Shadows--Previously Unpublished Short Story By Steven Belanger
Wednesday, February 02, 2011
Not rated by the Author.
Previously unpublished: A man recounts the story of Sheila Cashman, who disappeared with her family (and a few guests) one night. Narration is best described as Alice meets Twilight Zone. More speculative/time warp than sci-fi.
Steven E. Belanger
Raymond Goodfellow sat at the horseshoe-shaped bar at Cleopatra’s Needle, his trenchcoat draped over the barstool, his brown leather briefcase against the bar on the footrest. He’d finished his trip to his publisher and needed a drink very badly. He’d just called his wife to check out of the hotel, get a cab and pick him up, when Eric Baderman, former high school friend and current member of the NYPD, sat on the stool beside him and said hello. They shook hands. Smiled.
Seeing him jarred some high school memories for Raymond, not all of them pleasant. After Eric ordered them each a drink—bourbon on ice for Eric, a Grey Goose martini for Ray—and after they quickly got past the pleasantries—What do you do now? Wow, it’s been a long time!—each asked about past friends they might’ve had in common, as people will when they run into each other and then run out of things to say. Still melancholy, and maybe a bit sick and overtired, Raymond felt a huge release when Eric asked him about Sheila, and immediately he decided to unload his guilt about it.
Whatever happened to Sheila Cashman? You know, I don’t get asked that as often as I’d thought I would. I was the last one to go out with her, after all. Well, since I just got my martini and I’m waiting for my wife, I’ll tell you. I should’ve gone to one of you guys at the time anyway.
And it’s nice that you’re also someone I know. Gave you your nickname the same day I knocked you on your ass. Schmedley, remember? I hit you so hard and fast after you caught that football, you didn’t even have time to fumble it. Catch—boom! Gave you a bloody nose, in case you don’t remember. ’course, I know you can return the favor now, and shoot me on top of it, but that was one of the best sports moments of my life, when we were fourteen.
I’m sorry? I was freaked out, that’s why. Yeah, I know—I should’ve gone anyway. I know. No one would’ve believed me, though. In fact, you’re not going to believe me now. You’ll think it’s the drink—or the fact that I’ve got a sinus infection and haven’t slept in a couple of days. But I don’t even care. I’m getting it out and I’m going back to Rhode Island with my wife. I’m going to kiss her all the way back, and then when I see the kids in the morning, and I’ve had some coffee and ibuprofen, I’m going to kiss them, too. Because I shouldn’t be sitting on this stool, maybe drinking too much and finally telling someone about this. I should’ve disappeared with everyone else.
So—Whatever happened to Sheila Cashman? I last got asked that at our twentieth reunion—Jimmy Sheckard, remember him? No? Well, I just shrugged and walked away, using my empty champagne glass as an excuse. Public’s got a short memory, right? Sheila Cashman disappeared twenty years ago, and you’re one of maybe ten people to ask me about her.
The last time I saw her—and her mother, and a few other people—was on her mother’s birthday, April first. Appropriate, if you knew her mother. I was seventeen. Just got my first job, delivering pizzas. Sheila and her mother live on The Hill and I live in Oakland Beach at the time, okay? Her front door was the size of Godzilla and until that time I’d driven a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass, with a 350 Rocket engine and so much rust that my foot went through the floor next to the brake, like Fred Flintstone. Just that week I’d bought a 1985 Dodge Shadow, with over a hundred grand on the meter, because of all that rust. Never would’ve passed inspection. And just that same week Sheila had wrecked her BMW, so her parents paid the fine and got her another one.
Yeah, I don’t know what she saw in me, either. You laugh, but I was insecure and nervous as hell about it. We’d already broken up a few times over it—and I knew that I was done if I screwed up one more time. That party at her house was my last shot to impress.
At first, there was sensory overload. Ice cubes clattered in shiny teardrop glasses. Sparkling chandeliers, flickering candles everywhere, glittering jewelry—all of it, really intimidating. Strong wisps of perfume, cologne and hairspray—this is the 80s, right?—brilliant teeth and polished shoes and bald heads. It gave me a killer headache, all that shiny perfection. And the pressure. And I knew walking in that I was forgetting something really important.
