeted by the darkened room’s frozen silence caught within one of Dr. Lowery’s infamous overdrawn pauses. “What exactly did you see? What did they… uhhmm… what did her eyes tell you Richard?” Richard is startled at how quickly the answer comes to him, at how quickly his heart drops within his chest. The image of Nell’s eyes is burned into the back of his eyelids. He didn’t even have to think of Lowery’s question-the answer had been with him for six months. Yet, he still had a hard time trying to answer his question in a forward manner.
Usually there is a learning point in each lesson-a process that normally heals. However, as with most psychoanalysis therapy lessons, there usually comes the point where the healing process begins to dig within the untreated wound, causing it to become so infected that not even some of the bitterest tasting pharmaceuticals on today’s market could heal it.
Well look at what we have here. Let’s see if we can drive the man insane! Shall we? Another voice cries out from deep within his subconscious. At this point, Richard becomes aware of the constant thumping and added pressure, which is conflicting with his temples. Th-thump! Th-thump!
Another tear squeezes out from between his squinting eyelids and drops onto the picture of Nell. Richard opened his eyes long enough to watch the tear slide a path down the gloss of the photo and then into his palm. With what little dignity he had, he placed the photo in his breast pocket and looked around to see if perhaps, how many of his neighbors were standing around watching him. He could just imagine Mrs. Crawford on his left side, shaking her head in appall at how ‘weak’ he was presenting himself. As for on the right side-who could forget the curviness of Laura-what’s-her-face? With the thought of her running through his mind, some uninvited guest switched the reels of the movie playing just for him. Instead of lust, he watched helplessly as Laura-what’s-her-face began laughing so hard, that she had bent over due to the cramps that weren’t even close to subsiding. With that final image, Thorn-Throat spoke up again. You know they are all laughing at YOU. Richard rubbed his temples once more and then stepped out of his truck.
* * *
The day’s air was filled with what seemed like suspended drops of dew. It was a rather chilly, typical day folk around western Illinois would have been accustomed to. With a sudden air of familiarity or perhaps a slight pang of déjà vu, Richard stopped upon his stoop. From this position, you can see at least four blocks down the rural gravel road. At the end of those four blocks he notices one of George Mowly’s cows grazing near an ancient, barbed-wire fence. From his porch and perhaps an endless number of porches five miles down the road from him, escape from the Mowly’s farm is never much of an option. There’s always that ‘back-country’ smell in the air. The kind of air only a country born and raised boy or girl can learn to appreciate and later in life savor the memories while passing a semi on the way to a slaughter house within the big city.
Today, there was something else-something which started a sickening pin and needle process at the base of Richard’s neck. Not long after the prickling sensation began, the obligatory goose bumps began to rise in unison with the small, transparent hairs on his neck. They sensed in the wind what Richard had somehow displaced and just as easily dismissed as he stepped through the threshold for the very last time. Mixed in with the hay and the cow shit, was a scent that could have easily been overlooked: Cinnamon and Apples.
* * *
Richard turned the lock bolt until it’s familiar click found it’s way home into the hallowed-out section nestled within the doorframe. For the second time, Richard was stopped within his tracks. On a normal day, he would have absently placed his jacket on the naked hook attached to the door just below the peephole. He would have gone into the living room from there to check his answering machine and turn the television on. Due to one significant change of routine from the past six months, he realized that this day was no longer just an ordinary day.
Instead of the customary vacancy that his brass hook normally had, a small pullover, windbreaker was neatly positioned upon it’s grasp. Richard stared incredulously at this new addition. The windbreaker wasn’t just any windbreaker. He had identified it immediately. It was an Adidas sports pullover. It was solid black except for the two thin, red strips of reflective material sewed around it. As Jane convinced him some time ago, these reflective strips were to warn vehicles of a jogger on the side of the road during those confusing parts of the evening where everyone’s eyes are adjusting to whatever or whomever their headlight beams happen upon.
Richard? You can’t be seriously considering this, can you? Dr. Lowery said in a matter-of-fact tone, interrupting Richard from his previous thread’s of thought. I mean c’mon Rich! There is NO-WAY she can be here. As far as we know, she’s dead.
