“I can’t do this. I just can’t! WE can’t!” Danny looked at Veronica with a mix of frustration and anxiety. Even…hatred? As if this was completely her fault.
She didn’t know what to think. Not now – not at this moment. She could only stare back at him with a sense of uncertainty. But that’s usually what she ever saw whenever she gazed intently at his forever-grizzled face; his verdant eyes spiraling like little green apples. If there was one thing she truly liked about him – perhaps the only thing – it was that unique shade of green his eyes bore.
“You can’t do what?” She knew the answer, but she still wanted him to say it out loud. The way she made him say out loud that he loved her.
She always had to force him to say things like that; force him to reveal his emotions. Her mother had told her men were that way. And warned her not to drag it out of them; the way you drag an incorrigible child into church.
Now she regretted forcing him to say or do anything. Her body contorted into the letter ‘N’ on the couch, hands on her stomach and her deep auburn hair a stringy mess.
She was shivering.
“This!” Danny finally muttered. His eyes had darkened to near-brown. “I didn’t expect – this.” He waved a hand in front of him, as if he’d suddenly begun worrying about weight gain.
She worried, too. Worried now that he’d never put a ring on her finger. Why would he, she pondered, the sinking realization that she’d soon be alone – in this condition.
And why hadn’t this apple tree bore any fruit? She stood in the back yard, pressing her hands against the tree’s crumbling bark.
When they leased this house nearly four years ago, the owner told them the tree might be dead, or at least dying and that she might have to remove it altogether. It hadn’t produced any apples in a few years.
It was the largest tree in the back yard and the one closest to the house. It still provided some shade, even with a sparse number of leaves clutching to its branches. Cutting it down seemed almost sacrilegious.
Despite its pathetic appearance and looming demise, Veronica felt comfortable standing near it. The tension that coated the house like honey on a sweater dissipated in the yard.
“I can’t do this,” Danny muttered.
His eyes were the last things Veronica ever saw. And his words were the last things she ever heard.
“I can’t do this.”
He obliterated what little blood had spilled into the tub with bleach and some other chemical. She had begun to bleed, but wrapping her in the plastic tarp from his boat kept it from reaching the floor.
The ground in the back yard was too firm to dig. Too dry? Too much clay in the soil? He didn’t know and couldn’t worry about that now. He was already growing tired; his entire form dripping like a soda bottle beneath a glaring sun; his hands and arms aching from the firm grip he had on the shovel.
It was close to midnight.
They would find her out here, he realized. He dropped the shovel in the middle of the yard and dragged her – still ensconced in the tarp – towards the garage. He couldn’t see the streaks of blood along the grass, as he ambled past the apple tree. Her pink blouse had begun to soak up blood draining from her nose. He grabbed an old sheet from the garage and draped it over the driver’s seat of her car. He didn’t want to take his own vehicle.
He had to get her out of here – away from here.
The drive to the far eastern end of the county, near an old industrial area, took what seemed like hours. But driving in the darkness always felt longer.
He could only hope the sheet and a pair of old work gloves would conceal any trace of him. He thought it ingenious that he’d shut off her phone, before dropping it into her purse when he left the house.
He plowed through the darkness of the industrial park and the dimly-lit unsafe neighborhoods nearby, dragging both the sheet and the tarp with him. Disposing of each in different dumpsters along the way, he continued walking back west.
It would have been too easy to flag down a truck driver or get a cab. Even easier to drive her car back to the house and say she left with someone else; someone he didn’t know.
But he just couldn’t take the chance in being seen. He was shrewd enough to leave his own phone at the house. What an odd position: phoneless and shirtless, plodding the thirty or so miles back to the house on foot. Who does that?
“I can’t do this,” he kept repeating, during the trek.
The sun had begun to crawl onto the horizon, when he staggered into the house. His body was more sore than it had ever been in his entire life. He could hardly stand in the shower. He called his supervisor and said he’d come down with some kind of stomach virus.
His body ached – throughout the day and into the evening. Every movement – no matter how slight – drove knives into his muscles. Even picking up his phone and calling family and friends to ask Veronica’s whereabouts hurt.
He also called Veronica’s phone a few times; had to be sincere.
“Do you have any idea where Veronica might have gone at that time of night?” The detective, Alafia, had a voice that made her sound more like an executive secretary than a law enforcement official. Her neatly-aligned corn rows seemed to glisten.
