Apparition After Christmas Literary Crime Short Fiction By Stefan Kiesbye

Apparition After Christmas: Literary Crime Short Fiction By Stefan Kiesbye

Stefan Kiesbye, author of Apparition After Christmas, has written six novels, including ‘Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone’ (Penguin 2012).

*****

I only saw her once, on a snowy afternoon after Christmas. I was carrying our cat Moritz into the backyard. The scarf my sister Stacee had tied around his neck to make him look pretty was in shreds, but it hadn’t torn. Golden threads hung loosely about his face, like tinsel. Moritz had escaped my sister’s attention and slipped away through the cat door. The scarf had caught on a scraggly bush near the far end of our yard and Moritz had strangled himself in his attempt to get away. Afterwards, Stacee was inconsolable and locked herself in her room; the scarf had been her most cherished Christmas gift.

The ground was frozen and I was sweating in my down coat by the time the grave I was digging was deep enough for Moritz’ body. Snow pricked my face and melted and re-froze and crusted my eyelashes. The light was fading quickly and sky and snow turned gray and darker still. Whenever I rested for a moment, the only sound I could hear was that of my breath.

His eyes were still open, the fright still caught in them.

At last I let go of the shovel and picked up Moritz’ stiff body. His eyes were still open, the fright still caught in them. There it shifted and welled up once and again, and I stood with my mouth open, watching, snot reaching my lips. Before I could lay him into the small grave, I saw the woman. She was not much taller than me. She was wearing a wool dress and house slippers. Her face was as red as my own, her breath white and audible like my own. I didn’t think her pretty.

The lack of a coat or mittens or a hat struck me as curious. Her fingers curled around the chain-link fence as though she wanted to tear it away, or else climb over it. I had never seen her before; I wasn’t afraid. In response to her urgency I lifted my arms and held our dead cat out to her. I was ten.

*****

I left Severe on the same day I graduated from high school. I dreamed of living in Japan for a year, of traveling Europe for months. Dreams came easily to me and kept me busy during long Severe afternoons. At seventeen, I had business cards printed, and under my name, the raised print read, “Palace Film Productions.” I had taken a film class and edited several Super-8 movies. But once I left town I only made it to Akron, Ohio. I received a small scholarship at the university and worked in a bagel shop to earn the rest.

In my sophomore year, my parents’ neighbor Frank Klein was arrested. My sister told me all about it when I visited in the fall. She was fifteen then and had her first boyfriend. Joshua was Mormon and my parents unhappy about Stacee’s choice. He was twenty-two, older than me, a carpenter, and had spent two years in Europe as a missionary. He was chubby and had brown teeth. “We want to live abroad and work for the church,” she said. “We want to help people see the light.” Her eyes shone with that light, a light I had never before detected in her.

Frank Klein’s crimes might have gone undetected, Stacee told me, if he hadn’t been caught disposing of a black trash bag behind he hardware store. The owner had stepped outside to smoke and started yelling at the dark figure lifting the lid of the dumpster. He was sick of people getting rid of their house trash. Frank Klein dropped what he’d been carrying and ran. The bag contained two hands and a foot.

During a first search, the police found nothing in the Kleins’ home, which stood to the left of my parents’, the properties only separated by a few shade trees and a fence in back. Our neighbor was a retired accountant, and sometimes filled in as school-bus driver. He and his wife Claire had lived in town for nearly forty years. They’d raised four children, three of which lived in the same neighborhood. On Sunday evening, they all had dinner together and watched Hardcastle and McCormick.

Weekends Frank spent mostly in his basement, where a large model railway had been mounted on several sturdy tables. Nobody else was allowed down there, unless Frank was present. He needed his private space. He put on a station master cap from Germany, held a light signal in his left hand, and directed the trains. It was all perfectly to scale, he boasted, not the usual kiddie stuff.

His fourth child, a daughter, had run away from home with a miner, a ne’er-do-well from Illinois, and she had sent them a postcard from Arkansas, and that was the last they’d heard of Maggie. She had vanished the year before I was born.

