Desert Grave

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
Gas stations and rest stops are part of every road trip, an often necessary distraction from the long journey. when Darren and Morissa Miller take a break at an abandoned desert gas station, they find more than old mechanic tools lurking in the shadows.

To save their marriage and their lives, they may have to dig deeper than ever before to expose what should be buried in a desert grave.

Submitted: March 20, 2019

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Submitted: March 20, 2019

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The Lexus idled next to the abandoned gas station.  Darren Miller sulked in the driver seat, growing impatient.

The flat hills in the distance shimmered in the desert heat, giving Darren the impression the air itself was on fire.  And why not?  Anytime he stepped from the air-conditioned Lexus into the miserable scorching sun, each breath seemed like an inferno within his lungs.  Using only a little imagination, he could see the air burning in a raging firestorm, sweeping down the forgotten highway with an unquenchable hunger.  The thought sent a shudder through Darren. 

What would it consume? 

He ignored the question.  A lesser man might be tempted to listen to the inner voice, even tempted to hold conversations, but that would be courting insanity.  Darren knew the dangers of listening to the annoying voice.

But would a lesser man let his wife cheat on him, buddy-boy?

Darren suppressed the thought, stealing a glance at the faded white door on the side of the neglected building.  The block letters spelling WOMEN were gone, faded away under the constant abuse of the desert sun, leaving only the faint traces of their outline shimmering through the heat. 

How long does it take her to pee?

The engine purred, kicking to a higher idle as the air conditioner cycled through a cooling stage.  He slammed the steering wheel with the palm of his hand and wondered if the weekend trip was worth the aggravation… an easy answer while he sat waiting for Morissa on the return trip home.  She had been so frustrating at the resort, infuriating him with her complaints, her whining, and arguments!

This was going to be the marriage that worked, the crowning achievement to blot out the failure of the last four weddings.  He promised himself every effort to make this one work.  He would control his anger!  He would control the voice! 

He thought the weekend trip to Dustin’s, a private desert resort, would put the marriage back on track.

Derailed it, though, huh?

He had the trip planned for three weeks, shortly after Tom Salisbury, the private investigator, handed him the convincing photographs.

And wasn’t he just a high priced voyeur?  That’s all guys like Tom were when you got down to the fine print, buddy-boy, just highly paid voyeurs out snapping photos of people’s cheating spouses. 

“Plus expense,” he was reminded when signing the contract.  “Daily fees, plus expenses.”

Five days later, he met the voyeur for hire in a Hooter’s Restaurant, ordering a couple of beers before getting to business.  Tom handed over the plain brown, ominous looking envelope with a look a caution, as if there were a ticking bomb within the folds.  “Are you sure you want to see these?”

Darren remembered wanting to smack The Voyeur Tom, right there in the middle of the restaurant.  He wanted to smack the “put-on-look of distress” right off his face, shove something down his throat to smother the grave voice speaking in a false tone of concern.  What did he care?  He cared for five days worth of fees and expenses!  He made his fees and now he asked if Darren wanted to live in denial? 

The question alone provided enough to convince Darren.  In that instant, it was no longer a question of what the photos would reveal, it was a question of how much would be revealed… to what depths had the deception reached?  What dark secrets lay within the folds of the plain brown envelope?  How far did the betrayal extend?  His anger asked the question, and deep down he really wanted to know, so he slid the evidence from the envelope.

The first photo caught his breath, seemingly stopping time as he stared at the face of the man she was embracing.  The restaurant ceased to exist for several moments as the shock rippled through him.  He had braced himself.  He had tried to prepare himself, slipping in and out of denial too many times to count.  He thought he was ready for whatever story the pictures would tell him.  He even went as far as pre-forgiving his wife for whatever he might discover, truly yearning to salvage his fifth marriage before it was completely ruined. 

He walked through many scenarios and held imaginary conversations leading up to this moment, but none would have equipped him for seeing the familiar face looking back at him from the black and white shots.  The same face appeared in many of the wedding photographs on their fireplace mantle.  The same face smiled while standing in a place of honor as the Best Man, a place of privilege and respect reserved for the groom’s best friend, Bruce Gaines. 

The rest of the evidence only ripped the wound wider, several glossies showing Bruce and Morrisa kissing in her car, walking along a wooded path, holding hands while they ate at a diner, and laughing as they ate ice cream cones on a park bench. 

A few additional slips of paper in the envelope elevated The Voyeur Tom to the private detective status for Darren.  There were dinner receipts, credit card receipts, and transcripts of several mobile telephone conversations: more than what a simple voyeur could do. 

Darren downed his beer and replaced it three times before paying for his evidence and a taxi ride home.

His indecision on how to handle this new knowledge had the driver circling the city twice.  The driver didn’t care, it was a paying fare, but for Darren it was money well spent in thinking through his next step.  He ultimately decided to play along with the charade as if he didn’t know what was happening.  The evidence wouldn’t change, and he could always play his hand at a later date. 

And besides, he had to wait until when he did play his hand, it was the upper hand.  A lesser man would loose control and would end up a joke, but he would not…

…at least not until a weekend spent at Dustin’s Desert Resort.

Darren slammed his fist against the Lexus steering wheel again, grabbing the wheel with both hands and pressing himself back into the leather seat.  His anger weighed on him, tightening a band around his chest and clamping his teeth behind snarling lips.  In spite of the air conditioning bathing him in cool air, his tension squeezed beads of sweat from his pores, drenching him. 

He clenched his eyes shut, blotting out the thoughts threatening to send him into one of his raging episodes… an uncontrolled fury of anger he was familiar with through his previous marriages and a tormenting beast he learned to control before meeting Morrisa.  Now, the raw edges of betrayal leaked through the barriers he constructed to control the furious, angry beast inside him, feeding the emotions and enticing a release.  The darkness within was growing… a creature he tried to deny existed, yet now worked with all his strength to suppress. 

In blanking his thoughts, pushing away the memories of the photographs and the controlling his emotions regarding the resort trip, he felt the pressure subside.  The building wave of tension weakened, and the weight of his anger dissipated.  He breathed through clenched teeth, his lips nothing more than a stretched, thin line, yet each exhale relieved the pressure.  The dark beast retreated… this time.

Almost lost it that time, buddy boy.  What would have happened?

When he opened his eyes, a man stood off about a hundred feet behind the gas station wearing a black trench coat and hat.  The desert heat shimmered around him, while he stood in clear focus… just standing there. 

Darren wiped the sweat from his eyes and blinked.  When he looked again, in the place where the strange man stood was a dried, desert shrub about the same height and outline as a man wearing a trench coat.  Darren breathed in deep, held his breath for a moment, and let the rest of his tension exhale out with his breath.

A black trench coat, huh? 

There was something old, forgotten, and buried struggling for attention, an ancient memory laboring for a rebirth, but with it, Darren felt apprehension.  Was it the source of the stress? 

A second deep breath settled the rest of the tension.  With four previous marriages, he ran the usual emotional roller coaster, alternating from salvaging the relationship with forgiveness or sabotaging it with revenge.

But this time, what to do about the best friend, buddy-boy?

Bruce… he was another ingredient in this recipe for losers.  Darren knew Bruce back in Mrs. Saxon’s sixth grade class.  They were both clowns, and seemed to share the detention table on a regular bases in every grade until graduation.  Bruce was his friend, standing up for him at every one of his weddings… a friend closer than a brother. 

Darren felt his breathing strain at the thought of the lying bastard coming over to watch the games on the weekend and acting like nothing was happening.  Was he winking at Morissa behind his back?  And, why the hell was Morissa so interested in the games lately, anyway?  She usually found an excuse to leave the house, but for the past few months she was sitting right between Darren and Bruce on the couch! 

But, the real question, buddy-boy, is to whom was she sitting closer?

How many times had Darren come close to confiding in Bruce before he hired the private investigator?  How close had Darren come to seeking the ear and support of a friend in this mess? 

The pressure started to return as the beast of rage tried to stir, but Darren cleared his thoughts before it could fully awaken and suppressed the monster once more. 

You got lucky, buddy boy… I’ll bide my time…

He would deal with Bruce later.  He needed to salvage his marriage first.  That’s what the weekend was supposed to be about… rekindling the emotions he and Morissa felt three years ago when they were married. 

Every detail had been planned in advance, with the exclusive resort catering to every specific element of their stay.  There were spa treatments, massage therapy, mud baths, gourmet foods, nightly entertainment, and three different pools – one for laps and working out, one for just soaking and relaxing, and one clothing optional… for those types of folks. 

Was it good enough for Morissa?  She was almost an embarrassment.  She constantly whined about the heat when they were outside, then about the chill of the air-conditioning when they were inside.  The food was not done enough or overcooked when they ate.  He scheduled a deep-tissue massage to help relax them, yet she complained of invisible bruises and internal bleeding afterward.

Bet you wanted to give her some bruising, didn’t you?

Internal bleeding?  Sub-dermal bruising?  Her exaggerated limping back to the room almost proved more than he could stand, which led to their early departure.  Why should he pay for another day of her complaining?  Was it his imagination the resort staff seemed almost pleased as he led her out of the lobby? 

