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Authors: Elizabeth Brundage

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense

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BOOK: A Stranger Like You
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Instead, he packed a small bag for her, gently tugging open her drawers, selecting items that she might choose for a short trip including a variety of strappy undergarments that made his fingertips burn. In the bathroom, Hugh selected the toiletries that looked used—a bar of black soap that resembled a cube of tarmac, a toothbrush with its crusty handle, a finger-poked jar of moisture cream, and a slimy tube of makeup. When he was through, he brought the bag to the door and set it down, alongside her pocketbook.
There were voices outside. Hugh could see the neighbor and his friends walking toward his garage. The neighbor had slicked-back hair. He was wearing a suit. The women were in dresses. They were laughing. They were laughing and laughing. What could possibly be that funny? he wondered. Hugh watched as they disappeared inside the garage. A moment later, the car backed down the driveway. The afternoon sunlight flashed off the car like a staccato melody. For a moment he stood there watching the neighbor’s house. The window shades were pulled. The house seemed indifferent, mute.
He sat down in the chair. He looked at the woman on the couch, who was suddenly a stranger to him. It made him think about life and death. How they said your spirit left you when you died and people could tell the difference when they looked at a dead body. He’d once seen a dead body in the subway and, thinking about it now, he would have to agree—the body did look different. Hedda Chase was alive, but looked dead, and that was worse somehow, it was much worse.
It was a drowsy time of day. In places like Spain people took naps at this hour, but not here in America. People worked. They worked around the clock. If he was at work right now he’d be drifting over his desk, trying to keep his eyes open. There were sheets and ledgers and lists and statistics. Numbers, a language of abstraction that made perfect sense. There was the muffled sound of progress.
The house was not quiet. There was the whir of the refrigerator, the dripping faucet, the pulsing radio of a passing car. Time passed, an hour, maybe two, and the house began to fill with shadows. He felt a little better, pretending not to be there, pretending that it was an empty house with nobody home.
Hugh took the airport exit off the freeway. The car was an older model with leather seats and a wood steering wheel. It didn’t have the usual conveniences of a modern car. There was no latch to open the trunk from the inside, for example, you had to get out of the car in order to open it, and it had a separate key. The keys were attached to a rabbit’s foot. Hugh fondled the bony tendons with his fingertips. The car had the smell of old leather which he rather liked, but it didn’t handle as well as the car he had rented, a cheap American economy car, but then this car was old and most old things didn’t handle the way you wanted them to. He went through the long-term parking gate, passing the lighted gatehouses with their sleepy, change-making clerks, and found a spot under one of the streetlamps. People generally tried to park near the lights, thinking it kept their cars safer. For his purposes, it would illuminate the interior of the car. He cut the engine and got out, leaving the keys in the ignition. The night air was cool and he pulled on his sport jacket. There were a few people getting out of a car down the row, laughing over some joke. Struggling with their luggage, they headed toward the terminal. He opened the back door and took his bag out of the backseat, moving with the jocular ease of a tourist, then removed the parking ticket from his shirt pocket and placed it out on the dashboard where anyone walking by might see it. It would be there, in plain sight, in the morning.
The scream of a jet filled the sky. Thick black smoke trailed the plane. The sound of it was even louder than he had imagined when he’d written the scene in his script. Before leaving the car, he ran his gloved hand over the top of the trunk in a gesture of apology. Of course he hoped that she’d been right about his ending. He hoped in the deepest part of him that she’d been right and standing there he whispered a prayer to the heavens that, come morning, someone would hear her muffled cries and save her.
That all depended on fate, of course.
On the other hand, it was entirely possible that someone would steal the car and drive away.
He didn’t know what fate had in store for Hedda Chase, and he didn’t care.
He walked into the terminal and checked in at the airline’s counter. The woman took his bag and he watched it disappear on the conveyor belt. He stood there watching it vanish. The bag contained nothing he would miss. “Mr. Waters?” The woman smiled at him with her orange lipstick the way people smile too much when they think you’re crazy and handed him his ticket and directed him toward the gate. Walking across the slick floors toward the escalator in the distance it occurred to him how disinterested he was in going home. He tried to picture Marion’s face. She was a mirage, he thought. The sounds around him seemed to fade. It became very quiet, almost as quiet as the African desert. He was thinking about the famous last shot in
The Passenger,
the camera framed on an open window through which the world beyond continued, despite Nicholson’s unfortunate death.
It made him think of poor Hedda Chase.
It made him think of her gentle weight as he’d carried her out through the darkness to the garage, her head pressed against his chest like a child’s, tufts of breath escaping from her mouth. He’d set her down into the trunk with the utmost care.
A car horn went off outside the glass doors. Headlights glared. It occurred to him that getting on the plane was the last thing he wanted to do. On an impulse, he turned around and headed for the Hertz kiosk. He rented a car; a Mercedes. He had never driven a Mercedes before. It handled smoothly, he thought; it was a terrific car. He sat back and pulled onto the freeway. There was traffic; he didn’t mind. He was glad to have time to think. He sensed that something important had occurred. Something profound. He thought about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He was fairly certain it didn’t have anything to do with Equitable Life. In fact, he was glad his promotion hadn’t come through. They could take their promotion and shove it, that’s what they could do. He was tired of waiting in line for things he didn’t even want. Tired of being manipulated by false promises. He wanted to change the way things were. He wasn’t sure how, exactly, but change seemed inevitable. And whether or not his wife would be part of it, well, he didn’t know that either.
He thought of the girl in his motel room and wondered if she’d found the money he’d left for her. A girl like that was at a tremendous disadvantage, he realized. Leaving the money had been the right thing to do. He hoped she would use it wisely.
A feeling of happiness flooded his body. So what if it was a lousy script, he thought. It wasn’t the worst thing.
He leaned back against the seat and looked out the window at all the cars and the people in them. How strange the world was, he thought. How strange and marvelous. And how blessed he felt to be part of it.
2
Hugh drove along Hollywood Boulevard past the brightly lit windows of vacant stores. The store fronts reminded him of the animal displays at the natural history museum, depicting the habitat of a particular species. The manikins stared out at the darkness with passive confusion. The pursuit of fashion had taken precedence over the hunt for food. Food had become the predator, the evil sad thing in a box.
It was after midnight. A few stragglers drifted on the sidewalks. Consciously or unconsciously he was looking for the girl from his motel room. He entertained the possibility that she was still in the room where he’d left her, waiting for him, but of course that was unrealistic—he knew she’d left the room hours ago. Her name was Daisy, he remembered. She may have gone to that awful hostel, he thought, and considered going there to check. It wasn’t right that a girl like her, a girl of her age, was wandering around the streets at night. Just thinking about it made his chest burn.
He parked in the motel parking lot and went into the motel office with its green fluorescent light and tapped the bell and the manager came out of a darkened room. It was a place to stay, Hugh told himself. It was the only place he knew.
The manager looked pleased to see him. “You came back,” he said.
“Yes.”
“No luggage?”
“Not tonight.”
The manager was an obsequious Pakistani who should have been working in a better hotel, not a place like this, where the guests were slippery incarnations of some alien presence, and when he walked down the corridor past the battered anonymous doors, he sensed that something was going on, something amorphous and strange—
out there
—that no one could ever fully appreciate, and he could almost feel the earth shifting under his feet, his sense of balance compromised by the tilting planet, the topple of a wayward globe.
This room was a little better than the first, he thought, one flight up, and it smelled a little better. Instead of looking out on the parking lot, the room looked out on a side street crammed with stucco houses, the surfaces of which resembled thickly spread cake frosting. Small yards were enclosed by chain-link fences. One house in particular caught his interest. It had a large picture window, lit up by a crystal chandelier. A little white dog was barking out one of the windows. It was rude to let a dog go on barking like that; it wasn’t nice. Hugh didn’t like little dogs like that.
For a moment, he sat on the bed and did nothing. The room seemed dim and depressing and he suddenly longed for his wife. Not
her
exactly, but the idea of her. He felt a little afraid. He knew he should call her, but instead he turned his cell phone over in his hands like some found artifact, as if he were oblivious to its purpose. His life back in Montclair was like an old episode of some TV melodrama. He supposed he had switched the channel long ago, at least in his own mind. He lay down for a few minutes and watched the shadows on the ceiling, the gliding light of passing cars. A helicopter crossed the sky, its spotlight grazing his windows, and he felt as if he were in a foreign place, where dangers beyond his comprehension were routine. When he woke hours later, still in his clothes, the room was light. His body felt weak, hungry. He stood at the open window looking out. The sun was bright, he could feel it on his hands. He went into the bathroom and pulled open the shower curtain just as a cockroach scurried down the drain. His body shuddered as he turned on the water and took off his clothes and stepped under the stream of tepid water.
Hugh dressed and went down to the café and sat at the counter and ordered eggs and flapjacks and white toast. The waitress behind the counter wore a uniform, the fabric of which was the color of cantaloupe. Around her waist was a frilly apron. It occurred to him that everyone in Hollywood looked like an extra in some movie. There was something about the place—different from back home—maybe it was the sunlight that painted everyone a bit too bright. The waitress was frowning and Hugh could tell that she wasn’t in a good mood even though it was a Friday. Most people were in a good mood on Fridays, that was one of the things he had always liked about work, the way people loosened up on Friday afternoons and let you in a little bit—but not her, and she was not impressed with his patience as he waited for his coffee, the expression on his face passive as an idiot’s. Half way through his meal he broke down and reminded her and her face singed like she’d been burnt. When she poured the coffee, it spilled over the side of the cup onto the saucer, but she was too busy talking with another customer to notice, and when he got up to pay the check she swiped it from his hand as if he’d stolen something.
Back at the motel, he called Ida Kent, the writer. She sounded happy to hear from him and agreed to meet him later that afternoon in Santa Monica. She suggested a restaurant near the pier, an oyster bar named Sullivan’s.
In a men’s shop around the corner Hugh bought two pair of trousers and two fresh white shirts. The little man who took care of him had an accent he couldn’t place and while he was pinning up the trousers Hugh saw that he was missing a thumb. The man promised they’d be ready in an hour. Killing time, Hugh walked up the boulevard, across the Walk of Fame, stepping on the stars of famous people. He wondered what it was like to be a person who had a star. A throng of tourists were filing into a bus outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Many were snapping pictures. They were like chattering penguins, he thought. Affecting an air of superiority, he walked swiftly past them. Already he felt a rich contempt for them.
Abruptly, he called his wife. After several rings she answered. “Where are you, Hughie,” she cried, her voice wavering. “Why haven’t you called me? I’ve been worried, I’ve been worried sick.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I feel terrible.”
“What are you doing? Where are you?”
“It’s just I’ve been talking to some people.”
“What people? Who have you been talking to?”
“Film people,” his voice lurched. “Producers. Things are looking very promising.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I need more time out here.”
He could hear her sniffling into a tissue and it made his blood race.
“I’m too boring for you,” she muttered. “I’ve always known it.”
“Marion.”
“It’s true.”
“Don’t make this into something it’s not.”
She had started to cry.
“I’ll call you in a few days.” He hung up.
The little man with the missing thumb had been telling the truth; the pants were hemmed within the hour. Hugh paid and brought the parcel back to the motel, where he changed into the new shirt and trousers and took care to clip his fingernails and comb his hair. His date with Ida wasn’t for several hours; he decided to take a drive. He went down to the parking lot and found his car and drove along the boulevard with the sun in his eyes. Again a helicopter appeared overhead like some mammoth creature. He glanced at himself in the rearview mirror, his nickel-plated guilt, the cold line of his mouth, and tried not to think about what he’d done to Hedda Chase.
BOOK: A Stranger Like You
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