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Civil Twilight

New Jersey, 2018

By CJ MillerPublished 2 months ago Updated 28 days ago 12 min read
1

When John Kelleher opens his front door, he's greeted by the warmth of Second summer, that period of grace which, if the stars are aligned, likes to chase an inaugural frost.

Gonna be a great one, he reckons, whistling as he bends to pick up the newspaper. Voicing their agreement, the headlines are affirming for a change, each a feel-good slice of human intrigue.

A member of the old school, he prefers ink to the impersonal nature of tech. Online fora are useful for debates, perhaps getting in a dig, but they tend to lack substance. Solemnity.

Besides. If he must read about crime, he'd rather do so without ads for toe fungus.

He takes a seat on the porch swing, its gray planks damp with morning dew. The street is quiet this time of day, save for songbirds in the looming oak, and the peacefulness borders on holy.

No place more welcoming, though that wasn't always his mantra. In his twenties, he was a rolling stone—undergrad out West, med school down South, the rest spent roaming the Scottish coast or Bali's sublime shores.

At thirty, he shelved his wanderlust and returned to the town that reared him, one Burbank, New Jersey. When his father passed soon after, he took over the family practice, a pediatric clinic that saw to the next generations with care.

While he has no children of his own, John came to be a cherished fixture in the lives of many, having revived the art of house calls and a kindly bedside manner.

As for the fairer sex, well... he never was fortunate enough to settle down. There have, nonetheless, been women who left their marks, tokens of connection embossed on his soul.

Nostalgia that sustains him when the temps turn inhospitable.

••♾••

"Morning, Doc!"

Dan Foster, longtime neighbor and fellow bachelor, waves from across the hedge, his grin bright as blazes.

"Sure is, kid!"

Dan's a spry sixty to John's mature seventy-four, their routine humor revolving around said gap. Though not close in the strictest sense—no uttering of secrets at 3:00 a.m. or crashing the other's Christmas soirée—they share a pleasant, dependable rapport.

Some years back, Dan found himself the subject of unsavory rumor. While others gave him the icy shoulder, John, a solid judge of character, didn't see fit to hold it against him. A man that gentle, he reasoned, wasn't capable of certain deeds.

On this, he was unswayable.

In keeping with his hunch, the gossip moved on after a stretch, taking with it public interest in events best forgotten. He brushes away the memories, this breeze too glorious to waste on the unseemly.

••♾••

Before they can chew the fat, a cry cuts through the waking stillness. John glances around to find Abby Steiner splayed out on the sidewalk, her bike a mimetic heap, golden curls escaping her helmet.

Matching the pace of those with far fewer tree rings, he hustles to the outskirts of his property. Abby's brother, Nate, has it under control, but John tends to her just the same.

Hitching up the cuffs of his trousers, he crouches beside the girl, scanning for visible injury.

"You hangin' in there, Abigail? Looked like quite the spill. Any scrapes? Cuts?"

"I'm okay," she sniffles, her face red but brave, and this seems to be the truth. Kids possess a resilience from which adults could stand to learn.

"Have your mom get in touch with me if that changes, you hear?"

In 2009, he retired, lavish party and all. By 2010, he was back to the daily grind, idleness a harsher punishment than hours spent in service.

"Yes, Dr. Kelleher."

Then, after a contemplative pause, "You still got lollipops at the desk?"

"Loads. Grape and cherry and, if you ask Marie nicely, maybe green apple."

"Awesome."

She smiles at him, her teeth having departed for the fairy land under one's pillow.

"We gotta go," Nate prods. "Need to stop at our dad's before the bell."

Both are back in the saddle and conquering the leaf-strewn pavement before goodbyes can be exchanged.

"Careful, please!" John hollers, their silhouettes lost to the ascending glare.

••♾••

John is surprised to find Dan hasn't budged from his deck, concealed beneath a shingled overhang.

"Doc! Check your side entrance. There's a package on the mat."

"Someone left a package? For me?"

He wasn't gone but mere minutes, and no cars had driven by in the interim.

"Not someone. Something," says Dan, sounding as mystified as John feels.

"One of those robots everyone's into. Drones. Released the box from several feet up. Almost crushed your phony flowers."

A quick peek bears this out, and yet the provenance isn't any clearer. He hasn't ordered squat since May, about six months in the rearview, and those deliveries were of the two-legged variety.

"Appreciate the intel! Anxious to tear into the sucker."

"Same, and it's not even mine."

Dan chuckles, forever affable.

"Let me know what you've got there. Could be evidence of aliens, or a lamp that grants a thousand wishes."

"I'd be happy with a ticket to paradise," John quips. "A guy could get used to this balmy weather."

••♾••

Once indoors, curiosity is diluted by distraction. He's off from work on Fridays, but that doesn't stop him from packing them full of chores.

As he places the parcel on the table—featherweight, the size of a chihuahua, and, yep, lacking postal markings—he's mentally preparing a grocery list.

As he slices the heavily taped seam, he finds himself mulling over his holiday cards. (To atone for a previous snub, he has to remember the Wilsons this winter...)

Above all, he's thinking about the torture sessions he keeps putting off at the dentist. Chompers can only be expected to hold up for so long.

The lone topic John Kelleher isn't stuck on is, oddly enough, the one set to clobber him from within the cardboard.

The moment he pulls aside the flaps, every nerve in his body ceases to function properly.

There, cradled in bubble wrap, is a tiny container made of plastic, its round lid as see-through as the rest.

A note has been wedged in the shadowy corner, but he doesn't require an explanation.

Some sentiments transcend language.

••♾••

Leave a message at the beep.

"Marie, I know you're busy, but it's urgent. I'd like you to cancel my appointments for the coming week. I won't be in, and folks deserve a chance to rearrange their schedules. Thanks. I— you're an absolute peach."

He hangs up, trusting she'll handle it with finesse. If there's one decision he got right, it was hiring auburn-tressed Marie as office manager. She has, when all is said and done, been like a sibling to him.

Having grieved the genuine article in '75, that's no small comfort.

Grabbing his keys from the bowl, he heads for the ritzy market on Main. The occasion calls for alcohol, among other luxuries, and he has no plans to skimp.

••♾••

The sun is just beginning to graze the rooftops when John once more situates himself on the porch.

Yawning, he undoes his belt, then a strained button, exhaling as the tension dissipates. His stomach is badly bloated—filet, oysters, and an impressive well of Pinot taking up space.

A feast fit for a king.

Sipping his cup of tea, he retrieves the missive from his pocket, written on none better than a printer sheet.

"When you threaten a man's existence," he mutters, wine-soaked and mellow, "at least use the expensive stuff."

We have proof of what you did that April.

Turn yourself in. If you don't, we'll do it for you.

That's a promise.

Vagueness be damned, John imagines it's credible. He was sloppy in the aftermath, a particular point of shame, and yet no one has ever so much as looked in his direction.

An esteemed doctor. A hometown hero who keeps the needy clothed and the hungry fed.

Above reproach.

He stares at the trinket box, its translucent surface a window into his psyche.

Within lies a lock of hair—coiled, flaxen yellow, secured by kitchen twine.

It's obviously fake, the type of synthetic strands one finds on a doll.

The shade and its significance, however, echo through the placid dusk, loud and taunting.

They were all blonde, starting with his sister. Not wanting to be greedy, he snipped a single tendril from each, a fact the nosy papers let slip.

The real McCoys are still tucked away upstairs, tenderly hidden behind a loose baseboard. Unlike flesh, hair withstands the ravages of time.

He figured that, eventually, someone would braid the clues together and come knocking. The trouble started shortly after he returned from abroad, and the work was meticulous, if he does say so himself.

The signature of an educated mind.

Fortunately, people are eager to make saints of their neighbors, hell-bent on believing safety surrounds them.

The initial eight were a piece of cake, smooth as melted chocolate, but he gave up following the one that went awry.

It was 1991, and her name was Miriam.

Swirling the remaining drops in his mug, he recalls her lovely features, the chiming quality of her laugh. She was seventeen that spring, gilded waves cascading down her back, a fountain of youth he could hold in his palm.

So enthralled was he that attention to procedure fell by the wayside. He finished with his tasks only to discover the broken heel in his driveway, a souvenir of struggle, patent leather gleaming under noon's garish rays.

What else might he have missed?

On that bygone evening, the police arrived to hassle Dan Foster, their motives a mystery to this day. With the bare bulbs of interrogation so close to home, John didn't know whether to drown in terror or relief. He swam in both pools, enough to scare him straight in the years since.

At least while within New Jersey's limits. Everybody needs a vacation once in a while.

••♾••

The wind is chilly tonight, any prior heat but a fleeting reprieve from November's rhythm. He doesn't mind. It's nice, bracing, the type of air that lets you know you're above ground and kickin'.

John is leaning his head against the wood when he hears footsteps on the walkway. With effort, he peels apart a lid, confirming his suspicions.

Half of the duo, a boy of maybe thirteen, is plainly reluctant, his sneakers dragging as he stumbles along. The other, a woman with severe brows who isn't afraid to stomp, is pulling him forth by an arm.

The kid's mother, John thinks, floating somewhere in the languid ether. Has to be. Same lips and squared jaw.

She's a brunette, a fact he can't help but clock. Alas, he's never considered them worth the risk—the sole arena in which he is not a proponent of equality.

He sits up, vestiges of politeness insisting on manners.

"Dr. Kelleher? May we speak with you?" she asks, telegraphing that yes is the only acceptable answer.

"Alright. Regarding what, exactly?"

She elbows her son, indicating that it's his job to reply.

He clears his throat, his skin, pale to begin with, draining of color.

"Um, hi. I'm Eric. Eric Hammond. I live over on Bakersfield. Not sure if you remember me from—"

John does, he realizes, despite the haze. The kid was once his patient, though not with any regularity.

"Of course. What can I do for you, Eric?"

This sounds more like canada dah fiya than anything coherent. Eric examines him, uneasy, probably assuming that, like many grown-ups, John Kelleher is piss drunk.

Lisa Hammond surmises the same, and, not wanting to offend, hesitates to acknowledge his condition.

The vino is playing its rightful part, but he can't give it complete credit. He's been preparing for this contingency over the course of decades.

••♾••

Each June, he plants the ideal combo in the bowels of his yard, beyond the reach of roving pets and housewives afflicted with boredom.

Come autumn, he harvests those spoils for drying, a couple of sachets the result of his labor. Provisions he prayed never to need.

For everything, there is a season.

The tea's effects are multiplying, and swiftly at that. He could've, he admits, opted for drugs, but the imprecision, the sheer inelegance...

He knows his botany, his chemistry. This will be painless. It already is to a degree, the numbness a blessing under such circumstances.

More tolerable, anyhow, than what would've been visited upon him in prison, especially once tale of his ladies—the youngest, narrowly fifteen—spread among the oh-so-principled pop.

He won't allow it. A sumptuous supper, a pair of beverages, and voilà, he's sealed his own fate.

As it should be.

"Dr. Kelleher?" the boy prompts, drawing the good doc forward to the present.

"Hm?"

"We're here because... because my friend Alex and I were fooling around with our drone. You know about those?"

"Mm," John murmurs, barely audible.

"Well, this morning, a little after dawn, we kind of used it to deliver a package."

John's eyes fly open, dwindling neurons frantic to process the information.

"What did you say?"

Eric inhales, flustered at being asked to repeat himself.

"We heard some rumors about a cold case."

A cold case. Kids nowadays. They speak like hard-boiled detectives, brains poisoned by podcasts and formulaic TV.

"A really old disappearance involving a girl named—"

"Miriam," says John, absent of inflection.

"Yeah. Miriam Baxter."

If he considers it strange that the man provided this tidbit, Eric doesn't show it.

"I wasn't born when that happened, but my friend's cousin told us that Coach Dan—like, your neighbor, Daniel Foster—was a suspect for a while."

He sucks in another breath, seemingly starved for oxygen.

"He benched Alex recently for no reason, other than that he can. Total dick move."

"Eric!"

"Sorry, Mom. So, anyway, we decided to... get even," his confession trailing off like smoke.

"What Eric is trying to explain," interjects Mrs. Hammond, "is that he's at fault for the threat you received. A prank taken too far, and poorly planned, given they dumped it at the wrong address."

She stresses these words with parental disgust.

"I can't apologize enough. Hopefully, you weren't disturbed by their idiocy. We should've dropped by sooner, but..."

She shrugs, embarrassed.

John can hear her, can, for the most part, absorb her drift, but he's past the stage of responding. The tea is almost done carrying out its sentence, his ending written in the murky dregs.

"The wrong—"

He mines his vocabulary and comes up empty.

"The wrong—"

Address. And, after eons of elusion, the correct one.

Ain't life funny.

His lids are drooping, this time with a measure of slack finality. The last thing John Kelleher sees is a dying gasp of sunlight, its embers a fiery topaz.

Hotter climes await him yet.

Short Story
1

About the Creator

CJ Miller

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insight

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (2)

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  • Hannah Moore2 months ago

    Great writing, I really enjoyed the way you put this together.

  • Jodi Nicholls2 months ago

    Really enjoyed this! You've got a great way of storytelling; I loved the ironic end for John!

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