Dan Holden's Creative Writing
He couldn’t go back, he wouldn’t.
His father-in-law Emilio, the only man Tank loved and trusted, was in the intensive care ward on the eighth floor, fighting a massive stroke. Tank had to be there for him.
Tank felt the fear and anxiety rolling inside. What would the family say? Would they let him in the room?
Tank was sure almost everyone would be there, and that meant a lot of people who didn’t like him at all.
Who could blame them, thought Tank. They still think I killed Laura.
To the family, Laura’s husband Tank was the prime suspect, and that wasn’t going to change. Not even now, a year after she disappeared.
Tank checked his reflection in the aluminum doors of the elevator.
I even look like a killer, thought Tank.
In some respects, it was true. He was taller than many Latinos, broad-shouldered and muscular. He had a square jaw and a thick mustache. People were always sizing him up for a fight.
He brushed his hair back and stood up straight. If they’re hatin’, he thought, I just won’t say nothin’.
A bell dinged and the doors slid open. The hallway was bright and shiny, and he could see people assembled at the far end. He stepped out of the elevator and moved forward.
Lydia, Laura’s older sister, was the first person to see him. She did a quick double-take and then squared herself at Tank.
“You’re not welcome here,” said Lydia defiantly, and loud enough to be heard by the rest of the family and half the staff. Everyone looked at her, and then at Tank.
He stopped in his tracks. He did not expect to be confronted by Lydia.
Just as quickly, Lydia’s brother Mario put his hand on her shoulder and turned her aside. He stepped forward and pointed at Tank, as if he was a gangster with a gun.
“You need to turn around and go home right now!” said Mario.
“Mario, please, this is a hospital” said his wife Denise, from in the crowd.
“Shut up!” said Mario, without even turning, and then to Tank he yelled, “Get out!”
“I’m not here for you Mario,” said Tank wearily. “I am here to see Emilio.”
“He doesn’t want to see you,” said Mario. “He’s resting. Go home and don’t come back.”
“Mario,” pleaded Denise again.
“Let him in,” said a small voice from inside the room. It was Gracie, Emilio’s wife.
“What?” asked Mario, in disbelief. He turned his head toward the room. Something inside prompted everyone – Lydia, Denise, Mario, everyone – to step back.
“Come in, Tank,” said Gracie, only slightly louder.
Mario stared at Tank, his eyes piercing. He was smaller and stockier thank Tank, but he had a bad attitude. Lydia was sneering and shaking with adrenaline.
Tank stepped forward warily. Who knew what somebody –anybody – might do at a time like this. The hospital staffers watched cautiously.
The room was full of buzzing and chirping hospital machinery. Emilio was in a half-sitting position in the bed, an oxygen tube in his nose, drip tubes in his arms and a thick gauze wrap around his head. It was clear that he had already been in surgery.
Little Gracie was at the far side of the bed, her back to the only window. She had one hand on Emilio’s hand, the other on his shoulder. Her face bore the expression of a woman quietly coaching her man to stay alive.
Emilio looked sideways at Tank. Once he recognized the young man, he lifted his hand and waved Gracie away. She patted his knee and quietly walked to the door.
“Mama,” Mario objected, “You can’t leave him in there alone.”
“I won’t,” she said in a low voice. “The door will be open.”
She looked back at Tank and Emilio. Tank gave her a nod of appreciation and turned to the old man.
“Emilio,” he said, “I came here as quick as I could, I didn’t hear about this until –“
“Stob,” said Emilio, his voice curiously changed by a thick tongue. His face sagged on the far side. “You don’t hab to apologize. You are a good man to come.”
Mario looked up in disbelief. He looked at Gracie, his eyes pleading for her to do something, but she did not.
Tank relaxed. His eyes even had a little sparkle.
“They are taking good care of you Emilio,” said Tank reassuringly. He smiled and took the old man’s hand into his own.
“Sure, sure,” said Emilio. “But I am going to die anyway.”
“No –“ said Tank, but Emilio shook his head.
“The stroke is dust a symbtom,” said Emilio, fighting to keep his words understood. “I hab brain cancer. Ith ebwywhere.”
Tank looked back at Gracie for confirmation. She closed her eyes and nodded a short “yes.”
