Fiction by M.E. Proctor
When we started meeting in the pavilion on top of the dune, Billy was nine years old.
Billy’s mom had called the office to tell me he wanted to talk to me. In private, in that place. It struck me as morbid, an unnecessary revisiting of a nightmare. But I’m a cop, not a psychologist. Maybe some expert recommended it, to take stock of the horror, what do I know.
Billy said that he wanted to visit with me once a year, in the exact place where I found him, on the anniversary date of the rescue. “What for?” I said. “Just to talk,” he said.
And that’s what we’ve been doing for the past thirteen years.
Regular as clockwork, and I’m always first to arrive at the rendezvous.
I’m retired now and Billy graduated from college. You would think that he could be waiting for me, for a change, but no, the ritual is set. He still calls me Mr. Ericson and I call him Billy. A few years back, I told him to call me Dennis. He acquiesced and went straight to calling me Mr. Ericson. I tried again, on the next visit, to no avail. My wife says there’s reassurance in keeping things the same, and I guess she’s right.
There have been a few changes though.
In the beginning, Billy’s mom waited for him at the bottom of the steps, in the dunes, out of sight. When he turned twelve, he started coming alone, on his bicycle. Now, he drives.
I carried him down the steps to the ambulance, on that terrible day. Now he’s taller than me and I’m convinced he could carry me. He’ll have to, if we keep doing this for the next twenty years.
“What do you talk about?” my wife asked.
“Billy asks me about my work. I ask him about school and friends.”
We have a full year of events to go through. We don’t lack conversation topics. What we don’t talk about is the kidnapping, the abuse, the frantic search, the lucky break when the van was spotted in the golf course parking lot, the pursuit in the dunes. Each time, I have a few minutes by myself to wonder if today is the day Billy decides to pull the band aid and talk about the event that brought us together.
He’s later than usual.
Maybe he won’t come.
I should call to make sure he’s all right. Dark clouds are stacked high in the east. Billy will be driving through a deluge. His insistence on meeting on the exact day has gotten us in trouble before. August on these northern shores can be unpredictable. Cluck, cluck, Dennis the mother hen! The kid is twenty-two. He can take care of himself.
I wish I had a cigarette. Dumb. I gave up smoking ten years ago.
Two seagulls soar overhead shrieking insults. I like gulls but they have the coldest murderous eyes this side of a shark.
“Hi, Mr. Ericson.”
I didn’t hear him come up the steps. He stands there, smiling, in faded jeans and a sweater that looks like it’s been knitted by well-intentioned but not very competent fingers.
“Very fetching,” I say.
He laughs. “It’s warm, what can I say.”
“You could tell me who made it.” I’m prying, of course, can’t take the cop out of the retiree.
Billy flushes and his freckles stand out. He plonks down on the bench next to me. “I haven’t told you about Libby. I did a stint on a building project in Nicaragua over Christmas. We hit it off. She’s a senior. English Lit.”
“We’re getting to a time in life when you’ll have a ton more to tell me than I have to tell you. I need reading glasses now. That’s about the extent of my breaking news. How’s your mom?”
“Ha! She’s dating.” He smiles. “Cool guy. They went on a cruise and she likes him more now than before. I think he’s a keeper.”
Billy’s mom was a recent widow when he was taken. There were nasty speculations in the press that she was too deep in her grief to pay proper attention to her son. The mindless cruelty of the media made me want to puke. All the years have not dimmed the feeling.
“Do you know what this viewpoint is called?” I say.
“The pavilion reminds me of a mushroom,” Billy says. “The red top, the white base. They should paint white dots on the roof.”
“It would make it look like a toadstool. Amanita muscaria. Poisonous,” I say.
“Very appropriate,” Billy says. His voice dips low.
“It’s called Spy Head,” I say. “Because of the view, obviously. Some kind of strategic lookout. You’ll see it on every postcard and tourist flyer. It’s the most interesting feature of this town. Sad, really. We could have a folk-art museum, an old church, or a windmill, but all we have is a couple of white benches under a red canopy on top of a measly dune.”
Billy is silent for a long time. He looks at the sea, rippling metal gray under the dull sky.
“I see differences in town, from one year to the next,” he says. “They built an extension to the esplanade at the end of the seawall. It looks clunky. And the hotel over there has a new roof.”
Things I don’t notice because I live here and the changes are gradual. Days glide into each other. Billy sees snapshots. I hadn’t realized he paid attention to the surroundings.
“You remember from one year to the next?” I say.
“I remember everything. From the first time we sat here together.”
It’s an opening. Take it? Lose it? “I’ve always wondered why you wanted to come back here, Billy.”
“You never asked.”
Was that a reproach? “Would you have answered?”
He stands up and kicks sand off the soles of his sneakers. That’s it, I blew it. He’s going to say “Goodbye, Mr. Ericson,” and be gone for another year.
“I couldn’t have given you an answer, Dennis.”
Now, without warning, he uses my name. I feel like I’ve broken a priceless antique, or some treasured snow globe. Pieces are fluttering all around. A beautiful and brief climax that can’t be repeated. It’s over. This mysterious thing between us is lost. The sadness is close to unbearable. A gust of wind prevents tears from running down my cheeks. Dennis Ericson, you’re a moron, you couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Billy leans against the side of the pavilion. For the first time he doesn’t face the sea or the town. He’s looking at the spread of dunes.
