I have new stuff for you, just not today. I was working furiously this weekend on the Secret Short Story Society Feb and March issues and just ran out of time. Instead, I present an oldie back when I was in an impromptu writing group and was given random prompts.
Items: tin of mints, lamp post
Problems: misunderstanding with a best friend, 3 hour commute on a freeway that has become a parking lot
Events: marathon, polka tournament with the devil
A misunderstanding with my best friend. I’ve only had three misunderstandings with Caroline in the entire time we’ve known each other. Considering I met Caroline when I was two years old and my 30th birthday was nearing, I was sure that was some sort of record.
Unfortunately, the 2nd misunderstanding (strike 2)—catching her in bed with my husband—revoked our BFF status and made other misunderstandings impossible for the last year and a half. Or so I had thought until last night.
Last night’s misunderstanding was the reason I had been sitting on a freeway for an hour. Freeway, my ass. I moved further and faster in mall parking lots the day after Thanksgiving.
It took 3 hours to get from my house to Lakeview on a good day. This was not a good day.
I reached for the cell phone in my purse before once again realizing the offending bag in the passenger seat wasn’t mine. It was what started this mess and the reason I was stuck on a freeway parking lot instead of getting my purse from the Lakeview police station.
Caroline’s Louis Vuitton pocketbook, the exact same one I owned, sat there, reminding me how she and I always had the same tastes in clothes, books, music…men.
The night before I’d let one of my neighbors talk me into a local charity event. Grant didn’t know about my failed marriage, my failed friendship, my failed life before I had moved into my trendy, artsy (read overpriced) neighborhood with the pretentious fake gaslight lampposts.
I moved there because it was different from where I used to live and was two towns over from where my life had come unraveled after my first misunderstanding with Caroline.
No one recognized me. No one remembered Jennifer Gilbert and that suited me just fine.
So Grant didn’t know when we went to the Society for the Advancement of Art’s annual dinner and art auction that another misunderstanding with Caroline would occur.
The evening started well enough. Drinks, hors d’oeurves whose ingredients cost more per ounce than my last month’s grocery bill and art being nodded at and commented on by people who knew about as much about art as I did about Kenya’s gross national product.
I was looking at a sculpture entitled “Polka Tournament with the Devil” and listening to Methuselah’s wet nurse explain what she thought the piece meant. I had to smile since she was speaking to Grant, the man who actually crafted the blackened iron monstrosity. He listened politely and nodded, never coming clean about his original vision.
When the silk wrapped centenarian dripped her diamonds elsewhere, I nudged Grant.
“So what is it all about?” I asked.
“Did you know I used to play the accordion?” He asked in lieu of an answer. The sweetly wicked smile I was beginning to find alarmingly charming played on his lips.
I looked at him, waiting for him to continue.
“My dad played and gave me lessons practically from birth.” He said. “I was actually pretty good—a prodigy according to some.”
I raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
“Yeah, I know.” He grinned. “The words prodigy and accordion don’t really go together. But I was good and in Louisiana, being an amazing accordion player can get you money.”
“And you quit because?” I brought him back to the point, hoping to get to my original question.
“I lost the tournament.” He raised his glass to the sculpture.
The figure of a man was stretched out too far on a makeshift rack. His face was twisted in pain as his back arched, making his torture that much worse. The ribs of the emaciated figure looked all too much like the folds of an accordion.
I was going to pry more but the music from the local jazz band ended and a reedy voice asked patrons to please be seated for the start of the program.
Grant took my arm and led me back to our table. After sitting, I pasted on my most dazzling smile and looked at the other guests seated with us. My eyes froze as I looked across the table to see a very surprised Caroline looking back.
I couldn’t hear any sound other than my pulse in my ears. My vision narrowed until Caroline was all I saw. I wanted nothing more than to grab the steak knife on my setting and stab her repeatedly. Instead, I grabbed my purse and stormed off to the bathroom without a word to Grant.
I dropped my purse near the sink and placed both hands on the cool marble countertop to steady myself. My breathing was ragged and my heartbeat racing. I inhaled and exhaled slowly, focusing on calming myself. When I opened my eyes again, Caroline’s image was reflected in the bathroom mirror. She looked for all the world like a frightened ghost.
Despite my glares, she came towards me and put her hand on my shoulder. I spun around, catching her off guard. She had to lean against the counter to prevent herself from falling.
“Do not speak to me.” My voice was more of a growl than words.
“I just want to explain.” She tried again.
“I said, don’t fucking speak to me!” I screamed, causing the two bathroom onlookers to quickly find new places to be.
Caroline opened her mouth then closed it. She picked up her purse from where she had dropped it on the counter and walked out of the bathroom.
I was near tears when I had enough control to walk out of the bathroom. Grant was waiting by the door but I walked past him without speaking. He said nothing and followed me outside. He gave his ticket to the valet and we waited in silence for the car.
We drove to his house without speaking. Only the radio gave any noise.
Grant pulled into his driveway and, still silent, walked me home.
“Call me if you need anything.” Grant said softly after I had unlocked my front door.
I looked back at him. I heard understanding in his voice and wondered if someone had told him about my first misunderstanding with Caroline. Instead of asking, I walked into my house and shut the door behind me.
It was two hours later when the phone went off that I finally realized there had been yet another misunderstanding. The cell phone that was going off in my purse had an unfamiliar ringtone.
As soon as I opened the purse, I realized the mix-up. My purse wasn’t my purse. Panic set in. I dug in the purse, ignoring the phone and praying I was wrong.
The purse wasn’t mine.
I glanced at the cell, surprised to see my name and an old picture of myself on the screen. I grabbed the phone.
“Hello?” I was half afraid to hear who was on the other end.
“Jennifer? It’s Caroline, don’t hang up.”
“You stole my fucking purse?” I was more furious than I had been when I caught her in bed with Curtis.
“No, Jen, just listen. I think they got mixed up in the bathroom,” she said.
“You did it on purpose.” I growled. “Give it back.”
“I am.” Caroline rushed her words. “Or, I will. I can’t bring it tonight, but if you can meet me for lunch tomorrow we can switch back.”
“I need it tonight, Caroline. You know that.” I noticed my breath was coming out shorter.
“I know, Jen, I know,” Caroline said. “I swear if I could get it to you tonight, I would but I’m already home. The earliest I can get it to you is tomorrow.”
“Tonight, Caroline. I need it tonight.”
I heard a sigh and a metallic rattle. That noise hurt the part of my soul that had never healed after our first misunderstanding.
“Fine, what’s your address?” Caroline's voice was tired.
As soon as I hung up, I started watching the clock. I knew she still lived in Lakeview. She could live there without the memories, unlike me.
Three and a half hours later I was pacing. Caroline should have shown up 20 minutes ago. I waited another 40 minutes before calling.
“Hello?” A male voice answered the phone.
“Umm…hello, I’m looking for Caroline. Caroline Ketle?” I felt stupid and a bit angry for a stranger having access to my cell phone.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, you have the wrong number.” The man said.
“I know my own damn phone number.” I said angrily. “Tell her to get on the fucking phone and talk to me.”
“Ma’am, my name is Officer Louis and I can assure you this is not the phone of a Miss Ketle.”
That gave me pause, but only briefly.
“Officer?” My voice was hesitant. “Did something happen?”
“Ma’am, you have the wrong number and I can’t tell you anything else.” The tone was polite but quickly becoming curt.
“No, no, listen.” I could also hear in that tone the officer was mere seconds from hanging up. “My name is Jennifer Gilbert. Caroline wa…is my friend. We got our purses switched at a party tonight and she was supposed to come over and trade back.”
“Miss Gilbert?” It was the officer’s turn to sound unsure.
“Yes, check the license if you have my purse.” I said. “Jennifer Gilbert, 149 West 19th street. Hell, I can even tell you what’s in the purse if you want me to.”
“Miss Gilbert, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you won’t be getting your purse back tonight.” The officer’s voice was kind. “Your friend, Miss…”
“Ketle, Caroline Ketle.” I supplied.
“Yes, Miss Ketle was involved in a collision. She’s currently being treated.”
The silence hung between us on the buzzing line.
“Miss Gilbert?” The officer asked after a few seconds.
“Ummm…okay.” I said lamely. “Where is she?”
“If you’re not family, I’m afraid I can’t tell you.” He paused. “But if you can, please get Miss Ketle’s license and read me her information so we can contact her family.”
“What about my purse?” I asked.
“You can pick it up tomorrow at the Lakeview police station when you come to drop off Miss Ketle’s.” He said. His voice clearly stated his wonderment at how I could care about a purse after I learned a friend was hurt. “Do you know how to get to the station?”
My mind flashed back of all the time I had spent in that station. The officer was either new or just didn’t remember me. Crimes sort of blend, I suppose, and I knew there hadn’t been an Officer Louis after the first misunderstanding.
“I know.” I managed to get that much out.
“Good. Now please give me Miss Ketle’s information,” he said.
All of that lead up to the reason I was on the freeway. A single misunderstanding was causing a 3 hour commute to take far, far longer. It took me five miles before I found the reason for the jam.
Down below the freeway, banners proudly announced a marathon taking place that day. That would mean roads would be blocked off, people would be rerouted. Everyone would be using the freeway to get nowhere fast.
That was the reason I had moved here. Something was always happening and everyone was involved. Once again it was completely different from the sleepy town where I had come from. That’s what I wanted, except for today.
I eventually made it to Lakeview and to the police department. Inside I spoke to someone who led me to the particular window I wanted.
An officer behind a window verified my identity, had me sign some document and then handed over the purse that caused me to lose sleep the night before. Since the officer didn’t say a word about Caroline’s purse, I kept it as collateral.
I unzipped my purse and reached in, digging for the only thing I cared about anymore. It wasn’t there.
I dumped everything out, making the evidence officer frown at me. It wasn’t there.
“Excuse me.” I said to the officer. “Something’s missing. A mint tin.”
The officer’s frown deepened.
“That’s what was in the purse when the officer checked it in.” She said. “You signed the form agreeing the contents were there.”
“But the tin.”
“That’s what was in there. You signed the paperwork.” Her tone told me not to push her. “If there’s not a tin of mints in there now, there wasn’t one when it was checked in.”
I choked back a sob. It wasn’t there. It was supposed to be there. I had heard Caroline shake it the night before while we had been talking.
A thought struck me. Caroline had it. I had to find her.
Part of me was scared because she was the only person who knew where it was and for all I knew, she could be dead.
I decided to take a chance. I pulled out my cell, only to discover the battery was dead. I took Caroline’s phone and dialed information. After only a few calls I knew Caroline was in Room 217 at St. Francis Memorial Hospital.
Ten minutes later I was charging into St. Francis, Caroline’s purse in hand as my pretext for visiting.
I pushed the door to her room open, unsure of what or who I’d find. Caroline was lying on the bed, looking groggy, bruised and in serious pain despite the drip I saw attached to her.
Theresa, Caroline’s mother, was there, along with a man I didn’t recognize. Seeing the cuts on his face and the cast on his arm, I assumed he had been with Caroline in the crash.
Theresa gave me a look that could have melted steel. The man seemed to recognize me, though I didn’t know him from Adam.
“Jennifer.” Theresa’s voice was short and angry. “Why are you here?”
I held out the purse, unsure of how to begin.
“Mom.” Caroline’s voice croaked out. “Take Tom and go for a walk. Jen and I need to talk.”
Theresa looked like she was about to argue.
“Please, just five minutes,” I said. “I promise it won’t take long.”
Theresa nodded at the man called Tom and they left. As soon as the door shut, I walked up to Caroline and dumped the purse on the tray next to her bed.
“Where is it?” I asked, knowing she needed no more information.
“Not until we talk.” Caroline’s voice was as raw as she looked. “I promise it’s safe, but we have to talk.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.” Even I could hear how childish the statement sounded.
“Then just listen.” Caroline adjusted herself on the bed, wincing as she did. “There’s so much I need to say. Like the affair with Curtis.”
“Save it, ” I said. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“But I want to tell it.” Caroline retorted. “I didn’t mean—we didn’t want to hurt you. It was just something that happened.”
I turned away from her, but Caroline knew I wouldn’t leave until she gave me the tin. I was essentially a captive audience unless I wanted to tear her and the room apart.
“After Toby went missing, you shut down.” I wanted to slap her for even speaking that name. “Curtis and I talked about how to help you, but you didn’t want help. You only wanted Toby.”
“My child was kidnapped!” My voice cracked as I tried to scream at her. “You wanted me to pretend like nothing happened?”
“It was Curtis’ son too!” Caroline’s voice cracked for completely different reasons as she struggled to match my tone. “You didn’t care how it hurt him to lose his child!”
“So fucking him was helpful to him how?” I lowered my voice but only slightly.
“It just happened!” Caroline started to cry. “We spent so much time together after the kidnapping. We both knew it was wrong, but we needed comfort.”
“Why the hell did you need comfort?” It was taking all my will not start throwing things.
“Because you blamed me!” Caroline’s face was a mask of physical and emotional pain. “And I blamed myself…”
“I still blame you.” I found myself crying now. “You were supposed to stay with him!”
Caroline looked away first.
“It was a misunderstanding.” She said softly. “One I blame myself for every day.”
“You were supposed to stay with him.” I whispered.
I barely made it to the chair before breaking down into full sobs. I saw Toby in my mind the day it happened, the day of our first misunderstanding, the first strike.
I was at the park with Toby and Caroline, taking in a beautiful spring day. My beautiful two year old boy was having fun playing and running around. It had been a perfect day for all. We were packing up to leave but Toby wanted to swing a little longer.
Caroline and I sighed and shared a knowing look.
“Just five more minutes?” I asked her.
She smiled and swung Toby up, making him giggle.
“Just five more minutes.” She told my laughing boy.
That was the last memory I have of Toby. Once I saw Caroline holding him, I turned away to take the trash to a nearby can.
From her statement, Caroline had seen me kneeling after she put Toby down and assumed I would be bringing him to swing. She grabbed the small ice chest and wheeled it to the car we had come in.
Toby was gone when I came back from the trash can. I looked towards the swing, but neither Toby nor Caroline was there. I scanned the park and saw Caroline coming from the parking lot alone.
We were gone less than a minute, but that’s all it took. Toby had been taken nearly two and a half years ago. He had never been found, no sign at all.
A metallic sound brought me back to the present. Caroline was holding the mint tin out to me. I was shaking as I stood to take it from her. I opened it slowly, barely sure if I could handle seeing it right now.
Inside, taped to the lid of the tin was a picture of Toby the day he disappeared. His brown hair streaked with natural summer highlights. His green eyes were happy, unaware of how the day would be marred.
My hands shook, making the small overall latch inside the tin rattle. I picked it up and turned it over in my hands. It was from the outfit Toby had worn that day. With all the rough play, he had managed to rip it off. So he wouldn’t play with it, I had shoved it into my pocket. It was all I had left. I had held on to it after the police told me they couldn’t find him. It hadn’t left my possession since then.
“I’m so sorry, Jen.” Caroline was crying, her bruised frame shaking. “Please, please forgive me.”
I closed the tin and held it tight, feeling more at ease having some small piece of my little boy with me. I thought of what I could say to Caroline, but I had no words. Instead, I decided to do the only thing I could. I walked out of the room, not even bothering to close the door behind me. I could hear Caroline’s sobbing, but it was strike three and there was nothing left for either of us to say.
My lofty dreams of being a famous & brilliant writer were literally smacked out of my head. Now I plan to fill the void with copious amounts of subpar writing!