The last night, p.1

The Last Night, page 1


The Last Night

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The Last Night

  The Last Night


  Mark Dunn


  San Francisco

  Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dunn

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  JournalStone books may be ordered through booksellers or by contacting:


  The views expressed in this work are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

  ISBN: 978-1-942712-76-3 (sc)

  ISBN: 978-1-942712-77-0 (ebook)

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2016935545

  Printed in the United States of America

  JournalStone rev. date: April 15, 2016

  Cover Design: Chuck Killorin

  Edited by: Aaron J French

  The Last Night


  San Cristobol, New Mexico—1975

  Winter had arrived in the desert, and though it could still be unbearably hot during the day, the cold of the night was equally brutal. On this frigid night in the middle of November, there had been no snow yet, but the clouds seemed so low that a man might reach up and tear off a piece. It was only a matter of time before they ruptured and turned the brown land white, if only until the heat returned the following afternoon.

  Pulling his dusty Ford pickup to a stop in the driveway of his house, Doctor Timothy Barron couldn’t stop himself from reflecting briefly on how many different ways the desert could kill you. If it wasn’t the heat, it was the cold, and if it wasn’t the cold, it was the scorpions, the flashfloods, or the goddamned snakes. Already this year he’d had to chase two good-sized rattlers out of his house, and with the first winter chill having now arrived, they’d really be getting ornery.

  As he opened the door of the truck and stepped down to the ground, he reminded himself to get the broom from the hallway closet and set it by the kitchen door. The snakes especially liked to crawl beneath the oven. Like so many creatures in this world, they only wanted to be warm.

  “I’m home,” Tim called out as he stepped through the front door, which was unlocked. You had to worry about a lot of things living in San Cristobol, but robbers weren’t on the list. In the five years he and his wife had lived in their house on the outskirts of town—if San Cristobol could even be called a town, with its two stoplights, one gas station, and four bars—the garden had been plundered by armadillos, the trash ripped to pieces by marauding coyotes, and Seymour, the marmalade cat, killed by a rattler, but there had never been so much as a hint of malfeasance from the human sector.

  “In here,” came the answer from the kitchen, from which Tim could also hear the sounds of cooking. And what was that smell? Garlic? Onions? Tim’s stomach growled. He’d spent all day at his office in town without eating. He pushed through the swinging saloon doors into the kitchen.

  Isabel, his wife, was standing at the stove, giving Tim a jolt of anxiety.

  She said, “Don’t worry. I checked underneath with a broom before I started, you silly man.”

  He put his arms around her thin waist from behind and nuzzled her neck, inhaling deeply of her skin and rich black hair. “What’s cooking? Smells great.”

  “Fajitas.” She turned her face towards his and kissed his cheek, rough with stubble.

  “Mmm. Hope you’re making lots. I could eat a horse.”

  “Good, because we ran out of steak and I had to shoot Trigger. But I seasoned him up real nice, so you should barely notice.” Isabel was half-Mexican, and though she spoke perfect English, the gentle remnant of her accent often made him smile, especially when she was trying to be flip. Trigger, for instance, was Tree-gurr from his wife’s lips. Beautiful.

  “That’s very funny, Izzy,” Tim said, getting a bottle of beer from the fridge and twisting the top off, “but you shouldn’t joke. You know how sensitive Trig is, especially in his old age.” Trigger was the oldest of the seven horses Tim and Isabel owned, and the only one she never used to give riding lessons. Over the past several years his attitude had grown progressively worse, until finally the disgruntled horse had become, for all intents and purposes, a well-fed punchline.

  “Not ‘is,’ mi amor. Was. Trigger ‘was’ sensitive. Now he’s just a little tough.”

  Tim sat down at the kitchen table and put his feet up on one of the other vinyl-seated chairs, drawing a disapproving look from his wife. “How was your day?” he said.

  She turned the strips of meat she was cooking and said, “Okay. I had Jose this morning and Sally this afternoon. Pretty slow, really, which was fine with me. Who wants to be out in that cold all day?”

  “Looks like it’s going to snow tonight.”

  “I almost hope so. If it’s going to be this cold, we should at least get some scenery.”

  Isabel took the griddle off the stove. She opened the oven and took out a foil-wrapped stack of tortillas, then retrieved a platter of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and peppers from the refrigerator. She said, “You ready to eat?”

  It was all Tim could do to nod. He was aware that he was gaping at the food, and made himself close his mouth, which was suddenly watering.

  She sat down and they both started preparing their fajitas. Along with the meat, Isabel had chopped tomatoes, lettuce, and an avocado. A bowl of her signature salsa, which she made just about as hot as a man could take it, sat on the table, too.

  Tim was about to take a bite when the phone rang.

  “Oh, bullshit,” he said. “No fair.” He set the fajita down and frowned as the tortilla unrolled, spilling its contents all over his plate. He walked to the phone mounted on the wall and snatched it up, feeling irritated and justified in his irritation, which only annoyed him more.


