Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Open Windows, by Erica Orloff

In my bottom right-hand desk drawer, I keep a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. I keep it for celebratory cases, hard-won. I keep it for the God-awful cases that trail me home like shadows at the end of the day. The Marsh case was both.

I set the glass on my desk and poured it more than half full. My hand shook and the first sip raced through me. I imagined it purging my brain of the shadows. I took the second slip slower and shut my eyes. Another one for you.

Someone tapped on my glass. My assistant opened my door and stuck his head in. “There’s a woman here to see you, Joe.”

I glanced at my watch. “It’s been a long day. Can you take a message?”

He shook his head. “She says she has to see you. Today. Said her name is Grace Ann.”

I set the Scotch down unsure I could trust my voice. “How old is she?”

“About your age. Beautiful. Blonde.”

I exhaled. “You can send her in.”

When he shut the door, I downed the rest of the Johnnie Walker.

She walked in not three minutes later, tall, willowy, expensive bracelets on her wrists, and the scar. The little star-shaped scar on her forehead that she got the time she fell from my treehouse.

“Hello, Joe,” she whispered.

“Hello, Grace Ann. Sit down,” I gestured toward the chair. I wasn’t sure if I was even breathing.

“I followed the case, and . . . I saw your picture. I thought of coming here a dozen times and always chickened out. But . . . I wanted you to nail the bastard.”

Nail the bastard.

I’d spent fifteen years of my life atoning for not rescuing Grace Ann from the shadows on her wall.

“How are you?” I managed to speak. “Do you live in the city? What do you do? Are you married?”

“Do you cross-examine everyone this way? Good, yes, actress, no.” She smiled. Her eyes didn’t though. Sad eyes behind the flirtatious voice.

“Occupational hazard. I ask a lot of questions.” I blinked and I remembered a day in fifth grade when she smiled at me. Maybe the only time I ever saw her smile that way. A pure laugh. “So . . . It’s been what? Fifteen years?”

“Yeah. I . . . God, where to even start. I ended up, believe it or not, in L.A. You can fill in the blanks. I did some things I’m not proud of. A lot of things, actually. And I woke up one day and looked in the mirror and wasn’t sure who I even was anymore. So I took all my money, came east. Took real acting classes. Ever see that commercial for—”

“Oh my God,” recognition flooded through me. “You’re the toothpaste girl.”

She laughed. I saw a hint of the girl gazing at the stars. “Yeah. That’s me.”

I leaned back. “I didn’t recognize you.”

“And how about you, Mr. Prosecutor?”

I didn’t answer for a minute. Finally, I whispered. “I’ve spent my life going after bastards like your stepfather. It’s my penance.”

She bent her head. “Joe . . . you were a boy.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does. You were so kind to me. I’ve held onto that night in the field my whole life. Kind of measured people up against you, Joe.”

How could I tell her I did the same?

She looked up from her lap. “So I just had to come say thank you, Joe. And shake your hand.” She stood up and put her hand out in the space over my desk.

I stood. “Do you want to have dinner, Grace Ann?” I took her hand and didn’t so much shake it as hold it.

“Considering how I left town and what you do for a living, Joe . . . I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. It’s sort of why I haven’t come before now. But this case, the Marsh girl. She might have been me.”

I’d actually thought about what would happen if I ever found Grace Ann. “How you left town doesn’t matter to me.”

“Maybe not now. But someday it might.” She withdrew her hand and started toward the door.

“Grace Ann . . .” I just couldn’t let her walk out.

Her back was to me, but she didn’t say anything.

“You were right, that night. I was spying on you. I could hear what he did to you. See what he did, through the open window. In shadows on the wall. My entire career has been about saving every Grace Ann there is. Every last one. I have something to show you.”

I opened my bottom desk draw where I keep the Johnnie Walker and took out the envelope.

“Here.” I walked to her and put it in her hand. She still didn’t move.

Then slowly, she opened it. A single Polaroid our fifth-grade teacher had taken of her and pinned on the bulletin board along with all our pictures. I had stolen hers and kept it until the colors faded to sepia tinges.

She turned around. “They say you are the prosecutor who never sleeps. That your assistants quit from exhaustion. That you’re driven like no one the city has seen before. You’re forgiven, Joe. Now you can sleep.”

“Don’t go,” I heard a panic in my voice I didn’t recognize.

She held my gaze, then looked down at the picture. We stood there like statues. Finally, she said, “All right.” She smiled at me. “Dinner, then, Joe.”

I nodded and opened the door for her. And for the first time for as long as I remembered, a shadow didn’t follow me home or come in echoes through an open window.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a companion story to the earlier Open Windows.]


LurkerMonkey said...

This is sad ... It's funny, because one of the things I liked about the original so much was its sense of horizon. It's a function of childhood, to have an open horizon. Even when awful things are happening. So this story in a sense closed the window, because now I know what happened to these two. They grew up to be sad adults, like so many other adults, damaged people.

So as always, the writing was excellent with very sharp characterization—but I almost wished for another ending.

Erica Orloff said...

Well . . . I hear you. When I ended the other one, I was aiming for a Faulkner type end. To me, the end here is a happy ending, in a sense that most of us don't get closure. Thing happen and we make our own peace with the fact that we have those shadows, and we don't often get a resolution.

I also, in a sense, see the other in a late-YA kind of sense . . . and then this as an adult companion piece. The thing with novels is we don't often get to do that . . . but with short stories we get to.

Jude Hardin said...

I loved it, and I think the characters have a brand new horizon with this ending. Wouldn't change a thing!

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks. I mentally picture that, too.


E. Flanigan said...

Nice job, Erica!

I was a little slow on the uptake, so I didn't realize they were the characters from the other story until the moment he realizes she was the toothpaste girl. Then it dawned on me: Ohhhhh, it's THAT Grace Ann! lol

I think it's interesting how you made this second one more of a genre kind of thing, with the hard-boiled detective vibe. The two stories work as stand-alones, because they are so different in tone. That's probably why I didn't connect them for a minute.

I'm not sure I believed it was a happy ending, though. Because from what I know of Grace Ann (in the last story and this one), flight is her m.o. She might hang around for a while, but once things become too intimate, she's out of there. And Joe will be left with the shadows and echoes.

Erica Orloff said...


After I was done, I looked at how the voice had matured in a way, and who I thought Joe might be.

And good comment . . . you might be right about Grace Ann. Maybe there is an Act III. :-)

Maribeth said...

The first one ended and I was satisfied but curious. I love when a piece leaves me wondering about the characters the way life leaves you wondering when someone walks away.
Act II is repeating that sensation. There are so many places for this to go. Or as they walk away I can go and get myself a drink --- and wonder.

writtenwyrdd said...

That was beautiful.

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks Maribeth and Writtenwyrdd.

Melody Maysonet said...

I feel like Joe is finally going to get the redemption he's been seeking. The story is sad, but it's tinged with hope (my favorite kind of story). And I like the way it explores the repercussions of the choices we make.

Erica Orloff said...

I hope Joe gets his serenity, too.

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