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This story, "Following Marla," was originally published at Horror World as their February 2009 "Featured Author" piece.

You can also read the story "Doing Daddy" by clicking here.

 

  "Following Marla" by John R. Little

"I just wanted you to know,” Marla said.  “It’s not too late for you to change your mind.”

We were in the back room of the church, just having finished the rehearsal.  Most of the wedding party was hanging out in the foyer, waiting for us, but Marla had whispered something to the priest and then pulled me down the hallway to the back room.

“I just don’t understand,” I said.  “You . . . it doesn’t make sense.”

“I know.”

She had those big brown puppy-dog eyes staring at me as she pursed her lips.  She took a deep breath and said again, “I faked my own death.”

“You’re not kidding?”

Of course she wasn’t.  I could see that as clear as the candles surrounding us.  She lowered her head a bit, and pushed her hair back.  Tomorrow, she’d have some new hair style for the wedding, but I liked it just hanging long and straight, like she always wore it.

“It was two years ago.  I was married to a monster in Boston.  He just hit me one too many times, I guess.  We’d been married almost three years, and every one of those thousand days was worse than the one before.  He abused me in every possible way.  Yelling, belittling me, hitting me so often I felt like a punching bag . . . ”

Marla started to shake and I pulled her to me.  “You don’t have to -- ”

“And he’d rape me after hitting me.  Fuck me just to hear me scream.  Sometimes, though, my mind just went blank.”

She pulled back and looked up into my eyes.  I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

“You wouldn’t recognize me, Andy.  I was a lifeless zombie, not caring if I lived or died.”

She stopped talking, continuing to look at my eyes.  I tried to imagine this vivacious, beautiful, strong woman in a marriage like she described.  I couldn’t see it.

Marla tried to smile, but it was forced.  Even so, her smile always hit me like a hammer, and I kissed her forehead, still amazed that she would agree to marry me.  She was definitely out of my league.

There was a knock on the door.  We both turned to look as Michele poked her head through.  “We’re getting hungry, guys . . . ”

“We’ll be a while,” I said.

“We’re ready now,” said Marla.  She whispered to me, “The rest can wait.  I just had to tell you the hard part.”

Now her smile was genuine.

***

The wedding was perfect.

I thought I’d seen Marla in her best form many times before, but when she walked down the aisle with her sister, I knew that I was marrying the most beautiful woman in the world.

We’d known each other for a couple of years, but our first date was exactly one year ago, on her 32nd birthday.  It seemed only appropriate to marry on the same day a year later; I wanted the day to be devoted to her.  For that matter, I wanted my whole friggin’ life to be devoted to her.

It sounds terribly hokey, but I was head over heels in love, and I knew my sole purpose in the future would be to make Marla happy.  That’s God’s honest truth.  Marla was on my mind every waking minute, and my feelings were even stronger knowing now what she’d been through in Boston.

I wanted her forever.  It all seemed guaranteed, until we were alone in our suite and somebody knocked on the door.

We hadn’t even had time to change out of our wedding clothes.  The reception was underway, dinner was over, and the speeches were all done.  We were just getting changed into casual clothes to go for one last dance before . . . well, before my fantasies would end and I would make love to her for the first time as my wife.

“Probably Janice,” said Marla.  “Not sure what she’d want, though.”

Marla’s sister was the only person who knew our hotel room number.  I nodded.

She flipped the lock on the door and pulled it open.  I heard her gasp and turned to see her try to push the door closed.  “Ricky?  No, it can’t be -- ”

And then she was blown back, blood splashing out on her peach wedding gown.  The gunshot wasn’t loud, but it was very powerful.  Blood covered everything, and Marla flew off her feet, landing a few feet behind.

She never moved.

***

I think I went a little crazy for a while.  It was impossible to believe my whole life would be stretching forward without Marla.

I couldn’t cry at her funeral.  It was like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle all broken apart with the pieces mixed up.  The picture wouldn’t come to me.  It was simply not possible that the casket being lowered into the ground carried my Marla.

For a week after, I ignored the phone calls, the knocks on the door, even the cards that came in the mail from well-meaning friends.