"I know." Richard vocalized aloud, only to be startled by the returning echo bouncing off of the walls in the foyer.
Dr. Lowery started in on him again. Rich, there’s a reason for everything. You have to remember tha--
"God Damn it!" Richard hissed in a whisper, which were a few decibels higher than the normal levels of whispering he seemed to master years before during study hall. Due to the panicky thoughts running through his head, he barely takes note as his keys crash onto the floor for their final resting-place. "That’s her coat. O’ my God." The pressure behind his temples began to play a tribal song of rage-mainly the percussion section. In return, he raised two fingers to each temple in order to try and relieve his pain. He not only shut his eyes; he SLAMS them closed, squinting maddeningly.
"One, two, three; You can’t see me. Red, yellow, blue; I can’t see you." By chanting this old song when he was younger, he had hoped it would make monsters from beneath his bed disappear. With dread, and without much hope, he opens his eyes again. In startlement, Richard begins to laugh. His laughter seems to be a valid one. It’s the type of laughter that made a statement. "I won!" and "Yippe!" are perhaps a few good examples. However, hidden within it, thread of fear is still woven between the bellowing vibrations. Through tears he glances at the door again to confirm what he saw after opening his eyes for the first time after his childish tune. The windbreaker he saw moments ago was gone. His laughter was misplaced now-lost in mid-bellow as he stood perfectly still for a moment and placing a hand against the door for support. It can’t be, Richard denies. He tilts his head slightly to the left to see if maybe his good ear would pickup yet a different sound than what he had heard. It didn’t. After being married to Jane for nearly six years, he became well accustomed to the sound of a teakettle.
It was cinnamon. Oh m’ God! It was cinnamon and apples I smelled out there.
The laughter fit that was abruptly ended moments ago seemed light years out of his reach now. However, the single thread of fear that was barely present within at the time, definitely was making itself known now. It’s almost as if a rug was woven from that one last dying thread of fear. Just as soon as the last stitch was in place, that rug seemed to wrap itself around Richard’s body-caressing him with the love a boa constrictor would give freely to it’s prey just before it starts to swallow it whole. Just as soon as Richard identified his feelings as terror and a slight case of claustrophobia, he was startled by the kettle’s whistle reaching its highest decibel within the kitchen.
"Welcome home Jane." Richard greeted through his bared teeth. "Welcome home."
* * *
"Rich, I want you to think back to that night. The night that your wife disappeared." Dr. Lowery leaned forward in his chair, clutching a steno pad in his manicured and unnaturally smooth hands. His voice complimented the room in a similar way that the blanket of soft light did when he dimmed the lights for the sessions. Lying down, staring up at the ceiling, Richard halted his previous thread of thoughts to entertain Lowery’s new question.
What happened that night? Is that what he just ask’t me? Richard exhales.
He waits until he takes one more breath before he begins to answer Mr. Manicure’s question. He began by telling him exactly what he had told the Kewanee Sheriff six months before, only this version was a little easier to tell. It had been the ‘nice-n-easy’ version. Benjamin Clarks was the official name of the Kewanne Sheriff (used only during election time). As for all of the locals, they all knew him as the loveable "Benj" or "Mr. C." He pressed on with the story and was doing quite well-that is until he ran into an emotional roadblock--the part that explained what happened to Nell.
"She came through the back door, Doc. Sh-She was all covered with mud and her clothes were all stickn’ to her body due to that storm that night. Mr. C- I mean-Benjamin Clarks and I both stopped right plum smack in the middle of our conversation over the sight of her. What’s that? Of course I knew she was gone at the time. We were jest gettin ready to go look for her. But Doc?" Richard pauses, wondering inside how to actually continue, or if he should. He runs the tip of his tongue along the edges of his cracked lips. "She was trau-traum-"
"Traumatized?" Dr. Lowery asked in a helpful manner.
"Yes, thank you. She looked as if she was in a coma, only her eyes-"Richard breaks off once more, hiding his face within the bend of his elbow.
"Now tell me," Lowery pauses to allow for thought. The pause lasts nearly a full minute, which Richard could easily verify if he had started counting the clock’s loud ticks coming from his far right. "What exactly did you see? What did they… uhhmm… what did her eyes tell you Richard?"
She knows what happened. Richard gave this notion it’s fair share of thought but then dismissed it as his final answer. The answer he was looking for was already present in his sunken heart. Definitely not the first time since the incident, Richard began watching a film flicker within his mind. He watched as he once again saw a young girl (ironically going by the name of Nell) walk through a back door. Her eyes were blank. She did not even take a notion at the older man wearing khakis and a sheriff’s badge, whom was asking her questions. He noted how she remained silent and stared forward-not at the two men before her-but through them. Time eventually led this movie to where the young girl was being led away by an EMT.
This portion of the film almost always proved to be the hardest on Richard. This girl, Nell, was very traumatized. Not only mentally, but physically as well. She had somehow lost her left shoe, and her leg and foot were recipients of some very nasty cuts. They didn’t look deep enough to need stitches from his viewpoint, however; whatever did happen to her earlier in that day will be remembered years down the road. Every time a teenager or perhaps a middle-aged woman takes her shoes off for the day and traces a finger across noticeably white lines carved into her calf and across her foot. Just as the EMT is ready to lead the little girl away, her eyes fix onto the camera. Like the world’s worst actress does when she can’t help but to break character to stare into the dark, non-responsive lens. Her eyes no longer held that ‘vacancy’ as before. Instead, she had a look to her eyes the caused Richard’s heart to break. He looks up at Lowery once the film’s lamp burned out signaling the end. Through eyes filled with a puddle of tears on the verge of spilling and a throat that seemed to have decided to fill itself up with wet cement at the wrong time, Richard uttered three syllables:
* * *
Just as Richard was on his way to shut off the stove and remove the kettle, the back door opened. Only it wasn’t that it was just opened-it was shoved open from the inside. The impact of the door slamming against the frame of the house sent a chill up Richard’s spine. He heard the sickening, low cracking sound that wood makes right before it gives up and separates in two with a loud CRACK! The glass shattered and sprayed the hallway and the outer concrete steps with small sliver-like knives, waiting to stick their serrated teeth into something soft. The top of the door tore loose from its hinges, making it lay crooked against the house. Staring in disbelief, Richard began to fill with rage. This rage made him unaware that he was clamping down upon his tongue. Fresh blood filled his mouth in a distinctive, salty, thin-layered coat. He spat against the wall and watched as the more salivic part quickly ran a trail of pink downward. He was staring right in the center-where the distinct crimson color of blood was concentrating and no doubt later would clot up, when his mind screamed at him:
THE LAKE. GO TO THE FUCKIN LAKE!
Richard, not one to argue with the urgency in that tone, ran out into the humid evening and into the direction of a small patch of woods that skirted his backyard.
* * *
The lake was fairly secluded and small. The scene was a rather breathtaking one in which the autumn leaves were beginning to turn and give way to the force of gravity. Richard was standing about twenty yards away from the lake’s edge on a small, coal-strung trail, when he realized how terrible the situation had actually turned into. Among the first things he noticed was the jacket from the house near the water’s edge. The next was the tree.
This can’t be happening. The tree looked as it had finally given up on life and had decided to uproot itself. The upper portion was already starting in its slow, decomposing process in the lake. Richard walks over to the jacket to find a new horror.
Holly shit. H-how? Who could have done this? Who-- Richard stops in mid thought to try to force himself to calm his fears. Lying upon the jacket, Jane’s jacket, was a shovel with a rock tied to it. The same shovel that six months earlier, he had tossed into the bottom of the lake. He placed his foot on it, sort of in the manner that someone would use when they would poke a person to see if they are alive, but his foot snapped the water logged handle like a twig.
