Three Years Later
Marla had done her best to visit Ashley when she could. She always felt strange walking through the security of a prison. Anything she brought with her had to be checked for weapons or drugs. Much of the time prison inmates managed to smuggle contraband into the prison by getting their visitors to bring it to them. Ashley wasn’t one to distribute cigarettes among the inmates in exchange for favors. From what Marla had learned, Ashley kept a low profile in prison. It was hard for Marla to believe that the girl she now went to see was the same person she’d once shared a basement with.
The first time Marla had visited Ashley, the expression her face had been one of shock and uncertainty. Perhaps she’d thought Marla had come to besmirch her for temporarily letting Marla take the blame for the murder. Luckily for Ashley, this was not Marla’s style. Marla had joined Ashley at the table where she was seated, all alone in her orange jumpsuit, and simply had asked, ‘How’s it going?’
During that first meeting, Ashley had apologized for the stress she’d caused Marla regarding Peter.
“Reggie had wanted me to convince you to find another female roommate,” she’d explained. “He’d told me he didn’t trust me around another man. I only went as far as I did with the lawyer’s note because I’d been afraid of what he’d do to me if you picked a male tenant.”
Marla had said that she’d suspected that might have been the case. Ashley had gone on to confirm her theory about Reggie needing money.
“He’d only agreed to have Peter around because he’d been desperate for the money,” Ashley had explained. “Because we’d been together, he’d given me a discount on my rent. You hadn’t been able to pay the rent for that place after you’d moved. So, he’d had no choice but to accept a male tenant.”
As their meetings continued, Marla had learned a lot about Ashley and her life-altering experiences with Reggie. It became clear to Marla that Ashley had grown since she’d killed Reggie. She’d been seeing a counselor in prison who’d been helping her overcome the emotional trauma she’d suffered. It was also evident that Ashley was becoming more aware of who she was as a person.
Now, sitting across from the woman, Marla perceived Ashley as a different person from the meek, naïve roommate.
“How are you?” Marla asked.
It always felt strange speaking casually to her in a room that vaguely resembled a cafeteria, with its vending machines, tiled floors, and chewed up tables. She almost felt like she was back in school, sitting across from her classmate. But, as she looked around and saw the uniformed guards standing solemnly in the corners of the rooms, as well as all the other inmates in their drab jumpsuits, it was obvious that she was actually inside a prison.
“Not bad,” Ashley responded. “My parents visited me last week.”
“That’s good. How did they seem?”
The topic of Ashley’s parents always had been a rough one for her. The whole reason she’d avoided telling them about her toxic relationship with Reggie had been because she’d feared their judgment. As it had turned out, her parents had been forgiving, though it had taken time.
“Good,” Ashley replied. “They’re moving out of Wallsberg into the countryside between the town and city. That way they’ll be closer to me without having to deal with the commotion of the city environment. They bought a plot of land. Seven acres. I saw the pictures. It looks beautiful. They plan to have a house built there for them.”
“That sounds incredible!” Marla remarked.
“How are you and Rain?” Ashley asked.
Marla had told Ashley about her relationship with the detective, who’d clumsily introduced himself to Ashley as Rain. She now knew his real name, but even so, she insisted on referring to him as Rain.
“Great. He made lead detective. The previous lead, Detective Wiggins, retired. Now that we’re both making a better income, we’ve been able to seriously consider moving into a house. We just put down earnest money for this lovely little house in Wallsberg,” she announced. “Dane expressed interest in having a family, but I’m not interested in dealing with screaming crying poop machines. So, we compromised and we’re getting a dog.”
Ashley laughed. “I miss dogs,” she said. “The only dogs I ever get to see are the ones that sniff out contraband, and not around me either.”
Marla nodded. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like living a life stuck between four walls where she had to strictly do whatever she was told and was limited to what she could have and do.
“Hey, look at it this way,” Marla said, “in seven years you could be out of here.”
Ashley’s eyes glimmered with hope. “I often dream about the day I get released,” she said. “In a way, it’s kind of a scary thought. By the time I’m out of here, technology will have advanced. The world will be a new and different place. What if I can’t integrate?”
“You will,” Marla reassured her. “I’ll help you, so long as you promise not to murder someone and then frame me for it.”
“Oh God! I promise!” Ashley said, laughing. “When I get out of here I won’t so much as have a late library book.”
“That’s because libraries will be obsolete,” Marla deadpanned.