They had to be relieved!

Darren remembered the expression on the resort clerk as they were checking out early.  The expression bothered him, but the thought of getting on the road with Morissa smothered any questions about the desk clerk.

The first two hours were pleasant when she was giving him the silent treatment, but his unexpected detour opened up a faucet of insults and complaining.  She didn’t think he knew where he was going…

Oh, he knew where he was going…

…she thought they would get lost on this abandoned highway…

Na… he scouted it out two weeks prior…

…and she just knew they were going to get in to trouble for trespassing on some reservation or government property.

Or, was she just pissed because she couldn’t see her lover?

Then she had to pee.  And why not?  Hadn’t he planted a cold bottle of water in her cup holder?  Sure, it was a prop, but did she have to drink it? 

He knew she would never pee along the road or just squat off the back bumper.  He could wiz in the center median of an interstate route at rush hour, but Morissa would have trouble no matter how secluded – if it was outside, she just couldn’t go. 

While he would prefer a cactus to an abandoned, greasy looking gas station, he knew she would prefer four walls no matter how dirty.  She would squat over the grimiest toilets in preference to an outdoor, unenclosed place. 

That was, after all, the plan…

And now he waited. 

The heat vapors continued to distort his vision, making the desert scene dance.  He scanned the horizon again, looking for traces of the man in the trench coat.  While the thought was incredible (unimaginable really… after all, a trench coat in this heat?), his idle mind searched for some form of distraction to subdue the growing impatience, an emotion blooming in the heat vapors of the desert.

He continued to wait.

The image of the resort desk clerk smirking as he checked out ran through his mind.  The clerk glanced at Morissa when he handed Darren the final statement for the room charges, then back at Darren with a condescending look.  Darren dismissed it before, but now he recognized the smirk as a wordless accusation, “WHO WEARS THE PANTS IN THIS MARRIAGE?”

Ready yet, buddy-boy?

Darren jerked the door handle, stepped from the car, and was walking towards the remnants of what was once a gas station before he realized he was even moving.  His kick broke the handle and slapped the grimy door open into the adjacent wall, showering down a cascade of loose tiles. 

“What is taking you so lo…” he started shouting, but his words froze in his throat as the desert sun illuminated an empty restroom.  Morissa was not there.

A cracked mirror hung crooked on the wall facing him, giving him a fractured image through the dirt and grim.  His reflection captured his attention… his likeness splintered across the spidery fissures of glass.  The desert sun silhouetted most of his appearance, but enough light caught his face to layer his expression across several breaks… multiple Darrens staring back in disgust and horror. 

His eyes beckoned him, searching for some form of sanity in the mess of his life, searching for a level of understanding eluding him, looking for answers to a puzzle beyond his comprehension.  He read somewhere, perhaps in another life before marriage and the trials of relationships, where only the insane were completely sure of their sanity, and thereby questioning ones sanity was proof for being sane.  He thought this was mumbo-jumbo when he read it, although the words were ringing a bell of truth now… now, as he stood, caught up in his own multiple stares through the crack reflections of a broken mirror… staring not so much at his reflection, as he was into those haunting eyes.

Not now!

He shook off the teetering feelings, bottling up the emotions and burying them like he learned to do his anger.  Darren looked around the rest of the vacant room.  The sink broke off the wall years earlier, finding a resting place in two pieces against one corner, while the toilet fixture was missing altogether, a balled-up, mucky rag replacing it as a covering to the hole in the floor. 

A roach skittered from the behind the rag, disappearing through a crack in the wall.  Otherwise, the room was unoccupied.

“Hadn’t she stepped through this door when she got out of the car?” he asked the empty room, avoiding any glance to the mirror. 

He stepped back into the baking heat of the desert in a stupor.  When he glanced back through the open door, he caught his confused reflection in the fractured panes of the mirror and jerked his attention away.

Don’t wanna see too many reflections of yourself at one time, huh?  Too many Darrens in the kitchen will spoil the broth… and boy, do we have a stew cooking for you!  Just you wait, buddy-boy.

The door marked MEN stood a few feet from the door he kicked open.  Stepping toward the door, a sudden sense of danger came over him, freezing him in mid step.  He felt a wave a nausea wash through him, leaving the cold and sharp edges of fear ready to cut him down.  Of all the emotions Darren experienced in the mayhem of five marriages, fear was never part of the ride.  What would he have to fear?  The angry beast?  Wasn’t the raging monster just a part of him when he lost control?  How could he fear himself?  Or, a better question, why would he fear himself?  Granted, the consequences were far from favorable.  He suppressed the maddening thunder of his fury not for the fear of it, but for the desire to salvage his relationships. 