All I knew was that I needed her back.  And, yes, maybe I was more than a little crazy, because the only idea I came up with was to follow her.  I had to follow Marla beyond death.

***

Before I did, I needed to talk to her sister, Janice.  She opened the door at my knock and gave me a hug.  She was a big woman, so different from my petite Marla that it was hard to believe they were sisters.

“I’m so sorry, Andy.”

“I know.”

“Would you like a drink?”

Marla always drank Chardonnay.  “Do you have any white wine?”

She smiled and poured the drinks.  “To her.”

I touched glasses with her and took a sip.

“How’d she fake her death before?”

Janice looked at me and seemed to be thinking back.  “It was so hard on her.  She knew if she just left Ricky, he’d hunt her down.  He was nutso crazy, but the cops could never do anything.  One night we cooked up this plan.  It took eighteen months to work.”

“Why so long?”

“Insurance.  She took out an insurance policy on herself with me as the beneficiary.  Ricky was so stupid, he believed he was the one who would get the money, and that scared Marla even more.  We didn’t want it to ring any alarm bells at the insurance company, so we waited a long time before . . . ”

She stopped and took a sip of her wine.

“It’s okay.  She wanted to tell me.  We just ran out of time.”

“I know.  Anyhow, the two of us hired a friend who owned a fishing boat.  The story was that we all went out on the ocean for a day, and Marla fell overboard.  We couldn’t save her and her body was never found.  Of course, Marla wasn’t really there that day. She was on a train to Topeka.  Eventually the insurance company paid me $250,000.  I gave part to Billy, who owned the boat, and sent the rest to Marla.  She used it to buy a new identity.  A couple years later, I followed her here.”

The house was silent except for a quiet song coming from a radio in another room.  I think it was a song by the Bare Naked Ladies.

A tear rolled down Janice’s cheek.  “Ricky must have followed me.  Somehow he must have known she wasn’t really dead.”

We finished the drinks, toasting my Marla one more time before I left.

***

I thought of having another drink or two, just to give me the courage I’d need, but no.  I needed to be clear-headed if I was to follow Marla beyond death.

My kitchen

(our kitchen)

had many different knives.  Marla brought a complete carving set when she moved in.  They were some kind of novelty knives with long emerald-colored handles.  There was a copper design snaking through them.  Marla thought they were funny looking.  I didn’t much like them but the knives were long and sharp.  The handles were firm and the blades serrated.

I took the longest one and placed it on our coffee table, staring at it from my easy chair.

***

“My name’s Marla.  Who are you?”

“Andy.”

She nodded and shook my hand.  That first day, she gave me that gorgeous smile.  She was short, couldn’t have topped five feet, but that smile shone through the whole room, making her the tallest person in the room.

“Do I know you?”

“Not yet.”

I’d come to the party with my room-mate, just wanting to kill a couple hours.

Marla moved closer to me, staring at me.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No, no of course not.”

We kept our eyes locked.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.  Finding somebody you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Ten minutes later, I held her hand.  I didn’t let go until I left her at three the next morning.  I knew I’d found the woman I needed to be with.

***

The knife was in my hand.  Thinking back to when we first met confirmed my decision.  I couldn’t let her go.

I used the blade to find a soft spot between some ribs and held the handle with both hands.

(What if I can’t find her?)

I shook my worries away.  I damned well had to find her.

My hands were shaking.  I blinked and looked up at the ceiling, biting my teeth together.

And I slammed the knife into my chest as hard as I could.

Pain roared through me and pushed me down into the chair.  I couldn’t breathe.  Somehow I’d let go of the knife but my hands tried to find it again, to pull the fucker out to stop the pain and to . . . to rest . . . and to rest . . . and . . . Marla! . . .

***

I wanted to blink but I didn’t seem to have the muscles to do that.  I no longer felt the knife and I looked down to my chest.

There was no knife, no blood.  I was wearing the tuxedo I’d worn to our wedding.

Around me was a light purple fog swirling on the ground.

Purple!

My nickname for Marla when we’d first met was Purple.  She’d worn a purple dress to her birthday party and I mentioned an old poem I’d heard about a woman who promised to wear purple when she grew old.