For a moment, Ashley appeared distraught. Then she realized Marla was joking and grinned. “I hope we can be friends at some point. Outside of this place, I mean,” Ashley said.
“Of course we can,” Marla said.
“I mean, I probably won’t have any friends once I get out and I doubt anyone would want to be friends with a former convict and murderer,” Ashley said. “Not that I would blame them.”
“Don’t worry,” Marla said, “I’ll be your friend. Most of my pals are dead, so…”
“No, I mean… my friends haven’t died. It was a joke. I was referring to my job as a funeral director. Forget it.”
Even while talking to a murderer, Marla still managed to disturb people with her dark jokes.
After her time was up with Ashley, Marla hurried off to make a dinner date with Dane. There was some seafood restaurant he’d wanted to try that was known for its massive salad bar. When he’d invited her out he’d stated that he’d made a reservation there because he wanted to do something special for the third anniversary of their first date. This reasoning had seemed odd to Marla, as they’d never done anything to celebrate in the past.
When Marla arrived at the address Dane had given her, she couldn’t help but chuckle at the name of the restaurant. The place was called Calamity Clams.
At least it’s not called Chlamydia! she thought, wryly.
The restaurant’s interior was a typical-looking seafood place. It displayed a nautical theme, without being too tacky. There were even large fish tanks positioned in slots within the wall, making it appear as though parts of the walls were filled with fish.
Marla gave her name to the hostess, who led her past the substantial salad buffet to a cozy corner where Dane was seated in a booth, inspecting a menu. The minute Marla sat in front of him he stopped inspecting the menu and started inspecting her.
“How’s Ashley?” he asked.
“Still incarcerated,” Marla answered. “The color of her jumpsuit has faded some since she first was assigned it. I think the faded orange seems to better suit her skin tone somehow.”
Dane scoffed. “I don’t know how you can be so nonchalant about visiting an institution filled with dangerous criminals.”
“It wouldn’t be filled with dangerous criminals if you weren’t such a good detective,” Marla pointed out.
“I suppose you’re right,” Dane said, patting himself on the back.
“She still calls you Rain,” Marla said.
“Oh, geez.” Dane rolled his eyes. Then he changed the subject. “Did you see the size of the salad bar? It’s practically the length of a train!”
“Yeah, it looks awesome,” Marla said. “I suppose you’ll be trying the clams? Or perhaps some fish? I see there are plenty of different specimens swimming in the tanks around this place.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Dane responded. “Do you think the clownfish will taste funny?”
“Very clever,” Marla congratulated him. “I’d stay away from the shellfish if I were you. You’re already looking a little clammy.”
Her retort settled the debate for Dane. He was getting the clams and the salad bar.
“Where did you hear about this place?” Marla asked him as they made their way through the salad bar.
“Honestly, I just searched ‘interesting restaurants to take your girlfriend’ online,” Dane confessed. “There were so many intriguing options. In the end, I chose the restaurant closest for you to drive to from the prison. I figured it was the most practical choice. Plus, the salad bar.”
Typical Dane. If there was one thing Marla had learned about her boyfriend since the start of their relationship, it was that he loved to thoroughly explore his options. In a way, this personality trait could be frustrating, as Dane liked to take his time deciding on every little thing, whereas Marla didn’t like to spend too much time dwelling on details.
Their plates loaded with an array of salads, some of which Marla couldn’t identify, the couple headed back to their seats. At Dane’s spot was a mountain of marinated clams. Dane rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“This looks amazing,” he stated.
The two happily dug into their meals, pausing only to order a glass of wine.
“That’s funny,” Dane said at one point.
“What is it?” Marla asked.
Dane was staring at the interior of a clamshell with a puzzled expression on his face.
“I’ve just found something bizarre inside of this clam,” he said.
Marla regarded him with suspicion. Dane wasn’t the greatest of actors. He’d likely placed something inside of the clam as a joke.
“Alright, just show it to me,” she said. “This had better not be a prank. If there’s a plastic spider in there, I’m going to be livid!”
What Dane did next had Marla’s heart racing. He stepped gracefully from his spot in the booth and got down on one knee, displaying the open clam to Marla. Propped inside the shell was a glittering gold ring with a gorgeous stone set in the middle.
“I swear it’s not plastic,” he said. “Will you, Marla James, do me the honor of being my wife?”
In the past, Marla always had found public engagement displays lame. She’d even joked about where Dane would pop the question.
“If you show up at a cemetery while I’m lowering a casket into a grave and ask me to marry you, people are going to be confused,” she’d once said to him.
Dane had responded by jokingly saying, “I was thinking I’d ask you while you were on the toilet.”
Neither of them was the sort of person who enjoyed making spectacles of themselves. Marla didn’t want Dane dramatically proposing on a stage with a crowd of millions watching. She considered his toilet idea better than that.
Now Marla found that she was too overjoyed to say anything. Nobody in the restaurant was watching. Everyone save for her and Dane was oblivious to the proposal, exactly how she’d wanted it.
She nodded her head, taking the somewhat slimy ring from the interior of the clam and placing it on her finger. “Yes.”
Embracing her new fiancé, Marla whispered in Dane’s ear, “My finger smells like fish.”
The next day at work, Marla arrived early to meet a woman whose father just had passed away. She never liked being the only one in the funeral home. But that morning as she sat in the lounge drinking coffee and going over the pre-arrangements for the funeral the woman’s father had made years ago, Marla was comforted by the glimmering band on her finger.
Talking to bereaved people wasn’t nearly as difficult as Marla had made it out to be. All she had to do was ensure she knew and understood the service and merchandise options available and explained them in a gentle, dignified manner. It hadn’t taken her long to soften her naturally sarcastic tone, which had tended to alarm people. All she’d needed to elevate her social skills was a little guidance from her mentor, Mr. Oswald: a man who, unlike many of her mentors in the past, cared to see her grow as a funeral director.
Now, gazing at the paperwork, Marla noted that the woman she was meeting was named Shirley Jackson.
Speckleman’s wife was named Shirley, Marla thought. She wondered if this woman had once been his spouse. Wallsberg was a small town, after all. Nah, it can’t be her, Marla concluded. Shirley was a fairly common name. There were probably multiple women with that name living in the area. Besides, Marla didn’t know for sure that Speckleman had divorced his wife.
The door chime emanated throughout the funeral home, signaling the arrival of Ms. Jackson, or at least Marla assumed it did. Often the doorbell was triggered by the wind. It always freaked out Marla to walk down to the front entrance only to find that it was unoccupied. Mr. Oswald liked to joke that the funeral home was haunted. Marla had enough sense to know that it wasn’t, although, it probably was. If the place ever became abandoned it undoubtedly would become a hot spot for paranormal investigators to film their tacky shows.
Marla warmly greeted the woman wandering around the funeral home’s lobby. She appeared to be in her mid- to late forties. She had an astute look to her, with her stylish spectacles and business casual attire.
After fixing the woman a coffee Marla started off the arrangement by going over her father’s details. This included his name, occupation, date of birth, and so on.
At one point, while Marla was filling in the blanks on the statement of death, Shirley cleared her throat uncertainly, an inquiring look on her face.
“Is there something on your mind?” Marla probed.
“Yes, actually,” Shirley said. “This is going to sound random, but is there a man named David Speckleman who works here?”
The question took Marla by surprise. Could this woman be his ex-wife?
“He used to work here,” Marla informed her. “Why do you ask?”
The woman chuckled softly to herself. “I bet he told you I was his wife, didn’t he?”
Now Marla was beyond confused. Shirley laughed louder when she noticed the flabbergasted look on Marla’s face.
“That man and I dated briefly when we went to high school here over twenty years ago,” she explained. “I broke up with him during my senior year. Since then, he’s been obsessed with me. I had to get a restraining order on him when I moved back here to take care of my dad.”
“No way!” Marla gaped.
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. In all the years that she’d known Speckleman, never once had she considered the possibility that he’d lied about having a wife. Now that this fact had come to her attention it made sense. Never once had Marla or anyone at Oswald’s ever met his wife. He’d never brought her to any of the staff parties. He’d always say she wasn’t allowed to get involved in his work life. Now Marla knew the truth: He’d never brought his wife because she didn’t exist.
Shirley nodded. She went on to explain that after breaking things off with Speckleman, she’d been forced to switch schools to avoid his harassment. She’d moved to the city for college and had worked as a music teacher for years before deciding to return to her home town to be closer to her dad.
“I initially found out about my dad’s Alzheimer’s when I went back to visit and attend the twentieth high school reunion at Wallsberg High. It was there that I had the misfortune of running into David again,” Shirley recounted. “He pestered me the entire time, even going so far as to show up at my dad’s place while I was staying with him. I didn’t move back until I filed the restraining order against him.”
This news was shocking, though it shouldn’t have been. Having been familiar with Speckleman’s abhorrent behavior, Marla shouldn’t have been surprised to learn he’d never been married. What woman in her right mind would agree to marry such a slob?
“May I ask you a question about Speckleman?” Marla said. She didn’t want to seem nosy, but she was dying to acquire as much knowledge as she could about the truth.
Thankfully, Shirley was an open book. When it came to exposing the man, she was all for it.
“How did you find out he was telling people that you were his wife?” Marla asked.
“I keep in touch with a few of the people I went to high school with,” Shirley said. “Anyone who stayed in town and goes to the bars in the evenings has run into Speckleman. I had several of my old classmates informing me that he was telling them I was his wife. Anyone who knows me knows he’s lying.” She shrugged. “The man has lived with his mother as long as he’s been alive. Whatever he’s saying about me doesn’t matter so long as he stays the hell away from me.”
Marla wanted to laugh out loud. Knowing that would be inappropriate, she restrained herself. Speckleman was even more pathetic than she’d initially thought.
“I heard he worked here,” Shirley continued. “I was honestly a bit scared to come in. I thought he might be lurking around the corner somewhere.”
Marla wanted badly to discuss the unfortunate experience she’d had with Speckleman, but she decided against it. It was her job to ensure Mr. Jackson’s funeral service was going to be just as Shirley wanted it, not gossip about an adult baby. That time would come once Jackie arrived and Shirley was gone.
After going over all the service options Shirley’s father had chosen and pre-paid for, the woman left. She’d seemed to have come to terms with her father’s death. This often was the case in circumstances where the loved one who’d passed had suffered from a terminal illness. Shirley had known her father soon would succumb to his disease and had mentally prepared herself for the trauma. Sudden deaths tended to be far more shocking. It always helped to have pre-arrangements and payments in place for funeral services. That way relatives and friends would have less to worry about and would be able to focus on working through their grief.
Marla could barely contain herself the moment Jackie arrived. She had so much news to share. She fiddled with the engagement ring as she watched Jackie prepare her morning coffee.
“What’s got you so fidgety?” Jackie asked, noticing Marla’s excess of energy.
Marla hid her ring out of sight. She wanted the news of her engagement to be the final highlight.
“Did that meeting with Mr. Jacksons’ daughter go okay?” Jackie inquired. “She didn’t want to change everything, did she? I hate it when people do that.”
“No, she was great, better than great, actually,” Marla said.
She grinned impishly and took a seat at the lounge table. Jackie sat across from her with a curious look in her eye.
“Alright, spill it,” she said. “Why are you so giddy?”
“You’re never going to believe who Mr. Jackson’s daughter is.”
Jackie sipped her coffee. She swore when she saw the amount of lipstick that had transferred onto the lip of the mug.
“That brand was supposed to be known for its long-lasting wear,” she muttered.
“His daughter is Speckleman’s fake wife!” Marla blurted.
Immediately, Jackie forgot about the poor quality lipstick. Her jaw went slack.
“What are you talking about? What do you mean she was his fake wife?”
Rapid-fire questions tumbled out of her mouth.
“Think about it,” Marla said. “In all the time you worked with Speckleman, did you ever meet his wife?”
Jackie’s eyes widened. “No! Oh my God! That lying little weasel tricked us into thinking he was married?!”
Marla nodded. She then elaborated on the details of Shirley’s story. Jackie was all ears. It was as if Marla was giving her instructions on how to diffuse a bomb that was soon to destroy the world. When she was finished, Jackie was sitting back in her chair shaking her head in disbelief.
“I knew Speckleman was a pathetic guy, but, this is beyond anything I could have imagined. Thank God he doesn’t work here anymore!” she said.
Marla allowed her friend to sit in silence for a moment, nursing her coffee and processing the information. Her attempt at allowing Jackie time to get over the shock of Speckleman’s fraud was a futile one. Marla wasn’t one for anticipation.
“Hey, Jackie, do you think you could do me a favor?” she asked.
“Sure,” Jackie responded. “What is it? Do you need me to take a shift for you?”
Marla displayed her hand so that Jackie could see the band on her finger. Jackie gasped.
“Would you care to be my matron of honor?”
Jackie agreed by screaming excitedly and jumping out of her seat to embrace Marla.
Everything Marla previously had thought herself incapable of had been put to rest. She most certainly was not the heartless demon that Speckleman had made her believe she was. Together, she and Dane would live a beautiful life.