Darren shook his head to clear the thoughts, wondering about the source of the fear. 

“I think you’re yellow!”

Darren shook his head again.  The words were almost audible instead of the inner rambling he tolerated.  The heat must have…

“What’s a matter, you little wimp?  Afraid to face me?”

Darren spun toward the voice.  The man wearing the black trench coat stood on the other side of the parking lot, about three feet into the desert floor and leaning on a prickly cactus.  His black, wide-brimmed hat hid his face in an uncommon shadow… an exceptionally dark shadow. 

Darren tried to focus, wiping his eyes and concentrating on the man’s face, but finding no clarity. 

“What’s the matter, buddy-boy?  The heat getting to you?  Having a bad day?  Huh, buddy-boy?  Ehhhh?  Having a problem with the little woman?”

Darren grew cold, recognition turning his heart to a block of ice in his chest.  He knew the voice.  The choice of words, the mannerisms, and the way the man in the trench coat spoke made the identity clear.  But how? 

The shadowed face smiled.  “Ah… so you put it together, huh?  You figured out who I am?”

Darren squinted, perplexed by the words.  “How?”

“Look you yellow wimp, you had some guts about you when you let the steam out of the kettle every now and then, but then you had to go and start trying to control things,” the Trench Coat Man said, straightening his stance and squaring up across from Darren.  “You listened to so much psycho-babble that you actually thought you could restrain me, huh?  You actually thought you could keep me all bottled up inside you and nothing would happen?”

Darren stumbled with his words.  “How did…? How did you get out? How did you become…?”

“Look here, buddy-boy,” the Trench Coat Man started to explain, beginning to pace and expressing his words with black gloved hands.  “You can only cram so much crap in a diaper before it starts to leak out; you can stuff so much trash in a can before it overflows.  I mean, after all, anger in any relationship can take on a life of its own.  But you,” he said, gesturing in Darren’s direction.  “You seem to think you can just keep piling on all the crap and garbage you want, shoving it and pushing it down.  You know what happens when you put too much water in a water balloon?”

The Trench Coat Man stared at Darren, waiting for an answer.  As Darren started to reply, he shouted the answer with a thundering voice, “Boom!” 

Darren jerked back, startled by the intensity and viciousness. 

The Trench Coat Man laughed, doubling over in near hysterics.  “And you thought…,” he said between the cackling and the hoots, “…you could keep me…,” more cackling, “…locked away…”  He straightened, and pointing a finger at Darren, shifted into a raging torrent, “…and handle Morissa on your own!  You’re not man enough to handle your own wife!  You couldn’t even track her down yourself, you had to hire a voyeur!  You’re nothing but a yellow-bellied wimp, buddy-boy!  A gutless wonder without a hope of salvaging his marriage!  And then you have the audacity to wonder why I came around…”

He turned away from Darren, as if to compose himself, and vanished into the ripples of heat rising from the desert floor.

Darren stared at the spot where the Trench Coat Man stood moments before, half expecting him to suddenly step from behind whatever concealed him.  A few involuntary steps brought Darren closer to the cactus the Trench Coat Man leaned against.  Even though the distance was near fifteen feet, he could see the footsteps in the sand. 

The Trench Coat Man was real. 

The icy hold on Darren’s chest dissipated, the fear fading as the Trench Coat Man faded, just not as fast.  As the fear eroded, a foreign, empty feeling took hold at his very core; a vacancy in his emotions neither growing or fading, but just there. 

As if in slow motion, Darren turned back toward the building with the absence of anger stirring in his heart.  He thought of the pictures, Tom Salisbury, and of Bruce Gaines, although it seemed harder to picture them in the clarity and detail he had before, but still no irritation threatening to creep out.  The weekend resort was just a memory with no emotional strings pulling at some depth of darkness within him; the image of the desk clerk and his sneer was merely an unpleasant tribute to a failed marriage. 

Darren started toward the gas station when another revelation struck him in mid-step… the mocking voice inside his head was silent.  The snide comments, the badgering, the anger coaxing words were mute.  Did the voice leave when the Trench Coat Man became real?  As strange and absurd as the thought seemed, Darren heard the bell of truth ringing again. 

He allowed himself a fleeting moment to revel in the sudden freedom of silence in his own mind.  Since he was a ten, the voice plagued him every day of his life.  Throughout high school, college, on job interviews, and on every date, the voice tried to interfere with his life.  An ever present nag, the curse was relentless in prodding him, teasing him, and enticing an anger fed by the frustration of the voice.  At the altar of each of his five weddings, in the middle of the vows, the sarcastic voice intruded and belittled the moment.  Some of the most precious times of Darren’s life were ruined by the voice.