“Marla?”

My voice didn’t make any sound, but I could tell what I was saying.  I called for her again.

“She’s not here.”

The voice came from everywhere.  Or nowhere.  I turned to see an old man in a wheelchair.  I think he was black, but I wasn’t sure.  There wasn’t much light.

“Who’re you?  Where’s Marla?”

“Marla’s dead.  So are you.  I’m the gatekeeper.”

“Gatekeeper to what?”

He didn’t answer, but wheeled around me.  “You don’t belong here.”

“I had to follow her.”

He didn’t seem satisfied.  “You shouldn’t be here yet.”

“Then let me find Marla and go back.”

“Oh, if it were only that easy.”

“You know who she is?”

“Everyone knows everyone here.”

Here?  I still didn’t know where I was.  Heaven?  Hell?  Purgatory?  Were those even useful concepts for people who are really dead?

“I came to take her back.”

The man just stared at me.  Somehow I knew what he was thinking even though he didn’t say it: You’re not the first to try.

The purple mist floated around my ankles, my mind turning the swirling fog into cloud-like shapes.  I watched for a few minutes, waiting to see what would happen next.

Purple.

My Marla.  Sometimes I seemed to catch a glimpse of her face in the mist, but it was gone before I could truly see her.

“We don’t just send people back for do-overs.”

I looked back to the black man, who now was younger with long brown hair.  His face seemed Oriental but he didn’t have an accent.

He still sat in the same wheelchair.

“How do I get her back?”

He smiled and spun around.  “You can push me.”

***

What I wanted to do was to spin the damned chair around and grab the guy by the throat.  I wanted him to tell how the fuck I could get Marla back.  I wanted him to just let me love her.

I pushed his wheelchair forward, not knowing where we were going.  The chair didn’t need much pressure to move, and I was pretty sure that my pushing was an illusion.

“Why her?” he asked.

I almost answered “I love her” almost as a reflex, but I stopped myself.  He knew I loved her.  But why?  What made this girl so special?

In my mind I ran through some random thoughts about her.  She was pretty, she was smart, she was funny, sex with her was inventive, funny, and magic, she liked the same books and movies I did, she appreciated me, she worked hard, she played hard, she wanted to have two children like I did, she had simple tastes (preferring fried pork chops to filet mignon), she told me every morning that she loved me and every night, she rarely wore cosmetics, she loved to hear me compliment her, she had a gentle voice and a loud laugh, she would lay her head on my lap letting me stroke her hair while we watched movies on TV, she had that alarmingly beautiful smile, she taught me to play Sudoku, I taught her to play chess, she always held my hand while we were walking together . . .

And a million other things about her ran through my mind.

I stopped and turned the guy around in the wheelchair.

“All my life I’ve built up an image in my mind of what my perfect life-companion would be.  No woman ever came close.  One would have the looks but no sense of humor.  Another might be funny but a flake.  I never found any one girl that ever came close to what I really wanted.  I’d pretty much resigned myself to being alone, because there was never a woman that could meet my ideal.

“Then, a year ago, I found Marla.  She didn’t match any of my ideals.  She’s short.  She’s not blonde.  So many things aren’t what I thought I wanted, but I knew right away she was it.

“And it seemed I was equally her it.

“We were just meant to be together, and I am not going to fucking well give up on that now.”

I’m not sure when the guy’s hair had changed to white.  He looked Scandinavian, I think.  Long cheeks, blue eyes.

“Being without her isn’t worth living,” I added.

He nodded.

“You must prove that you truly will do anything for her.”

I almost gasped.  The first hint of a chance.  “Anything,” I repeated.  “I’ll do anything.”

“We’ll see.  You must succeed at three challenges.  One is physical, one emotional, and one spiritual.  On my watch, there have been more than 10,000 people who’ve come to me as you have.  Only 382 succeeded at the physical challenge.”

“How many of them -- ?”

“13 succeeded at the emotional challenge.”

I couldn’t ask.

“And of the 13 . . . well, maybe you’ll be the first to pass all three challenges.  I keep thinking there has to be a first time.  What will you do to have her return?”

“I’ll do whatever I have to.”

“We’ll see.”