At that moment, Richard caught a glimpse of something white, moving near the top of the tree in the water. He stood there not being able to make out what it was as it glided closer to him underneath the water’s surface. Richard took a step back from the edge and braced himself for what ended up being the worst vision imaginable. The image he saw-in a way-he must have known it was real. Call it ‘father’s tuition’ or what you will, but what showed upon his face was straight fear. No flavor shots with that one, just straight espresso please! Whatever it was something snapped within Richard’s mind when he saw Nell trapped under the lake’s surface. He watched in horror as Nell pounded against the unseen barrier. Her mouth was screaming inaudible cries for help. He could hear her faintly-and watched as air pockets came to the surface only to spread out under the pane of glass separating her from death and life. Richard could hear her screaming inside his head.
Please. Don’t make me watch her die. G-God don’t make me. Not… Not like this. What kind of fucked up instant replay is this? Nell’s eyes were hemorrhaging during his plead. A few air bubbles rolled across her purplish upper lip, but due to a lack of kicking-or worse yet-any physical response, Richard was led to believe that they weren’t from breathing.
Whatever oxygen was left in her was finding a way out that’s all. Nothing less-nothing more, a no-nonsense voice whispered as a larger bubble appeared from her nostril and exploded, just to prove his point. On the verge of insanity Richard watched as his daughter was released from her prison. He could almost imagine a comical Batman TV series-like balloon flash across the autumn’s paint brushed landscape as Nell’s face broke the surface a few seconds short of being able to physically take another breath. At that moment he saw a maple leaf floating downward in it’s slow, loopity, turn-around lazy decent until it landed upon Nell’s pale, screaming face. ”She was watching me.” Richard cried out loud to the forest that didn’t take notion. My daughter saw me watching her die-watching her drown. She was screaming for me to help-Oh dear Lord. Realization smacked the rage from appearing when he watched the upcoming events play out before him. He stood there next to Jane’s old windbreaker watching the orangish-red Maple leaf slowly trickle down her cheek into the icy waters. He watched this whole transition, and it wasn’t until he saw the small waves that the leaf made against the water’s surface, did he realize that everything that just happened was real.
How could that be? Is it- his thought process was interrupted as Nell’s body began drifting towards a dull light near the tangle of branches of the submerged tree, where she had originally emerged. Enter stage left, and exit stage LEFT. ( Please get your refreshments in the lobby and then enjoy Act 2. )
“Nell-No! Nell!” Richard leaped into the lake. The water’s iciness chilled his body throughout the second water swept into the top of his boots. In no time he was high stepping once the level got towards mid thigh-the whole time he kept his arms outstretched to try to grab Nell before she got further away. Was that a hand I felt grab at my ankles? Every step that he pressed onward made matters worse in two ways: The first was the obvious-the motion caused by his frantic thrashing caused Nell to move that much further out of his reach. The last: What if I die here? The latter popped into his head a lot quicker than what Nell had when she broke the surface of the lake, looking like one of the world’s greatest ‘bobber’ impressionists. At this point-his safety didn’t seem to be much of an issue as he pressed onward. Just as he grabbed Nell’s floating wrist, after missing on the first two grabs, he noticed the light in the brush had moved directly below her body. A slight fascination filled Richard’s mind until he realized a little too late, the horror of the situation. Then, just like when you were a child and you finally got a cookie out of the cabinet and thought it was all yours-and some uncaring parent figure steals it right out of your hands-the light devoured Nell and pulled her within the lake. Left in her place were a small swirl of water and a froth of white bubbles that reminded Richard of his childhood days when he would watch the bath water swirl into a small tornado while it was draining. Richard’s face seemed to be a replica of Nell’s final scream that was frozen for eternity. Don’t you make that face or it will get stuck that way.
The light below him disappeared. To replace it, Jane’s laugh echoed throughout the woods and filled his head. It was so loud that even the lake responded by sending out tiny vibrations along the surface. Below him, a small light was zooming closer. The light took on a more human form this time. Richard saw Jane’s face below him just as a hand caressed around his ankle. He was able to feel a sharp paralyzing heat rise from that ankle and caused his body to act as if it lost all of it’s skeletal support. A creature with Jane’s likeliness and somehow familiar smile grinned up at him. Only this grin showed rows of gleaming, razor-like teeth. At the same time, it pulled Richard underneath the surface.
He had taken in a lung full of lake water, tasting the grainy minerals and the overbearing copper on his taste buds, and never again inhaling oxygen. Only water; and the haunting image of Jane avenging her death as the pressure of water filling his lungs overwhelmed him, and a dark blanket fell over his vision. His final rational thoughts were a mixture of mere warning signs picked up just a little too late. Jane’s coat, cinnamon and apples, and the teakettle. Disownment.
* * *
“So,” a slender state patrol walks up next to Kewanee’s main enforcer, “what do ya’ think happen’ in these woods?”
“Hmmm!” Benjamin exclaimed under his breath. The state patrol, identified by a silver name tag as Steve Howardson, watched intently as this old timer crouched in front of someone’s early gravesite and began to take off a wedding ring from the partial decomposed left ring finger. The rubber glove gave him more problems than he really wanted to mess with, but in the end, the ring came off with nearly no tugging or pulling necessary. A small piece of meat, around the first knuckle bunched under the ring and hung for a moment before falling to the ground, but beyond that he didn’t seem to have much trouble with this action. Benjamin stood erect and held the ring in front of Steve’s eyes for him to examine.
“All the answers you need, I reckon they’d be right here in this ring. D.M. and J.M. Forever.” Benjamin read to him, and then dropped into the evidence bag that Steven was holding open for him. “I was kinda’ expectun that from the get-go, boy. Especially after seeing that shovel ov’ yonder.” Steve looks in the direction Benjamin points to. He sees the shovel and the reason of suspicion. Attached to the shovel was a rope-which in turn was attached to a good-sized rock. The shovel’s handle was broken in two and waterlogged. The rock was situated directly within the center of a pullover jacket.
“Whose jacket Benj?”
Benjamin doesn’t even bother to look at the jacket. His vision is concentrated on his deputy’s search around the lake. “That would be hers a’course.” He pointed down to the pile of bones and rotting meat to give them their proper ownership.
“But how d-“ Steve stopped as he watched Benjamin take slow, long strides towards his deputy whom had stopped dead in his tracks and knelt next to a blackberry bush. He then decided to follow. Hell, as the saying goes: curiosity killed the cat. The three men formed a huddle, looking down at the object Bill Deaverman found. With an understanding, Benjamin shakes his head from side to side and takes a seat on the moist ground.
“And that, Steve,” Benjamin pauses to wipe the back of his hand across his lips. “That belongs to their little girl-Nell.”
“Hold up a sec there, old timer. Did you just say Nell? As in Nell McCoy?” Steve’s recognition of the name causes a sudden terror to begin spinning its web inside his head.
“Benj! You should see this! In this guy pocket is a picture. Some little girl.” Another town cop blurts out, but is just barely heard. Benjamin looks in is direction for a moment but the townie decided to not pursue at this time judging by the look in Benjamin’s eyes. He waved off Benjamin’s attention as a mistake and then watched as he focused his attention back to the huddle just on the other side of the lake.
Benjamin looks back towards the small faded pink shoe tangled in barbwire and then back up at Steve to meet his eyes once again. He doesn’t say a word, as he spits a stream of Redman over his shoulder-careful as not to disturb the evidence-and waits for Steve to continue.
“Benj. We got a call right before this one.” Not sure how to continue for a moment, Steven breaks Benjamin’s glare and stares at the shoe again. “She-Nell--drowned in the bathtub this afternoon around one.”
Benjamin looks around the lake, now understanding what happened six months before. He understood about a murder, a cover-up, and now a dead, four-year-old witness, but not quite laying a finger on today’s events. ‘Not even close to scratching the surface,’ as his old colleagues would have said. He rolls his head back and inhales deeply, thinking to himself: How strange it is to smell cinnamon and apples out here in the woods. He starts walking towards the main road again and kicks a piece of coal out of his way, spraying dust in the process. Strange indeed.
back to the Short Story Page.Scent of Cinnamon, 28 October 2001