UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 10/2011
Whenever Sherri Lambirth would lend a hand at her father Wade’s hardware store, a bevy of teenage boys seemed to need a new hammer or electric drill or some kind of screw.
It was the middle of an especially warm July, the summer before Sherri was set to leave for Brown University. Her parents Violet and Wade weren’t overjoyed about their only child venturing so far away, but the inquisitive teenager felt the need to explore the world north of Texas. She intended to have a stimulating career and a satisfying life in which churning out children and buying in bulk would play no part.
Three feet off the tile floor, Sherri stood on an aluminum stepladder, struggling to reach a box of roofing nails for the highly disagreeable Lurene Crowley. Standing like a peacock showing off its plumage, Lurene was terribly taken with her new summer frock, a black and mauve monstrosity festooned with sparkling brooches, each in the shape of a fish. With her recently colored hair verging on tangerine and her lipstick the shade of undercooked pork, she looked more like a travelling circus performer than a retired switchboard operator. Lurene was known for the three Rs: regifting, remarrying, and regurgitating after drinking too many rum toddies at local functions. “Do you think you’ll find the nails before the New Year?” she asked in her Texas drawl.
“Almost got it,” Sherri chirped.
“Is this the box you want?” a male voice inquired, a large hand holding the thin package.
“The flat two-inchers, yes,” she responded without turning her head. Once she stepped down from the ladder (with the support of that same hand), her eyes met those of Keelan Dunne, and she felt a physical jolt as strong as a moderate earthquake. Heart raced, body temperature rose, arms went limp. “Hi,” she muttered. With soulful blue eyes and head of wavy blondish hair, the boy in front of her smoldered, and she heard the booming sound of his gaze. Sherri’s hand gripped the ladder.
“Hi, I’m Keelan. It’s Irish.”
“I’m Sherri,” she replied. “American.”
“I’m Lurene,” Mrs. Crowley reminded them from three feet away. “Customer.”
“Oh sorry!” Sherri said. “Here are the roofing nails for Mr. Crowley to fix the uh…the...”
“Roof,” Lurene barked, grabbing the box of nails from Sherri and brusquely marching away. But being the curious, cold-eyed observer of all things None of Her Business, she didn’t march far. Pretending to be inspecting light bulbs and extension cords, she remained close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation.
“Thanks for helping me,” Sherri gushed to the stranger, scanning his square-jawed face. “You don’t live in Austen, do you?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “Flew in from Omaha for my cousin’s wedding.”
“Your cousin wouldn’t be Priscilla Wooten, would it?”
“It would,” he responded, grinning.
“No way! I’m a bridesmaid!” Sherri squeaked, mentally noting never to allow her voice to reach that pitch again. “She never told me about an out-of-town cousin.”
“I only met her one time,” he admitted. “Her mom and my dad are brother and sister, but they were never close.”
“That’s too bad.” A few seconds of silence passed as they marinated in the heat of their connection. “So what are you doing in the store?” Sherri asked.
“Came to buy a paring knife.”
“Then follow me,” Sherri instructed, buoyantly leading him down the aisle. Because of the ballet classes she took from age eight to thirteen, she moved with the grace of a dancer. Keelan, on the other hand, walked like a jock with big clumsy steps, his arms swinging loosely at his side.
In the middle of aisle six was a large display of knives. “This one’s my favorite,” Sherri told Keelan, scooping up a German-made piece of cutlery. “It has a five inch blade with a removable mahogany handle, and it’s perfect for peeling, mincing, carving radishes or de-veining a shrimp.”
“Cool.” He smiled, focusing less on the knife than on Sherri’s hazel eyes and glossy auburn hair. “I’ll take it.”
“My gift to you,” she oozed. “For helping me reach the nails.”
“It only cost us fifty cents,” she told him conspiratorially. “Just slip it in your pocket.”
The fear of Keelan leaving the store caused a wave of panic in Sherri that was unfamiliar and alarming. Nobody had ever taken hold of her nerves, her heart, her head, every part of her so overwhelmingly. All she could do was follow instructions she was getting from powers unknown. “I have a craving for a cappuccino,” she blurted out.