“He died out there,” Billy says. “He shot the lady cop, Cindy Denholm. She took it in the vest and went down, but she managed to fire back. The papers said it was a lucky shot.”
It’s all so clear in my memory. The troopers moving through the dunes, combing the area, hyper-aware the creep could be behind a bush, behind the next ridge. And knowing they had to catch him. Because the kid might still be alive and the only chance to find him was to get this punk to talk. Promise him anything but get him to say where he hid Billy.
I ran up the steps to the Spy Head to have a view of the field, to be able to direct the officers, to try to spot the quarry. And I found Billy, shoved under a bench, like a load of dirty laundry. I dropped to my knees and reached for a small hand, a fragile wrist. I searched for a pulse. My heartbeat so loud, so frantic, that it drowned the light flutter of Billy’s lifeline. I forced myself to calm down, to take deep breaths, and ignore what was taking place in the dunes. Focus on the boy.
He was unconscious but alive. I took him in my arms and hurried down the steps. I was in good shape then, and adrenaline gave me a boost. Once Billy was taken care of, I went back up to the lookout to direct the hunt. There was no need to walk on eggshells around that bastard anymore.
“When did you read the newspaper articles, Billy?”
“Years later. I was afraid to look at first. I had nightmares and I didn’t want to worry Mom. She wasn’t well.”
“She let you see me.”
Billy grins. “You’re a hero in our house, Dennis. She couldn’t say no.”
It makes me feel warm inside. Cases like Billy’s are heartbreaking. The kid was alive but scarred. Where his life would go from there was a crap shoot.
“Where did you get the idea for these meetings? You must have expected something.”
Billy sits down again. “Talking to somebody who was there at the end.”
“You never asked me anything.”
“I didn’t know what to ask. I still don’t know. What makes people do terrible things?” He shrugs. “Nobody knows. For the longest time, I thought this place held an answer.”
“The Spy Head? Toddlers love to climb the dune. When you’re three-foot tall, it looks like a mountain.”
“Yeah, pretty lame,” Billy says. “I still want to believe there’s something here, you know? A portal of some kind. Something that’ll open for me, if I’m persistent, and show me the truth.”
What truth? What made the kidnapper tick? I doubt that’s what he means. “I don’t know why he brought you up here, Billy. He wasn’t from here. Maybe he came for a holiday when he was a kid. We looked at his past and it was opaque. He had a wife and a job two hundred miles away. A regular citizen. No record.”
“You didn’t try to find out what compelled him?”
It is the most frustrating part of the job I did for forty years. The search for logic where there isn’t any to be found.
“If nutcases had a clear rationale for their actions they wouldn’t be nutcases, Billy. They have violent urges. There isn’t much more to it.” I know my answer will disappoint him. Over the years, he has built a legend around Spy Head. The story he told himself, that notion of a portal of some kind, helped him make sense of the nightmare he survived. It sprinkled magic over the worst perversion. I want to tell him but I don’t know how.
“I’ve seen old pictures of Spy Head,” I say. “Black and white, with women in long dresses and hats, from the early nineteen hundreds. It makes you wonder why a modest little curiosity like this survived when the rest of the town hasn’t.”
“I have no memory of being brought here,” Billy says. “I remember waking up in the cellar.” He takes a deep breath and blinks. “I remember being hungry and terrified. I remember he hurt me. I knew I was going to die. And I woke up in the hospital. Transported. It was freaky disorienting.”
“You didn’t speak for almost a week. Everybody was scared shitless.” These days are burnt in my memory. Billy’s mom was a wreck, the doctors fixed the physical problems but couldn’t get a handle on what was going on in the boy’s head.
“I remember you sitting by the side of my bed. You were constantly taking a cigarette out, putting it in your mouth, and then shoving it back in the pack. I wanted to tell you to light it and get it over with, but I didn’t know what my voice would sound like. I wasn’t exactly sure I was on the right planet.” He shakes his head. “I landed in slow motion. When I learned about the lookout, things started clearing up.”
“A beacon for the spaceship, a gateway to the beyond?”
“Yeah.” A shrug. “It made more sense than everything else.”
I have to agree. We find meaning where we can. It can be awfully confusing out there. This meeting is an anchor for me. Two days before the date, I start to feel fidgety, I can’t stay still. You would think my life is a desert of banality except for one day in the year. It isn’t so. I volunteer three afternoons a week with the local police department and I mentor a group of at-risk kids. Mother hen Dennis! I’m needed and satisfied. I believe Billy needs me the most. After all, he’s my foundling.
“Let’s walk down,” Billy says. “It’s going to rain again. We met thirteen times so far. Do you know it rained six times out of thirteen but never two years in a row?”
He keeps track of that stuff? “I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday,” I say.
“Neither do I,” Billy says. “I keep a diary of our meetings. I’ll show you next time.”
There will be a next time. I’m so relieved I feel giddy. “I know what this place is,” I say. “It’s a time machine.”
We pause at the bottom of the steps and look up at the pavilion. The sun is going down and the red roof glows. I picture it with white dots. It is a perfect toadstool.
M.E. Proctor is currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. The first book in the series, Street Song will come from TouchPoint Press in Spring 2023. Her short stories have been published in Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern Flash, Bristol Noir, Fiction on the Web, The Bookends Review and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas.