Jay Jones waited at Carla's doorstep. One dozen red roses in hand, one carat ring in his blazer pocket and one question on his nervous mind.
"Coming!" Carla called from the inside.
He scraped the soles of his leather Oxfords on the doormat, rolled back his shoulders and let out his breath. It's not like they had never talked about a future together. Two years was a long time to be madly in love with someone. Oh, come on, get a hold of yourself. She is going to say yes. Why wouldn't she? You're doing the right thing. Now calm down and turn on the charm.
The door handle clicked and Jay's heart all but leapt out of his chest. March 13th, 2018. This is it, today is the day.
She stood in front of him and just seeing her in her frayed denim shorts and her casual tank T-shirt eased his nerves. Her coffee-brown hair was pulled up in a messy ponytail. Little ringlets fell on the sides of her face. She didn't wear any make-up onbut she didn't need any. If tonight went the way Jay hoped it would, he would soon be the luckiest man in the world.
"How was the trip? Miss me?" he asked with a glint of mischief in his eyes.
But she didn't smile. Her gaze fell on the bouquet of flowers and her face softened, but only a little. She invited him in.
"What's the occasion?" she asked, as she closed the door behind him.
"What, no kiss?" They hadn't seen each other in a week. "What's the matter,baby?"
"Nothing." Her suitcase lay open on the sofa. She pretended to busy herself picking out clothes from it, folding and unfolding.
Jay had been with enough women in his life to know that when a woman says nothing it usually meant it was one big bastard of a thing. But Carla wasn't like the rest of them. Carla had no drama, no tantrums AND she was beautiful. This behaviour baffled him.
"Hey, what's all this about?"
"Nothing," she repeated.
He'd have to go in carefully now. He'd have to find out what was eating her. He couldn't think of anything he had said or done that warranted this coldness. He pulled her toward him by her arm, gently, and he offered her the bouquet. "These are for you."
She took them from him and replied with forced etiquette, "Thanks. They're beautiful."
He kissed her and she responded only as much as was necessary.
"Are you going to tell me what is wrong?" he finally asked.
She reached for her phone on the dining table, fiddled with it and handed it to him.
"Stupid Facebook," he muttered. "Honey, it was Rick's birthday. Anna is dating his brother. I almost gave him my condolences."
Jay had strayed only once in their two-year relationship. And it was with Anna. To this day he could not understand why he would do a thing like that. But he had, and it almost cost him the only woman he truly loved. Carla forgave him and he was utterly grateful for it.
She crossed her arms, waiting.
"I swear I didn't know she was going to be there." He pulled her close. "Come on now, don't tell me you don't know how into you I am. You can't imagine how much I've missed you. She is history. It was dumb and it is over. You let it go, remember?" He started to kiss her again, this time with urgency.
Carla broke away and let out a sigh. "It's not like I don't trust you, Jay. I wish you'd told me she was there."
"I didn't think it was worth mentioning. I love you. Only you." He meant it. She was the one.
She uncrossed her arms and looked a little more at ease.
Jay brushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead. "You want to get dressed for dinner?"
"Did we make plans for dinner?" She looked around the messy flat, clothes strewn everywhere.
"No, we didn't, but I thought we would go out. Please say yes. Promise it will be special. After dinner I'll come over and help you clean all this up. I will even do your laundry."
She managed a laugh. Jay was the worst at laundry. He was always either losing socks, leaving money in his pockets or buying new white shirts to replace the ones he'd ruined.
"Okay, I guess. There's nothing to eat here. I haven't stocked up yet. Where are we going?"
"I told you. It's a surprise."
She was ready in minutes and she looked sensational in that short, red silk dress. They jumped into his Honda Civic and on the way up to Maple Ridge Tavern she kept asking Jay about the place and what this surprise was all about. But Jay wanted her to see it for herself. A vegan colleague had told him about Maple Ridge some days ago and that very same evening he'd taken a drive and checked it out. It was perfect for the occasion. Nestled in the clouds at the very top of Grove Hill, the fine-dining restaurant was an hour's drive up a steep and winding road that cut through the green mountains. The view was spectacular and Jay reserved the best table. He even put together a special menu and requested that the chocolate torte be made in the shape of a heart.
She did love Maple Ridge and he was pleasantly surprised that the food was as good as it was. They talked about her trip to Berlin and she told him all about the places she'd visited and the people she'd met. He brought her up to date on the goings-on at his office and how he almost missed a deadline. The weather was lovely, a light breeze blowing in their direction every now and then, the velvety moonlit sky above. They finished a bottle of Malbec between them. He was glad for it because at the end of the meal when he got down on one knee, he was calm and relaxed.
"Carla, I love you, I am willing to love vegan food and yoga and the ozone layer. I will hug trees with you and wake up every single morning to watch you plant flowers in the home we will buy in the countryside. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Carla Abraham. Will you marry me?"
She laughed and cried at the same time. "Yes, yes I will."
He lifted her up, swung her around and they kissed.
By the time they left the restaurant it was half-past ten. They were both ecstatic and a little bit tipsy. As Jay got behind the wheel, a clap of thunder ripped through the thick clouds that appeared out of nowhere and unleashed torrents of rain. They started to make their way through the spiralling mountainous road,but the rain was so heavy that even though he had the wipers going full throttle, he could hardly see anything in front of him.
Carla stroked his arm."Maybe we should pull up for a while."
He didn't protest; they were driving downhill, the route was deserted, the visibility was next to nothing and just inches from the side of their car were ravines they could so easily plunge into. He parked and switched on the hazard lights.
Linger by the Cranberries started playing on the radio. Jay sang along softly. You know I'm such a fool for you. You've got me wrapped around your finger. Do you have to let it linger?
He played with the ring he'd just placed on her finger and brushed his fingertips over her thigh. She squirmed and let out a deep sigh. The wine was still coursing through his veins and he felt himself swell beneath his trousers. He leaned forward and kissed her.
A bright beam of light flooded the car and lit it up. It was coming from behind them. Jay turned. It looked like an SUV, but with the vehicle's headlights blinding his eyes and with all that rain, he couldn't be sure. Just then, there was a loud tap on Carla's window. Startled, she jerked back and shrieked. Jay put his arm around her and even though the gear console was between them,he pulled her as close to him as he could.
A craggy, middle-aged face looked into the car from Carla's window. Rain pelted down on him and his hair was pasted to his forehead. Jay couldn't make out his features through the wet glass, but the man was smiling and he looked unkept and creepy. He started banging harder on the window, louder and faster. No umbrella, no raincoat. He just waited in the rain.
"Should we see what he wants?" Carla clung to Jay.
"He looks crazy. What if he has a gun or something? We should just go."
"Maybe it is an emergency? Maybe he needs help. Roll down the window just a little."
Jay hesitated and finally,it was not concern but curiosity that got the better of him. The man's skin was worn and leathery like a two-pack-a-day smoker's. He had a big, tired face and a blue-black scar on the side of his cheek.
"You kids all right in there?" His voice was hoarse but friendly.
Jay held on to Carla tight. "Yeah, thanks."
"That is some nice music you got playing there. Cranberries. 1993. Used to hear this one over and over again. Even saw them in concert."
Jay tried to force a smile. No point being rude. But he kept thinking about the possibility of a gun and he really did not want to be having a conversation on a deserted road with a vagrant or a drunk or whatever the hell this man was. He wouldn't have been so apprehensive if he was alone, but it just wasn't safe with Carla there.
"Were you two kissing or something? A little bit of canoodling eh?" The stranger fixed his eyes on Carla's legs and then winked at Jay.
Jay could feel the heat rise up in his face and his hands turned to fists. "What the hell is your problem? Listen, if your car has broken down or something I can try and help,otherwise please just fuck off.' Jay reached over Carla and pressed the button to roll up her window.
The stranger placed his hand over the glass. His fingers got caught in the gap and he screamed in pain.
"Fuck, fuck!" Jay started the engine.
"Don't, Jay. You will drag him," Carla said.
The stranger let out a feral cry and bellowed, "You can drag me all you want,you little fucker. You think you are so great just because you got a pretty girl and all."
Then his fingers stopped squirming. He dropped his head and his voice, switching from mad to sad. His eyes lost their wildness and his face twisted with sorrow. He started to cry silently as though mourning the death of a lovedone. His shoulders heaved and his voice came between soft sobs. "There's no appreciation, I tell you. You try to help someone and all you get is ingratitude. This world has become a shithole, a shithole full of shitty people and their shitty cold attitudes. There is no hope for friendships..."
Jay didn't know how to react to any of this, but it did occur to him just then to roll down the window to let the man's hand loose. The stranger separated himself from the car, massaging his bruised knuckles as he retreated. He looked at Carla and said, "I am sorry, ma'am. I hope you have a nice evening."
He walked away slowly. Jay saw his slouching and defeated figure diminish in the beam of light. The man turned around and looked straight at their car.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" Jay muttered. "Let's get out of here."
"Jay, wait. What's he doing?
The stranger had moved to the edge of the mountainside. He stood there, no more than ten feet away from them, looking down into the ravines.
Carla's voice was shaking with panic."He is so upset, you think he is going to jump?"
Jay put the car in gear."Who knows? Let's just leave."
"No. Please we can't leave him like that. He is not sane. He will jump. Please,go pull him back. Just talk to him and make him go back into his car. At least then we know he's safe."
But before Jay could reply, right in front of their eyes the bleak form of the stranger lifted a leg and stepped off the precipice. They heard him scream over the sound of the rain. A loud, piercing, blood curdling sound that faded and disappeared as the man went down.
"Oh my God, Jay! Shit! Shit!"
Jay jumped out of the car. Carla too. They stood at the but they couldn't see anything down the ravines except for the blurry forms and outlines of the vegetation.
Jay ran back towards the car.
Carla followed him. "Where are you going? Oh my God,what are we going to do? We killed him!"
"No, we didn't. He was crazy." Jay then corrected himself."Is crazy."
"You think he is still alive?"
"I don't know, but we need to get some help." Jay reached into the car and found his phone in the side compartment. A black screen stared back at him. "Shit! I swear it was full batt when I left home. Where is your phone?"
She rummaged through her handbag and thendropped it on the floor of the car. "I think I left it at home, right after I showed you Facebook."
"Okay, okay, let's not panic." Jay's gaze bounced from left to right, back and forth. By now the rain had reduced to a drizzle, but they were both completely wet. There was no vehicle in sight. "There is a police station a mile down. I saw it the other day on the way up. We need to get someone. Maybe the bushes broke his fall. Quick, get in the car!"
On the way down, Carla couldn't stop crying. She kept saying they'dkilled him. Jay tried to reason with her that the man was odd to begin with and they hadn't said anything wrong-and most importantly he could still be alive. But she wouldn't stop-she was in shock and inconsolable. He didn't blame her. He felt the exact same way. He couldn't shake off the guilt of having driven a man to suicide. He reminded himself that he had done nothing wrong, that the man was most likely a floater. Maybe he was off his meds. Whatever the case, the sooner they got help the better. He drove dangerously fast. The steering wheel was damp with sweat from his palms. He couldn't stop replaying images in his head:a tattered corpse lying amid the bushes, blood and bones and broken limbs strewn here and there.
The ten-minute drive to Grove Hill police station felt like hours. The station was a small cabin perched in a groove on the inner side of the mountain. It was dimly lit with only two wall lamps on either side of the façade and a sign that was unreadable in the dark. There was a patrol car parked on the curb.
They got out of the car and he held her hand tight as they headed toward the porch. The door creaked as he pushed it open. Inside the small room was a wooden desk with two chairs on either side. The walls were lined with old,rusty filing cabinets. A laptop lay open on the desk, but there was no one to be seen or heard.
"Hello? Anyone there?" Jay called.
Jay called out again, louder this time. A door behind the desk opened and a severe-looking,six-foot-tall officer stepped out. "Yes sir, how can I help you?"
Carla pleaded, "We need some help. Now. There was this man. On the highway. We were parked and this man..."
"Slow down, slow down, ma'am. Take a seat."
Carla sat down and Jay started to tell the officer everything,just as it happened. The officer peered over his round glasses and patientlytook in every word.
"Where and when exactly did this happen? What did the man look like? Can you describe his vehicle?"
"Just now, just up the mountain. He was a big guy, in his forties. It was an SUV. I didn't notice the make." Even as Jay spoke he could hear the screams of the man as he went down, he saw the face of the man, his scar so clearly glistening in the rain, his fingers wriggling through the window.
Carla's eyes were bloodshot from crying and she begged, "Please let's not waste any more time. We need to go find him. He could still be alive."
The officer exhaled and then stood up. He opened a drawer of one the cabinets and pulled out a worn-out file. He sat down, opened it and flipped through its contents: forms, handwritten documents and newspaper clippings. He handed Jay a clipping from an old newspaper. Jay's face went pale.
"What? What does it say?" Carla took the piece of paper from Jay's frozen hands.
On it was a photograph of the stranger from the highway. And another photo of a Subaru four-wheel drive. It was dated March 13th, 1994. The headline read:
Man, 45, abandons car and jumps to his death on Grove Hill