It was that time in early fall when late-afternoon colors arrived, accompanied by a chill in the air.
Jessica Lorenzo had permitted herself to enjoy a few days by the shore. She was in her mid-fifties and had worked with diligence all year round, editing and publishing other writers’ work. Hardly ever had she found the time to write down the many stories that sprouted in her own mind.
Seated on the edge of a deserted boat landing, feet dangling several inches above the water, Jessica filled up a handful of pages from a yellow legal pad with the opening of a new story. She could already predict that it would become one of her very best.
Engrossed in her writing, Jessica took no notice of either her surroundings or of the passing of time. It was only when daylight began to fade, and a light, cool breeze blew in from the northwest, that she capped her ballpoint pen and opened her canvas briefcase.
At the moment when she was about to toss her writing tools into her bag, a strong, dark-skinned hand appeared from her left side and snatched her yellow pad from her.
“Hey! Lemme see what you’ve gotten there!” A young, male voice said, high above, behind her back.
Jessica did not dare to move. Her throat felt like parchment paper. She took a swift look in all directions. There was nobody at the shore. There were no boats in sight.
She heard the young man’s voice attempt to decipher her jottings and insertions:
“Hey man!” another masculine, adolescent voice snapped, accompanied by quick, heavy steps. “What’re you doing there, reading?” He chuckled. “You, reading? Ha ha ha!”
“Hey guys! Let me take a look!” A third teenager yelled, a few feet behind Jessica. “Don’t forget I’m the intellectual among us!”
An explosion of raucous laughter preceded what sounded like a playful scuffle:
“Watch out, man!”
“Nah, man. Let go! I don’t wanna mess with you!”
Jessica perceived the sound of skidding sneakers; she was afraid to turn around.
There was a noisy splash and a scream, quickly followed by two more splashes and loud gasps for air.
Jessica finally turned toward the west. Three animated figures were silhouetted against the setting sun.
“Help!” One of them yelled.
Jessica hesitated for an instant.
What if it’s all staged? Some kind of male game to lure me into the water and…? I’m not much of a swimmer. Plus, I’m not about to risk my life, least of all, to save three idle teenagers. My entire afternoon’s work is lost, because of their stupidity! Would they have dared snatch my papers away, had I been a man? Of course not!
Standing up, she peered into the ocean, shading her eyes with her hand. Her scribbled-up legal pad was drifting toward the darkening horizon. She grimaced and stamped on a wooden plank. Her story was still going through her head and she was eager to work on it.
“Help!” Two of the teenagers shrieked, in an almost perfect unison.
Their clamor jolted her back to the present moment. She took another fleeting look around. Again, the desolation of the place sent a shiver through her.
What should I do? Seek qualified assistance, of course—but, first, get out of here fast! Just in case these clowns should jump out of the water and chase me!
She took long, rapid steps over the boat landing and along the sandy shore. Her small hotel was not too far away.
Once I get there, I can report the incident. But will the boys still be alive by then? Hmmm. I doubt they’re in any real danger, to begin with. Guys that age tend to be proficient swimmers—all-around sportsmen, in fact! More so, if they’re beach community residents. Yes. It’s all a silly male game, of course. But, what if it isn’t?
There were many tourists crowding around the hotel reception desk; it was futile to wait. Jessica was not the type to run in, screaming her news, either. She rushed up the stairs to her second-floor room. She went directly to the telephone and dialed the hotel operator. The line was busy. She dialed 911. It was busy too. She continued dialing both numbers for a while.
With a snort of impatience, she returned the telephone to its cradle. Remembering her briefcase, she opened it and looked inside. There were a few more fresh writing blocks in it. She took up pen and paper again and began reconstructing her interrupted story, from the beginning.
It was close to ten in the evening, when the rumblings from her stomach forced her to put down her writing tools and look for nourishment. She remembered the hotel information card on the desk had stated the restaurant would be open for almost two more hours.
Jessica splashed some water on her face and brushed her hair. She was about to go down, when the image of the three boys flashed through her mind.
Oh. I never got around to reporting the “drowning” incident!
She caught her guilty reflection in the mirror by the door.
Hmmm. What if someone spotted me on the boat landing this afternoon and…accuses me of “abandoning the scene of an accident?” Assuming that those young guys actually drowned, that is? Better not take any risks and just order room service!
Some thirty minutes later, there was a knock on her door. A smiling black woman appeared. She announced: “Here’s your sandwich…fries…apple pie…and Coke, Ma’am. Enjoy!”
Jessica paid and tipped the maid and locked the door. She tuned the radio to the classical music station and settled down at the small, round table by the window. She gulped down her food and called for someone to take away the dishes.
Once the maid was gone, Jessica turned on the television set to the local channel. The evening news program was starting. She watched it all the way through to the end. There was no mention of either missing adolescents nor of bodies being found anywhere along the Long Island shore. For Jessica, the temptation to dismiss the incident involving the three teenagers as a mere prank was very great.
But what if their families are not aware of their absence yet? It’s only 11:30 in the evening—hardly late for a group of adolescent males to be out.
Brushing her teeth, she remembered that the law required a twenty-four-hour wait prior to reporting a missing person.
Not a very intelligent law! By that time, a victim of a kidnapping could be on another continent and a murderer far away from the scene of his crime!
She caught her image in the bathroom mirror and paused.
But I have not committed any crime! I didn’t push any of those boys off the landing! Why should I feel so afraid? Well, technically speaking, I “abandoned the scene of an accident” and failed to report it. If those teenagers really drowned, I could be blamed for it!
She brushed her hair and walked out of the bathroom.
Maybe I should return to Manhattan–or travel somewhere else for the remainder of my vacation. If I stay here, I won’t find any peace or be able to produce anything worthwhile.
Jessica returned to the desk and stared at her evening’s writing. She slapped the desk and cursed.
I will definitely never sit on any boat landing again!
She looked at the framed picture hanging above the desk and sighed. It depicted a white clipper, sailing in a serene, bright-blue ocean.
If I stay in this town, I won’t settle anywhere to write. I will forever be looking over my shoulder. Darned boys!
She shook her head and sighed, yet again.
Isn’t there anywhere where a solitary woman can have her privacy respected?
Her ruminations were interrupted by a loud knock on her door. Jessica hesitated for a moment. It was rather late to open the door to a probable stranger.
It’s almost certainly a case of “Wrong room—sorry!” But, what if it’s the police? To arrest me or, at least, to interrogate me?
There was a second knock, followed by a third and a fourth, in increasingly quick succession. She rose from the desk chair, ironing her clothes with her hands.
If it’s going to happen, let it happen here, in a place where no one knows me—rather than at my co-op in The Village.
She swallowed and asked, through the closed door: “Who is it?”
“Lucy! It’s me, Jeff!” A man answered, with a smile in his voice. Jessica shouted back: “You won’t find her here—wrong room!”
She heard the man try his luck next door, then on and on, all the way down the corridor. He repeated his search on the other side of the hall, calling out: “Lucy! Lucy! It’s me, Jeff!”
A door opened across the hall and a gruff male voice snapped: “Hey, man! ‘Lucy’—if that‘s her real name–doesn’t want to see you—get off this floor!”
“But…but…she told me she wanted to spend the night with me!”
“She lied to you, pal!” Another male voice laughed out, two doors to the left of Jessica’s. “Scram, buddy—before Security shows up!”
Jessica heard the man stumble through a nearby exit door. She exhaled and raised her eyes to the ceiling.
Phew! What kind of a hotel is this, anyway? It all looked so peaceful and welcoming on the web page! Huh!
She began gathering her belongings with alacrity.
I better leave this accursed town in the morning. But where can I go? What if the police find the kids’ corpses and track me down at home? How could I ever again face my neighbors and my building staff?
She sank down at the desk.
Better have it all out here, where no one knows me. I should wait one more day, to give them time to discover the bodies and interrogate me.
She turned the television set on and searched for CNN. She left it on and listened from bed, for any news of teenage drownings in Long Island.
I’d better not bother changing into my pajamas, just in case they come to arrest me.
The news was the usual kind—i.e., senseless wars, unspeakable crimes, corrupt politicians, and so on.
Jessica started to doze.
Yeah, politicians. They can get away with anything—but, not me, of course.
The sound of her own voice woke her up with a start.
Of course–the political angle of the incident! That is the underlying reason for my fear.
She was now fully awake again.
If I’m arrested, I stand no chance of justice!
Her heart began pounding fast, as she continued her reasoning.
I’m a financially prosperous white female; those three boys sounded to me decidedly lower class and, at least two of them were black. Hmmm.
She could hear her heart racing. She rose and walked to the bathroom.
Sheeesh. The authorities might also take an anti-female stance. Certainly, in the eyes of our society, the life of a fifty-something, single, childless female is pointless.
Elizabeth’s voice blared in her head: “You should’ve dived into the water and saved those poor guys!”
Sure! That would have been foolhardy! A middle-aged woman dragging three strapping male adolescents out of the ocean! It might be feasible for another type of woman–but definitely not for me!
Her young co-worker’s reproaching voice continued to drone inside her head: “How? How could you have allowed those three young men to drown? Three young lives, full of potential? You have lived enough! You should’ve given them a chance to live on! Why didn’t you? Why? Why? Why?”
Elizabeth’s voice drowned in the toilet’s flushing water. Recalling her brief yoga training, Jessica shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. On her way towards the large armchair by the window, she noticed the time on the bedside table clock; it was only one ten in the morning. The television set was still on, delivering the litany of the day’s news. Jessica sat back in the armchair. In time, she fell asleep.
“Oooooh!” The black woman standing near her screeched and covered her gaping mouth with both hands. “Are you okay, Ma’am?”
Jessica peered at her through half-opened eyes. Relief quickly replaced fear, as she noticed the woman’s maid uniform and asked her: “What time is it, please?”
“Oh! Good! You’re alive!” The woman advanced towards her, and Jessica repeated her question.
“Oh! The time! Sorry! Yes, of course!” The hotel maid looked at her wrist and announced: “It’s five past nine, Ma’am! Are you all right?”
“In the morning?”
“Yes, Ma’am—in the morning.” The maid continued to stare at Jessica and asked:
“Are you ill, Ma’am?”
“I guess I’m all right. I just fell asleep in this armchair.”
“Oh. I hope you didn’t miss your flight or something, Ma’am!”
Jessica shook her head and yawned. “Excuse me. I guess I need a lot of rest. I work too hard all year.”
“May I send someone with your breakfast, Ma’am?”
Jessica sighed. “I’ll need a shower, first.”
“Oh. A while later, then?”
“No, thanks. I’ll go down, myself, when I’m ready.”
The woman puckered her lips and shook her head: “There’ll be no breakfast left by then, Ma’am!” She looked Jessica straight in the eye and stated: “I’ll order you breakfast right away and you can take your shower later, Ma’am.”
Before Jessica had a chance to respond, the maid dashed towards the door, adding: “Stay in your room, resting all day, Ma’am. You look like you really need it!”
Good. Now, I have an official excuse to remain secluded all day, away from public scrutiny.
Jessica stretched her limbs and rose from the armchair, strolling in the direction of the bathroom.
When she came out, she discovered her breakfast laid out in covered, white bowls, by the window. She ate at leisure, taking her time to deliberate on her current predicament.
Once more, she waited until the maid had cleared her table, to look for news on TV.
Nothing! No reports of drowned teenagers! Most likely, nothing happened, after all. But let’s play it safe and stay here until the morning.
The rest of her day was spent in tranquility, alternating between writing and checking the news. She kept herself awake and alert, with Coke from the vending machine in the hallway.
When a siren broke her late-afternoon torpor, Jessica’s heart burst into loud palpitations.
This is it!!!
She sat up straight in her chair and waited.
Someone was at her door.
The police? Ok, I’m ready for them!
Jessica walked with firm steps towards the door. As she approached it, she recognized the voice on the other side.
The maid! Is she coming with them?
Jessica swallowed and opened the door. The smiling black woman in her black-and-white uniform was standing by herself outside her door. Jessica stuck her head out and looked both ways; there was no one in the hallway. She sighed.
“Good evening, Ma’am! How are you feeling?”
“Still a bit tired, thanks.”
“I’m about to leave for the day, Ma’am. Is there something you need? Dinner?”
“That would be nice! Er…what was that siren all about?”
“Oh, that was the ambulance. Someone suffered a stroke.”
“Oh! How sad!”
“That sure is, Ma’am!”
Jessica turned around, pointed to the trash bin by her desk, and asked: “Would you mind emptying my garbage?”
“Oh, sure, Ma’am! That’s no problem!” The woman assured her and entered the room. Noticing the many handwritten pages, strewn over the desk, she exclaimed:
“Oh! You’re a writer!” Without waiting for Jessica’s response, the maid continued: “My son Jamal is now fancying himself a writer…only that he isn’t!”
Jessica‘s eyebrows went up. The woman proceeded:
“Yesterday, he dashed through the door with a wet pack of papers and locked himself into his room for an hour!”
A wet block of papers? Hmmm.
“And, did he come out with a finished story or poem?”
“Not really! He said that his papers had fallen into the water and he had to wait for them to dry up.”
Aha! Could he be one of the three boys? I must find out!
Jessica said to the maid: “Bring Jamal’s script to me, tomorrow; I have a good position as an editor at an important publishing house.” She paused and added: “If your son has talent, I can help him get published.”
“Oh!” The maid’s eyes widened. “But I don’t think my boy is up to that!”
“He may not be, but I can tell you if he has talent and can help him develop it further.”
“Oh, Ma’am! You are so kind!”
“You’ve taken good care of me, and I appreciate it.”
“Oh, but I was just doing my job, Ma’am!”
“Just the same. Bring me your son’s script tomorrow.”
“I’ll sure try! Good night, Ma’am!”
Jessica listened to the maid’s receding steps.
Hah! It looks like I was right all along and no one drowned! What a relief! If “Jamal” is one of those three boys, which one would he be? The one who snatched the pad from me? Or the one who claimed to be “The intellectual” of the group? Or the other one? Huh! Interesting possibilities!
Shortly after her dinner dishes had been cleared away, Jessica thought she heard a knock at her door. She lowered the volume of the television set and listened. The knock was louder this time. She approached the door and inquired: “Who is it, please?”
There was silence on the other side. A few seconds later, she heard a hesitant, but familiar voice: “Ma’am…?”
The maid? At this time?
Something about the woman’s tone of voice and unaccustomed diffidence made her pause. Jessica called back: “Is there something wrong?”
“Er…not really, Ma’am. We’ve got something to give you. Something that you asked for.”
“We?” Who was she with? Her son? Hmmmm. Will it be safe for me to open the door? God help me!
The tall, young man outside her door said: “I believe this belongs to you, Madam.” and handed her a wrinkled, faded writing pad.
“I believe…” Aha! That surely must be “The Intellectual!”
Jessica took the papers and thanked him matter-of-factly. He lowered his eyes and started to go, but his mother—now clad in a flowery dress—stepped forward and nudged him. Head down, he turned back to Jessica and mumbled: “I apologize, Ma’am….” and walked away fast.
His mother looked at Jessica and nodded a silent farewell. Her habitual effervescence was gone. In place of her accustomed broad, white-toothed smile, her lips were tightly closed. Her eyes bore traces of tears. Her brow exhibited a deep frown.
Jessica nodded back and closed her door. It was not difficult to imagine what must had transpired between mother and son.
Jessica leafed through the water-stained bunch of papers. She shrugged and stashed them away in her briefcase.
Well, I might be able to make out some of it, later. Some of my original phrases may prove superior to my hasty reconstructions of that unfortunate evening.
She threw her suitcase onto the bed.
The important thing is that this strange ordeal is now over!
She shook both fists up in the air. Humming to herself, she began to pack.
The following morning, she was first at breakfast. By the time the hotel maids started their rounds, Jessica Lorenzo was already miles away in her comfortable, two-passenger car.