Don’t Wait Up ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
On a beautiful Friday evening in October, nobody under the age of twenty wanted to stay at home and listen to Jack Benny on the radio. Ruby Leftridge arranged to meet her friend Marcella Rogers on the corner by the cemetery. They were going to walk downtown to see the horror double feature at the Odeon Theatre.
“I don’t want you to go!” Ruby’s mother said. “There’s a crazed killer on the loose killing people! He strangles women!”
“Nobody’s going to strangle me, mother!” Ruby said. “You can’t let your life be ruled by fear. I’ll be fine. I won’t be alone. I’ll be with Marcella the whole time.”
“And what could she do for you?”
“She can scream really loud!”
“You always have to make a joke out of everything, don’t you?”
“Not always, but usually.”
“I don’t want two uniformed officers to wake me up late tonight with the sad news that my daughter has been murdered!”
“You won’t! I’ll be home about eleven. Don’t wait up!”
Ruby had known Marcella Rogers since sixth grade. She was a tall girl who sometimes seemed all knees and elbows. She saw herself as a great beauty. She had a receding chin and an unflattering mane of hair that she barely kept clean. She was twenty years old and worked as a typist in a real estate office full of men. She was always imagining the men in her office were in love with her and would leave their wives if only she gave them a little encouragement.
“Did you hear about the killer on the loose?” Marcella asked.
“Yes,” Ruby said.
“Isn’t it thrilling?”
“It scares all the old ladies, including my mother.”
“I think it’s tremendously exciting to have a maniac on the loose,” Marcella said.
“I hope they catch him soon,” Ruby said.
“Why? Are you afraid?”
“No. I don’t think it’s my destiny to die at the hands of a strangler.”
“Well, you never know. I wonder if he’s good-looking!”
“The strangler, silly!
“As long as he’s killing people, I don’t think it matters whether he’s good-looking or not. He can be an absolute perfect specimen of manhood and they’ll still fry his carcass in the electric chair. He’ll make a handsome corpse, as if anybody will be paying attention to the way he looks.”
“Oh, Ruby! You have no romance in your soul!”
“Not when it comes to cold, sadistic killers, I don’t.”
“You don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s just misunderstood.”
“We’re all misunderstood but we don’t go around murdering people.”
“Say, I want to tell you about this new man in our office,” Marcella said. “His name is Jake something or other. I haven’t spoken one word to him yet, but I feel a sort of connection with him. I’ll be sitting at my desk working and I’ll look up and he’ll be looking at me from across the room. He can’t seem to take his eyes off me.”
“He’s probably the strangler and he’s planning on making you his next victim,” Ruby said.
“He is so good-looking and he has the most beautiful eyes! I’m hoping he’ll ask me out on a date.”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Oh, Ruby! I could never do anything so forward!”
“Send him a love note the way we used to do in junior high school.”
“Now you’re being silly.”
In two more blocks they came to the Odeon, its marquee of a thousand lights that welcomed all comers to step in out of the darkness and escape in a cinematographic dream.
“I wonder if I’ll see anybody here tonight I know,” Marcella said, as they took their place in line.
“You’d better not go off with one of your cute boys and leave me to walk home by myself at eleven o’clock. If you do that, our friendship is over!”
“Oh, honey, I would never do that!
After they bought their tickets, they went inside and stood in line at the refreshment stand to buy popcorn and sodas.
“It’s really crowded tonight!” Marcella said. “Hey, you! I want a large popcorn with extra butter and a large Coke!”
Most of the good seats were taken, so they sat close to the screen to get away from the rowdy high-schoolers who whistled and stamped their feet and threw popcorn.
The lights went down and the audience grew quiet. For the next three hours they would be drawn into the fabulous black-and-white fantasy world so far removed from real life. The first feature cast its spell and when it finished the second feature began after a five-minute interval.
When the show was over and Ruby and Marcella were filing out with the crowd, Marcella said, “There wasn’t a single person here I knew tonight.”
“You knew me,” Ruby said.
“Of course, dear,” Marcella said. “I wasn’t talking about you.”
“Well, after that horror extravaganza, are you ready to go home?”
“Let’s walk slow. The wind is blowing the leaves so beautifully.”
Three blocks past the movie theatre, the streetlights were farther apart; the streets were dark and deserted. They met a dark figure walking toward them, but he walked past without seeming to notice them.