I remember now that there were these five men perched on the lips of these two monstrous sofas. Two others somehow balanced on the curved, polished wooden ends, talking and waving their arms around as if they didn’t have a glass of champagne or wine or martini in their hands. None of it sloshed or spilled, of course. Everyone wore suits and this well-bred aura of importance. These guys were arguing at the talking heads on the huge TV that leered at us from its built-in crevice high on the wall. CNN was on, I think.
Now that I think about it, one of them—a short, balding man—said something and the others just talked over him.
I was trying to hide in the corner of the room, just watching everyone and hoping to God I could talk with Sheila a little, give her my present for her mother, and get the hell out of there before I screwed up too badly.
But her mother saw me first. From the middle of the room, talking to some guy, saying my name loudly and waving so the below-arm flab swung and her bracelets crashed together. Claudia was this annoying but tanned and attractive woman in her mid-forties—remember, I’m seventeen at the time—and she wore this ever-present scowl and a real pearl necklace that nestled between her long, curly black hair and her considerable cleavage. The necklace and cleavage bobbed whenever she laughed—which was often. Ha-snort! Ha-snort!
Maybe it’s funny now, but at the time I wasn’t laughing. I’m suffocating under the weight of all these murmurs and whispers that the room just seemed to soak up and wring upon me. So many voices, so many murmurs. And no one’s saying anything.
Except Claudia, who’s talking to me about all the money she has.
“So my husband became a commodities trader at just the right time! You just wouldn’t believe it! It’s been a recession for everyone else, but in this house—”
“It’s been incredible,” I politely agreed. “Congratulations.”
“Congratulations nothing!” she screamed at me, her champagne swishing in a small wave over her glass. “It’s sixty, seventy hours a week. It’s nights and weekends. It’s going to the right school, knowing the right people, getting the right job, the right training—”
Sheila Cashman glided effortlessly through the room towards me, between the moving bodies, the jutting elbows, over the reflecting shoes and glittery heels. People innately made way for her, even if they didn’t see her. Nothing was ever a problem for her, you know? She just glided through life. I always liked that about her, but it was really intimidating, too, know what I mean? That day she’d worn this lush, red dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap. Sparkling white diamonds on her earrings, glistening stones on her bracelets, her necklace. Thick black hair and wide, feline brown eyes. She usually smiled this naturally bright, pretty smile, but this time, while walking over to us, her thick red lips were pressed together into a tight grimace.
But her mother was still talking to me.
“—and so Jason is with the brokerage firm, and Sheila—oh, hello, baby sunshine!—and Sheila’s father is now senior partner with Russell, Cashman and Locke. And of course you know that Sheila here will soon—”
“I deliver pizzas on weekends and write stories that get form-letter rejections,” I stammered, my forehead throbbing like you wouldn’t believe. “Would you excuse me, please?”
I took two stutter-steps, then three larger ones—now the suited guys were barking at the short, pudgy one—and a hand entwined my arm and turned me around.
“You ever notice it’s the short, pudgy guy who always gets it?” I gasped, light-headed and slightly panicked. “Maybe Darwin was right.”
Her hand remained clasped on my arm, her lips a thin red line. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Raymond. But you were just rude to my mother back there.”
I tried to concentrate, but I noticed with continuing unease that hers was the only hair in the room not glittery with gel or mousse, smelling with hairspray, or receding and combed over. I considered telling her, that she was maybe the only one in the house lacking in artifice, but I knew she would think I was neurotic.
And that’s when I noticed it happening. Everyone seemed to me like a ghost, as thin and transparent as their conversation. They whispered and murmured until they started—very, very slightly—to disappear. I swear to God, one of the guys being pompous to the short guy on the couch—I could see right through him. And I knew—I just knew—that everybody would get fainter and fainter until they faded away completely, and all that would remain of them would be their lingering whispers.
I snapped out of it when Claudia called for Sheila across the room. She turned towards her voice, then focused on me again. She mustn’t have liked what she saw: small anger lines dug into her cheeks like scars. When she finally spoke, it was through lips so thin and tight that they didn’t part when the words came. It was bizarre, like she was in a badly-dubbed film, and her voice-over continued long after she stopped talking.
She’d started to fade.
“I’m sorry, Ray,” she said. “I’m just really tired of this. Raymond, you just make me tired, you really do. I don’t think we fit well together. Go home—we’re through.”
On his slow march to the front door, trying to clear his head of a large hit of unreality and unease, Raymond Goodfellow whisked two flutes of champagne from the circular tray of a passing waiter. He drank the first one immediately and placed it back on the tray before the waiter could move. The other he drank in three gulps and placed on a large, oak bookshelf.
At the door, he glanced back like Lot’s wife at the multitude. He heard a lot of clattering, a lot of sparkle, a lot of incessant chatter. One Voice that got louder and louder until it was like the humming of a swarm, no one bee discernible from the next. Raymond, still light-headed, again had the convincing notion that they would soon fade away, leaving behind only a lingering whisper.
He opened the heavy white door. The fall’s wind flushed over him, dispelling the light-headedness as he stood upon the top step and closed the door. The murmurs silenced immediately. No sound at all escaped, not even whispers.
Confused, he looked at the outside of the white door. Two lion heads, fanning manes, two pairs of furious eyes—eyebrows down, eyes wide. Long snouts and angry snarls.
As he watched, the snarls widened into roars. Their faces moved slightly to the left as they roared, but they made no sound.
He stepped back, almost falling onto the walkway. Light laughter seeped from within the house, or he thought it did. Raymond stood there, staring at the door, thinking, I want to put my ear to the wood.
But before he could, a tall, blonde woman, wearing a long, shimmering white dress, her hair well-sprayed and swirled atop her head, walked slowly around the corner of the house to a dark-blue Mercedes Benz sitting proudly in the crescent driveway.
Raymond shook his head. Inhaled and exhaled. Sounds came back: birds chirping, cars passing on the side street, a horn from far away. He felt like those noises had just escaped from a vacuum. But they’d been there the whole time, since I left the house, right? Then why hadn’t I heard them?
Exhausted and defeated, thinking he was going crazy, he walked to his car, hands thrust in the pockets of his cream-colored Dockers, head down. Thinking, on the way: I deliver pizza on weekends. I deliver pizza on weekends! What the hell was I think—?
It wasn’t there. His car was gone.
Raymond stopped on the finely-manicured lawn, mouth agape. Now what? I parked it right there, right behind a grey Jaguar that is still there.
“Of all the cars here to steal,” he said aloud, “they had to take my Dodge Shadow?”
No alarm, the rational part of his mind told him. Yours was the most likely one without an alarm. Less risk. Car’s good for parts, too. You’re never getting it back.
A car door opened behind him. The blonde.
He quickly approached her, looking into the large bay window of the house. He paused, still glancing in. He saw emptiness; no one at all inside. On the opposite wall to the window, a monstrous, framed Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Nobody passed in front of it.
Raymond Goodfellow felt the compulsion to walk up the steps and open the door, just to make sure. Then: Make sure of what, you idiot? Have you seen anyone leave?
More confused than before, and light-headed again, he blurted to the woman stepping from her car: “Excuse me, ma’am, but have you seen a blue Dodge Shadow around? I parked it right behind that grey Jag—”
She adjusted a black velvet pocketbook draped over her right shoulder, closed the car door, and walked past Raymond to the doorsteps, her heels gritty upon the walkway. She opened the door. A loud murmur, like a buzzing of bees, escaped, then died away. It ceased instantly when the door closed.
Raymond stood beside the woman’s car, staring open-mouthed at the house.
The second round came for the two men. A short, brunette woman sang the blues in the small space afforded the singers and musicians. Eric listened to her and watched the briefcase after Ray excused himself and went to the men’s room. Ray’d been right: Eric didn’t believe him. Despite this, he had become slightly uneasy when the man had not returned in a couple of minutes. But finally he did, apologizing—His wife had called and said she was running late. Too much shopping, just out of the shower. Eric, whose wife bought things like it was her job, said it was no big deal, continue your story.
I am here, Raymond Goodfellow thought, panicked. I am here.
He approached the doorsteps. The lions still roared. I am here. Raymond placed his ear to the cold white wood of the door.
His hand reached out to the doorknob and turned it.
A car braked behind him as if the driver were late—I’d been late.—and he removed his hand from the knob as he faced the street.
A blue 1985 Dodge Shadow.
“Hey!” Raymond shouted, stepping angrily off the doorstep, the night’s weirdness now forgotten. Someone had stolen his car, taken it for a joyride. Cars are stolen every day. In a way, he was relieved. He sprinted down the driveway, past the Mercedes, focusing on the blurry figure he saw through the filmy passenger window. He recognized the Red Sox air freshener and the St. Christopher medal dangling from the rear-view mirror, and he even, for a split second, thought he recognized the driver.
The driver stepped out, closed the door, and walked around the front of the car.
Raymond Goodfellow gaped, transfixed, into his own eyes, his own face. He watched his slightly-faded mirror image ponder Sheila’s new BMW—as he himself had when he’d arrived—and walk onto the driveway, careful to avoid the grass, peering inside the blonde’s Mercedes—the seats, I remember liking the leather seats—before it crossed in front of Raymond, who’d stepped back, instinctively, to let his shadow pass.
That’s what I look like? Do I look that uncomfortable?
His shadow, eyes closed and taking deep breaths, placed one brown loafer, then the other, onto the doorstep; it checked its collar, straightened the red tie, and knocked.
Two thoughts came simultaneously to Raymond Goodfellow: The blonde hadn’t seen me, either; and, They can’t see me anymore. But who’s gone—me, or them?
He climbed the steps and stood beside his shadow, careful to stare straight ahead at the door, not at himself. He noticed with building unease that he was literally beside himself, the thought of which almost caused him to break into hysterical giggle.
His twin knocked again. The door opened. A tall, handsome black man with a thin face and bright, shiny eyes—the same man who’d held the tray from which Raymond had taken two flutes of champagne—ushered his shadow inside.
Ray entered with it.
Claudia called his name again and approached his doppelganger with forced smile and open arms. “Oh, Raymond, darling, how nice of you to come!”
“Happy birthday, Mrs. Cashman,” it said. “I hope you like Twin Oaks.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, with what Raymond now realized was feigned ignorance—Sheila had told her what she was getting from him. His twin stammered some apology.
That’s right. I’d forgotten the Twin Oaks gift certificate. I’d come to her party empty-handed.Sheila couldn’t have been pleased about that, either.
He heard himself saying to her that he’d go back home and get it.
“Nonsense, Raymond,” she’d replied with a dismissive wave. “You just stay here and enjoy yourself.” She slinked over to the waiter. “Oh, Ricardo, you do get more handsome every time I see you!”
“Yes, Mrs. Cashman,” replied Ricardo. Raymond remembered that Ricardo was really Charles Johnson, from Puerto Rico. His family was still there. A few weeks ago, Raymond had been waiting for Sheila to come downstairs and Charles had been setting the dinner table. Raymond had, in a moment of sustained bravery, looked around, saw no one nearby, and asked if Ricardo was his real name.
His shadow apologized again to her as Sheila approached, but Claudia shooed it with her right hand and walked away with her daughter. The real Raymond followed them.
“Sheila, really,” her mother said, the put-on happiness gone. “He’s such a drip. A writer. And perhaps later an English teacher—for God’s sake, Sheila. How utterly boring. How utterly poor.”
“Yes, mother,” Sheila replied.
All that time. I’d tried so hard.
Raymond left them there and walked past the men arguing in front of the built-in television, past the polished domes and shoes and smiles, to the front door. He thought with total conviction that he would not be able to open it.
But he did.
The lions snarled upon the open door.
He closed it.
Once again, the idea that everyone would fade out of existence—that only their whispers would remain within those walls—was as strong as the fall wind buffeting his face.
He wanted to leave. Fast.
But his car was gone again.
Within a few moments, the tall blonde woman reappeared from the corner of the house and went to her car. Again she withdrew her pocketbook, opened the front door—a slight buzzing emanated within—and re-entered the house. He did not speak to her.
Ray stood at the trimmed edge of the grass, beside the street, hands clasped before him, waiting. In a few minutes he heard, but did not see, a car stopping in front of him. Another Raymond emerged from a slowly materializing, blue 1985 Dodge Shadow. By the time the shadow shut the door, the car was fully there. This twin also pondered Sheila’s BMW, looked in the Mercedes, and knocked on the front door. Raymond thought he saw a figure standing on the doorstep beside this second one—That would be me, when I stood next to the first shadow, before I re-entered the house—shimmering beside him like summer heat over a scorching road.
The second shadow knocked again and soon Charles let them in.
Raymond turned back to his car.
Time to go.
He fished in his pockets for his keys. Gone. And, though he could see everything inside the car through the window—including the gift certificate—he could not see his own reflection in it.
I’m just a ripple in the wind. A wave of air, like the figure next to the shadow just now on the doorstep.
He rested his head against the cool, slightly damp roof of his car, riding out the panic and hysteria that washed through him in icy sheets. When they subsided a little, he lifted his head and looked at the house. It seemed lifeless. No sound came from within its walls. Nobody singing “Happy Birthday” to Mrs. Cashman. No television. No talking. Nothing.
Don’t go back in there, that calm, rational voice told him. You might not be able to get out again.
He knew it was true . Raymond sat against the right front tire of his car, facing the house, and waited out his shadows. The air was crisp and cool, flavored with the smells of fall: dry leaves, chimney-smoke. He breathed it in and relished the feel of it in his sinuses.
It’s good to be out here and not in there. It’s good to be.
He had a few Zen moments, sitting there beside his car. He didn’t try to explain what was happening. He was happy with what he knew: time seemed to be hiccupping and slowing down outside and bleaching those away inside. In a dark recess of his mind, he thought of the vanished community of Roanoke, and of the missing regiments in the Civil War and in World War I. He’d heard of those somewhere. Fact is, he thought, people vanished all the time. Milk cartons were a daily testament to that. In this particular case, maybe one houseful of people instead of a town; a dozen rather than a regiment. It was messed up and inexplicable, but there it was. Simple, really: People were disappearing inside. Therefore it was better to be outside. He understood that it was very possible that he was disassociating and maybe having some sort of breakdown. If so, he was willing to ride it out. Sooner or later, his shadows would come back to his car, where he would be waiting for them. The shadowy business was messed up as well, but Raymond Goodfellow was blessed in that he did not try to explain the inexplicable.
The first shadow opened the front door and exited the house. He observed the doorknockers as Raymond had, was startled, and headed for the driveway when the blonde woman appeared. From Raymond’s angle, seated at the foot of the right tire, he could see around the corner of the house and should have seen her coming. He hadn’t. She wasn’t there, then suddenly she was.
So she’s a shadow, too.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he heard his shadow say to her.
She’s a ripple, he realized as the woman stepped into the house. Like a memory, someone you see on the street who you’d forgotten you knew.
The sound of an approaching car behind him. It parked. A door opened and closed. The shadow watched someone Raymond could not see.
The original shadow I’d seen when I first left the house, he realized. And, It’s ending. I guess good things do come to those who wait.
The shadow and its unseen guest entered the house. He waited.
The night was growing late. Eric’s wife had already called, asking where he was. A white lie: He’d apologized for getting caught up in the Sox/Yanks game, he’d be right home. Raymond’s wife had called again: she’d been on her cell with their kids and the babysitter for about half an hour. Their daughter had a fever approaching a hundred and their son had acted up. She was leaving now.
But what was really bothering Eric was the illogical feeling that he had never known this man, high school or otherwise. Schmedley? Had he ever been called that? And why hadn’t he remembered Raymond right away when he had remembered Sheila Cashman?
Because people disappear all the time, he thought as he listened to Raymond end the latest part of his story. Those we’d known disappear through the sinkholes of our pasts.I’d forgotten Raymond Goodfellow so thoroughly that he had no longer existed in my mind, even as a memory. He’d disappeared.
And as a six-year member of the NYPD, he certainly didn’t need to be reminded about missing people. A disturbingly large percentage of people who disappear alone are never seen again. By anybody.
They fall through a sinkhole in the universe. A young girl, blonde, 22, sometime informant, local addict and possible prostitute, had been gone for over two years. She was certainly not alive; he knew they’d be lucky if they even found her body. He’d heard of dozens of cases like hers over the years. People just…disappear.
This Earth is a stationary Mary Celeste; sooner or later, we all disappear from it.
“I don’t want you to think of me as a coward,” continued Raymond Goodfellow. “I didn’t go to the police right after, but I did sit there in my car for a few minutes. I wanted to drive away, fast. But I didn’t. In the end, I tried to save them. I went back.”
He stepped out of his car and again sat with his back against the front right tire. The blonde woman, her hair a hanging mess over her face, clumped in tangled, vine-like strands and knots, opened the backyard gate and emerged with Charles Johnson, the exotic waiter, the white of his uniform smeared with dirt and grass stains. They rounded the corner of the house slowly, cautiously, careful not to touch the brick and stone, then ran for her Mercedes, passing a few feet in front of Ray.
She inserted her key in the lock and yelped when the door opened. The woman threw her pocketbook in the back and unlocked the door for Charles—Ricardo, thought Raymond, watching them—and reversed out of the driveway before he’d fully closed the door. The car fishtailed in the middle of the street and sped away.
He’d been a shadow, too. But he got out. Good for him. And for her, too.
Raymond’s shadow returned from the house within a few moments. It walked to the car, standing just to his right. Peered inside. No keys. No reflection. It rested its head against the car’s roof, just as Raymond had, then walked around the front of the car, came back, stopped in front of him, and sat, lowering himself onto him.
Raymond heard and saw nothing after the butt of his shadow’s cream-colored Dockers filled his vision. A slight tickle of the stomach; a sudden sense of completeness, heaviness. Fullness. Sight and sound returned instantaneously, together, like it does to a swimmer who’d been underwater a long time.
Soon the next shadow appeared. Everything repeated: getting in the car, coming out, sitting on him, fullness. Still, for some time, Raymond waited. No other Dodge Shadows appeared. No other Ray-shadows—or party-goers—escaped from the house.
Ray stood, slowly, and balanced himself against the car. A dizzy spell came as he played with his keys, finally inserting the correct one into the lock. The door opened. On the passenger seat, beneath some fast-food wrappers and paystubs, laid a slim white envelope with an icon of large twin trees embossed in the center: Twin Oaks.
He snatched the envelope and ran to the door. Knocked twice. The lions roared, again silently, though this time Ray thought it may have been more like a scream. The eyes, angry before, now seemed to plead.
No one’s gonna answer. They’re already all gone. They’re—
“Ah, Raymond!” Sheila’s mother exclaimed, slightly intoxicated. “We were wondering where you’d gone off to. It seemed like you just disappeared!”
This last unnerved him, adding to the terror he felt when he realized that her voice should’ve been loud, and wasn’t.
But it is to her. She’s fading. I had to read her lips.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, handing her the envelope with as much normality as he could muster. “I went home to get your present.”
When she responded, “Why, thank you, Raymond!” her voice did not make any sound at all.
“Yeah, no problem. Listen, Mrs. Cashman, did…I mean, have you…Didn’t you have snarling doorknockers?”
“I’m sorry?” she mouthed. “I didn’t hear you.”