“Who are you?”

There was no answer.  He turned his wheelchair around and started to roll away.  “Your first challenge is to walk to the light.”

I started to follow behind him.

“Not this way.  Go to the light.”

I didn’t know what he meant until I looked around and in the distance I could see a bright flash.  It might have been a spotlight or a flashlight or something.  Or a star.  There was nothing else to see except the purple haze, so I couldn’t tell how far away it was.  100 feet?  500?  A mile?

When I looked back to the wheelchair, it was gone.  I was alone in the mist.

I started walking toward the light, wondering if something in the mist would try to stop me.  My watch had frozen at 4:42 p.m. when I’d committed suicide, so I tried counting my steps.  What else was there to do?

When I hit 2,000 steps I stopped.  Had to be a mile, and I couldn’t really tell if the light was any closer.

“Keep going if you want her.”

I spun around, but there was nobody there.  I wondered if I was being timed and if I didn’t get to the light in time, would I forfeit Marla?

I started again, faster.

After another 3,000 paces my leg muscles were starting to hurt, but I didn’t stop.  I was almost sure the light was a bit brighter.

(Maybe.)

If anything, I walked faster, breathing heavily and really starting to notice the cramping in my leg.

I started to get discouraged after another 10,000 steps.  Five miles?  More?

And then somewhere after that, I lost track of how long I’d marched.  The landscape was all the same rolling purple mist and the damned light never really seemed to get any closer.

“It’s moving away from me,” I said.  When I realized that, I stopped.

Could I see the light move?  No.  But it had to be moving away, likely as fast as I was walking.  How else could I not have reached it yet?

A wheelchair rolled around from behind me.  A bald woman sat in it now.  She had a lilting voice.  “You don’t seem to want her very badly.  You’ve got a very long way to go.”

“How long?”

Long.

“It’s moving away from me, isn’t it?”

She shrugged.  “What does it matter?  It takes as long as it takes, and if you keep going, you’ll get there.”

“But, I’ve got to know how long it’ll take.”

“No, you just have to know you want to do it.”

She rolled back into the mist and disappeared.

I walked.

***

“How long has it been,” I asked.

“Two days.”

Could it be?  I’d walked for two days?

I stared at the guy.  He was Chinese.  “You shitting me?”

“Two days.”

My legs were cruel tortures all the time.  They hated me.  I didn’t need to eat, sleep, drink water, or anything else I should have wanted.  I was dead.  But, my legs cried out in pain with every step.

I walked again.

***

Marla and I worked together at City Hall.  I worked on computer problems and she was down the hall and around the corner.  I saw her sometimes at our shared printer or in the cafeteria.  I never had the courage to talk to her.

Besides, I thought I’d heard she was dating somebody.

But . . . from a distance, I saw her.  Saw her when she changed her hairstyle to wear pigtails, saw how she loved to pop a peanut M&M into her mouth as an afternoon snack.

For two years, I slowly fell in love with her, barely ever saying a word.

At her 32nd birthday, she originally seemed surprised to see me.  I’d found a way to tag along with Dan, and when I saw her there . . . I could see she was glad to see me.  Some barrier just melted away that day; we became inseparable.

***

“How long?”

“Almost a year.  Now you’re making progress.”

A year?  I’d been walking for a fucking year, and the light wasn’t any closer?

“Shit, this isn’t working,” I said.  “There’s got to be another way.”

“Don’t you want her badly enough?”

I hesitated for the first time.  A year?  But then in my mind, I saw her again, as clear as ever, that wonderful smile breaking me into little pieces.

I walked.

“How much farther?” I asked.

And I finally got my answer.  “Another ninety-nine years.”

#

And I walked again.

When I asked how long I’d been searching for Marla, it seemed impossible to believe the numbers.  Two years, Ten years . . .

Fifty-seven years.

And she was still fresh in my mind.  I still needed to walk, to save her.

I loved her too much to let her die.

One hundred years.

The light grew brighter.  It was a lighthouse after all.  I reached the base where a naked woman in the wheelchair met me.  She was missing an arm.

“You made it.”

“Where is she?”

“Soon enough.”