Danny pretended to think for a moment, before uttering a quiet, “Uh-uh, no.” He forced himself to look directly at her and not swallow.
Her steadfast gaze made him feel she didn’t really believe him. I guess they haven’t found Veronica and the car yet, he surmised. His stomach started to cramp, only adding to the crippling pain that gripped his body.
“May we search the house?” Alafia asked.
A sharp ‘no’ prepared to leap off his tongue, but he managed to stop it. “Um…yeah. I guess so.”
But nothing – they found nothing. Nothing bad. Nothing out of the ordinary. Even both bathrooms looked good.
They finally left, and Danny could breathe normally. Almost. As he sat back down on the couch, a sharp pain rolled through his midsection and traveled up and down his spine. He doubled over and scrunched himself into a fetal position. He wanted to lay down in bed, but he could barely move, much less stand and walk.
He remained on the couch for what seemed like hours. Then Alafia called.
They’d found the car.
He swallowed audibly. “Where?”
“On the east end of town – way out there.”
He shouldn’t have felt surprised. Someone was bound to find the car. And her.
“We had it towed back to the station for analysis,” Alafia continued. “But we checked it first. Veronica isn’t in there.”
Another sharp pain ran through his gut.
“So she’s still missing.”
Isn’t in there, he repeated to himself. Isn’t in there?! “So…um, what now?”
“Well, we’re searching the entire area. It’s a large place. We hope we can find surveillance cameras anywhere that might have captured the car.”
Surveillance cameras! Shit! ‘Oh, God,’ he sputtered.
“What’s that?” asked Alafia.
“Um…maybe she…um…left with some…someone.” His stomach felt like it was flipping over. “I mean…”
“Well, we just found the car, which is a major development. An important one, too.”
Isn’t in there? What the fuck?!
His phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. Family, friends, neighbors – almost everyone they knew kept calling.
And his stomach wouldn’t stop cramping. Every movement, every step sent nauseous spears through him. His hands, legs and back still ached unmercifully. It had been two days. And he hurt as bad as that moment when he finally got back to the house.
He couldn’t go into work – again. And he couldn’t make it down to police headquarters for a more detailed interview.
So Alafia and two colleagues returned to the house and made Danny recount every moment up to the time Veronica left. He managed to sputter out the details; his stomach still cramping.
“What’s wrong?” Alafia asked.
“I don’t know. I must’ve ate something bad.” He grunted between words and tried taking deep breaths.
Police told him to stay away from Veronica’s family; not to even contact them. Fine with me, he grunted. They had already stopped calling.
Her phone revealed nothing incriminating, except the usual angst of a woman feeling dejected; sentiments that manifested in text messages to him and close friends. Surveillance cameras were also devoid of anything concrete. Except one – one showing the car entering the industrial park. But it vanished into the maze of buildings and the cover of darkness. They couldn’t see who was driving it and they couldn’t see anyone leave on foot.
Danny grinned in the solitude of the house. He was more clever than even he thought he could be. Still – isn’t in there? He still didn’t understand that; couldn’t understand it. How the hell did that happen?!
Too many people eyed him suspiciously. Appearing on local media didn’t seem to help, even if he looked realistically sad and distressed.
Maybe all pretending is what irritated his stomach. The daggers of nausea came with unrelenting ferocity. He could even feel them in his back.
“What’s wrong?” his supervisor asked – again.
He’d grown used to the question, but he’d grown tired of it, too. “Fucking nausea,” he groaned. “I swear that stomach virus is still in me.”
Something was inside of him. He just didn’t know what. But it felt like a hamburger that refused to digest.
“Isn’t in there?” he continuously mumbled to himself. Isn’t in there? Then where did she go? Who came by and took her? He could’ve sworn he was alone when he entered that industrial park. Isn’t in there?!
She was still alive! Or had survived long enough to crawl out of the car. But where did she go?
Oh hell! She couldn’t have survived. He was certain she was dead.
Or maybe…”Fuck!” he hollered into the quiet darkness of the bedroom, bolting upright. It was three in the morning, and he was asking himself way too many questions and driving himself crazy.
And that must have been making his entire body hurt. Aching, aching, aching! All over! He still hadn’t healed from that night. All that walking! He’d never walked thirty miles anywhere!
His stomach continued cramping.
“Goddamn! What did I eat?” He hadn’t been able to eat much since that night, so he could probably narrow it down. But he couldn’t remember what. His mind was too discombobulated.
He got to the point where even standing upright hurt. Walking around slightly bent at the waist made some people think he’d thrown out his back.
“Are you alright?” his boss inquired.
“Oh, yeah! I’m just pretending to hurt like hell!” He was so tired of people asking if he was okay.
“I wouldn’t put it past you.”
Alafia called early one morning, as he headed out the door.
“Ouch,” is how he answered.
“What happened?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
Goddamn! “No! It’s my gut! And my back. Everything is hurting like crazy!”
“Oh…well, sorry to call you so early. But we need to come over here to the station.”
“The FBI is now involved in Veronica’s disappearance. They need you to go over some details with us.”
Veronica’s family had contacted the FBI out of frustration; feeling local police weren’t doing enough.
“Can’t we do this over the phone?” Danny asked.
He scooted into police headquarters, still bent at the waist. This time his back seemed to be the source of his agony.
Alafia and two FBI agents greeted him cordially, as a young police officer escorted him into a room. But they made him sit alone sit alone for several minutes.
They’re watching me, he told himself. He’d expected that. But then, everyone was watching him.
“Are you alright?” one of the agents inquired.
“Yeah,” Danny mumbled. “All things considered. What can you tell me?”
“We’re hoping you can tell us something?”
“Anything you couldn’t recall immediately.”
“I’ve already told you people everything about that night! Or told them.” He gestured to Alafia. He leaned back in the hard chair and realized all three of them – Alafia and both agents – glared at him incredulously. Their calm demeanor began to unnerve him. And make him hurt even more.
While Danny was at the station, FBI forensics people towed his car and descended upon the house; scouring every inch of both – as well as the back yard. They took his and Veronica’s laptops, every linen in the house, and even grabbed his boat. They had learned about the new boat cover. They coated almost everything in the house with luminol. The bath tub yielded only trace amounts of blood.
They had already confiscated Danny’s phone.
Isn’t in there?
“We had an argument, and she left,” he reiterated. He tried to maintain his composure, before adding, “She’d never done that before. Just take off like that.”
Veronica’s family confirmed it: she wasn’t the type to leave abruptly. Danny was – but not her.
“I don’t know where she went after she left the house!” he groused to the FBI. Another sharp pain seared his midsection.
“Are you alright?” the agent asked.
If he had a dollar every time someone asked that question…“I don’t know where she went.” He made certain to enunciate each word, as if he was talking to a pack of immigrants. He hunched over. “Goddamn! This shit is getting to me. It’s making me sick.”
Yeah, yeah, he thought. That’s what it was! Or how he could prove he was genuinely upset about Veronica’s disappearance.
Isn’t in there?
Veronica’s family marked the six-month anniversary of her disappearance with a candlelight vigil and another plea for help from the public. Danny stayed away. Even if he wanted to go, he didn’t think he could – not the way he’d been feeling since that night.
I guess my conscious really is getting to me, he grimaced to himself the evening of the vigil. But because the pained anguish on his face was genuine, hostility towards him abated – somewhat – and sympathy increased – somewhat.
He knew police had him under constant surveillance. He didn’t see any unfamiliar vehicles lurking in the neighborhood, but he sensed they were somewhere nearby – especially with the FBI now involved. He could almost feel the heat of peering eyes – even more than the ongoing cramps in his gut. Even taking out the trash and doing the simplest of yardwork tasks required every ounce of strength he could muster.
He started tiring more easily. A small discreet lounge at his work place offered some mid-day respite. Two female colleagues – both pregnant – often joined him. They’d all chat a little and then doze off.
At least they have a reason to be tired, he said. I don’t know what the fuck’s wrong with me!
“You just need to go home,” his boss told him one day. “Don’t risk screwing things up. Besides, you’re under just too much stress right now.”
“Tell me about it!” Danny replied.
After another month, the ‘you-need-to-go-home’ advice became an order.
“Go see a doctor,” a coworker suggested. “I’ve never seen you this way.”
Danny finally bowed to that pressure and made an appointment with a doctor he hadn’t seen in a few years. Simple blood tests and X-rays showed nothing extraordinary. But then, the doctor’s assistant called and said they needed him to undergo an MRI.
“An MRI!” exclaimed Danny.
“Yes,” the assistant replied. “We did notice something a little off in one of the X-rays, so we need to make sure it’s not something wrong with us.”
“Nothing’s wrong with you people,” he mumbled after ending the call. “But goddamn! Some shit’s wrong with me!” He hated to admit that.