“Let’s get one,” he said. “Do you need to ask your boss?”
“He’s my dad. This isn’t a real job,” she explained.
Sherri and Keelan dashed out the rear exit of Wade’s Hardware and headed for the Starbucks a half block west. The warm July air was drenched with gray gloom; the sun was trying to peek through the swirling clouds, to no avail. “How’d you get so tan?” Sherri asked, feasting her eyes on Keelan’s sun-bronzed skin like it was an all-you-can-eat salad bar.
“I’m outside a lot,” he responded, watching her walk, her legs and hips working together like well-oiled cogs.
“My skin is so fair. I’m white as a refrigerator. It seems like the sun wrapped its rays around you and turned you golden.”
“Very poetic. Are you a writer?”
“No, I plan to make decent money,” she replied. “I’m going to Brown in the fall.”
Keelan nodded, as if granting his approval. (He had no idea what Brown was.) After he paid for the coffee drinks, Sherri led him past a row of shops and the town’s only post office to a small public park. Framed by well-tended shrubs and lilac bushes, it seemed the ideal location for a romantic scene in a movie, soundtrack courtesy of a gurgling brook. Two giant maple trees towered over the setting, their leaves swaying in the light breeze.
“I love this spot,” Sherri sighed as she and Keelan sat down on a wrought iron bench with oak wood slats. “Look at all the shades of green. I can see forest green, sea green, pine, olive, even a little jade. Oh God, I’m babbling more than that brook. Please tell me to shut up.”
“I like hearing you talk,” he said. “Hey, you know the all-time best way to look at something that’s beautiful?”
“No,” she said, intrigued. “Tell me.”
“Close your eyes and pretend you’re dead. Then pretend you’re given one final chance to come back and examine that beautiful thing. Open your eyes, and there it is.”
“Fantastic,” she remarked.
“That’s the idea.” He smiled, sliding a piece of gum in his mouth. After a few solid chews, Keelan reached over and kissed her gently. Within twenty seconds, the kiss had grown in intensity, and before Sherri knew it, her back was horizontal on the hard wood bench. Feeling blissfully comfortable under the considerable heft of Keelan’s body, she wrapped her arms around him, allowing her hands to explore the curves of his back and butt. His tongue licked Sherri’s lips, and she gasped, bucking her hips up to him as his fingers deftly slid under her shirt. Then he lifted himself off her and gazed into her eyes. “That was amazing,” he confessed, his voice melodious.
“For me too,” she replied dreamily. At this point, Sherri was convinced Keelan was the one to whom she wanted to hand her destiny. He made her feel safe enough to say anything and promise everything.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“Well,” Sherri mused, hesitating only slightly. “I’ve never been with a guy all the way before, and I’d like you to be my first.”
“Wow,” Keelan said. “When?”
“My dad always told me there’s no time like the present.”
“Not sure this is what he had in mind.”
“I always followed the rules and never got into trouble,” Sherri said. “I’ve been saving up for the time when trouble would present itself, and here it is. Don’t you think I paid my dues?”
“You’re probably paid up through next spring,” he agreed with enthusiam.
Fingers curling together like they couldn’t get close enough, Sherri led her magnetic stranger to the Red Roof Lodge, a creaky ten-room motel owned and operated by the parents of her brash, offbeat pal Brianna Rykoff. When Brianna wasn’t reading tarot cards or flirting with older guys, she was fussing with various styles of neon-colored make-up. Her parents were on a ten-day vacation that took them to Pittsburgh, Pamplona, and Kiev, which meant Brianna and her mischievous younger brother were running the place.
Sherri darted into the lobby and grabbed the key to room 9. “How long you want it for?” Brianna asked, barely taking her heavily mascaraed eyes off her toenails which she was painting candy apple red.
“The rest of my life,” Sherri mumbled, barely audible.
Keelan followed her up one flight of carpeted stairs and then down a hallway of flickering fluorescents, anticipation building with every step. Their designated room had no charm whatsoever. The art on the walls was unforgivable and the TV set wasn’t even flat screen. The air was stale, as if the room had been unoccupied for weeks. But the queen-size bed was clean and cozy, and that was all that mattered. This was where Sherri and Keelan consummated their forty-minute relationship. Keelan’s large muscular frame melded beautifully with Sherri’s bouncing young breasts, narrow waist, and long, slender legs. Sherri’s virginal white skin tingled with sublime pleasure, and she felt every cell in her body being coddled and caressed. “I can’t stop touching you,” he groaned as she wrapped her legs around his waist.
“Don’t,” she moaned.
Afterwards, wrapped in a cloud of bliss, Sherri closed her eyes and embedded her head on Keelan’s chest. “You feel so great,” she sighed. This was Sherri’s new favorite place on the planet - beside Keelan Dunne in bed. She was certain she’d love him at sixty, seventy and eighty, stripped of his youthful beauty but still possessing the mysterious spark that filled her.
Sherri was astounded by the suddenness with which love arrived. Keelan came along and claimed her, and willingly she went. It was that simple.
Via cell phone, Sherri told her mother that she was spending the night with Brianna.
“Are you sure?” her mother asked. “Tomorrow’s the wedding.”
“I’m sure,” she responded. “Really, truly, absolutely.” Before the barrage of questions began, Sherri pretended she lost signal. It was the first time she had ever fibbed to her mother, but she felt no guilt. What she felt was fate pulling its strings with a sturdy, sure-handed inevitability, arranging everything rapidly and rightfully. “I want to die this way,” she tenderly told Keelan while snuggling against the soft golden skin of his torso.
“Do you mean that?” he asked.
“Yes. Really, truly, absolutely,” she murmured, mimicking the words she’d just spoken to her mother.
“I am so totally sure.”
“All right.” Keelan reached over to his blue jeans which were hanging over the wooden desk chair, grabbed the paring knife Sherri had given him, and stabbed her seven times. Then he closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, awkwardly rolling off the rumpled bed with a thump. After rinsing the blood off his hands, arms and face, he grabbed two pieces of pucker me berry sugarless gum, tossed them in his mouth and chewed like these were the last sticks of gum in the world.
The next day, the wedding of Priscilla Wooten and Dean Ward proceeded without a hitch except for the fact that one of the bridesmaids didn’t show up. Sherri’s mother Violet had called the police when she didn’t surface that Sunday morning, but because of the call Sherri made the previous day, the authorities didn’t take the disappearance too seriously; they assumed the young girl had gone off on some wild romantic adventure.
Brianna Rykoff had completely forgotten that her friend had taken a room key, so it wasn’t until Monday when Mr. and Mrs. Rykoff flew in from the Ukraine that Sherri’s nude body, with its seven stab wounds, was discovered in bed at the Red Roof Lodge. The officers assigned to the case agreed this was the most gruesome, horrifying crime scene in the history of their district.
Violet Lambirth, who resembled Sherri to such a degree that they’d often been mistaken for sisters, decided to bury her daughter in the bridesmaid dress she’d planned to wear to Priscilla’s wedding. Traffic moved slowly in the torrential rain, but that didn’t stop those who wanted to pay their last respects to Sherri Lambirth. The church overflowed with shell-shocked friends, tranquilized neighbors, and still-smitten teenage boys who wanted to get one final look at their elusive goddess in her permanent bed of pine, the second most expensive coffin in the casket catalogue.
The police began a massive investigation. Every day, some new development grabbed the headlines despite no solid leads. “All I saw was the back of a head,” Brianna explained to the rabid media, “and I’ve seen the backs of so many that I can’t tell one from the other.”
Wednesday at midnight, the main terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was predictably desolate. A few scattered airline personnel wandered about, but the day’s flights had arrived and departed.
A middle-aged janitor was emptying the trash in one of the men’s rooms when he noticed an unusual silver glow amidst the paper towels and discarded fast food items that filled the large plastic bag. With gloved hands, he took a closer look. It was the five- inch blade of a knife. Ordinarily, he would’ve tossed the item away, but because of the recent stabbing, he turned it into the police.
It was quickly determined that this was the weapon that penetrated Sherri Lambirth’s body seven times. (The mahogany handle that was attached to the blade had been removed.) A shocking revelation: the knife was traced to Wade’s Hardware. Wade instantly removed the item from his shelves.
Violet Lambirth lay in her mess of a bed in a thick haze. With the curtains drawn and the lights dim, she’d retreated into a state of oblivion. The spirit had been squeezed from her like water from a sponge, leaving nothing but crippling, inconsolable sadness.
The landline in Violet’s bedroom blasted like a deafening fire alarm, and she covered her ears to muffle the startling sound. By the seventh sadistic ring, it seemed like the caller wasn’t going to give up. Violet reluctantly reached over. “Hello,” she croaked.
“This is Lurene Crowley, the gal who hit your Buick in the mall parking lot last year, remember? Red hair? Slim? Well-dressed?”
“What can I do for you, Lurene?” Violet asked, struggling to sit up in bed.
“I know who killed your daughter,” she stated. “I saw him at your husband’s hardware store.”
Violet’s heart began to race. “You did?” she asked, gripping her pillow for support.
“Indeed I did. I didn’t even hear about it till this morning. Otis and I were in Phoenix for the second wedding of my third husband’s sister. We got back today and I read about it. My heart’s aching for you.”
“I always suspected you were a decent person,” Lurene explained, “even after making such a fuss about that little ding.”
“Little ding?” Violet asked, bristling. “The entire door on the passenger side had to be replaced.”
“I apologized, didn’t I?” Lurene reminded her.
Violet couldn’t believe the conversation had veered to this. “Tell me what you know about my daughter or I’ll have a SWAT team banging on your door within five minutes.”
“No need to get testy, sweets,” Lurene said with a smidgeon of fear. Then she recounted the story from the beginning, beginning with Sherri helping her find a box of roofing nails.
“You’d never seen the guy before?” Violet asked.
“No. He flew in for Dolores Wooten’s daughter’s wedding.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I happened to be shopping for a box of roofing nails, and I couldn’t help hearing part of their conversation.”
“Listen to me,” Violet said, eyes blazing. “As soon as you hang up the phone, call the police station and ask for Officer Flanagan, he’s leading the investigation. Tell him exactly what you just told me.”
“I’ll do that pronto.”
On the front page of all the morning newspapers was a photograph of Keelan Dunne looking GQ handsome in his white shirt, silver tie and navy blue pinstripe suit. The headline read: STATE’S MOST WANTED MAN.
“I want to talk to him,” Violet told Officer Flanagan after Keelan was transported back to Tacoma and put behind bars.
It wasn’t customary for a mother to want to meet her daughter’s alleged killer, and Violet’s request was summarily denied. After threatening to go to the press, Flanagan caved. “You can talk to him,” he told her on the phone, “with one stipulation. The boy’s parents want to meet you first.”
“Why?” she asked with suspicion.
“I don’t really know,” he replied.
She didn’t expect to like the parents of her daughter’s murderer, but the moment she laid eyes on them, all preconceived opinions vanished. Standing nervously side by side, their faces crumbling with anguish, Bernadette and Jay Dunne offered their hands. “We’re so very sorry,” Bernadette said in a careful voice.
“We can’t even put it into words,” Jay Dunne added. “There aren’t words to express our sorrow.”
The tense, tough expression on Violet’s face softened. “Why did you want to talk to me?” she asked.
In a secluded corner of a large lobby, the women made themselves as comfortable as possible on a lumpy sofa while Jay took a hardback chair cushioned in brown polyester. “You need to know a few things about our son,” Jay said.
“And we want you to hear it from us,” Bernadette added. “Not from some third party who may have the facts wrong.”
Violet shifted restlessly. “I’m listening,” she said.
It was Bernadette who told the story, starting with Keelan’s odd behavior when he was three. After numerous visits to doctors and neurologists, the young boy was diagnosed with autism. As he grew older, he seemed to mature normally. But around the age of ten, he became painfully shy and extremely awkward in social situations. He had no friends and dreaded going to school. He acted strangely and took things literally; he couldn’t tell when someone was joking. His diagnosis was changed to Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism.
“When he turned fifteen,” Jay interjected, “he had a growth spurt, physically. He developed into this great-looking young man and started getting attention. That’s when we thought it was best to enroll him in a special school.”
“He still goes there,” Bernadette said. “He’s well-liked.” Tears arrived suddenly; she angrily wiped them away.
The metal door opened slowly and silently. Violet braced herself, then carefully stepped into the sparse, refrigerated room, leaving two armed security guards standing outside. She deliberately averted her eyes from the man sitting on the other side of the enormous wooden table. As the door closed, Keelan gasped; that’s when Violet forced herself to face him.
Keelan’s mouth was hanging open and his eyes were bulging. “Am I dreaming?” he asked. “Sherri? You look…you look exactly like Sherri.” Violet gingerly sat down, studying Keelan’s face. His eyes weren’t the least bit elusive, the way she expected them to be. They were open, welcoming. He had a sculpted nose and the bronzed skin of a South Beach lifeguard. “You aren’t dreaming,” she said in a low voice, noticing that his hands were restrained in metal cuffs. “And I’m not Sherri.”
“You even sound like her,” Keelan said. “You’re Sherri.”
“No,” Violet calmly explained. “I’m the woman who gave birth to Sherri. I was very young at the time, barely eighteen.” She shook her head, trying to banish memories of a quick marriage to man she wasn’t sure she loved. “Sherri didn’t live to eighteen.” Now, faced with her daughter’s murderer in this secluded room, the rage Violet expected to feel was surprisingly gone. “Will you answer my questions?” she asked, resting her shaky hands on the smooth brown surface of the table.
“I’ll tell you anything. Everything. Whatever you want to know.”
Violet believed him. “What did my daughter feel toward you?”
“Feel toward me,” he murmured. His sorrowful eyes seemed to be travelling back in time. “We loved each other.”
Violet was taken aback. “In the short time you spent together, you fell in love?”
“I guess love’s the closest thing,” he said. “We didn’t fall in love. We fell into each other. Became part of each other.”
Violet eyed him with suspicion. “Tell me what it felt like,” she said.
“It was magical,” he said, shutting his eyes. “It felt like we could accomplish anything. As long as we were together, it felt like we could fly if we wanted to.”
“How poetic. Please open your eyes and look at me.”
“Sherri was the poetic one,” Keelan said, opening his eyes. “Not me.”
“Yes, she was. Poetic, creative, brilliant. How many stabs did it take to kill my daughter?” Violet asked in an emotionless manner. “All seven?”
Shaken by the question, Keelan avoided looking at Violet, staring at the cuffed hands on his lap instead. “I don’t know,” he said.
Despite the cold air, sweat was gathering on Violet’s forehead. “How could you not know, Keelan? Think back.”
“My eyes were closed,” he said. A tense pause followed. “It might’ve been after the second or maybe the third.”
“Then why did you keep going? Why did you continue stabbing her?”
“I wanted to make sure I did the job all the way. I didn’t want her to turn into a vegetable.”
“That was thoughtful,” Violet said, her expression tightening. She took a deep, much needed breath. “Did she scream?”
“No,” he said. “She trusted me, no matter what I did, like I trusted her.”
“If you loved her, why did you use the knife in the first place?”
“Because I thought she wanted me to,” he said with sincerity.
Violet’s head jerked back in disbelief. This was one scenario that hadn’t even crossed her mind, and she thought she’d come up with every possibility in the book.
“Why on earth did you think she wanted you to?” she asked.
“We were in each other’s arms, and she said ‘I want to die like this.’ That’s what she said. I asked if she was sure, and she said yes. Well, what she actually said was, ‘Really, truly, absolutely.’ So I thought she wanted to die right then and there because that’s what she said. But now...well, now after what people told me, I’m not sure.”
“Not sure,” Violet slowly repeated as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Didn’t anyone explain this to you?”
Keelan looked lost and frightened, like a five-year-old accidentally separated from his mother at a crowded mall. “No,” he mumbled. “All they told me was that she didn’t really want to die even though she said she did.”
“My God,” Violet whispered in astonishment, staggered by the simplicity of Keelan’s psyche. “You need to listen to what I’m going to tell you. Will you listen carefully?”
“Yes, I promise.”
She took a few highly charged moments to gather her thoughts before speaking. “Sherri wasn’t being realistic,” Violet explained. “When she told you she wanted to die like that, she meant she wanted to be at your side when she was very old and ready to die. She meant that she wanted to spend her life with you, until the end. That’s what she meant when she said, ‘I want to die like this.’”
Keelan allowed the words to sink in. Gradually his face contorted in a strange, complex way. The expression of confusion gave way to one of profound sadness which became one of self-hatred which turned into one of excruciating pain. That’s the one that remained. Suddenly tears were coming down his cheeks heavier than the rain outside. He tried to wipe them away, but it wasn’t easy in handcuffs. His head suddenly jerked from left to right to left to right to left to right to left to right. Even after his neck went limp like the broken stem of a flower, the head continued to move vehemently, from left to right to left to right to left to right, as if trying to separate itself from the rest of his body. It wouldn’t have surprised Violet to see him tearing at his own flesh.
It was clear to Violet that nobody fully understood the mysterious terrain of Keelan Dunne’s head, its unending limitations, its childlike innocence and fervent desire to do the proper thing. When he ended Sherri Lambirth’s life, there was madness to his method. No evil, no maliciousness. Just plain old-fashioned madness.
Violet rose to her feet and slowly stepped toward him. She tenderly touched his head so that it would stop moving so violently, and it responded by slowing down before coming to a complete stop.
Violet leaned against the table. Her two hands gravitated to Keelan’s head and held it like a precious gem. Then she carefully guided it to her chest. “She captured your heart,” Violet sadly said.
“Forever,” he responded. A speck of colorful memory came alive in his head. Then it disappeared.
“And you captured hers.” Keelan’s physical closeness to Violet nourished, energized, and unnerved her. Appalled and embarrassed by this sudden surge of feeling, she closed her eyes. The mother was now standing in her dead daughter’s shoes, carrying on something that seemed destined, preordained. Violet knew that this fleeting moment wouldn’t last long enough; even if it lasted all day, the end would come too soon.
“Will I go to prison for the rest of my life?” Keelan quietly asked.
“No,” she replied, opening her eyes. “I won’t let that happen. In a strange way, my daughter returned to me in you.” She clenched a handful of his warm, silky hair, brought her lips to it, and allowed its fresh, masculine scent to penetrate her. “I feel her in your hair, on your skin. I see her in your eyes.” The room was no longer cold.
Keelan’s left cheek was now pressed against the bare skin of Violet’s neck. “I love you so much,” he whispered, holding onto her like he never wanted to let go, the idea of a second chance buried so deeply in the far reaches of his brain that his conscious mind was unaware of it. His head remained perfectly still.
“I love you, too,” she whispered.
“What am I going to do?” he moaned. Keelan held on and couldn’t help thinking what he didn’t dare say out loud - that he wanted to die this way.
The ticking of the stainless steel clock on the wall suddenly seemed amplified.
“Don’t worry,” Violet tenderly told him. “I’ll take care of you.”
Violet’s hands crept down Keelan’s scalp slowly, methodically, until they reached the neck with its baby soft, malleable skin. Her fingers formed a complete circle around his throat.
The clock continued to tick, louder and louder.
© 2004-2011 Underground Voices