For the first time in a century I fell to the ground.  My legs were jelly and it was hard to not just die.  Except I’d already done that.

The ground was slightly inclined at the lighthouse and large rocks were scattered around.  The weird purple haze didn’t climb the small hill and so it looked like we were in the eye of a hurricane, only this was the eye of the fog.

“Do you want to stop yet?”

Stop?  How could I stop?  I’d just spent a hundred fucking years following the woman I love.  I wanted to hit the woman, but I had no strength.

“No.  I won’t stop until I save her.”

She nodded.  “You may rest.”

***

I don’t have any idea how long I slept, or even if sleep was the right word.  In any case my legs relaxed, my eyes closed, and I thought of Marla again.

At some point, the guy in the wheelchair used his walking stick to poke me in the ribs.  “Get up, you lazy bastid.”

He was dressed in a tuxedo like me, with his hair slicked back.  He frowned, as if he was just wasting his time with me.

Fucker.

I stood, my legs still wobbly.

“Ready t’ give up?”  His face had deep lines etched into them, as if he’d spent his whole life frowning.

“I’ve come this far to bring Marla home.  Nothing can stop me now.”

“Ya think?”

“I know.”

“Second challenge.  Somebody’s comin’ out that lighthouse.  You kill them.”

“Kill them?  Like with a gun?”

“Strangle.  Don’t piss around.  Just do it.  No matter what.”

I looked at my hands.  Could I actually kill somebody in cold blood?  Maybe if it was Marla’s ex-husband, Ricky.  Anybody else?  A stranger?

Of course I could.  After walking about a million miles, this would be easy.

“When -- ?”

The wheelchair and its occupant were gone.

I waited.

***

It was a week after her birthday party that Marla and I decided we were going to marry.  Just seven days.  We’d spent those seven days together, almost every minute.  We found we agreed on everything we talked about.  We both loved frog’s legs and escargot, but we also both liked a Big Mac with fries and a coke.

I liked that she wanted to dance even if there was no music.  We just made our own.  We hummed Billy Joel’s song, “Just the Way You Are,” to each other as we waltzed.

We knew we’d be together forever.

***

I don’t know how long I stood there.  I thought of lying down, but what if some guy came storming out of the lighthouse and attacked me when I wasn’t ready?

So I watched and waited.  I have no idea how much time passed.  It could have been a day or another hundred years.  I just knew I had to stay focused on the lighthouse.

Then the door opened.

I had developed a new understanding of patience and a sense of purpose like nobody else ever had.  Time will do that.

A few minutes passed, and I wondered if another infinity would go by, but no, this time, only a few minutes passed and through the door toward me came Marla.

She hesitated and looked behind her as she moved out to me.  I’m not sure she knew I was there.  She seemed to startle when she noticed me. “Oh, my God . . . Andy!”

We stared at each other and then she smiled.  I hadn’t forgotten that smile, and it melted my heart the same way it had more than a century earlier.

“Marla . . . ”

She rushed into my arms and we kissed, a long deep kiss, and this time I didn’t care how much time it took.  I ran my hands through her hair and smelled her and pulled her to me and stared into those amazing brown eyes.

“I can’t believe you found me,” she said.  “I’ve been locked here so long.”

“I know.  I’ve been following you.”

“But what do we do now?”

And then I remembered what the guy in the wheelchair said.  Somebody’s comin’ out that lighthouse.  You kill them.

“Andy?”

She kissed me again and I kissed her back.  I licked her lips and sucked her tongue.

I couldn’t . . .

As I kissed her, my hands trickled down her hair and held onto her neck.  I rubbed her throat as tears filled my eyes.

“Andy?  What -- ?”

I pressed my hands harder and squeezed her neck.  Her beautiful neck.

***

Marla realized what I was doing.  She couldn’t talk, but I could see the pleading in her eyes.  Stop.

I didn’t stop.  I squeezed harder, even though every ounce of my being shouted at me to stop.  I could barely see Marla through the tears, and I couldn’t help but think I was betraying her.  I just prayed that I was right, that this wasn’t the real Marla, that I needed to kill this fake in order to save my Marla.

