Annoying how the mind disengages at inopportune moments of need. She looked familiar. Standing in my office I couldn’t place her. I asked my brain where do I know her from?
It replied, you’re on your own, kiddo. She could be a customer, could be from a meet- up group, I dunno.
From behind my desk, I ticked her description through my psyche database while she blathered. Blond hair, blue eyes, a little overweight. Oh Shit. She knew me by name. She didn’t ask business related questions, so she wasn’t a customer. Chattered on about getting blood work for a new job… in the neighborhood… stopped by… blah, blah. Time for recognition was ticking away. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it. Parked right outside the window was her personal tell. An OSHA yellow soft-top jeep. Few of those around. There we go, ding! We have a winner.
My brain dialed in after I did the investigative work and said, Oh yeah; she’s from the women’s group the other night. Her contact info’s in your cell phone.
Ya, way ahead of you, head. I had covertly glanced at my phone hidden next to my computer, pulled up my most recently added numbers and there she was. Darlene Meetup. Bravo, slick retrieval on my part.
“Darlene, I’m so glad you stopped by. We must get together soon.”
“How about tomorrow? Let’s meet for dinner.”
Did I like her? Again, my mind left me hanging, so I said, “Sure.”
Both divorced and over forty, we quickly became each other’s confidants. The female bond I treasured. Fearless friends. We explored outings ranging from a seedy comedy club to chanting at a meditation class and portals in-between.
One day, we were leaving an office supply store nowhere near the beach and in her loud outside voice Darlene declared, “This isn’t Daytona. You promised we were going to Daytona Beach, you lied to me.”
As I opened the glass exit door, I looked at her sideways, then realized she was making a scene on purpose. We bent in half gigging like twelve-year-olds as I pushed her out the door.
Subby, a.k.a. my well-meaning, but annoying subconscious, raised an eyebrow, juvenile and embarrassing.
I suppressed. Whatever. I finally found a fun, outgoing cohort and now you have something to say?
Darlene and I joined two of my acquaintance girlfriends for dinner one night. Before arriving, Subby tapped my shoulder.
Do you honestly think Darlene will mesh with them? She’s an unpolished agate, with a variegated personality.
I dismissed Subby’s concern.
The hostess seated us in a secluded area of the restaurant. A cute young waiter wearing a badge that read, ‘Tyler from Virginia Beach’, appeared. Three of us flirtatiously babbled our food requests. Not Darlene. After she ordered, she cocked her head and beamed at him.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
He hesitated, “Have I waited on you before?”
“Nope. I know your mom.”
Subby mumbled under its breath, uh oh.
Our six eyeballs ping-ponged their exchange astounded by the coincidence.
Darlene asked Tyler, “Did your mother enjoy her Hawaii trip?”
He cocked his head before replying. “She had a great time.”
Tyler moved to Darlene’s side and kneeled, taking the conversation more earnestly.
“She got back about a month ago. How do you know my mom?”
Darlene looked directly at him, “We were neighbors in Virginia.”
“Cool. What’s your name? I’ll tell her you said hello.”
Darlene broke into a toothy smile and batted her eyes, “I was messing with you, I’ve never met your mom.”
“What? You’re joking?” Tyler turned to our gaping fish mouths.
Subby hissed, wow she’s good, caution flag raised.
Tyler chuckled, wagged his index finger at Darlene and said, “You really had me going.” Shaking his head, he dashed to the kitchen.
I recovered first. “What the hell was that? How’d you know his mom recently visited Hawaii?”
“I didn’t. A random guess.”
Subby bounced up and down on my shoulder, dubious.
We all marveled and cackled at Darlene’s uncanny intuition.
I had seen little of Darlene in the past week because she’d been working overtime. Friday morning, I texted her.
lunch on Sat? gonna be in yur hood
No can’t busy
Subby says, Odd. She usually offers more.
Ok miss you
On Friday evening I texted her again.
Hey you still awake?
No response. It felt like she was cheating on me. Both Subby and I exhaled a sigh of anxiety.
Now, sitting inside my car after my Saturday meeting I text Darlene to double-check her availability. Still nada.
Subby instinct, something’s gone wanko with this chick.
I call her and a man answers.
“Is Darlene there?”
“Are you a friend of Darlene’s?”
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“This is Detective Kinsly of the Orlando Police Department.”
I’m sure this is a Darlene prank. “Can I speak with Darlene?”
“Darlene isn’t here. Have you seen her today?”
“Are you… are you serious?”
“Ma’am, may I have your name?”
“Robyn, I’m Detective Calvin Kinsly. Are you related to Darlene?”
“We’re best friends. Why do you have her cell?”
“A Home Depot employee found Darlene’s phone, her driver’s license, and a few other personal items behind a dumpster when they opened the store this morning. We’re trying to determine her whereabouts. Do you have information about her activities last night?”
This can’t be real. What has happened to Darlene? My stomach knots, my throat turns gritty, and the phone shakes in my hand.
“No, I… I haven’t heard from her since early yesterday.
“Is your friend’s name Darlene Sue Wharton, date of birth May 17th, 1975?”
“She never told me her middle name. I guess that’s her birthday.” Brain blanked.
“Do you have any idea where she’s employed?”
“She works for a, uh, real estate company.”
“We have a Jeep registered to her with a Virginia address. Can you tell us where she lives?”
“She lives with her dad in Deland. I’ve only been there once.” My breathing is forced. The Detective asked me something.
“What did you say?”
He repeats, “Do… you… know… her… father’s name?”
Come on, think, remember. Come on, come on. Shit.
“I only met him the one time. He’s on disability. I think it’s Frank, Frank Wharton.”
“You tell me you’re best friends with her, but you’re not sure of her birthday, where she works or lives. I’m looking up Frank Wharton and… there’s one in DeBary, Longwood, none in Deland.”
“Well, we’ve only been friends for a few months.”
Subby sneers, you don’t need this drama, just hang up.
The silence amplifies my ignorance.
“I’m in the area; I’ll try to find the house. Call you back, Sir.”
Thankfully, my directional memory is better than my name recall. Before I make the final turn, I appeal out loud, “if her yellow Jeep is in the driveway, she’s there and she’s okay.”
It’s there! I let out a ‘whew’ of relief. I sprint to the front door, rap my knuckles urgently. No answer.
Knock louder and faster than my pounding heart. No answer.
I run to see if anyone’s in the backyard. Vacant.
Pace the sidewalk. Subby pleads, leave now.
Knock on the front door again. The door opens slowly. Her dad is holding the cordless house phone to his ear.
Upon sight, Subby remembers, his name’s Phil.
Phil motions me in. He says, “Hold on, please” into the receiver.
With his hand over the mouthpiece he slumps into a chair. “Good Lord.”
“Where’s Darlene?” My head zigzags the family room, searching.
Phil’s ashen face squinches in anguish. “I’m not sure. The St. Joes or Johns Police Department called me. W-w-will you take over? Please.”
I reach for his phone as he tells the officer to give me the information.
After hanging up, I can’t seem to process the news, so I call Detective Kinsly hoping it makes sense when I relay it to him.
“I’m with Darlene’s father, Phil, not Frank. I spoke to a Sergeant Murphy up in Georgia. Apparently, Darlene took her dad’s car this morning and drove to the Florida-Georgia border. When they pulled her over for speeding, she refused to speak or move from the driver’s seat. So they called an ambulance, coerced her out of the vehicle and Baker Acted her into a Jacksonville Behavior Health Hospital. It doesn’t explain why her things were in Orlando, but that’s all the information I have.”
I wait while he digests the latest details. He grunts, “Okay, let me have the Sergeant’s contact information. Ms. Wharton’s belongings will be in Evidence at the Orange County Jail.”
He impatiently barks, “There’s nothing more I can do.”
Phil regularly takes high doses of pain medication for an old spinal injury and begs me to drive him to his car. Darlene had moved here to take care of him and is his only relative in Florida. Out of duty, friendship, and curiosity, I agree to help him.
Once we get on the highway, Phil immediately declares, “I suspected Darlene went off her bipolar meds. About a week ago, I saw the signs; bossing me around, shopping sprees, impulsive actions. She’s done this kind of stuff before. I thought she had learned her lesson. I wasn’t even aware she took the Buick until the officer called.”
Another wave of panic. I listen while focusing on the interminable 156-mile drive. Internally, I rewind the events of our relationship. In the beginning Darlene had been overly congenial and extroverted at the same time, then she continually bought me random friendship gifts. She had insisted I accompany her to a getaway weekend a couple weeks ago. I had no clue of her mental illness even though Subby had suspicions of something dodgy.
Two and half hours later, we pull behind Phil’s metallic blue Buick Lacrosse innocently parked on the shoulder of Interstate 95. The deafening noise of the traffic mutes as we peer inside the car’s passenger window. A lidless to-go coffee cup sits empty in the cup holder, and powdered sugar donut holes litter the front passenger seat and floor. Another empty coffee cup in the back seat. Curious. I follow Phil to the rear of the car. I steal a quick glance at the speeding traffic and fear of how exposed we are temporarily paralyzes me. Like partners in an unknown transgression, Phil is waiting for me before he opens the trunk; I join him and nod. The heavy lid pops open to reveal three ambiguous items silently screaming from the spotless gray interior; a white candle, an alarm clock, and a butcher knife.
The minute and a half we stare into the cavernous trunk then each other, seems like an hour. My mind scavenges for meaning and once again comes up hollow.
Driving alone, following Phil on the road, I hear Subby’s voice, maybe you should listen to what Subby says more often.
I replied aloud, “Give it a rest, Subby.”