“Id won’d be long,” said Emilio, pursing his lips in defiance. He looked sideways at Tank, as if he was trying to decide what to say next.
“Come here,” said the old man, “closer.”
Tank leaned close and the old man reached behind Tank’s neck to bring his face so close that Tank couldn’t even focus his eyes. Instead he looked at the pillow and listened.
“You were a good husband to my daughter,” whispered Emilio. “I know you didn’t kill her.”
Tank tried to lift his head but Emilio held it tight.
Then he said, “I did.”
“What?” asked Tank in a whisper.
Emilio’s hand and arm began to tremble but he held on firmly.
“I killed her myself. It was an accident. I buried her behind the ice houth at the lake. There are four stones that mark her grabe.”
“This is insane!” said Tank.
“It’s true,” said the old man.
“It’s impossible,” said Tank.
“Go, look for yourselb,” said the old man.
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Tank.
“Because I wand you to be the one to find her,” whispered Emilio. There was a hostility in his voice that jolted the younger man, but Emilio still held his neck firm. Through clenched teeth the old man whispered, “You are her husband, you can’t leave her there. And when you find her, everyone here will know it was you all along.”
“But you just said –“
The old man released his grip on Tank and fell back into his pillow, his eyes closed. His face was twitching with anger.
For a moment, Tank just stood there, still half-bent toward the old man. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. The idea that Emilio could have accidentally killed his own daughter was hard enough to grasp; that he could have hidden it from the family, buried her in some random patch of dirt was just too much.
Emilio turned his head to the window and closed his eyes. The conversation was over.
Tank stood and looked out the window.
In just those few seconds, the whole day had changed.
Everything changed. It was like the world was totally different, in some creepy way that Tank just couldn’t grasp.
He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t quite figure out what. So he turned to go.
Mario and Lydia were blocking the door.
“What did he say?” demanded Lydia.
“He said he is dying,” replied Tank, pushing his way out the door.
“We know that,” said Lydia. “What did you tell him?”
“Yes, what did you tell him?” demanded Mario.
“Nothing,” said Tank, as he walked down the hall. He had stopped caring what they thought anymore.
The lake was up in the mountains, well over a hundred miles from Tanks house. He got up early in the morning, dressed in his usual blue jeans, cotton shirt and work boots, made a pot of coffee and poured a thermos-full for the road.
Tank hadn’t been up there since Laura disappeared – except for once, when he showed the sheriff where it was. Search teams had been over the vacation cabin numerous times and even sent divers into the lake, with no luck. Tank never had any reason to think Laura would have gone there without the family; it just wasn’t something she would have done.
He drove on quietly, not even bothering to turn on the radio. His thoughts were on Laura, on memories of driving this road with her to meet her parents for the first time. They were so young, and so in love. They sang and held hands and smiled the whole way.
Life was good then.
He could almost feel the warmth of her hand, the scent of her hair. The way she hummed along with the songs on the radio. The way she yelped and then laughed when a deer hopped across the road in front of them.
That was all gone now.
Tank turned off the main road and up the lakeside drive. Small, unpretentious vacation homes were nestled inconspicuously between redwoods and firs on either side of the road. When the road forked in front of him, he coasted to the left and slid quietly down a hill, almost to the end of the road, turning slowly into a tree-lined driveway on the lake side of the road.
He still didn’t know what he would do when he got there.
After 50 yards or so, he emerged into the clearing where Emilio’s vacation house stood.
He drove slowly down the dirt road, over a small bridge atop a dancing creek, and on toward the house. Finally, he stopped and got out, looking around to see if anyone else was there. Then he walked around to the back of the house, where the old ice house stood unused.
There, right in front of him on the path, stood Gracie.
“Don’t be so surprised,” said Gracie, waving him over. “Come here young man.”
Tank looked around to see if anyone else was there.
“We’re alone,” said Gracie. “Although, I did tell the sheriff to come by in a little while.”
She looked at her tiny wristwatch, and then smiled at Tank.
“What’s going on?” asked Tank. “What did he tell you?”
“He didn’t tell me anything,” said Gracie.
She reached into her thick fur jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a cell phone.
“This,” she said waving it at him, “told me everything. I put it behind his pillow, because I wanted to know what people were going to say to him. I wanted to know what you were going to say to him.”
“You didn’t think I killed her?” asked Tank.
“I – I didn’t know what to think really,” replied Gracie thoughtfully. “As hard as it is to lose a daughter, I had to keep an open mind. I had to consider all the possibilities.”
“I would never in a million years have thought that Emilio did it –“ started Tank, but Gracie put her fingers to his lips.
“He didn’t,” said Gracie.
“But you heard him,” said Tank, “it’s on there…right?”
“Oh yes, what he told you is on here,” said Gracie, nodding. “I listened to the whole thing. In fact I listened to it several times. I even made a copy and left it at home, just in case.”
“In case what?” asked Tank.
Gracie smiled at him and patted his arm.
“You really couldn’t hurt a flea, could you Tank?” asked Gracie.
“Of course not,” said Tank. “I would never hurt anyone in this family, I love you all.”
Gracie nodded and looked at the tape recorder again.
“I put this behind his pillow two hours before you came to the hospital. Before he woke up, before anyone else got there,” said Gracie. “I was trying to keep an open mind, so I wanted to hear what everyone had to say.”
Tank looked at the recorder.
“What did you hear, Gracie?” he asked.
Gracie looked at him and smiled, her eyes filling slowly with tears. Her lips trembled and her whole tiny body began to shake. She put her fingers to her mouth, as if trying to hold the truth in, and then took them away again.
“Mario killed Laura,” she said in a trembling voice.
She sobbed for a minute or two, and then took a deep breath and sighed.
“He was fighting with Denise. I guess they had been going at it for hours. She called Laura and asked her to come get her. But when Laura got there, Mario was still so angry…he pushed her back out the door and she tripped down the stairs. I don’t know how it happened, but she died.”
“How do you know this?” asked Tank. “Did Denise tell him?”
Gracie shook her head.
“Mario did,” she said. “He he whispered it to Emilio when he was still sleeping.”
She took another deep breath and then looked up at the treetops.
“But if he said this while Emilio was sleeping, why did Emilio accuse me of doing it?” asked Tank.
“That was my mistake,” said Gracie, “When Emilio woke up I played the tape to him.”
Gracie turned and started walking toward the ice house. Tank walked beside her.
“I guess he couldn’t handle the truth,” said Gracie. “He made me turn it off. He was very upset.”
“But that still doesn’t explain why he accused me,” said Tank.
Gracie stopped and looked up from the trail and the clear blue lake beyond the sloping trees.
“Everyone has a secret,” she sighed, and then looked at Tank. “Ours was that Emilio was a very angry man. He was mean, he was abusive, he was never happy or satisfied. He didn’t show this to the outside world. To you or to anyone else, he was just lovable old Emilio. But to us,” she said, her lips trembling again, “he was the toughest son of a bitch you could ever live with.”
Tank put his arm around Gracie. She wrapped her frail arms around him.
“Mario was just like him,” said Gracie through sobs. “Just like him.”
Gracie stepped back and wiped her eyes.
“I was sure Emilio was going to kill me one of these days,” said Gracie. “But I was wrong, I got it all wrong. It wasn’t Emilio, it was Mario. He passed the anger down, like father like son, and now our only daughter is laying in that dirt over there!” she cried, her sobs wracking her little frame.
Tank stood holding the little woman as she cried into his coat.
The sheriff’s car rolled off the main road and began crunching down the trail between the trees, toward the house.
In a moment, the story would be told. The tape would be collected, the truth would be out.
A cloud rolled away to the west, bathing the cottage and trees in brilliant gold light. At the far side of the ice house, just beyond its shadow, four stones the size of softballs gleamed against the wooded hillside.
Gracie turned to look at the scene with him.
“We were in so much denial,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Emilio was willing to frame you to protect Mario. You…the one person in this whole family who doesn’t have an ounce of bad blood. He knew you couldn’t leave her there, and he knew you would be blamed if you came to get her.”
Grace looked up at Tank, her eyes glistening, her hand on his heart.
“I couldn’t let that happen, Tank. God forgive me, I couldn’t let that happen.”