Because you’re fading. Or maybe I am. Maybe we both are.
The background noise in the house—the chatter, the television, everything—all faint whispers.
“The doorknockers!” he screamed. “You had snarling doorknockers before and now they’re roaring!”
“Why, Raymond,” she whispered, stepping out. “Are you all right? What are you talking about? Of course they’re snarling. They’re always snarling.”
Claudia withdrew to the house and Raymond knew he’d lost his chance.
She left the door ajar as she stepped back and spoke to one of the men who had argued with the short, bald guy. “Richard Taylor! My God, where’ve you been? I’ve been looking all over for you!”
His response was inaudible. Raymond thought he looked grainy, like a badly-preserved film. The entire room, in fact, looked like a scene in a cheaply financed documentary.
“What do you mean?” she mimed back to him. “It’s been a long time. Where’s Ricardo been?”
They can hear each other fine. I can’t step inside this house.
Claudia took two more sips of her champagne. “Well, don’t just stand there, Raymond. Come in so I can shut the door.”
“No, ma’am, thank you,” he said, his hands palm-up, in a warding-off gesture. “I’m not feeling that well and I really have to get going. But before I go…Could you just step out here again for one minute? The doorknockers, they’re very interesting. If you—if you look at them from this angle, from right here, I think you’ll agree with me that—”
And he grabbed her right arm and tried to pull her outside.
“Raymond!” she shouted, a whisper, as she pulled away. “What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?”
From behind her, he saw Richard Taylor, standing alone, talking on his cell. Just the barest outline of his body remained, and even that was fading fast. A man disappeared in front of a wet bar. A woman in front of the large television. Later, Raymond guessed that there had been eight people in the house by the time he’d left, Sheila and her mother among them.
“Mrs. Cashman,” Ray said, taking another step away from the door, “please listen to me. I’m trying to help you to understand that—”
“Help me?” shrieked/whispered Sheila’s mother. “How dare you! How can you possibly help me? It’s no wonder my daughter broke up with you. Good night, Raymond.”
The door slammed.
The lions’ ear-shattering roar backed Raymond completely off the doorstep and onto the walkway. He ran to his car.
The engine of his 1985 Dodge Shadow started effortlessly and he drove away with “White Rabbit” on the radio, Grace Slick singing about keeping your head amidst the loss of logic and proportion. A news report about a missing girl followed the song.
“I tried to save them,” Raymond Goodfellow said, twirling the glass and finishing the last of his second martini in one gulp. Eric had finished his second bourbon and listened to the man with an eye on the clock.
“And I called her a few times that night,” Raymond finished. “Both times the ringing stopped like someone picked up the phone and didn’t say anything. I thought of Munch’s silent scream both times, and all the times I called after. Maybe twelve more in all. Each time I imagined Sheila on the other end, screaming, mouth open wide, silent.
“And, of course, none of them were ever seen again.”
They shook hands and said they’d keep in touch. Neither had a Facebook account, or some such, and that’s just what people say. They exchanged numbers.
But a few weeks later, when Eric visited Rhode Island to see his parents, he took the rental for a little detour to Sheila Cashman’s former house. It sat there in its lot, in its suburban neighborhood, as if on guard, its white walls and layered red brick protecting what was within.
He had called first. Many rings, no answer. An hour later he was walking on the manicured grass, past the For Sale sign, towards the front door.
Soon he was standing upon the doorstep, knocking.
The lions snarled.
There was something about them…He didn’t put his ear to the wood. Instead, he put his ear to the thin crack under the middle hinge, and listened.
And he thought, maybe, very faintly, he heard a light, lingering whisper, a scream that hung in the air like a slight trace of good perfume…
He’d called the realtor and soon found himself talking to a sergeant of the Warwick Police Department. He said the house’s previous owners had dropped their kids off with the woman’s parents and had never returned.
“Can you imagine, leaving their kids behind like that?” the sergeant said.
“Nobody just disappears into thin air. Nobody. We’ll find ’em.”