Her eyes continued to stare at me, begging me to stop.  I wanted to stop so very much.  She tried to fight me off, but nothing could loosen my grip after all I’d been through.

Eventually, her beautiful eyes glazed over and her arms fell to her side.  She felt like a bag of raw meat.  I lay her on the ground, but I kept squeezing her neck.  I wasn’t going to take any chances.

“She’s dead.”

I think she was Japanese, but I’m not sure.  I was still covered in tears.  “Tell me it wasn’t really her.”

The wheelchair moved around so the girl could face me.  “I won’t tell you any such thing.”

“What?”

“Go into the lighthouse.”  She rolled into the door that Marla had come out of.

I looked down.  Marla’s body was gone.

Her lips had felt so soft on mine.  I had to believe I’d done the right thing, and I followed the girl into the lighthouse.

There was an auditorium inside.  I’d long ago given up any pretence at trying to understand how things worked here, so I just accepted that more than a thousand wheelchairs were all lined up with a thousand faces staring down at me.  Maybe ten thousand.  Or a million.

Behind me, on a table lay my Marla.  There were no marks on her neck.  She wore her peach wedding dress.

“Do not go to her.  She is sleeping.”

I turned back to the crowd.  None of them had spoken; all of them had spoken.

“I need to take her back.  She doesn’t belong here.”

Their voice was in my mind.  “You’ve completed the first two challenges.  Now the third waits for you.”

“Just tell me what the fuck it is and let us go!”

A short pause.  One of the wheelchairs came forward.  In the chair was my mother.  She’d died of Alzheimer’s disease a decade before my suicide.

“Andy, this isn’t easy.”    

“My God . . . Mom?”  I went to her and hugged her.  The last time I saw her was in the hospital and she had no idea who I was.

“You have a decision to make, son.”

“Mom, what is this place?”

“It just is.  We may be able to chat later.  Now you need to make your choice.”

I stood back from her.  Her dark eyes were as clear as they were when I was a teenager.  She nodded as if listening to me tell her my grades.

“You can’t both go back.  Only you or only her.  You need to decide which it’ll be.”

I turned to face Marla, moved a couple of steps toward her.  She looked at peace.  After all this time, we couldn’t be together?

“That’s not right,” I said.

A murmur of laughter came from the people behind Mom.

“You should go back, son.  Look at her.  She’s already dead and doesn’t know you’ve come for her.  She’ll wake in her own wheelchair and she’ll fit right in.  You should just go back.  Go live your own life.”

“I need to help her.”

I looked around.  If one of us had to stay with the dead . . .

“It won’t work that way, son,” Mom said.  She reached out a hand and touched my arm.  “You interfered.  If you stay, you won’t be with us.  You’ll be in an endless mist alone forever.”

“What?”

“Exiled.  For all eternity.  No chair for you.”

Marla’s hand was cold, but I loved holding it anyhow.  She was what I had wanted my whole life.  Would she forgive me in time if I left her dead?  My Marla . . .

I stared into her face forever, touched her cold cheeks and put my hand on her breast for the last time.

When I turned back to my mother and told her my decision, my voice cracked.

***

We were just getting changed into casual clothes to go down for one last dance before . . . well, before my fantasies would end and I would make love to her for the first time as my wife.

“Probably Janice,” said Marla.  “Not sure what she’d want, though.”

Marla’s sister was the only person who knew our hotel room number.  I nodded, but inside me I felt panic.  Something was very wrong.

“Marla, no!”  I grabbed one of our emerald-colored knives and ran toward her.

Marla had flipped the lock on the door and pulled it open.  I heard her gasp and turned to see her try to push the door closed.  “Ricky?  No, it can’t be -- ”

I jumped and pushed her aside as the gun exploded and my guts fell out all around me.  I gasped as I slammed the knife into Ricky’s chest, and then I had no energy.  I fell to the floor.

“ANDY!!  NO!”

Marla was lifting my head from the floor and screaming.  I tried to touch her face one last time, but I couldn’t lift my arm.  I couldn’t even say good-bye.  A strange purple haze seemed to roll through the room, taking me away from my Marla.

I smiled, not knowing why.

 

 


Copyright 2009 by John R. Little