Walter awoke from the dream. For a few minutes he wasn’t able to sort out reality from the dream. In one he was an ordinary man. In the other he had once killed a woman years ago and buried the body. He wondered how he could have forgotten such a terrible thing. He mentally catalogued his history. From an ordinary childhood, schooling, degree, job, marriage, to divorce a few years ago.
Everything was in order. No memory of who the woman was or what would have drove him to kill her. By ten O’clock he had forgotten the whole thing. The dream memories evaporated and he got on with his life.
Only the memories didn’t completely vanish. The vague sense that something was wrong gnawed at him for week. He began to double check his work more diligently. Every squeak or smell his car made worried him. He checked the tire pressure and fluid levels. Something he had never really thought to do before. He went in for regular oil changes and just let the people handle it. Now he was obsessively checking everything before each trip.
Over the course of a month his paranoia lessened and he was back to his ordinary, comfortable routine. He forgot about his bad premonitions.
Until sometime later he dreamed about how he met the girl. He worked downtown in a big city. His commute had him passing areas where homeless people congregated. At certain lights they would take turns panhandling with cardboard signs. Walter never gave any of them money. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel for them. He just didn’t want money to go to waste. He gave a prescribed amount at work during the yearly charity drive and tried to leave it at that.
The girl was different. There she was with her sign “Abused Hungry Runaway. Anything Helps!” and her sad face. All of sixteen years old, if that. He rolled down the window when she approached. “What’s your name,” Walter asked. “Emily,” she responded as she reached across through the passenger window to accept a $20 bill.
In truth Walter had never seen a homeless girl even remotely like Emily. She was just a dream. But the dream intruded on his real memories, snuggled up beside them and made a home there. He began to idly wonder what happened to the runaway with the $20 bill.
Slowly and insidiously the memories of Emily began to build. When his wife had left him he was lonely. Seeing Emily had made him think that she could have been his own daughter if his wife hadn’t kept putting off having children, until finally she moved to Florida with her boss from work. The divorce had caught him by surprise in its suddenness. Though he wasn’t as shocked as he thought he would be that she had been having an affair.
“Listen,” she had come out and told him one Tuesday night after dinner, “I’ve been sleeping with my boss for a year and I’m pregnant. I know for sure it’s his. I’m sorry, but I love him and we are moving away. I want a divorce. I won’t ask for anything so please don’t make trouble for me. I’ve had my lawyer draw up the papers.” She slid a manila envelope stuffed with paper across the table to him, got up and walked out the front door. He never saw her again.
That was five years ago. He had spent a year on autopilot mourning his marriage. The fog had lifted since then but he had just stuck to his routine. He had a decent stable job that paid ok. He liked his co-workers well enough but rarely hung out with them. He was content to go home and read books and use the internet when he wasn’t working.
After that first year when the fog had lifted is when he thought he met Emily. After the first $20 he hadn’t seen her again for a couple of weeks. When she showed up on the corner again with her sign she looked worse for the wear. Visibly thinner and with a black eye. She came up to the car and he rolled down the window.
“Walter, right?” she asked and he nodded, “thanks for the twenty bucks last time. You don’t know how much money that is when you are broke. I hate to ask you for more,” she hesitated.
Walter produced three twenty dollar bills and gave them to her.
“I can do twenty a week,” he told her, “I’ve been saving these in case I saw you.”
“Thanks Walter,” she said, “You’re a life saver!”
His awkward response, whatever it might have been was cut off by the light changing. He smiled and waved as he drove off.
Every day after that he would look for her at the light. He was distracted at his job thinking about if she was ok, if she was warm enough and getting enough to eat. In reality he had been a solid, if unflashy, performer at work. Steadily working through the mountains of tasks assigned to him, he enjoyed having a list and checking off his small victories as he went. But he stopped remembering it that way.
The week after giving her sixty dollars he saw her at the window again. He pulled out his $20 bill ready for her. She shambled over to the car. At first she just looked at him with a glazed look in her eyes. The twenty he proffered brought her to her senses.
She looked even worse than just a week ago. She was heading towards emaciation and the bruise from the week before had turned yellow. It was improving but it somehow looked worse to him that way.
“Oh thank God, It’s you Walter. I’m so cold and so hungry. Can I please just get in your car to warm up?”
He unlocked the door and she got in and slumped in the seat. She smelled strongly of unwashed clothes and body odor and he could see the tears welling up in her eyes.
As soon as the light turned he made a right turn and headed to a Starbucks nearby. He picked one he didn’t normally go to. The employees at his favorite would know him and he didn’t want to be recognized with this smelly homeless girl in tow.
“Let’s get some coffee and a snack,” he told her. She just nodded and followed him in.
He bought her a mocha and a snack tray with fruit and cheese. He got himself a latte and they sat down in the back near the restroom. She disappeared into the ladies and was gone a good fifteen minutes. While she was in there Walter sent an email on his phone to work informing them he was “sick – maybe in tomorrow or the next day.”
He fidgeted nervously while she was in the bathroom. He hoped she was OK. Every once in a while he would hear a noise or the water running.
When she came out she looked at least somewhat better. She had clearly cleaned up as best she could. Her clothes were still terribly dirty and smelly but her face was clean and her short hair was wet from a wash in the sink.
“Thanks so much. I never like to clean up in a place like this. I feel so unwelcome. I’m less afraid with you here,” she told him.
She drank her coffee and devoured her food in silence. Walter watched her and tried not to stare. When she finished she sat back in the chair and heaved a big sigh.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry. Do you have to be someplace? Work maybe?”
“Called in sick,” he mumbled, “I can stay here with you for a while of you want.”
“That would be nice,” she said.
She thanked him again and chatted amiably about how tough it was sleeping on the streets. She told him about the muggers and scuzzballs she was always worried about. Where she liked to sleep at night and other details. Her mundane sounding description of her situation completely horrified Walter.
“Listen,” he finally said, “you don’t owe me anything and I’m not trying anything funny, but if you wanted I could take you to my place and we could wash your clothes. I’ve got some food and we could have a proper lunch,” he offered meekly.
“A week ago I would have said no. Now I am so tired, hungry and strung out from heroine I don’t even care if you rape and murder me,” she said.
Noticing the horrified look on his face she followed up with, “Oh, I know you won’t. I know you just want to help.”
They drove back to his house in silence. His house was a two bedroom one bathroom in a pretty neighborhood of the city. Not yet touched by urban blight but not gentrifying at the terrifying rate of some of the neighborhoods in the city.
He sent her into the bathroom with some of his clothes and a bathrobe. She tossed her dirty clothes out a crack in the door. As he bent to pick them up he heard the toilet flush and the shower come on.
We went through her pockets to make sure he didn’t wash anything important. He felt self-conscious about going through her meager belonging and he also felt silly for that. Surely she wouldn’t want him to wash something by accident and she would have kept anything of real value in the bathroom with her.
It turned out she didn’t have anything of consequence in her pockets. Just some napkins from the Starbucks and gum wrappers rolled up in little balls.
He distracted himself on his laptop on the small kitchen table while she showered. She came out in his robe rubbing a towel on her head and smiling.
“I feel human again,” she said.
It wasn’t quite lunch time, but Walter didn’t know what else to do but start cooking. He didn’t normally eat extravagantly. He liked to cook but it wasn’t much fun cooking for himself. He managed to scrape up a passable meal from his dry and canned goods. While he cooked Emily told him about her home. A drunken abusive step dad. How she feared for her life and ran away. At first it had been better than being home. But then it got cold and she fell in with a bad crowd. A boy she knew had got her hooked on heroin and had been trying to get her to turn tricks for drugs.
“I’m doing ok right now,” she told him, “but I know when the craving sets in I’ll do anything for more. Your money helped me out last time. I’m not asking for more. I just don’t know what to do.”
Somehow they hatched a plot to lock her in the guest room while she went through withdrawal. Walter left her at the house and went to Home Depot for screws and latches. They made the windows fast and installed a bar over the bedroom door. They played out different escape and feeding scenarios until they were satisfied it would work.
And that’s how she died. Walter had just locked her in the room and forgot about her for some time. Like the goldfish he had as a kid and forgot to take care of. He remembered waking up one Saturday morning and having a panicked realization that he had forgotten all about the girl in the guest room. He had found her dead. Mournfully he had dug a deep grave in the weed infested garden. He wrapped her wasted form in the bed sheets and carried her out once it got dark and filled in the hole with her body in it.
Once these memories surfaced, Walter didn’t question them. They were riddled with holes and contradictions, but all memories are if you think about them very hard. He was sure he had killed this poor girl. In a panic he went to the guest bedroom and looked for signs of the prison he had constructed. There was no sign of it. No sign of any of Emily’s things anyplace in the house. He did find what he thought was a rolled up gum wrapper in the laundry room. He took it to work and threw it away in the big trash can in the kitchen.
Of course Emily had never existed. She was just a figment out of a dream that had somehow grown to fill and empty space in Walter’s memories. Still, He became obsessed with finding out about her. He combed the missing persons records looking for her. He tried desperately to remember when he had brought her home. He knew it was winter and at least a year after the divorce.
He went so far as to comb through the personnel records at work and note down every single sick day he had taken. Nothing lined up in a satisfying way. Yet he just knew there was a dead girl in his garden and it was his fault.
He started breaking into a cold sweat at the site of a police car. His driving habits were impeccable, but if a cop was behind him he was sure he would be pulled over and probably arrested. For a while he was able to lose himself in the routine of his work. But whenever he had a moment between tasks the horror of what he had done would take hold of his mind.
Then one Saturday he found her. Her name wasn’t Emily. She didn’t have short dark hair. She wasn’t sixteen. It was eighteen year old Jordan with long blond hair. Last seen four years ago. Walter didn’t even notice his memories had re-arranged themselves to match the description of a girl who’s grainy photo could have been anyone.
Once Walter was convinced he had found her he took action. He spent a week writing a detailed confession in longhand in a notebook from the drug store. He went slowly and wrote neatly. Making sure all the details were spelled out as plainly as possible. He made notes of all the clues he had found and pasted newspaper clippings, photographs and timecard sick reports to the pages.
He unlocked the front door and sent an email to the police with a tip about a murder. He placed the notebook on the coffee table and hung himself from an eye hook and rope he bought at the Home Depot where he remembered buying his prison supplies.
By the time the police entered the house he had been dead for hours. The real Jordan had gotten off the streets and gotten a G.E.D. She was living as best she could as a single mom. She had never once been within 300 miles of Walter’s house. Emily, of course, never existed in the first place.