Stacee and I sat in her room, which was hung with a large Hobbit poster and pictures of Patrick Swayze and a half-naked Don Johnson. Her hair was all teased and sprayed and I had never seen her wear make-up before. I’d never seen her with breasts.

“Can you believe he kept her hidden all those years?” she whispered. A perfumed candle stood on a tray between us. We were eating cookies and I was drinking a beer she eyed as though it were coming straight from the devil’s refrigerator. My parents had already gone to bed. Stacee had done her fingers and toes in neon-blue.

Fear made Frank Klein confess in the end. Fear for his children. And when the police searched the basement a second time, they still couldn’t find the hidden door and the apartment behind it, and they handcuffed the accountant and led him down the stairs to show them. He’d added the extra rooms over the years; weekend after weekend he had worked to provide more space for his daughter Maggie and their four children. “Papa,” they called him when the police opened the door. They hadn’t eaten in two days but they were not afraid of Frank. They hugged him and wouldn’t let go.

All this my sister told me that fall night in her room. The story consumed Severe, it expanded and sprouted new branches and destroyed the rest of the Klein family, who maintained that they hadn’t known, hadn’t even suspected any wrongdoing. Clara Klein remained the longest in town, but the next time I visited my parents, two years later, she too had left.

*****

I hadn’t planned on returning home yet again, but my sister was getting married to Joshua, the Mormon carpenter, whose parents owned a construction business in Marquette. The wedding was on the day after Thanksgiving and I endured the turkey, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes and green-bean casserole, and the questions about my studies, my future, my girlfriends. I answered them with threadbare language. No girlfriend, uncertain future, but I might graduate the coming year. I had arrived in an old Chrysler, the headliner torn, the door seals leaky. I was proud of that car; I didn’t mention that to anyone.

Stacee was radiant. After Thanksgiving dinner, she kissed her fiancé goodnight, then whispered into my ear that I should follow her in a few minutes. Up in her room, as though the past two years had never happened, she resumed the story of Frank Klein. She wore jeans, and her nail polish this time was a deep red. She’d stolen a bottle of vodka and some orange juice from the refrigerator. “This will be my last drink ever,” she said solemnly and poured vodka into two large tumblers.

Some of the more gruesome details had made it into the national newspapers, but I wasn’t an avid reader of the news then and I did not own a television set. Stacee couldn’t believe it. “No TV? What do you do at night?”

I swallowed, I smiled, shrugged. “So, what happened?” I asked.

The children of Frank Klein’s incestuous relationship had been taken downstate into a halfway home. Two of them, a boy and a girl, were old enough to live on their own, but they had never been in the world. Their mother had home-schooled them from books Frank provided.

An autopsy of Maggie’s dismembered body had confirmed what Frank had initially told the police. Maggie had died of a stroke. Only her death and Frank’s need to get rid of the body had led to her discovery. He’d acted impulsively, stupidly. If he’d kept his wits about him, Severe would never have learned about his second family. Neither would they have found the other body.

Not even a year after Maggie’s remains had been discovered, the police again swarmed the premises of the Kleins’ house, which was for sale by then and not attracting any buyers. Talk was that the city would tear it down and fill in the basement. Severe longed to see the house gone. But then a high school friend of Maggie’s came forward and he claimed that the miner she had been seeing prior to her disappearance had returned one winter and pulled up in front of her house. Maggie’s friend only remembered the incident when he saw a photo of the property on the news and caught a glimpse of an old Mustang in the detached garage. It was the car Miles Salton had been driving.

Police found his grave days later, behind the garage, underneath an old drum filled with rainwater. The body was completely decomposed, but a leather bag buried with the remains still contained letters addressed to Maggie. The day of her graduation, he had waited in his Mustang outside in the parking lot. She had promised she would elope with him that day, but never showed. He’d already taken a new job near Phoenix, Arizona, as far away from Severe as was possible for him — she’d made him promise to leave the Midwest — and he waited with his engine running for two more hours after everyone had filed out of the school’s auditorium. He never thought of driving by her home and confronting her. He was young and angry and left Severe with squealing tires.

Yet in the following years he regretted his hasty departure and started writing letters to her. He never received an answer, but Frank collected them. Maybe he showed them to his daughter, maybe he read them aloud to her.

For nearly ten years, Miles kept writing. A first marriage ended in Tulsa, a second never really ended; he lost sight of her near New Orleans. He’d written on motel stationary and on pages torn from cheap paperbacks. His handwriting was oddly elegant, barely legible.

My sister shuddered. She was on her third screwdriver. Her blond hair was still teased but shorter. Two years ago she had been eager to tell me the news, like a risky secret whispered into the older brother’s ear. Since then she had turned into an adult, a different form of adult I could ever be. Swayze and Johnson had been replaced with a poster of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

Miles showed up that winter after I had turned ten, a day or two before Christmas, when Severe had already been tucked away in layers of old snow and new. He still drove that same Mustang; the car had survived two wives and a dozen states. Miles parked in front of the Kleins’ house and walked up to their porch. He demanded to see Maggie. Her father feigned surprise and regret, promised he hadn’t heard from her in years, but he would share notes he’d received from a detective he said they’d hired. Frank told Miles to wait in his motel room. Clara would return home soon and he didn’t want to upset her. Maggie had brought them nothing but heartache; he should show mercy. After dark, Frank set out on foot. He knew he would have a ride on his way home.

Miles showed up that winter after I had turned ten, a day or two before Christmas, when Severe had already been tucked away in layers of old snow and new.

Stacee talked about that winter without mentioning Moritz. Maybe she had forgotten him, maybe his death had never held any importance for her. Tomorrow she would marry Joshua. She was fiercely in love, she giggled about the strange ceremony she would have to undergo the next day. They would travel the world. Her voice was louder than I remembered, steadier, and she counted out the places she would go on her fingers and toes.  She couldn’t wait for her life to begin. Tomorrow, I would become a part of the past from before she was fully alive, one she would never revisit.

And they did travel the world. By the time I had taken my first true job at a monthly paper in Cleveland, she was living in Hong Kong with her husband. Two years later I worked in Indianapolis and she outside Nairobi.

I don’t blame my parents or my sister for what did and did not happen in my life. That last time I saw any of them, at Thanksgiving, I didn’t tell them I had quit school and lived with a man I loved and who loved me. I didn’t call them when he died several years later and I got away unscathed. I didn’t tell them about the book I was writing and then not writing anymore. Someday my life was taken off its tracks and I could never find those tracks again. Maybe there never had been any tracks to start with and I lacked the imagination and incomprehensible enthusiasm of my sister. Whatever Stacee left behind when she departed Severe kept clinging to me.

*****

I never learned how Maggie escaped that winter afternoon after Christmas. I suspect Miles Salton was dead by then. Had she heard the Mustang’s engine and remembered? And when she ran out into the snow-filled yard, did she discover the car in her dad’s garage, his own truck now parked in the driveway despite the weather? What did she make of it? Or had Frank confessed to her the same night he returned from the motel? Had he brought her a token as proof? Miles’ watch, his wallet, his car keys? Did he seek to stomp out any last resistance against his love for her? A love that was so big, it didn’t fit into the world.

However she managed it, Maggie ran away and reached the chain-link fence of her neighbors. I replay the moment in my head every so often. Each winter, I see her red face in front of me, her curly, dark hair. She had escaped from her father’s prison. A few more steps – from where she stood, she could see the windows of the lit kitchen — and she would be delivered to safety. What happened instead that caused her to spend ten more years in her parents’ basement and give birth to two more children?

I had dropped the shovel in front of the shallow, open grave. Maggie and I looked at each other, and in the moment she grabbed, and held onto, the fence, she saw that the boy on the other side, the boy she’d never met before, was holding a dead cat out to her. Maybe she recognized the look in Moritz’ eyes, or maybe it was already too dark for her to distinguish such a detail. I’ll never know what she saw, but I imagine she decided that the world the boy was offering her was not so different from the one she knew, and her fingers let go of the wire and she returned home.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed Apparition After Christmas, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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