Carpool - Thriller/suspense - First from 'A Gathering of Tales' Collection
I’d lived with Grandmother for as long as I could remember. I didn’t know the full story, I was told it was just better that way.
She was a quiet woman, who enjoyed her soap operas and drama shows and often sat for hours watching them.
She loved company as well. She had all manner of friends who came and sat with her. I got to meet a lot of fun people. There was always someone new.
“A good friend is as important as clean air,” she’d say. “You can always use more.”
I did my best and made sure to follow her advice. I wasn’t as good at making friends as her, but I tried.
We lived in a small house and my childhood was warm and full of love.
When I was old enough, I did my best to repay her kindness.
I went to school and worked hard to get the best of grades. I even managed to get a nice job at a local bank.
It was good money and Grandmother didn’t need to work anymore. She could spend her days in leisure, relaxing in the special basement room I furnished for her while watching her shows on the larger television—it suited her diminishing eyesight.
She had everything I could afford to give her. She’d done well by me and deserved no less.
“I’m heading off to work,” I said, peeking my head into the basement where Grandmother sat in her plush chair. She was watching some gaudy show and had her blanket tugged up to her chest. “I’ll be a little late tonight. There is a meeting and my manager says it’s mandatory. I put some leftovers in your fridge. Make sure you eat. Also, Rose said she’d come by later and I think Ralfe will be with her. If you need anything before I get back, call them and have them bring it over.”
Grandmother remained silent, so enthralled with her show she hadn’t heard me. I couldn’t help but smile. She was always so absentminded.
I jotted down a note instead and went downstairs to tuck it into the blanket on her lap. She paid me no mind, save for a slight down tilt of her chin and a gentle shift of her hand.
“I love you,” I told her and placed a light kiss on her brow. She seemed to smile at that and I left her to her show.
It was dark by the time I finished up my work for the day. I locked the vault and was making my way to the lobby when Gary, another clerk, waved me down.
“You look like shit,” I joked as he jogged up to me. His face was flushed, and he looked like he’d just run a marathon.
“Sorry.” He heaved, his large frame shaking as he sucked in a ragged breath and held his side. “Wanted to catch you before you headed out.”
“Any particular reason why?” I didn’t dislike Gary, but I wasn’t exactly on friendly terms with him.
“New policy,” he said after another inhale of air. “Have to leave in pairs after dark.”
“Yesterday.” Standing straight, Gary huffed out, “Someone was mugged down the block the other night. There has also been a string of murders around town. Management wants to make sure we’re safe.”
“Oh.” I didn’t keep up with the news much and hadn’t heard about any of it. “If that's what they want, my car is out front.”
Gary’s eyes lit up. “You drove? I always take the bus. Cheaper than owning a car.”
“It isn’t my car.” I shrugged. “My Grandmother can’t see well enough to drive anymore, so she lets me use it.” I turned and headed back toward the door. I wasn’t really in the mood to talk to Gary. I was already late getting home. I didn’t like driving at night.
“That’s cool.” He didn’t give up as he trailed behind me. “You, uh, you think you could give me a lift home? The bus won’t run for another hour.”
Of course. I should have known that’s what he wanted.
“Sure, where do you live?” No need to be rude. Grandmother wouldn’t be happy with me if I didn’t help him out. ‘Make friends. Be a good girl.’ I reminded myself.
“Over on Rivergate,” Gary happily replied.
That was about a half hour drive further than my own house. I inwardly groaned.
“Okay,” I said with the best fake smile I could muster. “But I have to stop by my house first. It’s on the way and I have to check on my Grandmother.”
“Can’t you call her?” He shuffled toward my old wagon, his walk more of a waddle with his girth.
“She doesn’t like phones.” I unlocked the doors and started the engine. It purred to life with a soft clunk. I’d have to get it tuned up soon. Grandmother would have a fit if it broke down. “I can never get her to use one.”
“She’s that kind of old lady?” The obnoxious chuckle that came with Gary’s words made me narrow my eyes. I didn’t like it when people said things like that. Grandmother could like and dislike things as she pleased.
“It’s just how Grandmother is.” I waited while he adjusted his seat back and found myself staring at his seatbelt. He didn’t put it on.
I latched my belt into place and shifted the car into gear. We drove in silence for a while before Gary started talking again.
“So, it’s just you and your grandmother?” he asked, looking out his window. His hands twitched in his lap as if he was nervous.
“Yeah.” Not that it was his business. “Been like that for a while.”
“No.” I could hear the disgust in my voice even though I tried to suppress it.
“That’s hard to believe.” I sensed his eyes on me now. I kept my own on the road. “You’re so pretty.”
Many people said I was pretty and I loved the warmth that came with their words. Hearing the same phrase from the man beside me didn’t come with that happiness. It came with a heave and a taste of bile. I was rapidly becoming uncomfortable.
“I have my work to keep me company.” I tried to defuse the tenseness of the conversation by changing the subject. “You said there were some murders around town. What do you know about them?”
Gary seemed to hesitate. He turned his face away from me and shrugged. “Not much. Reporter said it was mostly older folks. Didn’t go into much detail. Just enough to make everyone nervous.”
“Do they have any leads?” I asked as I pulled into my driveway. It was rather long—our house sat on a hill.
“Not that they said.” Gary was looking around now. He seemed to be surveying. I didn’t like it. “You sure do live out of the way.”
“It was a farm once.”
Grandmother had sold most of the land, keeping only the section the house sat on. There were other houses nearby, but ours was surrounded by a small swatch of field making it a bit more reclusive.
“If you don’t mind, could you wait here?” I asked, putting the car in park. “I’ll be right back. I need to run inside for a minute.”
Gary nodded, his eyes unblinking as he stared at me. I hurried out of the car. I wasn’t looking forward to driving with him all the way to his house.
I unlocked the front door and flipped on the mudroom light. As I entered the kitchen, I checked the camera monitor and saw Grandmother resting in her chair. Rose must have left already. It was late.
She looked so peaceful that I hated myself for even thinking about waking her. Instead, I wrote another note and snuck down to her room. I left the paper on the small table by her side and readjusted the blanket, so it covered her better. She always got too cold. The poor woman had never been able to stay warm. I gave her another kiss on the top of her head and slunk out of the room again. I checked the rooms for any problems before heading back outside.
I turned to lock the door but noticed the inside light in my car was on. When I looked, the car was empty. Gary wasn’t in it.
“Gary?” I called out to him, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Maybe he had gotten out to look around. “Gary!” When there was no answer I grew nervous.
I approached my car and looked around the door, trying to see if I could make out any prints that could tell me where he might have gone.
In no time I found some in the loose dirt near the edge of my drive. The grass looked like it had been crushed under a heavy heel.
Why had he gone that way? The only thing nearby was the basement door where Grandmother could air out her room and an old tree with the unsafe remains of a tire swing knotted in its branches.
“Gary!” I yelled for him again. “This isn’t funny! Where are you?” Still no answer. I walked toward the tree to see if he might have gone to look at the swing.
As I passed the side of my house I caught sight of the basement door. It was ajar. Light poured out of the small gap and I could see where someone had pried the lock off.
My heart nearly stopped as I ran for the door. Why? Why would he do this?
I wrenched the door open and stumbled in, only to find Gary standing there, right in front of my grandmother. He was completely rigid, his pudgy face pale in the flickering light of the television.
He looked at me. His eyes wide and full of fear. In his hand was a small purse, my grandmother’s favorite. I saw him swallow and he took a step away from me.
“Gary?” I pulled the door shut behind me. “What are you doing in here Gary?”
He sucked in a gulp of air and took several more steps away, his feet moving frantically as he tried to put as much distance between us as he could. He took a step too far and fell into Rose’s favorite chair.
There was a loud crunch and I sighed. Gary was far too large of a man. I’d have to put Rose back together again. She’d always had poor joints. They never stayed in their sockets.
“Oh, Gary.” I shook my head as he threw himself out of Rose’s lap and headlong into Vincent’s chair. He pulled the sheet off Vincent whose head fell off again. Perhaps I should have used more glue. “That isn’t how you make friends.”
I’ve never heard a man scream so loud in my life. He bolted, tripping over Ralfe as he went and crashing his head against the stone hearth behind Grandmother.
So much for helping a friend out. I readjusted the others, so they were back in their favored positions. Vincent’s head was completely unglued so I put it into his lap. Grandmother would be upset that her boyfriend had lost it again, so I would have to be sure to fix it before we had breakfast.
After I tidied up, I turned to regard Gary. What to do with him?
Grandmother would be angry with me if I was rude to a guest. While his attitude had been rather vulgar, he was still company.
I leaned down and patted his head as he opened bleary eyes. “It’s okay, Gary. Grandmother likes to make new friends.” With that I slammed his head on the hearth again and again.
Next, I pulled up the old couch from the wall and sat it beside Grandmother’s chair. I rolled and struggled with the much larger man until he was lounging lazily beside Grandmother.
“There.” I turned to Grandmother, whose empty eye sockets were locked on the television. “I brought a new friend home.” I kissed the top of her beautiful skull once more and smiled. She was such a good woman. I don’t know what I would ever do without her.