By Daniel C. Bartlett
young guys working at Market Pantry back then, there
was fierce competition for Esme’s attention. To say she seemed from an exotic place
isn’t enough. She was from another plane altogether. Her lithe figure, hair so blonde
it was almost white, an unplaceable foreign accent. There was something delicate and precious
about her. Something that made you ache to protect her. Any of us would have killed for
Which is exactly what happened.
have made a deal with the manager to let us carry her
groceries to her house. She lived around the block, two streets behind the store.
She apologized the first time I bagged
and carried her milk, soup cans, bread, and eggs. “I’m sorry for walking slowly,”
she said. “This is my brief escape. Frank doesn’t like me to go anywhere. Frank’s
my … husband. He can’t get out much at all. Work injury.” She leaned
close and whispered, “That’s not the only thing he can’t do much anymore.
It makes him mean.”
As I reeled to mentally
track all that, she asked about me. I told her I was working to pay my way through
college. She was maybe five years older than I was. But she seemed far beyond that. I was
drawn in instantly.
here?” she asked.
“Frank brought me
here. He has connections here. I don’t know a soul.”
She didn’t tell me where she was
from. I wasn’t sure if I should ask. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.
When we got to the end of her driveway
she paused, took in a long breath. As though steeling herself. Then I followed her to the
front porch where she had me set down her groceries.
better get them from here,” she said. “I’m
sorry I can’t give you a tip. Frank checks the receipts and counts the change.”
I’d been so captivated that I was
disturbed by the mention of a tip. That seemed to corrupt the connection I felt.
time I saw Esme, she checked out in Lance’s lane.
Brash, cocky, gym-pumped-muscled Lance. He bagged her groceries, then followed her out,
sculpted arms hefting her bags. Lance, with his self-assured grin, was the type to view
her as a trophy. Something to be won.
spent the rest of the day simmering in vague frustration.
I knew it was jealousy and there was no valid reason for it. I had no claim to her.
I found myself watching for her,
holding my breath, hoping she’d pick my lane.
I carried her groceries home. Sometimes another bagger did. I got the impression it wasn’t
random. She chose her company for each trip. She often stood looking at the lanes, waving
other customers ahead of her, then giving a slight smile and stepping into her chosen line.
We all wanted to be the one who escorted her home.
fools we all thought we’d be her savior.
I saw her husband, Frank, smoking a cigarette on the
driveway. He looked like a guy who’d once been powerful but whose muscles had softened
to flab. Broad nose and forehead. Unshaven shadow darkening his face. He leaned heavily
on a thick cane.
her already sluggish pace as we approached. He watched
us. Took a drag on his cigarette. Then tossed it into the yard and walked away, back toward
the house. His cane knock-knock-knocked against the concrete, somehow both menacing
Esme said, and honest-to-God shivered. “It’s got a knife blade inside it. He
likes to sheath and unsheathe it again and again. He smiles at the sound of the blade sliding
open. I think one day he’ll use it on me.”
She touched her hand to my arm. It
was perfectly casual yet somehow also intimate. Nothing was promised. Nothing offered.
But I’d have been willing right then and there to kill.
better stop here,” she said. She had me set her
groceries there on the driveway. “I’ll make a few trips for these.”
I started to protest, but in a
pleading tone she whispered, “Please. Don’t make it worse. Frank will….” She trailed
off, touched a shaking hand to her eye. “One day I’ll get free of him.”
The last time I saw her,
she wore huge sunglasses that covered her face. She kept settling and resettling
them. As though making sure they continued to hide her face.
considering those impulse items near the checkout lanes. She looked toward my lane. Then
to Lance’s. I saw him notice her sunglasses too. Saw him tighten his fingers into
a fist. His usual smirk was a tight line. I swear she looked toward me with a sad smile
like saying goodbye, then stepped into Lance’s lane.
he lifted her bags and followed her out, I saw her place a hand on the hard curve of his
bicep beneath his red uniform shirt.
I know for certain is had she not chosen Lance that
day, it might have been me in his place. Had she protected me when I thought I’d
be her protector?
The assault was brutal. Lance repeatedly
stabbed Frank with the blade hidden in that cane, then beat him with the cane itself, leaving
him lying half-in and half-out of the front door. Esme left town not long after that. I
never saw her again. I heard she inherited a sizeable sum, including a massive life insurance
payout. She was long gone by the time Lance was convicted of murder.
Years later, I still wonder what
happened that day. Maybe Esme manipulated Lance into doing her dirty work. Maybe Frank
instigated something. Or maybe Lance simply lost it.
If it’s that easy for us to be
turned into killers, what hope is there in this world?
Daniel C. Bartlett’s fiction
has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine,
Mystery Magazine (formerly Mystery Weekly), descant, Iron Horse
Literary Review, Chiron Review, and Crab Creek Review.
He is also currently working with agent Jacques de Spoelberch to place a mystery novel
series with a publisher. He currently teaches writing and literature at Lamar University
in Beaumont, Texas.