2022 Short Story Competition

In Fair Verona

I find myself in the same interrogation room I had been before. Hands cuffed, in an orange jumpsuit, waiting for my one and only visitor. I recite to myself what has now become a comfort poem by Bob Kaufman, Someone whom I am is no one. / Something I have done is nothing. / Someplace I have been is nowhere. / I am not me.

Enter Carlos Williams. He’s become older since the last time I saw him. He takes the seat across of me, taking his time, making me wait. He motions for the guard to go, a gesture I have seen him perform a dozen times before and says: “William.”

“Carlos.”

“I heard you’re getting out. Congratulations.”

“Yes. Say, we’ve known each other for quite a while now, right?”

“It would seem to be that way.”

“Call me Will.”

I’ve asked him to call me Will before. In fact, I ask him to call me Will everytime I meet him. He never listens though, prefers to keep things strictly business. William makes me feel old, and although it may be fifteen years since I’ve felt young and innocent, I’m not old. “Sad to see me go?” I asked.

“Sad I’ll never get the real story.”

Carlos was the first responder on the scene the night it all happened. He was the one who took the interviews and collected the evidence. He got to know us, personally. Tried to figure out the ins and outs of our group, how we worked, how we lived, how we’d crack. He never figured it out though, the whole story. No one did. He was never satisfied with the way the case closed, unlike the others, coming back every few years to try and get the story out of me.

“I’m retiring, you know. Everything you say would be off the record.”

“What’s the fun in that?”

“William, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what happened that night.”

I look at him, knowing what he’s thinking. All this time he was studying us, I was studying him. As much as he knows about me, I do him. We’ve become like old lovers at this point, quarrelling about things of the past, things that don’t matter anymore. Something about his face was different this time, though, an emotion I’ve never seen on it before. I’ve gotten pretty good at analysing – reading between the lines and understanding what is trying to be told without someone coming forth and telling you, but this, this I could not scrutinise.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war.”

“Allen Ginsberg… Interesting choice,” Carlos had gotten used to my spontaneous poem citings by now.

Silence.

“I’ll tell you, but I’m not saying anything until I get out.”

Pleased, he rushed my discharge, demanding that the remaining two days of my imprisonment be waived. I watched him, saw the false glimmer of hope in his eyes. Like a child who was just promised a new toy. I almost felt bad about what was about to happen.

I was handed my stuff in a clear ziplock bag. I forgot what I had been wearing all those years ago. The blue jeans were pretty standard for my wardrobe back then, but the Rex Orange County band tee was not mine. I took it out, changing into them, it still smelled like him. Sweet but elegant, woody undertones mixed in.

It was warm when I got out, a little humid as if it had just rained the night before. The sun was beaming in full July effect. Carlos was at his car, a silver sudan, discrete and sensible. I wouldn’t have imagined it any other way. I got in and he seemed unsure, a wave of uncertainty washing over his face. I gave him the name of a café and he obliged, starting the car and driving away.

We arrived at a café in the town I grew up in. It was only a 40 minute ride, filled with the sound of Carlos’s radio crackling and a shared agreement of silence. Everything in there was the same, down to the waiters and the special on the board. We walked in, taking a seat in the corner booth. I ordered a coffee with one milk and two sugars and Carlos ordered his black. We sat, waiting for a while, but finally he broke the silence: “So, it was your senior year.”

“It was my senior year.” The waitress interrupted us, giving us our coffees and a free danish for my release. I thanked her and got on with the story.

“This might’ve all happened senior year but in order to understand we have to go back to my first.”

“Go back then.”

“Us, all five of us, knew each other from class. It was a hard class to get into and me, joining last, had the hardest time. I was accepted two weeks after the class had started and had quite a bit to catch up on. The teacher was demanding but brilliant. We spent most of our time together, studying for the class, falling behind in others but not caring because this was more important. You see, everyone who was able to pass that class got the chance to study under Professor Atwood, and that, to us, meant everything.”

“I know this William.”

“The five of us, we all had secrets and you may have uncovered some, but you definitely did not discover all. Edmund, John, Sylvia, Thomas, and I worked as a group, a unit. But there was an unsaid hierarchy in our unit, one that looked so miniscule from the outside, easily dismissable but, as with every great kingdom, eventually fell. Edmund was at the top, he was dominant and cocky, but knew he was good enough that no one would call him on it. Sylvia, his girlfriend, came next; she was beautiful and knew how to use that. John was in the middle, he was smart but never said it. Thomas followed, not much more skillful than me, but known for longer. Last was I. This, though you know, did not stay the same in senior year. It couldn’t stay the same after Edmund died.”

I took a break, excusing myself to the restroom. In the last stall, behind the toilet, under a false brick was a burner phone, left from 15 years ago. It had one number saved, the only number I needed.

“I’ve been thinking.” Carlos stated when I had returned.

“Oh have you?”

“Yes, William, I know this case inside out. I know the night it happened, I know all your accounts, and I know there was no time for all five of you to decide on a straight lie. Sylvia was in her room, alibied by Thomas, who would then also be accounted for yet was unreliable as they were both suspects themselves. John was at the rec centre, accounted for through his car which was on camera in the parking structure. You were walking down the pier, where you then discovered Edmund.”

“That’s how the story goes.”
         “Yes. Except the call we got was from a payphone near the rec centre, not your phone. You testified that you had called John freaking out, who then called the police through that payphone. Only, no call showed up on the call log of your cell phone. Now, it’s easy to scrub outgoing phone calls from a call log but, when would you have the time? And why would you do it?”

“You asked me these questions back then, Carlos, the-”

“Yes but I was never satisfied.”

I smiled, he knew the answer, he just didn’t want to believe it. John was much more likeable than me, no one would ever believe that he was a killer. As soon as he looked in your direction, you immediately trusted him, a feature I didn’t carry.

Headlights flashed through the window of the café. I got up and raised my hand to shake his: “Looks like my ride’s here.”

He looked back and chuckled to himself, confirming what he had always suspected: “So, it’s him.”

He got up and shook my hand, he knew this was the end. I turned around and started toward the door when he asked: “Why’d you do it? Why’d you go to jail for him?”

I turned around, getting one last look at him before he disappeared from my life forever, “And yet by heaven I thinke my love as rare, / As any she beli’d with false compare.” With that I left him standing there, returning to John, returning to home after all these years away.

This short story by Akanksha Pahargarh is posted in submission for the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition.

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