San Francisco Bay Guardian, November 1999

The Y Trajectory

 Runner- up: mystery/sci-fi contest

“No one’s allowed in. They’re still identifying the evidence, but conclusions have been made that foul play is without a doubt a possibility.  Remember, until the body turned up dead, we couldn’t consider it homicide.”
            The police sergeant’s skin was bright pink with tiny red spots. Maggie had always thought he looked slightly winded which worked more often than not to his advantage. It had a way of making him look busier than he was, and when he was late it lent to his drawn out excuses. He was not inarticulate, but his mouth as it opened to exaggerated full circles seemed to elongate and emphasis his words at inappropriate intervals, to chop meaning.
            From the step below, the woman and her son stared up at Dullens’ opening and closing mouth. They listened just waiting for something more to come forth, as if the sergeant was only warming up, going through the motions before divulging the real information, before really talking to them.
            Maggie looked behind her son away from the house. Eddy Dullens was an old friend but this morning he spoke like a machine, disclosing nothing personal about her husband.

            Across town Sheila was sitting in her favorite chair with her legs crossed. On her lap was a pair of Ghinger scissors, long and clean. Dusty craft books and plastic boxes of different colored threads surrounded her Lazy Boy recliner. The strings were in small bundles organized by color, each a slight shade darker than the previous. Spread on her knees was a large sheet of graph paper with tiny squares. With mathematical precision, she counted quickly the correct number of rows in and down from both edges of the paper. She plotted the vectors for the pixel point of each petal on to the large paper. Each corner had an elaborate flower, each with a different color rose. In the center she had begun to scribble number sequences and symbols.
            On the walls were many other cross-stitching designs. Samplers with various designs displayed numbers zero through ten in different font sizes. Each piece had a hand made wooden frame. They hung in rows above the couch and along the wall. Some even had county fair ribbons, more than a few first prize blue, demonstrations of her technical and careful design. Her largest piece was a giant turtle with the squares in its back looking like a quilt and within each quadrant of the turtles back were small stitched icons representing things Eddy and she had done, places they had gone. One intricate piece had an old-fashioned school theme where the sampler numbers were displayed in simple arithmetic problems, white sewn letters on black cloth.
            It was the middle of the day but she was exhausted. She was haunted by the image of a small shop or house cluttered with dusty antiques. Had it been a dream? She crawled into bed feeling anxious, regretful.
            Sheila woke up to her husband banging pots around in the kitchen. She got up and walked across the linoleum floor. Eddy was standing in front of the stove, his navy blue uniform still on. Turned up high, the gas hissed with a hollow sound as it escaped and burned. She put her arms around his waist and pressed her nose between his shoulder blades.
            “Are you okay?” She could feel his head nodding up and down.
            “I remember that room. It was always the quietest in the house. What a mess. Do you want a hot dog?”
            “No, I already ate. I cut up some iceberg. It’s in the fridge.”
            “Okay, thanks.”
            The couple did not move for a few minutes.
            Then, Sheila moved to the refrigerator opened it and bent down to survey. She lifted up and pushed the door closed. “What’s that smell?”
            “Oh, nothing. I just burned myself.”
            Sheila turned slowly around and dropped back into her chair, feeling for the pen that was still behind her ear.
            Eddy finished his meal standing in the kitchen and went to the garage.

