Writing is a long and tedious process. The worst is getting started on that first sentence. I sat comfortably at my own shabby kitchen table, with a blank laptop screen staring back at me.
"Where do I even begin?" I asked out loud. Tiny shadows danced across the window pane in my kitchen. It was raining again.
We'd said our thank-you's and goodbyes to Jess, who seemed eager to see the backs of O'Malley and me. Her husband worked long hours at the shipyard; she'd been alone. I didn't blame her for how she felt. My own stomach was in knots.
We'd stopped at the police station again and reported out to Jess and her partner. The police wanted us to use the paper to get the Muffin Man's attention.
I'd volunteered to write the notice. Then I'd walked home, my feet as heavy as concrete blocks.
The Muffin Man Murders were a major tragedy, perhaps the worst this small town has ever seen. Five years ago, someone we know, someone who walked among us every day, was secretly leading a double life. Someone broke the trust of this small town, and decided to harm ten innocent people in a brutal string of attacks. The Sun would like to gain more information on these crimes, and in partnership with our local police department, has set up a significant reward for any information regarding the case. Our toll-free hotline is 1-800-436-7720.
Jennifer is a great profiler. She assured us that the Muffin Man was a narcissist with antisocial tendencies. Playing to his ego might get his attention. If he'd be willing to talk to us, we could nail him. She was sure of it.
I hit "send" on my notice. The Chief would probably have it edited and up on the online page within the hour. It would be printed by tomorrow morning.
I drained the last of my tea from its mug, and smacked my lips in hunger. I'd skipped lunch today.
I got up, stretched my arms and back, and sauntered over to the cabinet. I had a look inside.
And when she got there, the cupboard was bare…
Hmmm… all I had to eat was canned tuna and some Trix cereal. Not very promising.
With a wistful sigh, I closed the cabinet again, and scolded myself for lack of domestic ability.
Pausing to grab my coat and my keys at the foyer, and untangle the pocket umbrella from my massive purse, I made my way out. Brian was working at the diner tonight. He made fabulous chili whenever it rained, and I didn't feel like staying in. I certainly didn't want cold cereal again tonight.
The drops made a light tapping against my umbrella, and the noise of tires splashing in the street grew loud as soon as I went outside.
It was eerily misty. A fog had been rolling in with the weather, remnants of a hurricane now downgraded to a tropical storm.
The pavement was running with nearly an inch of rain, and brown earthworms struggled in a panic along it to avoid drowning. Taking pity on the creatures, I stopped to pick up a few and toss them onto the grass of higher ground. I always hated to see them suffer and die in agony.
Then all the hairs rose on the back of my neck. Someone, somewhere, was watching me, and I could feel it. With a shiver, I slowly rose.
As soon as I stood again, I could hear it. It was soft and muffled by the other sounds outside, but unmistakable. A light high pitched voice was singing.
"Do you know…. The Muffin Man… the Muffin Man… The Muff… in… man…"
My heart quickened and I couldn't catch my breath. I stood there gasping like a fish on dry land. My courage drained out of me into a warm puddle on the pavement.
"Who liiives on Drury Lane" the voice went on again, this time closer. Feet splashed in the falling rain nearby, the steps went on a few more paces, but then stopped.
I ran to my car and slammed the door shut, and fumbled for the automatic lock switch. The locks all slid into place in unison with a comforting metallic clank.
I couldn't see anyone. There were plenty of places to hide- some fences and a dumpster to the left, a cluster of bushes to the right. I waited.
My eyes struggled, and I blinked back tears. I could see no one, nothing out of the ordinary.
Shaking, I managed to place the key into the ignition. The engine roared to life beneath me. I backed out fast without even looking, and tore off down the road. It was growing dark. The glass in the car was all fogged up. I could barely make out the shape of the road through the windshield.
In my head, I went over what had just happened again and again. Part of me wanted to tell myself I had imagined it. I was thinking about this all day, replaying it in my mind, maybe I had only heard what I did under the power of suggestion.
I reached for the defogger switch. I also flipped the local radiostation on. I don't know why, but I've always found music peaceful. A small area of clear windshield slowly grew, and I bent to see through it. Headlights came and went along the opposite side of the road.
"Mel, have you heard the news in town?" The radio host asked his co-host.
"I know! The Muffin Man is back. It's a scary thing, don't you think?"
"Yeah! It's awful. Just Awful. And I'll tell you the worst part, every time this happens, Mel, I can't buy any muffins without getting suspicious looks in the grocery store"
Then, there was a rimshot sound effect, followed by laughter. I switched the radio button off roughly and cursed under my breath.
I got to the diner, and drove in. My car crept at a snails pace all the way up to the front of the lot, and I settled on the parking spot closest to the building. Swiveling my head all over, I decided it was safe to get out, and I grabbed everything and stuffed it in my purse. I clicked the autolock on my keys just before going through the doors to the diner.
Inside it was warm, dry, and the food smells wrapped their arms around you like a welcome guest. About forty people were seated in the diner, and the hostess sat me at the counter on a tall stool. I grabbed my cell from my purse and sent a text to O'Malley about what had just gone down.
He would want to talk, but I needed to eat, and the diner felt like a safe place with all the people around. When the waitress came, I ordered an iced tea and a chicken chili.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. O'Malley.
"We should talk"
I sent a text back "at the diner, you pay for your own"
About ten minutes later, he was there, having a beer and a large order of fried onion rings.
"How can you eat like that?" I asked him incredulously.
"It keeps me young" he claimed, licking the grease from his fingers. "Do you think it was him?" He asked quietly.
I sighed. "I don't know for sure. I just don't know anymore."
"My nerves are on overdrive. It might have just been some kids playing. Kids still sing that song sometimes, it's even in movies. They're even joking about the whole thing on the radio." My face went limp as O'Malley looked at me.
"People handle things in their own way. Try not to judge this town too harshly" He sipped his beer and stared at it for a while. "Fear is a powerful thing."
The fans over us calmly whirred on, silverware and plates clanked here and there.
"When you've been at this job as long as I have, you learn to not let things get to you. It's about bringing them to light. Tell the truth to the people. Trust the people. They will always do the right thing"
He looked away, towards the open kitchen doors, where we caught a glimpse of my brother in his hairnet and white cooks shirt, and Brian smiled at us.
"He's a great kid" O'Malley nodded at Brian.
"I can't believe he's graduating this spring" I admitted. "He's already more of an adult than I was at his age. I never even had a real job until this one."
"No?" O'Malley scrunched his crooked nose at me.
"The occasional babysitting gig, and maybe a paper delivery route, but not anything I had to write on for my taxes, no" I shook my head. "I was a bit of a spoiled, party-loving hedonist"
O'Malley looked at me hard, "As traumatizing as it was, maybe what you went through made you grow up"
I shrugged. "I guess in a way…"
The noise of the diner drowned out what O'Malley said next, or maybe he said it very quietly. I was getting tired, and looking around, people-watching the other guests. A few families were seated in the booths, trying to tempt picky children into eating, or getting younger children to hold crayons and draw on the back of the paper placemats in front of them.
A waitress came by with a generous slice of apple pie, the apples golden and tumbling out of the sugar-glittered crust.
"It was part of my decision to become a writer." I recalled. "I wanted to tell the stories, do something valuable with my life, since I had friends who had lost theirs."
"Journalism is about integrity" O'Malley nodded. There's nothing better you could have done with your life.
O'Malley knew his trade, and he loved it. He got a special gleam in his eye when he talked about freedom of the press.
A coffee pot near the counter sputtered to life, with the delicious scent of fresh brewed coffee.
I saw Brian coming towards us now. He'd changed his clothes.
"Why don't I give you a ride home?" He nudged me gently
"Brian" I began,
"I insist" he interrupted, raising his chin just like our father. That was Dad's way of winning arguments.
"Thanks for coming out, O'Malley" I quickly hugged my partner and headed out with Brian.
"I can drop you here tomorrow morning on my way to school, then you can just grab your car and head to work" Brian suggested.
"Alright." I smiled.
The parking lot was very dark now, so I didn't need much convincing.
Brian swept the Chevy into my driveway, and pulled out the keys.
"You don't have to walk me in" I groaned.
"I want to" Brian pursed his lips. He looked like he was debating adding more, so I just stayed quiet. He did decide to go on, "I probably never told you this, but did you know that I had a huge crush on your friend Eva?"
"You were in middle school" I raised my eyebrows.
"Older women… I don't know, it's just a thing for me" he shrugged.
My mind connected the dots. Brian felt guilt that Eva had died five years ago.
"You were a child, Brian. There was nothing you could have done to protect her…"
"I know" he nodded
We walked around to the front, and I opened up the door. It was quiet. A small lamp was cheerfully lighting the foyer, the heat had come on in this chilly October weather.
"Goodnight Brian" I hugged my brother and then watched through the window as he got safely into his truck.
"He's a great kid" I said out loud.