  There was rapid breathing on the other end of the line, hitches and gasps. “Doctor Barron, es Maria Stanton.” The words were spoken with such a deep accent as to be nearly indecipherable, but Tim had seen Maria several times over the last few months and knew her cadences well. The young woman was a second generation American whose family spoke a combination of fractured English and Spanish in the home. Her husband, a lanky blond cowboy-type named Steve Stanton, was a transplant from Ohio and as white bread as could be. Tim remembered that the man had bailed on Maria almost immediately after learning that she was pregnant—a sterling specimen of the American male.

  After years working in the primarily Mexican town of San Cristobol, Tim was able to make out muddled Spanglish that would have baffled someone else. He spoke to her in Spanish, guessing that in her obviously distraught state, her mind would default to the language in which she’d been raised.

  “Maria, que es la problema?”

  “El bebe!” Maria said, the end of the word turning into a breathy moan.

  “Maria,” Tim said, trying to keep his voice soothing, calm, “hay alguien con usted?”

  “No, no—” Maria screamed and Tim jerked the phone away from the piercing sound. There was a loud bang, as if the receiver had rapped against the floor.

  “Maria! Maria!” But there was no answer. Even the screaming had stopped. “Maria!” Tim said one more time, listened, heard nothing.

  A thrummy spastickness took control of Tim’s
body. He felt as if he had just witnessed a murder, or overheard one. Jesus, he’d been present at hundreds of births, and he’d never heard screams like those, not even when a delivery went sour. It had sounded like she was being torn apart.

  He thrust the phone out at Isabel, who accepted it like it might bite her.

  “Don’t hang up. If she starts talking again, tell her I’m on my way. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

  Isabel nodded, her face serious. “What’s wrong with her, Tim?”

  “I don’t know,” he said, driving his arms into the sleeves of his heavy, fleece-lined coat. “Call the hospital in Las Cruces, tell them to send an ambulance to Maria Stanton’s house on Albermarle Road, out near the arroyo.”

  Isabel took the phone. “Go,” she said. “I’ll give them directions to the house.”

  Tim suddenly remembered that Izzy and Maria were friends, and that his wife had been to Maria’s a thousand times.

  “Go,” she said again. “Hurry, Timmy.”

  He climbed into his pickup, which was still warm and ticking from his drive home, jammed the keys into the ignition, and backed out of the driveway.

  In five minutes he was two miles out of town, heading into the desert on a dirt road. There were no other cars out at this hour, and the low-flying clouds blocked out any light the moon or stars might have lent the world below. It was dark. Dark and cold. Tim cranked the heat as high as it would go and pressed down on the accelerator a little harder, urging the old truck ahead.

  He rounded a corner in the road and Maria’s small house came into view. It was right on the side of the dirt lane, no neighbors to either side for at least a mile in either direction. He pulled the truck to a stop by the stairs leading to the front door and climbed out.

  And stood there.

  Inside he felt a compulsion to rush into the house, to help Maria any way he could, to save her and her baby. But that compulsion was stifled by a deeper knowledge, a certainty he couldn’t explain, but couldn’t question.

  Maria Stanton was dead in there. And not just dead, but dead in a horrible way. Tim scolded himself. She’s suffering inside and you’re standing here. Stop with this horseshit right now. Get in there and do what you can. If she’s dead, she’s dead. But if she’s not, and she dies because you stood here like a goddamned zombie doing nothing…

  Hefting his bag, he climbed the stairs to the porch and rapped twice on the front door, unable to stop himself from observing the formality.

  “Maria!” He tried the knob and found the door unlocked. It swung open, revealing more darkness.

  “Maria,” he called again, stepping inside. Again, there was no answer, but now Tim could hear a sound coming from upstairs, tapping and scratching, tapping and scratching, almost rhythmic, but not mechanical.

  He started to call out Maria’s name again, then realized he was only stalling. He didn’t want to go up the stairs, not at all. He wanted to stay right where he was—no, strike that, he wanted to be back in his warm house with his beautiful wife and his dinner. He wanted to be anywhere but here, anywhere.

  Trying to shunt the bad thoughts from his mind, he started up the steps.

  The light was on in a room at the end of the hall. Maria’s bedroom. During his visits over the course of her pregnancy, Tim had always examined her in the bedroom. She said it made her feel more at ease to be in a familiar place. It was a pleasant room, he recalled, decorated with hand-me-down furniture from her mother’s home. There was a patchwork quilt on one wall, a portrait of her and her siblings with their mother and father on another.

  Tim reached the top of the stairs and started down the hall.

  The sound was louder now. Not clicking and scratching like he’d thought at first, but something else, something…something wetter.

  “Maria,” Tim said, “es Doctor Barron. Estas aqui?” The door to the bedroom was closed most of the way, allowing only a sliver of yellowish light to escape into the hall. The sound he’d heard from downstairs was much louder now, and when he stepped into Maria Navarro’s bedroom, he saw where it was coming from.

  She sat on the floor, back propped against the wall. Her white cotton nightgown was bunched up around her waist and soaked with blood, and a pool of blood was spreading on the bare wooden floor in front of and beneath her. She held her head straight back against the wall, her eyes rolling back and forth sluggishly in their sockets, her mouth opening and closing with a dreadful slowness. Her breathing was rapid and labored; she seemed to be struggling for even the smallest gasp of air. He could hear a sound that was something between a whistle and a gargle, wet and weak, the sound he’d been hearing since he stepped inside the house. In the crook of one arm, she held a squirming baby, its umbilical cord trailing over her blood-streaked thigh and under the bunched hem of her nightgown.

  “I’m here,” Tim said, rushing to her and dropping to his knees. “Let me look.”

  One of Maria’s hands closed tightly on his forearm and he looked up. She was trying to say something, her lips moving soundlessly. Her eyes couldn’t make up their mind what to do; one second they were fixed on him, the next they rolled back in her head, or looked over his shoulder, then back to him.

  Tim leaned closer. “What?” he said into her ear. “What are you saying?”

  Her lips were forming two words, the first beginning with an O, breathy, the second with a plosive, a P or a B, he thought. Ot…Bay… Tim searched his brain for any clue as to what she might be trying to communicate to him. She mouthed the words again, and this time there was the faintest whisper of a voice. Otro bebe.

  Another baby?

  With his free hand, Tim pulled up the bloody bottom of Maria’s frock and looked at her pelvis. A tiny foot and ankle protruded from her distended vagina.

  A breech, he thought, expecting to feel a fresh wave of panic surge over him. But it didn’t. Instead, he felt a calm settle within his mind. He looked into Maria’s eyes, and for the first time he recognized what he saw there.

  She knew that she was dead. She hadn’t been holding on for the sake of herself. It was the unborn baby twisted in her womb that she’d survived for. And although Tim thought that there was little chance the baby could have survived so long in its current position, there was at least a chance.

  For Maria there was none. She’d lost far too much blood. Even if the ambulance arrived, she’d be gone long before the vehicle reached the hospital.

  “Entiendo,” Tim said, and Maria nodded almost imperceptibly, a species of disbelieving relief in her eyes. Her head lolled to the side and Tim thought she had fainted.

  He pulled her further onto the floor, so that she was three-quarters laying down. He took the baby from her arms and lowered it to the floor, where it lay on its back, crying and waving its arms.

  He slid two of his fingers into her vagina and tried to gauge the severity of the breech. The child was badly contorted, which meant the umbilical cord was likely under severe stress, maybe even wrapped like a noose around the baby’s neck. He needed to act quickly. In less time than it took him to realize he’d done so, he’d chosen.

  At the bottom of his bag there was a flat black case. With hands that were now streaked with snotty gore and blood, Tim removed the case, opened it, and removed a heavy scalpel. Because it was the fastest way, he used the scalpel to slice Maria’s frock down the front, then laid the two halves of it open, exposing her belly. Then he cut a long, wide incision across the brown expanse of her stomach, slicing through skin and fat and muscle and then into the uterus itself.

  Tim reached into the bloody red cavity of the woman who had been his patient and his wife’s good friend and pulled from the wet hotness of her insides a child, quiet and still.

  Far away, he could hear the sound of sirens.

  Part I

  Chapter 1

  Charlotte, North Carolina—Present Day

  John opened his eyes and waited for the dream to fade. From the living room, he could hear the TV, turne
d down low; he’d left it on the night before for the voices. There was a faint smell of freesia from the Glade dispenser plugged into the bathroom outlet. Beneath him, John felt the sheets, damp with sweat.

  John realized he was holding his breath and exhaled.

  He sat up and pulled on the t-shirt he’d tossed onto the floor when he lay down to read last night.

  In the kitchen, he put coffee on and then went back into the bedroom, opened the drawer of his bedside table and pulled forth a thin journal with a black faux-leather cover. When the coffee finished brewing, John poured himself a mug, grabbed the journal and then stepped outside onto the balcony of his apartment, which bordered a green tract of woods. In the distance, he could hear the occasional car zip by on Harris Boulevard. It was warm outside, unseasonably warm, even for spring in North Carolina, and although there was still an hour until sunrise, John began to perspire.

  Birds were starting to sing. Someone in another apartment was up and cooking breakfast, bacon and eggs from the smell, and John’s stomach churned.

  As he sat in one of the weathered Adirondack chairs on the balcony and sipped his coffee, the dream returned to him again and John opened the journal to a blank page, uncapped the black pen nestled inside, and began to draw.

  This dream had been much like the rest: violent, dark, culminating in the murder of a young man with a tattoo on his neck—a black sun releasing blood red rays. He’d been dirty, maybe a drunk, someone from the streets, and wore tight, torn-in-the-knee blue jeans, a soiled white t-shirt, and black combat boots worn crooked in the heel. Sometimes the subjects were men, sometimes women. A few times over the years, children, and in the worst of the dreams, a recurring nightmare that came to him at least once a week, it was an infant. Those occurrences were so devastating that they haunted John for hours or even days, leaking back into his mind when he saw children at work, the park, the supermarket.

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