Until I Die ~ A Noir Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a re-post and has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)
Henry Hudson was waiting at a stoplight in town the first time he saw her. She passed within two feet of his car. She was with three other young people, obviously high school students. She had hair the color of burnished copper; she was wearing green. He was sure her eyes would be green, too.
The next time he saw her was at the public library. He was sitting on a bench reading a newspaper when she came in alone and sat down at a table and opened a book. She was dressed casually but in excellent taste. No blue jeans with tears in the knees or sneakers. Everything about her was perfect. From her hair to her skin to her fingernails, from her shoes to her purse, she generated good taste. She exuded perfection.
He saw her three more times in the next two weeks. The first time she was coming out of the drugstore with a woman obviously her mother. The next time he was driving by on Main Street when he saw her walking on the sidewalk, alone, in front of city hall. The third time she was with somebody else in a red car.
Then he saw her picture in the newspaper. Her name was Colleen Cork and she was eighteen. She was the daughter of Dr. Sidney Cork, neurosurgeon. She was named Outstanding Young Citizen of the Month by the mayor’s office for her charitable work, for her high scholastic standing and for her talent as a singer and musician. When she graduated from high school next year, she planned to go to New York and become a professional musician. The world would open up at her feet.
So now she had a name. He looked up her address in the phone book and found it easily enough. With the help of a map, he found the street where she lived and then the house. It was a large, scenic, three-story brick house on a verdant lot with towering trees in the front yard. The house, the whole setting, was perfect, as he knew it would be.
He parked across the street and watched the house, imagining the perfect life she must live with her perfect family. She would have a brother or two, manly and, like her, good-looking; a handsome, heroic, distinguished father with graying temples who saved lives; an attractive, slim-hipped mother who hosted charity luncheons and boasted an ancestral lineage dating all the way back to the Pilgrims. An all-American family devoid of strife ugliness, and dysfunction.
As for his own family, they lived above the funeral home that his grandfather and then his father owned and operated. His mother had nervous breakdowns the way other people have colds. She committed suicide when he was sixteen by drinking a corrosive poison. Her death two days later in the hospital was a psychological blow from which he would never fully recover. He would carry her sadness around with him always, like a weight around the neck.
After high school, he studied embalming for a few semesters. He was all ready to take up the family business when he came to the astounding conclusion that he didn’t have the stomach for that kind of life, dealing with grieving family members and handling cadavers all the time. It wasn’t the kind of life he wanted. He told himself he was choosing life over death, but the truth was he was choosing to do nothing.
After he left school, he began drinking heavily and at twenty-five he was a full-fledged alcoholic. Doctors told him his liver was aging five times faster than normal. When he came to the realization he would die if he didn’t stop drinking, he spent several years in and out of different hospitals taking different “cures.” In time, only his willpower and determination made him stop drinking.
His father died and left him the family fortune, which was not millions but a little in excess of two hundred thousand. It wasn’t enough to live the life of an international playboy and jetsetter, but it gave him a reasonable income that he could draw on for years to come (if he didn’t live to be too old) without having to scratch for a living in the workaday world.
He lived, by himself, in the funeral home establishment outside of town. It was no longer a funeral home but his home, the only home he had ever known. It had fifteen rooms but he only ever used five. He never went down to the basement where the embalming rooms were and all the tools and equipment, including some caskets that had never been used.
He had always been a solitary person. He had never known romantic love or even real friendship. He always believed that one day he would meet his ideal. She, like his mother, would have hair the color of burnished copper and green eyes. She would be a little taller than average and have natural grace and dignity. She would speak quietly but forcefully and she would always be on the side of right. Just being in her presence would make him a better person, would rectify all his errors and false steps and make everything right in the world.
The more he saw Colleen Cork, the more he was convinced she was the one he had been fated to meet out of all the others. All he had to do now was to have her make the miraculous discovery on her own.
He began driving around the high school at times he believed he would be most likely to see her, when school was taking up in the morning and letting out in the afternoon. More often than not, he would catch a glimpse of her, always surrounded by admirers and hangers-on. He would drive on then, satisfied, until the next time.
Once when he was driving by on Fourth Street near the school, he saw her go into the bookstore. He parked the car at a meter and got out and went into the store behind her. While she was looking around in the store, he followed along, hanging back just enough so that if she turned around she wouldn’t see him. When he saw that she was standing in the cashier’s line to pay, he picked up a book to buy without even looking at the title. He stood behind her in line, as close to her as he could get without jostling her. She never once turned and looked at him or knew he was there.
Any time he saw information about her in the newspapers, he cut it out and added it to a scrapbook. She was captain of the debating team, president of the music guild, on the board of the library and children’s hospital. She was chosen to participate in a statewide music competition in the state capitol. She appeared in the high school production of a play called Street Scene and might be interested in pursuing an acting career when she finished her education, in addition to her music. Everybody who saw her performance in the play said she was a “natural.”
He had taken to driving by her house almost every night at ten o’clock. Sometimes the house would be dark and at other times there would be lights in all the windows. He imagined which upstairs room would be hers. He could picture her sitting up in bed reading a book or washing her face in the bathroom before going to bed.
One night, when driving past didn’t seem satisfying enough, he stopped on the other side of the street and parked. He had been sitting in his car for about ten minutes when a police car pulled up alongside and stopped. He smiled because he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.
He rolled down his window and looked up into the face of a middle-aged police officer. “Good evening,” he said pleasantly.
“Would you step out of your vehicle please?” the officer said.
“Just do as I say and there won’t be any trouble.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I need to see your operator’s license.”
“Your driver’s license.”
He took it out of his wallet and handed it to the officer, who looked at it for a long time underneath the flashlight.
“You don’t live here,” the officer said. “This is not your address.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I wasn’t doing anything, really. Just waiting for a friend.”
“I don’t know where he went. That’s why I’m waiting for him.”
“You need to go on home, now. It’s late. When people see you waiting around out here in the dark for no reason, they think you’re a prowler and they become alarmed.”
“I’m not a prowler.”
“Well, go on home, then. This is not your neighborhood.”
He was going to have to be more discreet. He didn’t care what people thought of him, but he didn’t want Colleen Cork to hear about him and get the idea that he meant to do her harm or that she needed to be afraid of him. He had only the kindest and most generous intentions toward her.
He was trying to think of a way that he might approach her without alarming her or making her suspicious. If he only had some pretext to talk to her, it might break down the barrier between them, but what could the pretext be? He was mulling these questions over in his mind when he heard the news.
He saw it in the morning newspaper: Country Club Trio Killed in Saturday Night Car Crash.
Colleen Cork was a member of a string trio performing at a function at the country club on Saturday night. About eleven o’clock, after the function ended, the car in which the trio were riding was struck head-on by a drunk driver going eighty-five miles an hour about five miles outside of town. Two of the young musicians were pronounced dead at the scene. The third died at the hospital before morning. The drunk driver was not injured. Charges were expected to be filed.
The world turns on such events. Everything changes in the blink of an eye.
On seeing the news, he lost consciousness. When he awoke again, he began drinking whiskey and taking pills. He intended to kill himself, but twenty-four hours later he was still alive. God had kept him alive, when a lesser man would have succumbed.
After he sobered up and thought clearly again, he knew what he was going to do.
Colleen Cork lay in state at the Vernon Vale and Sons Mortuary Chapel on Mission Street. On Tuesday morning the body would be removed to the Central Avenue Methodist Church for an eleven o’clock service. Private interment would follow at the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost.
On Tuesday morning at two o’clock, he got out of bed after several hours of sleep and dressed entirely in black. He drove his car to the Vernon Vale and Sons Mortuary Chapel on Mission Street. Using a crowbar, he easily broke the lock on a side door and made his way in the dark, with the aid of a small flashlight, to the viewing chapel where Colleen Cork’s body lay.
She lay in a white casket, dressed in a white gown, with a wreath of rosebuds in her hair. He wept with gratitude when he saw her beauty was in no way diminished by the violent way in which she died. Quickly, before any alarms were raised, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her out of the building, stumbling with her in the dark as he ran back to his car. He opened the door and slid her easily enough onto the back seat and covered her with a blanket. The whole thing had taken less than ten minutes.
In the lower basement of the funeral home was a vault-like room where his grandfather and his father used to prepare bodies for burial. He unlocked the door with the only key in existence, turned on the lights, carried the body of Colleen Cork inside and placed it in a massive, antique, cast-iron coffin from his grandfather’s day. Nothing less would do.
He learned from the newspaper that the purloined body of the beautiful Colleen Cork caused quite a stir in the town. Nothing like it had ever happened before. What kind of a depraved person would steal a body from a funeral home hours before the funeral? Police were investigating but so far had no leads. Everyone was wondering how the family would proceed with the funeral with the body missing.
They would be coming for him, he knew. The policeman he encountered on Colleen Cork’s street would remember him, would remember what he looked like and remember his car. It wouldn’t take long for them to figure out what he had done.
Every time he heard a car outside, he imagined it would be them. They had come for him with a warrant to search the house. They would find Colleen, take her away, put her in the ground, send him to jail for the rest of his life. It was the ending he abhorred.
On the third day, early in the morning, he began taking barbiturate sleeping pills, two or three at a time, swallowing them with swigs from a bottle of rye whiskey. Over a period of two or three hours, he took the entire bottle of a hundred pills, drank the whole bottle of whiskey.
Feeling himself to be floating, he descended the steps to the lower basement where the still-beautiful Colleen Cork waited for him. When he opened the door to the vault where she lay and beheld her, he wept once again at the richness of the beauty that now belonged only to him.
He lay down beside her in the coffin to her left, inclining his head toward hers, smelling the chemicals that had gone into her body. He didn’t have long to wait now, he knew. He was fading. Floating. Ebbing. He embraced easeful death lying beside the only person in the world he had ever loved and he was happy. It was the thing he had waited for his whole life.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp