All the Little Pieces, p.10Jilliane Hoffman
He thrust it at her. Like a timid animal, she slowly approached his outstretched hand, her eyes catching on the handwritten words on the bottom of the poster.
Our sweet Angelina was last seen at the club Animal Instincts on Friday, October 17. Angel is the loving mother to 2-year-old Ginger, who misses her mama more than anything and wants her to come home! She was last seen wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, a black hooded jacket and black boots. She has a tattoo on her neck of a heart in chains, blue stars on her arm, and a snake around her left ankle. If you have any information about our Angel, please call
407-669-4322. $REWARD$ OFFERED
‘We don’t take American Express, so, ah, do you have another card?’ he tried again while she was reading, a slight edge of impatience to his voice. ‘If you need to use the ATM, it’s over there.’
Faith nodded, laid the poster on the counter and put her purse down on top of it. With trembling fingers she dug through her wallet. Receipts, business cards and pictures spilled onto the counter and the floor before she finally found her Visa card.
‘What’s taking so long?’ Charity asked in her ear. Faith jumped, knocking over a display of gum. A dozen packs of Trident spilled on the floor. The clerk sighed heavily.
‘Jesus Christ, Charity! You scared me. I’m just paying,’ she said, bending down to pick up the gum and her receipts.
‘I scared you? Who’d you think I was?’
‘I don’t know, I … there was a man at the door who said something,’ she started to say.
Your fear gives you away. You stink of nasty secrets.
‘I’m a little … I had to get him another card, is all.’
The girl’s face flashed in her head, staring at her outside her window. She saw her say the words Help Me! He’s coming! Her cracked lips touching the glass, the streaks of dark eyeliner running down her cheeks.
‘Why? Is everything OK with your card?’ Charity asked.
The clerk handed Faith her receipt. She signed it quickly. ‘Yes, it’s fine.’ She had to get out of the store; it was hard to breathe. It was hard to think. She shoved the gum packs back into the display box and grabbed her purse.
‘Who’s that?’ Charity asked, pointing at the missing poster on the counter.
‘No one … she’s … it’s no one,’ Faith replied dismissively as she headed for the door.
‘Oh …’ said Charity, following her.
‘She’s not nobody, that’s not right,’ Faith said as she pushed open the door, holding it for Charity. ‘She’s a girl who is missing. I, ah, I was just looking at the poster. The guy was showing me the poster. I thought she looked familiar, but …’ her babbling tapered off as they walked back to the cars.
‘How would you know anyone from …?’ Charity looked around the parking lot. ‘Where the hell are we, anyway?’ Besides the Shell station, there was nothing else around.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know where we are,’ Faith replied. She ran her hands through her hair. Her thoughts were racing. It was all she could do to keep it together. She had to get home. She had to think. Think about her next move. What should she do? What should she do?
Charity laughed wryly. ‘I’ll tell you where we are, sis,’ she said, putting an arm around Faith’s shoulders. ‘Bumfuck. Isn’t that what your husband calls nowhere? How the hell would you know a girl that’s gone missing from the middle of nowhere?’
Faith woke up the next morning with the sun in her eyes. The curtains were open. There was an egret perched on her balcony with a powder-blue sky and wispy white clouds as a backdrop.
She arched her neck to get a look at the clock and fell back into the pillows: it was almost eight o’clock. Downstairs, Jarrod was telling Maggie to hurry up. She smelled brewed coffee wafting up from the kitchen. On her nightstand was a mug, a banana, and a bottle of Tylenol. She touched the mug. It was cold.
For a brief second, everything seemed OK. Then it all came barreling into her mind, sabotaging the deceptively beautiful day outside. She closed her eyes and lay there for a few minutes.
‘Let’s go, Maggie,’ Jarrod was saying. ‘Stop watching TV and help me find your backpack, please.’
‘Sleeping. We have to go; I have court. And I have a very important phone call I have to take.’
‘I want Mommy to take me.’
‘I don’t think Mommy is feeling well this morning; she was up very late with Aunt Charity.’ He sounded annoyed. ‘We gotta go, sweetheart. Damn it – where are your shoes?’
The house banged and clanked as plates hit the sink and doors opened and closed in the search for Maggie’s shoes and backpack. Maggie whined; Jarrod groused. Finally she heard the chirp of the door alarm sound and the house fell quiet. After a few more minutes Faith sat up, popped two Tylenol and downed them with the cold coffee. God, her head freaking throbbed.
Yesterday she’d dropped off Charity at the new apartment, and that took longer than she’d thought it would. The keys weren’t there and they’d had to wait for the property manager. Then Vivian had come over with Maggie and Lyle to see Charity, and the kids were all playing and everyone was talking. They’d ordered pizza and opened a bottle of wine. That led to another bottle or two. When she’d finally gotten home, it was past nine and she had to put Maggie to bed, then Jarrod had come home and … well, there was no time. She’d run out of time to make the phone call.
She got dressed and texted Vivian that she wouldn’t be in till later on in the morning, maybe after lunch. Then she grabbed a notepad and a pen from the office and a basket of dirty laundry. She’d put in a load, make a fresh pot of coffee, sit down with her pen and paper at the breakfast bar and make that call to the police. She could even drive up to the department if she had to, to make the report, if they wanted her to. She headed downstairs. OK. What department? Where was she yesterday when she saw that poster? Nowhere. Bumfuck, Charity had sarcastically called it. She tried to remember the exit off of the Turnpike. She’d have to Google the Animal nightclub where that girl Angelina worked, was all. Then she’d call the police in that town and ask to speak to missing persons.
She heard the sound of the TV in the family room as she hit the second landing. Jarrod must have forgotten to turn it off.
‘… still developing. Palm Beach detectives aren’t releasing much information, except to say that the body was in fairly advanced state of decomposition. The young mother and aspiring artist had been reported missing two weeks ago by her family …’
Faith stopped suddenly on the stairs, laundry basket in hand. She leaned against the wall. She couldn’t see the TV; she could only hear it. The family room was off the kitchen. Although the volume was low, the horrible words the reporter was saying echoed off the cathedral ceilings as though he were broadcasting with a bullhorn – at least that’s how she heard them. Her heart started to race and she tried to tell herself not to jump to conclusions, not to think the worst, even though she knew that the worst was already happening.
‘… after she failed to come home from work as a dancer at a nightclub in West Palm …’
She put the basket down and tried to cover her ears. Her shaking legs advised her to run. Get out before everything changes! Leave before they say her name! She frantically looked around the living room below for an escape route, as if that were really an option.
But there was to be no escape. Not from any of this. She thought of the creepy encounter with the man in the gas station and his prophetic Doomsday admonition: Everybody pays. Can’t get out of paying when the devil wants his due …
She felt the life drain from her legs and she slumped against the pretty faux-painted wall, trapped right where she was as the reporter prattled on about the horror of it all.
The day her father died was also beautiful.
It was a Saturday. Faith woke up that May morning and looked at a cloudless, cobalt blue sky and thought: ‘Beach day!’ She was
When the doctor came out of the ER treatment bay she knew what he was going to say. Perhaps it was the terribly uncomfortable look on his face that gave it away, or the slow shake of his head when his eyes met her mother’s in the waiting room as he walked toward the three of them. Faith just knew. She wanted to stop time then. Just stop it, like a witch in a movie could cast a spell to suspend people in a moment. Because once the doctor opened his mouth and actually uttered the words, ‘I’m sorry, but we did all we could,’ there’d be no going back. It would be real. There would be no return to when everything was OK and life was normal. Faith divided memories into two categories after that moment: Life Before and Life After.
Now she sat on her stairs, not wanting this moment to end – when she could still believe that everything was going to be OK because she didn’t know for sure that it wouldn’t be. Relishing the fleeting final seconds of Life Before. Like that moment in the hospital, she really wasn’t prepared for what was coming, even though she knew what that doctor was going to say when he opened his mouth. And no matter how many times since Charity’s birthday party she might’ve tried to imagine the worst-case scenario about what had happened to the dark-haired girl in the rain, her brain couldn’t imagine … this.
The door alarm chirped off the garage. ‘OK, I’m done with my phone call,’ Jarrod called out. ‘Did you find your shoes, Maggie? Were they upstairs?’
‘… detectives are trying to piece together her last hours …’
Jarrod sighed as he walked into the family room. ‘Did you even look for your shoes?’
‘Daddy …’ Maggie said softly. She was in the family room.
Maggie was in the family room.
‘And you shouldn’t be watching this crap; the news is never good. I have to be in court, honey. So let’s find those shoes of yours—’
‘Daddy, I know who that lady is.’
The reporter continued: ‘… again, they have just released her name. She has been identified as nineteen-year-old Angelina Santri …’
‘Her,’ answered Maggie.
Her legs weren’t strong enough to run, so Faith tried to crawl back up the stairs, back to her bedroom. The doctor was coming out of the treatment bay. He was taking off his latex gloves. She heard them snap against his skin. She smelled the odor of hospital disinfectant. He was shaking his head. Don’t say it, Doctor! Don’t change everything!
‘The lady on the news?’ The irritation was gone from Jarrod’s voice. It had been replaced with confusion. ‘That lady? Her? You know her?’
The laundry basket slipped down the beige carpeted stairs. Bumpity, bumpity, bump.
‘How do you know her?’ Jarrod asked.
‘That’s the lady mommy wouldn’t help,’ Maggie answered softly.
The most ominous of fallacies – the belief that things can be kept static by inaction.
Freya Starke, Dust in the Lion’s Paw: Autobiography 1939–1946
Jarrod heard a thud. He looked over to see the laundry basket toppled by the foot of the stairs, dirty laundry splayed all over the wood floor. He knew that Faith was there, somewhere, listening. He turned back to Maggie. He felt as if someone had punched him hard in the stomach, but he could still breathe and the pain hadn’t set in yet. He looked back at Maggie. ‘What? What did you say?’ The question rushed out of his mouth.
Maggie looked anxiously over at the pile. ‘The lady wanted Mommy to help her, but she wouldn’t open the door.’ Her thumb went to her mouth.
He turned to watch the TV. The caption under the photo of a smiling young woman with dark hair and dark eyes and a neck tattoo said ANOTHER MURDER IN THE CANE FIELDS. ‘What do you mean? I’m not getting you, honey. Take that thumb out of your mouth and tell me what happened.’ He gently pulled her thumb away.
‘There was a mean man there. He was waiting for her outside. He wanted to hurt the lady, but Mommy wouldn’t open the door.’
‘What door? The door to the house? Here?’
‘No, Daddy. The caaarrr doooorrr,’ she replied dragging out the word.
‘The car door …’ he repeated, his voice trailing off.
‘The lady was scared. Then the mean man took her away and she was crying.’
‘Who was crying? Mommy?’
Maggie lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘The lady.’ She started to pick at the white balls on her reindeer dress. ‘I felt bad ’cause she was sad. I don’t want Mommy to get mad again …’ her voice trailed off.
Jarrod knelt down next to her and put his hands on her delicate shoulders that already looked like they bore the weight of the world. ‘Mommy’s not going to get mad, Maggie. No one’s going to get mad. When did this happen, honey? Can you remember?’
Maggie shook her head.
‘Tell Daddy. Don’t worry about Mommy; she’s fine. She’s upstairs. Tell me what you saw. Tell me when this happened.’
‘Aunt Charity’s birthday.’
‘When you drove up with Mommy to see Aunt Charity for her surprise party?’
‘When did this happen, when you were driving to Aunt Charity’s or back home at night?’
‘Night.’ Her bottom lip ballooned out. ‘It was dark and I was scared.’
‘Was this after you got mad and kicked the seat?’
She nodded again. The lip was quivering.
Maggie had her issues. She had problems in school but that was because she wouldn’t keep her ass in the chair and listen, not because she wasn’t smart. Was she defiant? Yes. Emotional? Yup. Hyperactive? That was what his money was on. But with all of her challenges, Jarrod knew lying was not one of them. She could tell tall tales sometimes, though. She was only four and young kids saw things differently than adults did. So what was fantasy and what was reality? Was this story she was telling him pieced together in her brain from movies she’d watched? Stories she’d heard? Video games she’d played? Maybe she’d seen this girl’s face in the paper or on the news before? He rubbed his chin. Faith had never mentioned anything like this to him.
‘Maggie, you need to be very clear. The lady on the news – you’re sure that was the lady you saw that night coming home from Aunt Charity’s? You’re positive?’
‘And she asked Mommy to help her? You’re sure?’
‘Yes. She banged on the window, Daddy. She was all wet, ’cause it was raining out and I don’t like thunder. But Mommy wouldn’t open the door. She told the lady, “No!”
‘Then what happened?’
‘Then the mean man came and he took the lady away and she looked sad.’
‘What did Mommy do?’
‘Nothing.’ Maggie paused and looked down at the floor, as though she were ashamed to say it. ‘She watched him take the lady away.’
‘Did you say anything to Mommy?’
Maggie shook her head. Tears rolled down her cheeks now. ‘The man told me not to.’
‘Wait, wait, wait – you spoke to the man?’ He wiped her apple cheeks with his big hands.
‘He told me not to say anything,’ Maggie replied, putting her finger to her lips and making the shush sound. ‘He said to shush.’
Jarrod shook his head. He could feel the anger rising inside. A paternal, oversized anger at the idea that a strange man had frightened his daughter. ‘Did he touch you? Did this man touch you, Maggie?’ He was yelling now, but he couldn’t help it.
‘And what did Mommy do when the man told you to shush? When he pointed?’
‘She drove away.’
‘She left the lady there with the scary man?’
Maggie nodded. ‘I’m sorry, Daddy.’
‘You don’t have anything to be sorry about.’ Jarrod grabbed his daughter and hugged her tight, something he should have done a minute earlier. He dropped onto both knees, stroking her hair, inhaling the scent of her. He was overwhelmed by a sickening feeling that he was lucky to do this – like the man who misses the flight that he heard has crashed. ‘I have to talk to Mommy about this,’ he said into her shoulder.
Maggie shook her head. ‘She’s gonna get mad.’
‘No, she won’t. Did you talk to Mommy about what you saw? Does she know you saw the girl?’
Maggie shook her head and looked at the ground again. ‘She’ll be mad, like she was at that lady. Mommy made her cry ’cause she was mean and said no. She yelled at me to go to sleep and stop kicking. I didn’t want her to get mad at me for being ’wake, so I closed my eyes and ’tended to be sleeping, but I was only ’tending.’
Jarrod felt his heart clench up. The punch to the gut had knocked the wind out of him, and now the pain was here and it was worse than what he was expecting. Whatever story Maggie was telling was not made up. Whatever it was she thought she saw had happened. And that scared the shit out of him. Because the story in and of itself was terrifying. And the ending … Another murder in the cane fields.
He ran his hand through his hair, trying to think clearly. Well, the ending was horrific. Perhaps the puzzle pieces were not fitting perfectly, perhaps Maggie had mixed some facts up, but it didn’t matter – a picture was starting to form. A half-hour ago, he’d been frustrated about being late and thinking about court and the conference call he’d had to take out in the garage. Now everything seemed … trivial. Inconsequential. While he didn’t know exactly what had happened that night, he did know that the pain from the invisible punch he’d just taken was going to be excruciating. He looked over at the dirty laundry, spilled emblematically all over the floor.
All the Little Pieces by Jilliane Hoffman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes