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This is an image of a huddled Evelyn Diedz facing the viewer, her head down as she hunches forward and hugs herself.  Her wide-brimmed hat covers her face and her trench-coat obscures her body.  Behind her, we see a warped, splintered reflection as in a broken mirror.  In the broken mirror is the face of Jeff Armando looking toward the left of the image at a 45-degree angle with the left side of his face visible.  His hair flops over his forehead and his eyes seem almost to glow.
The woman in purple had investigated further, though she was tired. Investigating things is what she did, after all.

EMMA ALBRECHT

The woman in purple tried to keep calm.

Given the circumstances?  That wasn’t easy.

She tried to reach out beyond walls she couldn’t see to grab at something she couldn’t tell was there.

Someone — anyone — other than Emma Albrecht.

But Emma Albrecht, wherever she was, was alone — far enough away from anyone that the woman in purple couldn’t find an alternative to join up with.

Time didn’t really make sense inside the grey haze, but the woman in purple had found ways to crudely track it, and had been proved reasonably right and accurate in her methods in the past.  Imagining herself to have a heartbeat.  Focusing her mind on counting the beats.

Which, not coincidentally, also helped her with the noise of her memories.

She figured about 4 hours had passed from when she’d first joined with Emma before she found someone else.

A man named Jeff Armando.

She’d quickly learned from Jeff’s surface thoughts — the only ones she could read like this — that he was the postman who took care of the industrial district route.

The woman in purple had investigated further, though she was tired. Investigating things is what she did, after all.

She’d been surprised to find that Jeff knew nothing of the Marsh house fire or the murders; but, as she dug deeper into the web of Jeff’s mind to hook her tether, she had hope.

She pulled … 5 … 4 … —

— and she felt herself coming free … 3 … 2 … —

— with a giddy surge of relief … 1 … —

And then the sensation of movement, from the nothingness of Emma’s mind and into Jeff’s, securing herself, gaining freedom, finding a place from which she could hook her tether, and then on to the work at hand, trying to figure out if Jeff Armando had any connections to the people she needed to get to.

Once stable, joined with Jeff, the woman in purple let her own surface thoughts fade into the background, and gradually found harmony with Jeff’s.

She quickly learned why he had no idea about the deaths of Victor and Gunny Marsh: because Jeff Armando never watched TV.

Jeff was always the first to arrive every workday at the Drodden Post Office in the morning after routinely going to bed early the night before.  And he had no real friends whatsoever.  And he hadn’t dealt with any other people yet before coming across Emma Albrecht.

When Jeff had arrived at the Drodden Post Office that morning, he’d unlocked the front door and stepped inside.  He’d then headed right for the break room, where he’d sat alone in the dark for a short while.

Jeff always left the lights off when he went in there, because he liked the quiet and the coolness of the place in the morning, before anyone else had arrived.  Jeff lived alone, but he lived in an apartment.  Even when he woke up early in the morning, he’d always hear his neighbors stomping around over his head or the howling of children getting ready for school on the other side of his kitchen wall.

But in the break room of the Drodden post office, the only sound to be heard was usually the percolating coffee pot and the hum of the old olive-green refrigerator.  Jeff could hear himself think in there, and he liked that.

Sometimes, as he sat in the quiet room, he’d imagine himself to be the last man alive on Earth in those moments — science fiction, of course, but it soothed him.  Like the junky books he enjoyed reading on his days off.  Jeff would drink a cup of black coffee and get his thoughts together.  He had his own coffee cup stored away in the top cupboard of the post office break room.  It had the painted image of a basset hound on it.  Jeff had always wanted a basset hound, but for one reason or another he’d never found an opportunity to acquire one.

He always worried that if he got a pet, he’d end up neglecting it, somewhere along the way.  He always had so much on his mind; it weighed him down a lot of the time.  He didn’t want to do that to an animal he’d brought into his household.

So, instead of owning a basset hound, he sometimes — often, really — imagined he owned one.

He knew he’d be chided for it if other people found out.  But he didn’t care.  So, as he collected the mail and put the bags into his truck, he’d imagine the basset hound following him back and forth from the loading door to his truck, watching his every move.  And when he was finished with that, he’d drive over to the industrial district — imagining his basset hound sticking its head out the window.

Jeff’s first stop on his route was almost always Emma Albrecht’s place, and he’d often imagine the basset hound — whom Jeff had never named — lifting its nose high into the air along the way, catching the scent of pies from Emma’s downstairs bakery business, Emmy’s Awards.  Like a lot of the merchants around town, Emma Albrecht lived in the upper floor-space over her small bakery business.  A lot of the houses in Drodden had been built with business facilities on the ground floor and housing above, and a lot of people were more than willing to blend their work and home lives together.

Usually, Emmy’s Awards would be open, even as early as Jeff arrived.  Emma would usually have the door of her shop wide open, using the scent of just-baked goods to draw in the addicted patrons whose tastes she’d cultivated so carefully over the years.

But that Wednesday morning, the shop had still been closed.

At first, this had worried Jeff.  Emma Albrecht had looked old when he’d been just a boy.  She was what Mayor April Sharp referred to as a ‘sterling, signature fixture’ of the town.

And Jeff had never once seen her place closed on a weekday when he’d arrived on his route.

It hadn’t made sense.

Confused and worried, Jeff hadn’t even bother to park the mail truck.  He’d just stopped it right in front of Emmy’s Awards and stepped out after pulling the emergency brake.  He’d come right up the steps and peered into the colorfully-stenciled four-square window that took up a large part of the front wall.  It had been really dark in there, and Jeff hadn’t been able to see any sign of movement.

“Hello.”  A voice had come from a weird angle of conversation, below him.

Jeff”s muscles had jerked with surprise.  He’d  turned to look down to his right.  He’d seen Emma Albrecht sitting in one of the wicker chairs that were flush around the edges of the porch walls.

Emma was sitting low in the chair, her head well below the flower boxes that made the porch a more private space for Emma’s customers.  Her face was pale, and her lips looked more blue and purple than he’d remembered from the last time he’d spoken to her at length.

Jeff wondered if the sudden start she’d given him had affected his perceptions, or if she was genuinely ill.  Jeff swallowed hard.  “Emma — are you all right?”  He moved to kneel down in front of her.  “You look sick.  What’s going on?  Do you need me to call a doctor?”

Emma shook her head.  “Didn’t you hear about the Laddow boy?” was all sbe said.

Jeff shut his eyes, knowing that Emma had to have meant Michael Laddow.  Michael, he knew, was a troublemaker — just like Michael’s father had been.  Jeff raised a hand to his face and rubbed the flat of his palm across his nose before opening his eyes again and looking at Emma with sincere concern.  “Don’t tell me that- … ” he started, before anger got control of him a little:  “Did he do something to Emmy’s again?  Because, damn it, Emma — this time we should call the police and … ”  Jeff trailed off, unsure what exactly the police could do to Michael that Michael’s father, Chris, wouldn’t know a way to almost-immediately manage to undo.

“He killed people.”  Emma’s knotted knuckles turned even paler than normal; her hands shook as she tightened her fingers together in her lap.  “It’s been all over the news.  How can you not know?”

“He what-?”  Jeff was almost certain he hadn’t understood Emma properly.

“Victor Marsh — and Victor’s son.”

“When?”  Jeff’s felt like the blood in his body was collecting in some places and departing others all at once.  “Victor Marsh?”

Emma looked down at the spotless porch floorboards.  “I knew Michael was a bad kid, Jeff.  I just didn’t think he’d do something like that.  I just didn’t think.  I mean, I’ve known him since he was a little boy.”

Jeff stood back up and gestured toward Emma to take his hand.  “Let’s get you back inside, Emma,” he said.  “Do you have the keys?”

Emma nodded, but waved off Jeff’s offer.  She got to her feet on her own.  It was a slow process with a few false starts, but she managed it.  Then, she reached into the front pocket of the green-and-white apron she was wearing and handed a familiar set of keys to Jeff.

He recognized them because of the keychain, which was a string of crystal teddy bear charms strung together and hooked onto the keyring.

After unlocking and opening the door, Jeff stepped to the side so Emma could enter, holding the door open for her.  “What were you doing outside, Emma?”

Emma gestured toward the display case of pies in front of the cash register counter, walking past it without even looking back toward Jeff.  “I couldn’t sleep last night,” she explained, with a shrug.

Jeff nodded. “Okay,” he said. He didn’t understand.

“So I baked.”  She walked around the counter to sit on the fabric-covered stool beside the register.  “I decided to bake some pies.  He burned down their house, Jeff.”  She lowered her head and looked toward her feet.

“Victor’s, you mean?”  Jeff felt like he needed to sit down, himself.  He’d been worried for a few moments that Emma was going to fall off her stool, but he realized he was probably feeling dizzier than she might’ve been.  He couldn’t think of anything to say to her.  He wanted to console her, to offer some kind of encouragement about it, but it was like there were two parts of him hearing Emma’s words — one frozen in sickening revulsion and the other immobilized by a weird sort of feeling he wasn’t familiar enough with to identify.  Like panic, only slower.  Like panic in slow-motion inside his head, making his thoughts stupid and pointless.

“So I went over there,” Emma explained.

“You what?”

“To the Greenlees, I mean,” Emma said, snapping out of her own trauma long enough to tip her head in disbelief at what she apparently presumed Jeff was thinking.  “Not the Marsh house, or — what’s left of the Marsh house, I don’t know.”  She folded her hands on her knee, leaning forward a little to make eye-contact with Jeff.

Jeff tried to put on a reassuring face, but he wasn’t really sure how to do that.

“I got a ride from Jasper Fuchs this morning,” Emma said. “I wanted to bring some pies to the Greenlees.  The Marshes are their neighbors.  I imagined they’d be more devastated than the rest of us.”

>”Did you see them?”  Jeff didn’t know the Greenlees all that well. Their house — what used to be the Yellow Store — was on his route. He delivered their mail. That was about it.

“They weren’t home.  Well, I mean, one of them was home.  Their granddaughter, Penny.  She was there with Officer Falke.  They’re away on a trip.”  She shook her head, tears welling up and then beading on the edge of her snug glasses frames.  “Officer Falke — you know, Otis?”

Jeff wasn’t sure. “By name, I think?” Jeff said. “I mean, the name’s familiar. I don’t deliver his mail; I know that.”

She slumped a little.  “He’s a nice man. He’s looking after little Penny while the Greenlees are gone.”

“Poor girl,” Jeff mused.

“They sent Natalie — you know, Herb’s daughter?”  She shook her head.  “They sent her down to Drum Lake to find them and bring them back.  Poor Natalie.  Can you imagine having to tell someone something like that?  I mean, when you don’t know them?”

Jeff just nodded, trying to affect a contemplative look.  It seemed to him like Emma wanted to talk, and he was trying to oblige her — even despite his own shock.  Besides all that, something told him he needed to get as much information as possible from Emma.

She was getting some of her color back, though, as she talked.  And her tears were falling freely now.

Jeff took her tears as a good sign.  Some people might not understand that, Jeff knew, but his mother had always told him that it’s when you can’t cry that things get the worst.  “What happened?” he asked her, trying to sound encouraging.

“I was talking to them — to Otis, and the Greenlee girl, and — … I got the worst headache.  Like, one of the worst I’ve ever had in my entire life.”

“Ouch,” Jeff said.

“It was so bad. And I started seeing spots!”

Jeff became concerned again.  From what he knew of Emma, it wasn’t like her to overstate her discomfort.  She’d had an appendicitis once, and Jeff had been the one to drive her to the hospital when she finally couldn’t stand up any more.  She’d finished the day of business first, of course, before stumbling over to him and saying she needed a ride.  “Wow. That bad?”

“Oh, it hurt so much, Jeffrey.  Right in the back of my eyes,” he said.  “Like someone putting knives in the back of my head.  I asked them if I could lie down and — well, I fell asleep for hours.”  She sounded deeply embarrassed, and even a little ashamed at this.  Maybe even a little disgusted with herself.  “They let me sleep, bless them.”

“Good.”

“And … — ” She stopped. There was a little pause. “– … bless you, Jeffrey.”

“For what?”

“For helping me,” Emma said. “I’m sure I must’ve been a real bother right about now.”

“Not possible,” Jeff assured.

Emma gave Jeff a thankful look.  “Otis called Deacon and he drove me back here.”  Her shoulders drooped and the color drained away from her face again.  “I made Deacon drive away.  I was rude to him.”

“I can’t imagine you being rude to anybody,” Jeff said.

“He wanted to make sure I got back in,” Emma said. “But … I didn’t want to.  I just couldn’t come back inside here.”

“I understand,” Jeff said.

Emma gestured with her right hand toward the display of pies.  “I suddenly felt sick just looking at the door.  My pie shop.  Baking pies.  When someone’s dead.  Two people! Dead!  I … felt sick — and not just that, but — … ” She trailed off for a moment. Then, she continued: “So, I sat down outside.”

Jeff nodded.

“And once I did,” Emma explained, “that was all I could do. I couldn’t make myself move.”

That got Jeff to his feet.  He walked over around the counter to stand directly in front of Emma.  “You probably helped more than you know.”

Emma looked at him, uncomprehendingly.

“Sometimes, all it takes is a kind gesture to keep people’s faith alive,” Jeff said. He tried to keep in mind his priest’s voice. The way Father Salat talked to the congregation. “I know you’re a woman of faith, Emma.”  The words felt awkward, sticky on his tongue; he said them anyway.  He wasn’t even entirely sure what he was trying to say, but — for some reason — all he could picture in his head was Emma on Sundays at the town church, and how her face looked, and how he could always hear her voice extra-loud whenever the congregation would sing.

Neither of them spoke for a long moment.

Jeff understood the silence, and it didn’t bother him.

Emma broke the silence, but only to say “Bless you,” again, just exactly as she’d said it before.

And then there was another really long silence. This time, it made Jeff deeply uncomfortable.  So Jeff motioned for Emma to take his hand again. “Now, I know you don’t want to, but I insist,” he said, waving his hand a few times.  “I’m going to get you upstairs and into bed.  I’ll put up a sign for you that the shop’s closed today.  You need to recover from the shock.  I’ll call you later to check up on you, okay?”

This time, Emma didn’t resist the hand.

As Emma’s fingers touched Jeff’s, he gently squeezed her hand and then held on more tightly to guide her up off the stool.  He unlocked the door to the stairs that led up to her home, and then slipped the keys back into the front pocket of her apron.  Neither of them spoke as he walked her slowly to her bed and helped her get her shoes off and into bed.  She was lying on top of the covers.  “I’ll lock the doors on my way out.”

“Thank you, Jeff.  You’re a — you’re a really decent fellow,” Emma said sleepily.

Jeff shut the door of Emma’s bedroom and fulfilled his promises to her, locking each of the doors between her and the front door on his way back out and shutting them.  He tugged on each one a few extra times, just to make sure they were really locked.

As he got back into the mail truck, he shook his head vehemently, and then rubbed at his eyes.  He realized he was crying, but it was like he was stuck in the beginning of the act.  His eyes were running with tears, instead of dripping.  It made him self-conscious, even though he was the only person out on the street that he could see.

He reached into the glove box and got out his hand towel, using it to rub his eyes.  As he drove away, his eyes were watering even worse.  And he was irritated in other ways, too — annoyed at himself for being so susceptible to Emma’s words.  He hated how suggestible he could be about health issues; he was now seeing spots, himself.  Big, purple spots — like he’d looked directly into a flashbulb; likely due to how hard he’d been rubbing his eyes a moment ago.  And that annoyance had now made him tense, which — of course — meant that he now had the beginning of what felt like a monster of a headache, himself — like he was being poked at the back of the eyes by knives. Heated knives.

But he knew that he had a job to do.

And when a realization like that comes to you, there’s really no point in thinking about other options.

He shook off the discomfort — as best he could — and resumed his route.

Click here to continue reading the story

Published inpart 2

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