Chapter Three – Part One

George and Melissa sighed with relief when they had finally got Stephen back into the car.  But they could see that he was far from happy.  He banged his hands on the steering wheel again and again.  When George put a kind but reassuring hand on his shoulder, he broke down.  This man, only moments before full of rage, crumpled into a forlorn, tragic-looking figure, weeping.

‘Do you think it’s true?’ he sniffled after a while? ‘Do you think she hates me?’

‘No!’ said George and Marissa at the same time – a little too loudly and a little too quickly.

Is there anything that has been going on between the two of you that is out of the ordinary?’ asked Marissa gently.

Stephen said nothing.

Marissa tried again. ‘I don’t mean to pry, I’m sorry, I just wonder if you’ve been a bit busier of late and perhaps she herself has seemed preoccupied?’

‘Charlotte was right,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve neglected her.  I’m out almost every night and we have the church fair coming up and what with the debt and you know what it’s like George. I’ve neglected her and now she’s left me.  She must feel so alone.’

Marissa thought to herself that George had been not been unduly busy and wondered if Stephen had taken on a bit too much. Of course George arrived home later than she would have liked some evenings and church meetings did often run over time.

George asked Marissa’s question again. ‘Does she seem preoccupied?’

‘I wouldn’t know would I?’ Stephen gave maudlin laugh. ‘I’m never there.’

‘C’mon, Steve,’ George persisted. ‘Has there been any change in her at all?’

Stephen fell silent and he looked at George in the rearview mirror, his eyes red.

‘You know how I have that vintage wine selection I was saving for our retirement?’

‘Yes,’ said George. ‘We’ve been the fortunate recipient of a bottle of two ourselves.  You’ve got a lovely, big collection in your cellar.’

‘That’s the thing,’ said Stephen in a desperate tone.  ‘I haven’t been down there in probably six months.  It was a lovely, big collection.  I went in there the other day for get out a bottle for Maureen’s birthday and most of it was gone.  There was just a little bit left in every bottle.’

‘Maybe some of the teens she was helping…’ started Marissa.

‘No,’ said Stephen. ‘She’s been drinking for a while, I can smell it on her. And not just the odd drink, if you know what I mean.’

‘But you had over 100 bottles?’ said George, puzzled.

Tears ran down Stephen’s face. ‘Now there are three.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter Two – Part Four

She barely had time to think because Stephen came bursting through Charlotte’s door with shouts of  ‘Oi, you can’t go in there! Get out!’ behind him and then they heard the voice of George trying to reason with him.

Charlotte’s dead eyes just started at him. ‘She doesn’t like you.’

‘Who! Maureen?’ Stephen stammered.

‘She’s told me everything, Pastor Steve or whatever high up, churchy person you are. You neglect her.  You say nothing nice about her.  You don’t tell her that you love her.’

Stephen got red in the face. ‘And you know what love is do you, Charlotte?  You’re barely in your 20s, you’re are a drop-out druggie with a lowlife boyfriend and you know what love is?’

‘Who are you calling a druggie and a lowlife you scum!’ Ryan spat as he stormed into the room. His right arm was twitching and Marissa gasped when she saw the knife.

George stood behind him.  ‘Please don’t.  We’re so sorry for saying those things and we had no right to barge in here.’

Marissa felt a shiver go down her spine as she saw Ryan raise the knife, his hand unsteady, and outrage written across his face.

‘Leave it, ‘ Charlotte said just loud enough for him to here then looked up at him with cold eyes.

He looked at her as if to ask if she was serious.

‘I mean it – just leave it. I don’t want you in any more trouble.  You’ve already got court next month.  He’s not worth it, trust me.’

Slowly, Ryan lowered the knife and it dropped to the floor with a clink.

Stephen grabbed George and Marissa and said frantically ‘let’s get out of here!’

Marissa turned back to Charlotte for a second and mouthed to her ‘Where is she? Please…?’

‘The last place you’d expect,’ muttered Marissa.

 

 

 

Chapter Two – Part Three

Stephen turned the car into Francis Street, tyres screeching.

‘Which house is it?’ he glared at Marissa.

‘Number 44 – the one with the hole in the wall’.

Apparently a few months backs a car had crashed through the brick wall and left a messy car-shaped hole behind.  Thankfully no one had been hurt and there had also been no attempt to fix it.
‘Slow down,’ Marissa said, ‘and just drive past slowly to start with.’

Stephen begrudgingly put his foot on the brake and coasted past the dilapidated house. The porch light was on illuminating an array of alcohol containers and cigarette butts left on an old outdoor table, chairs tumbling everywhere. Light also shone through the curtains at the front of the house but they couldn’t see inside.

‘I can’t see her car anywhere,’ remarked George. ‘Let’s check the street.”

Stephen drove up and down, stopping to look down every driveway and trying to look in each window.  Soon, Marissa offered to go into the house where Charlotte was staying.

‘Do you think that’s safe?’ asked George, protectively.

‘She’s the one who got Maureen into this mess! Let her sort it out. And she said they wouldn’t harm her,’ snapped Stephen.

George looked doubtful but didn’t stop Marissa as she slipped out of the car and knocked on the door.

Marissa was a little scared when Ryan opened the door.  Ryan was probably the most vocal and the most consistently high of them all.  He often got into rages and threw furniture around the house. But if you got him on a ‘good’ day, like today, he could be quite pleasant.

‘Hey Marissa, what do you want?’ He asked picking his triple-pierced nose and arching his penciled eyebrows.

‘Please can I speak to Charlotte?’

He nodded towards Charlotte’s room and let her pass.

The house stunk of stale beer and drugs.  In the kitchen, the sink was piled high with green, fuzzy dishes and there were about five very full hanging fly traps.  She could barely see the floor. It broke her heart to think of Charlotte living this way.

She tapped on her door.

‘Yep?’ said Charlotte.

Marissa entered to find Charlotte lighting a bong and taking a deep a breath in. She barely looked up and said ‘You’re looking for Maureen? She’s been here but she’s gone now’.

Marissa felt a frisson of fear go through her.

‘Did she drop you home after I left?’ asked Marissa.

‘Yeah she did,’ sighed Charlotte. ‘But then she came in and talked to me some more.’

‘Do you know where she went afterwards?’ asked Marissa carefully.

‘Well definitely not home,’ said Charlotte taking another hit and then looking at Marissa through hazy eyes.

Marissa felt her heart leap in her chest and could hardly get the words out. ‘What do you mean?’

‘That husband of hers, Stefan, Stephen? He’s an absolute dick.  He’s so obsessed with ‘growing’ his church and appearing like the good guy that he has no time for her. Do you know that they have not been out together in a year? Self-righteous prick.’

Marissa gasped.

‘Surprised, are you?’ laughed Charlotte. ‘Don’t ask me where she is because I don’t know but she did say she wasn’t going home – that she needed some time to think.’

After going over every detail of the conversation with a reluctant Charlotte, Marissa sat on the side of Charlotte’s bed.

What was she going to tell Stephen?

 

 

 

Chapter Two – Part Two

Marissa repeated to Stephen what she had said to George about helping Charlotte. Stephen listened but his eyes belied the turmoil in his head.

‘What has this got to do with Maureen?’ he asked, motioning for them to sit down.

Immediately after talking with George, they had both run over to Stephen and Maureen’s house to tell him the news.

‘Well, the thing is that Maureen has been helping me.’

Stephen’s face turned red and his hand began to shake.

‘What are you telling me, Marissa?’

‘It’s all my fault.’ Marissa began to cry.

What is your fault?’ asked Stephen, through gritted teeth.

‘She didn’t want to get involved, not really, but I had no one to help me and sometimes Charlotte could be demanding.  Every Sunday night while the both of you were at the evening service, the three of us would meet.  Usually in the park, like I said. We’d give Charlotte some food and listen to her concerns.  Then, before it got too dark, Maureen would drive her home.’

‘Where does she live!’ snapped Stephen.

‘Moroview. In the bad part – on Francis Street in a tinny house – you know, a house that deals drugs.’

Stephen’s face was angry now, beads of perspiration forming then dripping down his forehead.

‘How could you let her go to the worst part of town, hell, the worst part of the country on her own? A place where people will sooner stab you as look at you.’

Stephen ran out to his car, leaving Marissa and George to run after him

‘Steve,’ Marissa cried. ‘You can’t just barge in there, you’ll get attacked!

‘This is my wife.  If I’d get attacked then they would attack her too. I’m not going to leave it!’

Marissa grabbed his arm.

‘At least let me go with you.  I know some of these people. I could even go in there without being harmed. Most of them trust me. But a new face bursting in out of nowhere – it wouldn’t be good.’

George stared at Marissa, wide-eyed.

‘You’ve both been there..?’

Marissa bundled George into Stephen’s car then got in herself.

‘There’s no time – I’ll explain later.’

Stephen drove the 15 minutes to Moroview running every red light, not stopping at stop signs and going up to twice the speed limit. He didn’t have time to think of earthly laws right now.

 

 

 

Chapter Two – Part One

Marissa and George looked at each other over the kitchen table.

‘I’m sure Maureen will turn up any minute now – she probably stopped in on someone on the way home.’ George said.

Marissa stood up and started pacing around the room, shifting dishes from one side of the sink to the other.

‘What is it?’ George asked. ‘You’re really worried aren’t you?’

Marissa abruptly sat back down and met his gaze directly.

‘George, there is something I haven’t told you.  I know I should have told you right from the beginning but I was scared you’d talk me out of it and I just couldn’t not do something…’

George’s eyes opened wide. He could barely hide his shock.  He couldn’t remember the last time they hadn’t shared everything with each other.  He remembered the most important thing she had ever told him, as hard as it had been.

They had always dreamed they would have a child of their own from the time they married 25 years ago but it had never happened.  They were so at home in their own company that they had not minded the waiting.  Then when Marissa had undergone chemotherapy, she’d had to break the news to him that, the doctor had said it would be unwise to try for a baby until at least two to five years after treatment and by that time it would very likely to be too late.  She was too weak to undergo the first stages of IVF even after waiting the required six months for egg harvesting.  She had told him sitting on the sofa with tears pouring down her face. Her tears made George cry too. He had hugged her gently, put her grandmother’s knitted blanket around her shoulders and told her that although it seemed heart-breaking now, they had each other and that was enough for him at least. She had looked so grateful and although they worked through their own grief, it was side-by-side.

‘What is it?’ he asked feeling queasy inside.

‘You remember Charlotte Rogers don’t you? She came along to the Free Fridays lunch most weeks and came to church now and then. Young, purple hair, a bit mixed-up?’

He cast his mind back to a few years ago. Charlotte had been having problems with her family. Her aunty had been a slave driver, getting her to look after her kids while she went out to various parties and even resorted to locking her inside their second story apartment when she felt punishment was in order.  Money was scarce and Charlotte had been a trapped bird. Sometimes Charlotte had gone days without food and had found it almost impossible when she found a group of similar friends not to run away and doss with them, taking methamphetamines and alcohol.  It had helped numb the pain she said, not only of her aunty’s abuse but of the abandonment of her by her parents when she was just seven.

Marissa, especially, had taken her under her wing.  She sat and talked to her every week after the church’s lunch, encouraging Charlotte to see her own talents and worth.  Charlotte had even ended up coming early and helping cook the lunch. She had as much flair in the kitchen as she did in her personal style. Despite her lifestyle, Charlotte took great pride in her appearance and often teamed her perfectly fitting ripped jeans with colourful Doc Martens and hair that was often extreme but also always suited her fine features and artful make-up.

Sadly, George reflected, he had forgotten about Charlotte.  It had been over a year since he had last seen her.  As a pastor, he thought, you only tended to think of the ones that were right in front of you and attended church meetings.  It must have been at the beginning of last winter. She had come into the offices and asked for Marissa.  When he said that she had popped out but that she was welcome to wait, she had just stared at the floor, muttered something and turned back around and walked out.

‘What about her?’ George asked Marissa. ‘Is she OK?’.

‘Not really,’ sighed Marissa. ‘The thing is that I never stopped helping her.  She called me on my cellphone a few months after you last saw her and we’ve been meeting regularly.’

George felt a strange sense of separation from his wife.  She had been helping Charlotte and not had the courage to tell him?

‘Why didn’t you just tell me?’ he asked. He knew his face was a picture of confusion and disappointment.

Marissa bit her lip and held back the tears. Tears for the beautiful, lost Charlotte.  Tears that she had hurt George and not told him about it.  Tears for Maureen.

But she knew she had to speak up now.

 

 

Chapter One – Part Three

The black figure started walking towards him.  As it got closer, it was illuminated by a street light.

Under it stood a woman in a blue floral dress and curly hair. Relief surged through his body. His relief was palpable.

‘Marissa!? Is that you?’ he called out.

‘George?’ she called back. ‘What are you doing out here?”

His heart skipped a beat and he ran to her, wrapping his arms around her.

Marissa, my gosh, are you OK!? He asked pulling her to him.

Marissa stepped backed slightly and took his hand.

‘Love, why are you so panicked?’ she asked. ‘What’s the matter?’. She looked back at him and felt herself shaking a little – but much less than he was.

‘I got home and I couldn’t find you! Where were you?’ he spluttered.

Marissa forced a reassuring smile.

I was just next door at Nancy’s, she called me because she was having trouble with her oxygen tank again so I went over and fixed it – temporarily at least. I need to make sure it gets repaired properly.’

Nancy Emerson had been their neighbour for the last twenty years.  She was an elderly woman who suffered from Emphysema. She had been a smoker most of her life despite her kempt appearance and no evidence of cigarette stained teeth.  She had also been a lovely friend that had helped George and Marissa many times over the years with armloads of vegetables from her garden, meals when Marissa was ill with breast cancer five years ago and always a cheery smile over the garden fence.

Oh, thank God,’ breathed George. ‘I thought that you were…that you had been…’

Her smile faded. ‘Thought I had been what, George?’

George put his hand into his pocket, feeling the note. He made a split-second decision.

I’m sorry, Marissa’, he said, releasing her hands and looking into her tired brown eyes – they looked more tired under the fluoresence of the street lamp.

‘You know Beryl Tipton from church? Well, her nephew went missing for a few weeks and she was telling me about it today and I just began to think what I would do if you ever disappeared.  Then I couldn’t find you. I looked everywhere and you weren’t here. I’m sorry for being such a fool.’

Mary tucked her long curly hair behind her ear and touched his face.

Really?’ She said.  ‘I’m sorry to hear about Beryl and her nephew but for it to affect you this way?  You’ve been stressed lately, haven’t you?’

He didn’t need to lie about that.

Yes, yes I have,’ he sighed. ‘Listen, I’m sorry for giving you a fright, let’s go inside and eat this soup, it looks great.’

 

As the two sat at the table pretending to eat, there hovered in the air something unsaid.  They could both feel it but neither acted on it.

Marissa stared at her husband’s pale face and tried to think what else she could do to comfort him.  But the damage was done. He was a mess.

George could still feel his heart beating a mile a minute.   He was so relieved to have found her but the pain of feeling, even for a moment, let alone ten minutes, that he had lost her, made him feel physically ill.  Her near brush with death five years earlier had made him especially protective.

He recalled the day she came out of the shower and told him she had found a lump.  While both felt some concern, they had faith that the lump would be benign.  When they found out that it wasn’t and that she had had to have a partial mastectomy, the whole church had prayed.  The day before the surgery, several people took time off work to pray around the clock and to comfort George when it came time for the procedure. He had been angry at God for putting his wife through this and felt like he had wasted people’s time.

He remembered her chemotherapy and the day the remainder of her beautiful long hair had fallen out.  They had wept together, holding the last of it, tears dropping onto the soft downy mass. He never told Marissa that he had raged at God.  He would shut himself in his study and swear and punch cushions. He demanded to know why she was being put through this and why he could not have taken this punishment instead. As she got better, and her once straight hair turned into beautiful dark, curly locks sprinkled with grey, his anger faded but still remained in a corner of his heart.  He knew he could be overprotective so he tried to act as casually as possible.

‘Did you go and see Maureen as well?’ he asked eventually. ‘I rang Steve to see if you were there – she was home tonight too.’

Marissa shook her head.  ‘No,’ she said. ‘I did think about it but I knew I couldn’t leave the soup for too long and I took longer at Nancy’s than I thought.’

‘Well I’m just glad you’re home safe.’ He smiled.  ‘I feel like a bit of an idiot actually, making all that fuss when you were just next door.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ she grinned back. ‘I should have left a note. Perhaps you’d better ring Steve and let him know I haven’t been kidnapped.’  They both laughed awkwardly.

‘Good thinking,’ he said, picking up his cellphone.  ‘Steve – hi.  Yes, look, I’ve found Marissa, she was just next door. Sorry about that. Please let Maureen know.’ He paused and listened.

If his face had been pale before, it was positively white now.

‘What? Are you sure? Look, I’ll be over in a minute.’

Marissa looked at him with fear in her eyes. ‘What is it?’ she stammered.

‘It’s Maureen.  She went out forty minutes ago for milk, well that’s as long as Steve’s been home anyway, and well, she hasn’t come home.’

 

 

 

Chapter One – Part Two

George felt a twinge of pain in his chest as he looked at the note.  It seemed to relate to the car that had nearly hit him – but how could that be? The note would have been on his doorstep before the fateful event.  Had it been planned? But who would want to hurt him?

He scanned through the possibilities in his mind but he struggled to think of one person that really had it in for him.  There were often tensions with the eldership or a congregant who held a grudge but nothing that would warrant an attempt on his life.  He mulled over whether or not he should tell his wife before putting the envelope inside his jacket pocket, inserting the key in the lock and entering.

‘Hi Honey!’ he called, dropping his bible on the hall table and walking towards the kitchen door at the end.  He opened the door expecting to see his wife but instead saw no one, just the bacon hock simmering away in the middle of the soup. The house felt warm.

‘Marissa?’ he called again, opening the adjoining door to the lounge. This comfortable room was the perfect space to relax in.  They often sat of a night on their old leather sofa surrounded by the wall-to-wall book shelving – cookery books, travel guides, autobiographies, murder mysteries, Shakespearean classics and an overflow of theology literature that had crept its way down the stairs from his study. On cold Winter nights, like tonight, there was a fire in the grate and Marissa’s grandmother’s hand-knitted rug to snuggle under while watching some television. And although there was indeed a fire, there was no Marissa.

Suddenly he thought of the night’s events and the note, and became frantic.

‘Marissa!’ he shouted going from room to room, flicking on light switches and knocking on the bathroom door. But she was nowhere to be seen.  He opened their bedroom door to see if she was resting but found only a perfectly made and untouched bed. Maybe she was doing some sorting in the spare room?  But all that lay behind door number five was a stack of musty boxes and a few pieces of furniture that needed repairing.

His heart rate quickened and his face felt hot.  He tried to put any dark thoughts out of his head.  ‘Calm down,’ he said firmly to himself.

She had had probably popped across to Maureen’s place.  Maureen and her husband, Stephen, were some of the elders at Faith Base Community Church, and good friends. He got his cellphone out and dialled the number straight away.  It seemed to ring interminably until Stephen eventually said ‘Hi George.  Good service tonight – what can I do for you?’

‘Hi Steve,’ said George, trying to sound normal. ‘Is Marissa there by any chance? I thought she might have gone over to see Maureen seeing as they don’t usually go to the 7pm service.’

‘No, Maureen’s not here either,’ said Steve.  ‘I just got in myself but I’m pretty sure she went to the late-mart to get some milk, her car’s gone. Is everything all right?’

‘Thanks Steve,’ George replied. ‘I’m sure it is.’

‘Well, if I can be of any help – ‘

George cut Stephen off and looked helplessly at the soup still gently bubbling away on the stove.  It reminded him of a movie he’d watched as a teenager in the 70s.  What was it called?  People came home to find relatives and friends had disappeared suddenly, leaving behind televisions on and heaters going.  Was it even remotely possible that she’d been raptured? If he hadn’t have felt quite so distressed, he would have laughed at himself. This was madness.

Outside!  He hadn’t checked outside.

He took a torch from the top of the pantry and ran out into the garden looking behind every tree and shrub to see if she had fallen.  He looked inside the garden shed but there were only old tools and her freshly potted hydrangeas from yesterday. What had happened to her?

He thought through the last ten minutes again.  He’d nearly been the victim of a hit-and-run, he’d found a note presumably telling him that he would indeed be run over the next time and he’d found signs of his Marissa but not Marissa herself.

It was time to search the neighbourhood.

As he rounded the corner of the house towards the front, his heart caught in his throat.  Standing by the letterbox was a figure in black.