“That might have been the strangler,” Marcella said.
“If it was, he wasn’t interested in us,” Ruby said.
“Don’t horror movies make you a little afraid to go upstairs by yourself with no lights on?” Marcella asked.
“Horror movies are just make-believe.”
“Well, I guess it’s kind of fun to be scared,” Marcella said, “as long as you know it’s not going to hurt you. In ninth grade, we used go into the cemetery at midnight without a flashlight and try not to scream. The first person to scream had to buy the next pack of ciggies.”
“My mother would never let me go out at midnight,” Ruby said.
“Mine, either, but I did anyway. I climbed out the window after she went to bed.”
“If my mother thought I was smoking, she would have killed me.”
“Mine too. Ever hear of Sen-Sen?”
“Yeah, it tastes worse than the cigarettes.”
“Once or twice. I’d never take it up as a regular habit.”
“Well, I think it’s fun to smoke,” Marcella said. “It makes you feel sophisticated. Do you have any cigarettes on you?”
“No, do you?”
“No, I smoked my last one at the office this afternoon.”
“When did you take up smoking?”
“Oh, ages ago! I smoked all the way back in high school.”
“I never knew it.”
“Say, did you notice that boy taking the tickets when we went in tonight? He was awfully good-looking. I’ve seen him before. When I handed him my ticket, his hand touched mine and I felt an electric current pass between us.”
“He might be the strangler.”
“Oh, honey! You can’t believe that every man you see is the strangler!”
“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to think to protect ourselves?”
“The strangler is probably far away from here by now, in another state. Maybe ‘he’ is a ‘she’.”
“Did you ever hear of a woman strangling other women?”
“No, but I’ll bet it’s happened before.”
“That would really surprise people!”
“Yeah, what fun!”
They came to the corner by the cemetery.
“Well, I guess it’s time to go home,” Marcella said. “I hope my mother has gone to bed so I don’t have to listen to any more of her nagging.”
“It’s been fun,” Ruby said. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
“Surest thing you know!”
“Don’t let the strangler get you!”
“Not a chance!”
They parted there, Ruby going in one direction and Marcella in another.
In the three blocks she had to walk to get home, Ruby saw no one. A dog barked at her and a car passed, blinding her with its headlights, but all was quiet except for the wind in the trees.
Her mother had left a light on for her downstairs and gone to bed. She went into the kitchen and made sure the back door was locked and then she went upstairs and went to bed.
She went to sleep right away and slept soundly. She was in a deep sleep when her mother came into her bedroom and woke her up after three o’clock.
“Marcella’s mother is on the phone,” she said. “She wants to talk to you.”
The voice sounded remote and far away when it said, “Marcella didn’t come home last night.”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Eunice Rogers, Marcella’s mother. I thought maybe she decided to spend the night at your house.”
“No, she’s not here. I left her on the corner about eleven o’clock and came home. That was the last I saw of her.”
“Did she say where she was going after you left her?”
“She didn’t say, but I’m sure she meant to go home.”
“Have you called the police?”
“No, I wanted to check with you first.”
“I’m sure she’s all right.”
“I’m not sure. This is so unlike her.”
“If I can do anything to help, let me know.”
“Thank you, dear, and if you hear from Marcella, will you call me?”
“Of course I will!”
Ruby didn’t sleep any more that night. She was sure something terrible had happened. If Marcella had been going someplace else after they parted, she would have mentioned it.
Two grim-faced police officers came in the morning and questioned Ruby in her bathrobe. She told them everything, about the two of them walking to the movies and then walking home, but she knew she wasn’t able to add anything they didn’t already know.
Marcella’s body was found in a ditch alongside the highway a mile or so out of town late the next day. She had been strangled with a two-foot length of rope. Police were investigating but had few leads.
After Marcella, everybody was waiting for the next strangulation. If it could happen to a girl like her, who would be next? People were afraid to go out at night and talked of little else. There were neighborhood watches and vigilantes roaming the streets with guns.
The strangler never struck again and was never apprehended. People speculated about what happened to him. Did he go away to continue his killing in some other location? Did he decide he had killed enough and didn’t need to do it anymore? Was he alive or was he dead? Was he somebody who people saw everyday shopping and paying his bills and going about his business in town? The possibilities were almost limitless.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp