by M. M. De Voe
The young woman chose the bench beneath the only maple tree, a tree stunted by lack of light. This tree may remind her subliminally of home: she has the plain, craggy facial structure of a New England girl, born in an antique-cluttered village by a lake, transported by proudly still-married parents to the big city for college. Now all of that is far behind her. Nothing practical left: her little black dress shows some waist and some hip through star-shaped cutouts, the dress is evening wear, probably expensive—even though it’s mid-afternoon, even though she works at a rotten barista job. From this vantage, I can’t see her feet, only her face and torso. Her eyeliner sparkles gold; rather much for a job that chiefly involves steamed milk and an iPad. A passing dog barks at a curious squirrel and she smiles. A pretty smile. A youthful smile. Naïve: she’s the type that thinks bad things happen only to people who don’t try hard enough. She wears an eternally hopeful expression. She has to be an actress or a model—or believes she will be soon. She looks like I used to look. I drew a mean cappuccino, met the eyes of my customers, glared at the condescending ones, winked at the cute ones, searched always for my big lucky break.
The young woman sits alone on the park bench enjoying the rust-toned rainbow of autumn leaves decorating this crisp but gray October afternoon when the old guy approaches. I watch through the branches. I know what’s next. The guy looks harmless, a laughable caricature of the successful older gentleman. Shiny teeth, bouffant black hair, deep tan. I see through him; she is too young for the x-ray vision of age: the teeth are false, the hair is implanted and dyed, the tan owes more to lamps than beaches. Iron tipped cane? Genuine—but more weapon than affectation. The piercing eyes have seen too much, yet remain eager to see more. That’s attractive, in its way. Like an echo of a song that got stuck in your head once when you were doing something risky and foolish.
She can’t be more than twenty, a college kid working extra shifts to pay for audition shoes. Not a thought past next month’s rent.
“Mind if I sit here?” he says, startling her into looking at him. Strangers don’t usually talk to you in a city. This man is a few generations beyond her interest level, so she ignores him: not a prospective mate, not a friend, not a threat. She’s wrong about the last one. I move to get a better vantage.
The shoes. Pink toenails peep from gold straps. Gem encrusted stiletto heels after the fashion of the hour. Accessories like that cost more than their asking price. I should know.
Leaves scatter at her feet: the brown sighs of spent beauty. Her legs move restlessly. I can hear the insistent shush of the leaves she disturbs, a supernatural warning she won’t heed.
He asks again. Polite. Persistent. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me. Would you mind if I sat down?”
“Not at all,” she quickly replies, her sudden blush because she fears the old gentleman will think her rude. Like all young people, far too worried about their image in the eyes of others. “Of course. Please. Sit.”
The old-school manners her doting parents taught her: he twists them into an opportunity.
She scoots over on the long bench. The old man slides into the wide space, leaving enough room for a third person, but on the wrong side of himself.
I don’t interfere. Yet.
Barely two minutes pass. They watch a coo of pigeons battling an aggressive sparrow. They look at their phones. He checks a stock price. She giggles at Instagram: a sepia-filtered close-up of long-lashed Asian eyes peeking over a brimming glass of wine. She clicks the heart. Sighs happily. Lowers her phone. Picks it up to check the time. Her neighbor leans into her as if about to reveal a secret or tell an off-color joke. He points at her feet.
“What color do they call that?”
It’s the line he always uses. I had just had my very first pedicure. I was eighteen. That was fifteen years ago. I haven’t aged. I never will age. I died in his studio. He took pictures. Before and after.
She looks at her manicured toes. “Pink,” she says, dryly. Girls are smarter now. Smarter but still naïve.
He gets her joke. Leans back. Laughs. There’s a bit of Cary Grant about it. A bit of Gregory Peck. He’s that old. But still fit. Still spry, they would say. He still has it. His spine is not curved as one would expect from a man with a cane. The cane breathes money but hides weaponry. The overly sweet drink he will offer her upstairs will be drugged. His eyes are sharp. His hands look particularly strong. He drags from a cigarette I hadn’t noticed. Smoking is new for him. I wonder what it hides. He exhales hard, keeping the stream of smoke away from the young woman, blowing it towards the empty seat on the bench. My seat, though I don’t take it. She looks grateful for the consideration. That’s bad. She sees him as a nice guy. He’s not.
“Yeah, I know it’s pink,” he says. “But what do they call it?”
There is a moment when I think she will elude him. She hesitates as if debating whether to tell
this old dude to get the hell away from her. But instead she laughs and blushes.
He laughs. Repeats the name. She is warming to him. I consider my options. There isn’t much I can do; I know this from past experience. They trust nothing, these girls, except compliments. And bad guys feed them excellent compliments.
“That’s nice,” he says, “Real nice. You from Brooklyn? The Bronx?”
“No,” she replies. I can tell from her tone a doubt has crossed her mind. She’s wondering suddenly how she has come to be in conversation with this guy. When he stubs out his cigarette, the smell of his smoke is replaced by something altogether more sour. Age. Knowledge. Intent. She doesn’t notice, but I feel dizzy. It’s now or never.
“Well, you seem tough. I like a fierce young woman. You an actress?”
“Why? Are you a producer?”
“Matter of fact.” He leans back. “I am.”
They both notice the crazy rustling leaves. The maple shakes like a storm is coming. The other trees are still. The sky is a thick gray blanket, motionless. Not a breath of wind rustles a blade of grass. The clouds don’t move. The tree branches flail. It’s weird. A warning. A sign.
Unfortunately, the shared experience draws her closer to him.
“That was weird.”
“There must be a wind eddy here. Or something. Anyway. Yeah. I’m a producer. And I like your look.”
I shake the tree again, but to no avail. He has won again. Over and over, he wins. Twice in the last fifteen years. A careful five-year schedule of unsolvable atrocities.
“You’re putting me on.”
“Here’s my card, sweetheart. I’m the real deal. My studio is just upstairs. Let me buy you a drink.”
“Sure, why not?”
“I’m in the middle of a shift.”
“They won’t miss you,” he grins. “This is the city. People come and go.”
My ghost can only warn her as I tried to do for the two others. I care, but I am not responsible. Those young women are haunting spots more meaningful to them. A medical student and a waitress. All wannabe models. Is there a girl in the world who doesn’t wish someone would say she is perfect, exactly as she is? There is nothing more I can do. I shake the branches and hope. And pray. The young woman tilts her head as if she hears something funny.
“Wait just a minute,” she says, and bites a dry flake from her lower lip. Her hands smooth her hair. There is no wind. The tree showers her with leaves that have died too quickly to fall on their own. Her forehead furrows. She looks for the bird, the squirrel—sees only autumn branches. Only the brassy beauty of the nearly-dead.
He looks at his over-sized diver’s watch, reminding her he holds a promise of wealth, but that the offer is fleeting. He beckons her with the hand holding the lit cigarette. The hot ember traces what could be a magic sigil, what could be some kind of enchantment, some sort of bewitchment. Some violence against nature.
“Come up. Do you think I’m going to hurt you? Do I look like I could?”
...The rest of "Shutter" can be read in Volume 3 of the Literary Journal.
M. M. De Voe writes interstitial fiction and has been published in magazines ranging from the St. Petersburg Review to Daily Science Fiction. Her poetry has won first place in the Lyric as well as the NYC’s PoetTweet contest. She has also won top prizes in flash fiction, literary fiction and horror, and co-wrote a sci-fi musical that was produced by Tisch School of the Arts. Founder of the literary nonprofit Pen Parentis, she lives in Manhattan, writes what she likes, and does the next thing on a daily basis.