And now it was gone.

Enveloped in wonder, Darren staggered, almost losing his balance in the discovery of his independence from the grinding presence in his mind.  The voice left when the Trench Coat Man became real!  The anger, the restless emotions, the raging lunatic within him was also gone.  A dark, heavy weight inside had dissipated…

An icy coldness returned to Darren’s heart as the theory formed from the twisted events of the past few minutes.  A dark, heavy weight inside had dissipated when the Trench Coat Man was… what?  Conjured?  Conceived?  Or, could it be worse?  Could it be… and with this trailing notion, Darren felt the icy coldness centered in his heart rush through his veins in a surge of understanding not just ringing the bells of truth, but clanging them in a relentless throng of certainty. 

The Trench Coat Man was not conjured or conceived, but released.  What did the Trench Coat Man say about a water balloon bursting and anger taking on a life of its own?  Darren had unwillingly released the raging beast living within him, exposing the world to the torment he hid from daylight. 

His freedom was purchased at a great expense.  Now who would pay the price?

The Trench Coat Man’s final words echoed through the new insight and understanding.  Darren heard them, as if spoken again, “…gutless wonder without a hope of salvaging his marriage!  And then you have the audacity to wonder why I came around…” 

“Morissa!”  Darren croaked her name through cold lips, fear almost paralyzing him.  The voice had harassed him through four marriages, besieging him with anger and driving him to raving rampages to ruin his relationships.  When he felt he could control the anger, the voice broke free of the prison Darren constructed.  Now the voice, in some embodiment of the Trench Coat Man, was after the one person Darren had denied it access… in fact, defied the voice by trying to salvage the marriage.  The voice… the Trench Coat Man… was after Morissa.

“No!” Darren cried, shattering the paralysis and sprinting toward the other restroom door marked, MEN.  He resisted any hold fear had on him, choosing instead to relish in his new freedom, racing against whatever force was trying to separate him from his wife.  He had to save Morissa! 

Ignoring the door handle, he just body slammed the door and used his momentum to carry him through the door.  A startled rodent scurried through a hole once used for plumbing, but otherwise the room was empty.  There were no fixtures.  The walls were tiled at one time, the mastic still showing the ancient imprint of each piece.  Unlike the other restroom, this one had another door opening to the inside of the building.

After a few steps toward the inner regions of the building, Darren hesitated.  “Morissa?  Morissa?  Can you hear me?”

The door slammed behind him.  Darren spun around, bracing for an attack.  Darkness wrapped around him, but no attack came.  The silence in the gas station seemed to shroud him like a weight, his heartbeat becoming a pounding bass drum in his ears.  The dust and sand stirred up from the door carried a hint of decay and rot.  The room suddenly felt like a tomb.

Darren turned back toward the inner part of the gas station, finding a faint glow of light to lead him from his would be crypt and into the double garage bay. 

The building could double as a museum for gas stations from yesteryear with the memorabilia on the walls and the old soda machine in the corner, except this museum would be featured in a Halloween exhibit.  The grim, dirt, and desert sand coating the spider webs created a tinsel effect over all the walls, work benches, and garage equipment abandoned so many years ago. 

As Darren’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, his breath froze in his chest when his eyes found Morissa’s headless corpse in the far corner.  The same white blouse she put on at the resort was now stained in a growing crimson bib.  Darren gasped for air, his vision clouding over the image as he felt a second wave of nausea sweep over him.  Bending over, he forced a breath before dropping to his knees in sobs. 

“Look at you, buddy boy.  Crying like a little girl.” 

The familiar voice, now spoken by the Trench Coat Man, was coming from the front office adjacent to the garage bay.  Darren thought for a moment about just ignoring the voice… he had, after all, become very accustomed to ignoring the voice over the years.  Why should now be any different? 

“Is that what you’ve become, buddy boy?  Without my strength… without me… is that what really are, deep down?  Nothin’ but a little girl?” 

Before Darren knew the words were coming from his lips, he heard his prayer between sobs, “Oh Lord, please help me.”

The calmness surging over Darren was like being soaked in garden hose on a hot summer day.  He exchanged his emotional weakness for a resolve he had never known.  The sobbing stopped as abruptly as it began, and one deep breath steadied Darren’s nerves. 

“Hey?  I’m talking to you, buddy boy.  Are you listening?  Are you still there?”

Darren stood, squeezing his eyes shut, though preparing himself to look at Morissa’s body one more time.  He would look, take it in, then deal with the Trench Coat Man.  He was calm now, for whatever his prayer was worth, he suddenly felt a new purpose growing within him. 

He glanced at Morissa’s body, but it was nothing more than an old pile of newspapers bound in the corner, laying in the same position he saw her crumbled up body.  There was no trace Morissa had ever been near the newspapers. 

The Trench Coat Man had somehow played a mind trick on him.  Darren shook his head… if he could believe the raging beast within him had taken on the form of an ill-dressed hallucination, why would mind games be too hard to accept?  The very voice of the man used to live in Darren’s mind – a few illusions were mere child’s play for this monster. 

Though the Trench Coat Man was more then a hallucination, more than a figment of his imagination, the steady calmness bolstered Darren’s strength.  Without thought to the words, Darren heard himself speak the second prayer he could ever remember saying, “Lord, if she is still alive, help me save Morissa.”

In that moment, Morissa stepped from the gas station office with a knife to her throat and the Trench Coat Man wearing her like a shield – pushing her forward, but holding her tight around her waist.  Morissa’s hands were bound in front of her, her eyes pleading with him, her muffled screams escaping from behind duct tape over her mouth.

The Trench Coat Man sneered in her ear, “Shut up or I’ll open your throat to shut you up.”

Morissa stopped screaming, though she seemed to be on the brink of hyper-ventilating through flaring nostrils to catch her breath.

In the gloom, Darren could barely see any of his facial features… he wondered if the Trench Coat Man’s face would look like his, or if his eyes would be the haunting eyes staring back at him from the broken mirror.

“Let her go,” Darren ordered in a commanding voice.

“Excuse me?  Hey, buddy boy, you were just crying like a little girl and now you want to tell me what to do?  Weren’t you listening to me?”

Darren played a hunch, tilting his head forward, and peering at the Trench Coat Man through his eyebrows.  “Oh I heard you, but I’m through listening to you.  Not after that little picture play you gave me.”

The Trench Coat Man chuckled.  “Did you like that?  Here you thought you were going to body slam the door and save your little wifey-poo, and I broke you in an instant.  You’re too easy, buddy boy.”

With his first hunch confirmed, Darren played the next card in this game.  “If I’m so easy, why did you have to ask if I was listening to you?  Why didn’t you already know?”

The Trench Coat Man stood silent, frozen by Darren’s words.  Darren smiled.  Like bells ringing their song of truth, the Trench Coat Man just verified the first prayer was the power severing his hold over Darren.  No matter how weak and feeble, no matter how Darren could hardly remember the desire to cry out to God in the midst of his anguish and grief, the prayer was heard and answered. 

“You have no power here, buddy boy,” the Trench Coat Man said, his voice vacillating.  He stepped backward, pulling Morissa with him.  “Just to show you how little power you have, I’m going to cut your wife’s heart out and feed it to you.  After all, I’m just giving you what you wanted… the whole purpose of this stupid trip to the resort was to win back her heart.  Almost poetic, don’t you think?”

Darren stepped toward them, his stable emotions a pleasant surprise in the midst of desperation.  “No, not really poetic.  Gruesome maybe, but not poetic at all.  Is that original or did you copy it from somewhere?”

The Trench Coat Man froze again.  Darren smirked – he just played another trump card.  “Nothing is original for you, is it?”

“So I got the idea from somewhere else, big deal.  I’m still the one calling the shots here.  I’m the one in control!  If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even think your wife was cheating on you… I had to bring you around to that way of thinking, too!”

This time Darren froze.  The Trench Coat Man just revealed something in his frustration.  “What do you mean ‘bring me around to that way of thinking’?”

“You don’t think she was actually cheating on you, do you buddy boy?  I mean come on, you gave her everything she ever wanted… why would any woman leave you?  She even started staying at home to watch your football games with you – not because of Bruce, but to be with you!  If I didn’t drive you against your first four wives, you would have never yelled at them or anything… all that cutesy stuff makes me sick!  And then you thought you could suppress me during this marriage?  Hell, do you know how long it took me to come up with the illusion of the private detective and the photographs?”

Darren’s heart raced in his chest.  The words were incredible to him, opening the sky on a thundercloud shadowing his world for weeks.  Morissa had never cheated on him! 

The Trench Coat Man continued with his rant.  “See how easy you were?  I mean, come on buddy boy, how many times did you actually see the photographs?”

Darren thought for a moment, considering the meeting with the private detective to be nothing more than an illusion in a series of events to bring him here.  In the center of the illusion, like a magician trying to make a white dove disappear in a black silk handkerchief, Darren now saw the stray white feather revealing the fold in the cloth, giving the illusion away.

“So you remember now, do ya buddy boy?”

Darren nodded.  “Yes, I remember now.  The private detective never came to the restaurant.  When he called, he said there was nothing to report.  He couldn’t find any proof of Morissa’s infidelity.”

“That’s right, buddy boy.  She is as faithful as… well, as I am dark.  When your wimpy private detective called, I had to use every trick I knew to convince you there was a meeting at the restaurant and there was never a telephone call.”

Darren tried to think of Tom Salisbury’s facial features.  He remembered there was a  ‘put on look of concern’ when he handed over the envelope and the angry emotions, but he never thought of how the expression looked.  Now, no matter how hard he tried, he could only see a featureless face – no eyes, no mouth, no nose – and as Darren tried to think past the features, the detective vanished from his memory like the Trench Coat Man vanished in the desert.

The pictures vanished with him, leaving a memory of Darren sitting at the table drinking several beers by himself.  Even though he could remember the details of the photos when the Trench Coat Man was still bottled up inside him, now those details were nothing but vapors.

Darren risked a glance to Morissa’s face, checking her reaction to the Trench Coat Man and their conversation.  She was holding up, her breathing under control, yet Darren would do anything to take the fear from her eyes.  To save her, and any form of sanity he seemed to acquire in the past few minutes, he needed to deal with the Trench Coat Man.  He needed to play the game he had been playing since he was ten years old. 

“So you did it all?”

“Of course I did, buddy boy.  Otherwise, you would be wimping out all the time and getting cutesy with her.  Without me, you’re spineless, and you would have gone on living with her for the rest of your pathetic lives.  But you had to make things difficult, didn’t you?  You had to try to keep me controlled.  But in any relationship, anger can take on a life of its own.”  He chuckled before continuing, “And I guess I’m living proof, huh?”

Darren shook his head in bewilderment, the pieces of the puzzle falling into place.  “So you were driving us apart?  Even at the resort?” 

“What do you remember, buddy-boy?”

As Darren considered his now questionable memories, he saw the events twisted and distorted from reality.  The complaints he originally remembered through the angry filter of the Trench Coat Man’s persona were fabricated or comments blown out of proportion.  As Darren considered the Trench Coat Man’s influence, anger always seemed to intensify even the smallest infraction, whether it was Morissa or others.  The anger pushed him into assuming guilt, jealousy, or the darkest of motives.  The anger was the driving force for his problems, with or without the Trench Coat Man.

“Ah… Now you are beginning to see my true authority in all situations, don’t you, buddy boy?  Now you see what kind of influence I carry… now back to cutting out her heart and giving it to you…”

“But you can’t be that influential if you haven’t done anything original since I was ten years old,” Darren quipped, trying to buy some time. 

The verbal jab worked.  As the Trench Coat Man was moving to position himself around Morissa, he stopped and pulled her more in front of him like armor in the conversation.  “That doesn’t make an sense at all, buddy boy.  That’s just stupid!”

“What was it that started it all off?” Darren asked, stepping closer.

“What was what?” The Trench Coat Man answered, pulling Morissa back in response to Darren’s advancing steps. 

“What started you off?  What made you become the annoying little voice in my head?” 

The Trench Coat Man bumped the gritty overhead door, and began backing along the door toward the office.  “Oh, you think you created me?  You think you did something to make me?  You are nothing!  You can neither create me or break me, buddy boy.”

“I don’t believe that,” Darren said, feeling a belt of confidence bolster his strength.  “I’m sure if I thought hard enough, I would remember your whole persona as nothing more than a nightmare I had when I was a child.  You’ve been a leach in me my entire life…” 

And in hearing the words he spoke, Darren remembered the nightmare – he remembered the storm and the late night show his aunt let him watch while babysitting him, both fodder for a wicked nightmare scaring him from his sleep with screams.  In response to his fear and night terror, his aunt slapped his face for being a foolish little boy, sending him off to bed with the words, “…you better grow up, buddy boy…”

Her words, “…buddy boy…”, now carried further in his memory with the bells of truth ringing again.

The Trench Coat Man must have seen something in his expression.  He stopped his retreat, preparing to take a stance.  “It doesn’t matter how I got started, buddy boy.  You have to deal with what I am right now, and I am still your worst nightmare.”

Darren stopped pressing toward them.  “I don’t know how you got out, but I’m glad to be done with you!”

“Done with me?” the Trench Coat Man exclaimed, his voice wavering still.  The gloved hand holding the knife to Morissa’s throat started to shake as the Trench Coat Man became more visibly enraged.  “Listen here, buddy boy, you’re not done with me until I say you’re done with me!  You’re a loser without me and you know it.  You would just go on loving this pitiful excuse of wife here!  You would just love…”

“What do you have against love?” Darren asked, his question triggering a choking sound from the depths of the Trench Coat Man’s voice. 

The Trench Coat Man coughed to clear his voice, then grabbed Morissa’s hair to jerk her around to face him.  He held the tip of the knife bluntly against the base of her throat and pulled against her hair to hold her in place.  “I’ll have no more of that, buddy boy.  Time for you to grow up.”

“I think you’re right,” Darren said, stepping toward them.  “I need to do something I should have done a long time ago.” 

“You come any closer and I will slit her throat.  If you think that little mind picture I gave you earlier was gruesome, wait until I get done dicing up your woman here, buddy boy.  You won’t recognize her when I get…”

Darren held one finger to his lips to silence the Trench Coat Man, almost amused when it worked.  “I won’t be listening to you anymore.  I refuse to listen to anger.”

The Trench Coat Man fidgeted, shaking.

Without wasting any time, Darren whispered to Morissa, “I love you more than life itself.  I realize now how much I love you.  I suppressed a problem I have with anger and it resulted in this situation.  I’m sorry.  But, if you forgive me today, I promise that instead of ignoring anger, I will stop listening to it altogether and deal with whatever is happening at the moment.  And in all things, I will express my love first and foremost, for love is the one thing anger cannot defeat.”

The Trench Coat Man stumbled backward, dropping the knife and reaching for his own throat.  He backed into the wall and slid to the floor with an absurd sound erupted from somewhere deep within him, a mixture of panic and anger growing more intense.

Darren turned his back on the dark man to catch Morissa as she fell into his arms.  He pulled the tape from her mouth, her cries pouring out in a flood of emotion and relief.  She buried her eyes in his shoulder, weeping.

Darren coaxed her away from the dark form squirming on the floor, half wondering about the sound emanating in what appeared to be his death.  After moving to the other side of the garage bay and letting her cry for a few moments, Darren said in a loud voice, “I love you, Morissa.”

Her crying lessened at the sound of his words, and she pulled away from his shoulder.  He was almost swallowed by her eyes when she said, “I love you, Darren.”

The Trench Coat Man let out one last grunt, jerking his body upward from the floor as if an electrical shock surged through him.  He stood, his knees cocked to resemble some strange Elvis Presley impersonation, then lost all substance.  The trench coat, black hat, and gloves fell to the floor over the black boots. 

The Trench Coat Man was gone.

They stood for several moments, Darren holding Morissa, staring at the crumbled pile of dark clothes.  The knife lay a few feet from the clothes, a reminder of the stark reality of what was not only hard to believe, but equally hard to explain. 

Morissa was the first to put words to it.  “So, that’s it then.” 

Darren looked at her in wonderment.  “That’s all?  So, that’s it then?  That’s all you have to say after coming so close to losing your life?”

She reached for his chin with her still bound hands and held his face.  She looked deep into his eyes.  “But what have I gained?  I’ve always known there was something you were hiding and I’ve had to share you with it for all these years.  So, what other words should I say?”

Darren shook his head.  “I’m still trying to put it all together.”

“Well, let’s see,” Morissa said, cocking her head to the side.  “Here you’ve been fighting a raging anger building within you since you were a boy, you found a way to subdue it only to have it escape and materialize into a murderous maniac.  Your anger, having taken on a life of its own, came within inches of taking my life.  I saw him.  You saw him.  He was as real as real gets, no hallucinations here.  But through it all, you learned the most valuable lesson of all.” 

Darren raised his eyebrows.  “And, that would be that love is the only thing anger can’t conquer. ”

Morissa glanced at the pile of clothes and added, “Or, love is the only thing that can conquer anger.”

After cutting the tape binding Morissa’s hands, they found an old shovel to dig a hole behind the gas station.  They filled the hole with the Trench Coat Man’s clothes, boots, and about a gallon of ancient gasoline – too weak to use in a car, but still with enough life to toast the remains. 

Darren watched the smoke climb to the sky.  Staring upward, he remembered the prayers and the confidence washing over him in the midst of the battle.  “Thank you, Lord.”

Morissa hugged Darren, adding her own thanks to his prayer, then asked, “So, we’re praying now?”

Darren nodded.  “Oh yeah.  I don’t know that much about God and the Lord and all that stuff, but I do know Someone helped me out in there.  I don’t think we would be here now if He didn’t do something for us in there, and maybe that’s what that whole Cross thing is about, I don’t know.  It’s worth digging into, I think.”

“Why not?” Morissa said.  “I mean, something supernatural happened to us today.  If we were important enough for God to save us, maybe we need to learn more.”

Darren kissed her, then they took turns filling in the desert grave.

- THE END -


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