Just laying down on the bed hurt. The constant cramping had made a near-45° angle his new normal posture, but the machine induced claustrophobia in him. He had to stretch out his entire form and remain still.
Isn’t in there?
He had to wait a couple of days after the MRI, before the doctor’s assistant called him. “There’s something odd,” she stated plainly.
“Define odd,” he answered.
“We need you to come back into our office to discuss the results and so we can show you. The doctor also wants to run some more intense blood tests.
Define ‘more intense’, he wondered. Something odd? What the fuck’s going on with me?! His mind remained frazzled, as he ambled out of his workplace around 1 p.m. and made his way to the doctor’s office. Parking lots in front of the complex were filled, so he had to park in the garage next to the hospital. On the fifth level. He’d normally take the stairs, but his body felt too exhausted. It didn’t help that a couple – obviously much older than him – decided to take the stairs down from that fifth level, while he waited for the elevator; leaning up against the wall. Its cranky arrival suddenly became one of the sweetest sounds he’d ever heard.
“Right there,” the doctor said, pointing to the MRI plastered against a wall.
Danny squinted, as if he was either developing glaucoma or just getting old, and finally saw the point of concern. A mass of indiscriminate shape lay at the top of his abdominal region.
“We don’t know what that is,” noted the doctor.
That’s never a good thing, when a doctor says shit like that. He cleared his throat. “Well, um…what do YOU think it is?”
“I really don’t know. I hate to speculate at this point. We just found it. Now don’t panic! I need to run some more tests on you. I have to refer you to a gastroenterologist. They can study this more closely. It may just be a mass of tissue. But it could also be a blood clot – or even a tumor.”
Isn’t in there?
He had to wait another month to see the gastroenterologist. By then, his midsection wasn’t just aching in perpetuity – it had begun to bulge noticeably. The mass had to be growing.
Walking from the parking lot into the building again required every fiber of strength he had. But, like the posture 45°, it had become his new normal.
The specialist was even more awestruck by the mass in the new MRI image.
This time, Danny could see it more clearly; no squinting required. As his hands rested on his stomach, he started trembling. “What is that?”
“I really can’t tell from here,” the doctor stated. “I might need to do an internal exam.” She was as calm as Danny’s regular doctor.
“You mean some kind of surgery?!”
“Maybe. Not day surgery. I’d actually have to admit you to the hospital. Now, it may just be a mass of tissue. So don’t panic! But I am concerned.”
Telling his boss and a handful of others about these new developments was more intrusive to him than annoying. Most everything up until this point had just been a nuisance – the police, the FBI, the strange looks from neighbors. Up until this point. Again, he felt vulnerable.
Isn’t in there?
The cramping had become unbearable. His only consolation was that fewer people seemed to believe he was responsible for Veronica’s disappearance. Her family remained suspicious, though, as did some of their mutual friends. Her friends, really.
But just thinking about it only increased the intensity of the pain. Which coincided with the growing bulge in his stomach. The normally smooth contours had slowly vanished into a dome shape.
What the fuck is this thing?! I can’t stand it anymore! He wanted to call the gastroenterologist, but didn’t know if they could do anything now. Could any of those people do anything now?! The pain in his gut had intensified to the point where he had trouble breathing. He felt as if something was pushing up into his chest.
“We think your appendix might have burst,” someone said. “We’re taking you into surgery now.”
He didn’t care. He gasped, his chest undulating with each breath. Goddamn, he screamed. But no sound. Just wheezing. He didn’t know how he’d gotten here – some hospital.
“Blood pressure dropping!” a miscellaneous voice blurted.
He felt it – something pushing up into his chest cavity, as if his stomach was expanding.
Someone draped an oxygen mask over his face, but it only made him feel claustrophobic.
“Heart rate accelerating!”
Pushing, pushing, pushing up into his lungs. His vision had blurred – water pouring from them. He felt light-headed and delirious. His entire body convulsed.
The appendix – or whatever it was – had seemingly expanded. And he couldn’t breathe!
He began to panic.
His entire body heaved and undulated violently; a single trembling wave of flesh and sweat. They could barely hold him down long enough to carve into his side.
The bulge in his gut expanded and – with a large gust of air and a burst of blood – he finally lay still.
The shrill scream of the heart monitor didn’t move anyone from their positions; their brows all furrowed and eyes gazing at the mass of tissue and fluid bubbling in front of them.
And at the tiny figure with tangled auburn hair – quivering in the maroon blood.