            The high pitched sound of numerous keys held tight on a small ring made Dullens sit up straight at his desk and he flipped his pencil point downwards. 
            “Dullens, Jesus! These don’t make any friggin’ sense!” The captain threw papers onto Eddy’s cluttered desk. “You were the senior officer on the scene. We had a man deceased in his house, I have a meeting with the Assistant DA, and I don’t have a clue what I can report. I know less now then from your initial report. And the first part of that report is totally illegible. This has got to be a mistake. Do we have a murder case here?"
            Dullens managed to nod his head.
            “Tell me what happened because I’m not sure you can see straight.”
            “The site was a mess. I thought there were footprints in the blood. And I was right about something, ‘cuz every witness said they heard at least three shots. No way could he have shot himself and I am damn sure he didn’t shoot himself three times. It was an antique gun. Maybe that was placed there. There must have been a struggle. But that forensics team couldn’t find anything. Minimal perpetrator evidence. I had to help them out. Dusting still hadn’t started by the time I left. The blood was all over the place. It completely surrounded the victim, and there where tiny shells everywhere. Some were empty, some were packed. The box had spilled on the floor. We only found one of the bullets fired and we couldn’t remove the body. The victim appeared to be still draining. Blood was still coming out.”
            “You’re in pathetic shape. Learn how to type so you can use your computer. No, go home. You can’t take on this case.” Dullens sat immobilized his fingers pinching his upper lip.  

            Sheila, pen marks smudged on her face, winced and quickly bent over her paper now striped with mini-blind rows of white light. She rubbed her tense fingers through her hair. The design was almost done and she had already stitched the border. Now the impressions from the trance like hours of the night were fading under the bright morning light. Her hand had glided like a finger on wet glass almost like a Ouji board’s disk. The words “Three is one” were stuck in her head. It made no sense, but it rang arrogantly in her head, sticking like the base of a mathematical postulate. And her decisions had not been arbitrary but somehow precise while the last, marks and designs had fallen neatly into place. She sat rubbing her temples. Her head felt like it was being pressed on both sides. She stretched her arms and her ribs hurt.

            Eddy Dullens pushed his car door open with his elbow and grabbing the lip of the roof he pulled up and out of his car. As he walked slowly towards the familiar house, he lightly touched in succession his baton, mace canister, ammunition, and his holster’s snap in a long practiced self-soothing inventory. The buzz of an electric leaf blower hummed off to his left side and behind him.
            He walked along the sidewalk at a careful pace. He scratched and pulled at his mustache. He looked down without thinking, marching on each line of the sidewalk. He marked the squares like quadrants on a map. He ignored habit and passed up the well-worn hypotenuse short cut across the struggling lawn. He turned a sharp left up toward the two-story house and onto the house’s cement walkway. The radio clipped to his shoulder hissed and spat. “All available units respond to Elm and...." He froze for a fraction of a second, spun around and ran back to his patrol car, his feet rolling on the outer edges of his boots. 

            Sheila chose the thread carefully. Each bundle of DMC Floss was numbered and they were in numerical order up into the eight hundreds. She liked the burnt red of 521 but she chose 523 instead. The colors, she knew, they paint the picture. “It’s the colors that have value.” Her mother had always said. But then she’d also said "Gold isn’t the only precious stone" and she had never understood that. Why was she thinking about that? She wondered why she had re-taught herself, more like taught herself cross-stitching. She hadn’t really learned much as a little girl just helping her mother to separate the individual strings so they could be rewound. But she guessed she had learned enough to think she could. Had she begun to cross-stitch again after Eddy’s first night shifts?
            She stared at the end of her large needle, feeling really awake now, thinking how much it looked like the tip of a bullet and how unpredictable ammunition really was. It starts from one place, a firm and cold home and you can say that you own that gun and the cartridge inside. But once it is fired off, the bullet leaves on its own path. And she had been hoping, maybe praying, to clear all those trajectories that included her husband’s frame. “No, I hold this needle and I guide it all the way through. This isn’t a bullet it’s a tool.” She realized that she was talking out loud. She was tired of thinking about guns, about the direction of death.

            When the house was quiet, Maggie wandered from room to room. Often she stood in the garage staring at their cars trying to picture her husband getting out, slamming the driver’s door, and calling out a “Hello, Honey.” She pictured her husband standing alone in the garage bent over some restoration project wondering what he had been thinking. Did she mistake distance for pain, maybe loneliness for deceit? Could someone be so evil? Had she just missed something?

            Coming home Eddy found his wife framing a new stitching. “That one’s pretty.” He stepped closer, “And dang, it’s complicated.” He bowed down to look closer, happy for the distraction. “Those flowers in the corners are great. They're in 3-D. It looks like you could just reach in and touch them.”
            “Thanks. But you just don’t get it do you?” She placed the cloth on the kitchen table pushing it flat. “See the triangles on the inside? And these numbers describe the path of each bullet. Some of those, yes, they were just practice.” She was waving her hand behind at the rows of framed stitchings. “Now, I want you to pay attention before it’s too late, before this gets too confusing, before I forget what I’ve done.”
            She made Eddy sit down beside her. Not across from her like they always did when they ate, across from each other but forgetting to look into each other’s eyes. “Remember, you told me all about the first bullet hole, how it was too steep like he’d been already lying down, someone standing right on top of him. That’s wrong. He was alone and sitting upright.” And she proceeded to show him how she had diagrammed each of the missing bullets without really realizing what she was doing. How she had felt it all: the angle of the gun and the probable trajectory of each bullet.
            “Last night it became clear to me.”
            “Cory fired all three shots.” Eddy’s voice was taught. Sheila squeezed her husband’s hand and he turned and held her.

            Dullens drove to the empty house where Cory had grown up. He knelled in front of the study’s desk remembering his wife’s words and looked straight across to the dusty 1912 Encyclopedia Britannicas. He opened one up and started to gently separate the delicate pages. They didn’t want to come apart; they had spent nearly a century pressed close to one another. He passed entries on Rochester, Rosary and then while turning the page to Rose, tiny flakes of paper fluttered out flipping and scattering towards the floor. Following a split second behind came the plunk and resonance of something metal. He stared down at the gray lead slug. The second bullet. It had been stopped by all those dense pages. The spine where the bullet entered was irregular and blotched, hiding the entry point of the tiny projectile. The leather looked brittle but it had sprung back filling the hole where the bullet had entered. He lay the encyclopedia on the desk and opened it up. The thin slug had burrowed its way for almost the entire width of the book tearing a line through the onion skin thin pages. The line was jagged but straight, destroying only six lines of text on each page as it cut across the depth of the reference book. He found the third bullet in the adjacent volume.
            Maggie came and stood behind her screen door. She gripped it tightly, holding it for support or ready to slam it in that familiar face. “Eddy you didn’t have the right to keep me out of that house. Always a cop. I’m surprised you didn’t arrest me, take me downtown for questioning. Oh, but then you might’ve had to talk to me.” She backed away from the door clenching her fists.
            Dullens stood on the porch feeling like it was a house call. His hands went along his waist searching for his belt.
            “Maggie, I really thought I could catch the bastard. I was starting a preliminary count of the shells when I looked down at my feet at the blood on the toe of my boot. I looked to the door and then the window. I’d walked in Cory’s blood. It was my footprints that I’d seen. But then the forensics team was there. I was embarrassed. I wanted them to believe what I had believed. I wanted everybody to be as confused as me. See, they weren’t gonna wonder why Cory had done it. I made a mess of it. I started ordering everybody around. And they took it ‘cuz they knew Cory was my buddy.”
            Eddy gulped down air and then words like a wheeze slowly escaped his tight pale lips.
            “I think the blood was still coming out of him. To me, it was like he was lying there still dying. I couldn’t let you in. It was awful. I didn’t want you to see it, to see him.”
            “Don’t you get it. I had to see. He died and you took it all on. You threw up a police line and you robbed something from me.  And then with your theories you’ve confused us all and prolonged the pain, you asshole. Goddamn men and your blind, stubborn determination. Hell, he shot himself! He didn’t give up even after missing two times.” Maggie slid from her seat to her knees, crying loud and gasping for air.
“But you were right about one thing. Eddy you were right. It was a crime. It’s still a crime.”

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