by Earl Staggs
This week we have another fun mystery short story, The Unused Prom Dress by Earl Staggs, originally published in Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, June 2006.
Officer Patti Johnson has the perp cornered in the ladies room but gets the surprise of her life when she finds out who he is.
Officer Patti Johnson peeked around the corner and down the corridor. “Are you sure he went in the ladies room?”
The Pizza Hut manager, a heavy-set older man, pressed his back against the wall and whispered. “Yes. He ran past me and straight into the ladies room. What did he do?”
“Robbed the hardware store down the street. The owner saw him duck in here.”
“Is…is he dangerous?”
“The store owner said he was armed. Get everyone out of here as quickly as you can, then wait outside. I called for backup. Send them in when they get here.”
If they ever get here, she thought. She knew her fellow officers — all four of them — were busy with a big pileup out on the Interstate. She was on her own.
Patti waited until the manager cleared the place, then crept along the narrow corridor, her service revolver held tightly in both hands. She stopped beside the door marked “Ladies,” reached over with her left hand and tried the handle. Locked.
She leaned close to the door and listened. The flushing of a toilet. The shuffle of footsteps. She took a deep breath, exhaled, and rapped her knuckles against the door.
“You in the ladies room! This is Police Officer Patti Johnson. Come on out of there with your hands in the air.”
After a moment of silence, a tentative voice from the other side of the door said, “Patti? Is that you?”
“Yes, this is Officer Patti Johnson. Do I know you?”
“Sure you do, Patti. It’s me. Timmy Wilson.”
Ohmygod! Timmy? My Timmy?
Patti’s breath caught in her throat. Is. . .is it really you?”
“It’s really me, Patti.”
Now she recognized the voice of the boy she fell in love with in eighth grade and adored all through high school. The boy who looked like Clark Kent with his dark wavy hair and broad shoulders, a beautiful smile with perfect teeth, and strong arms that nearly made her faint every time he held her.
“Patti? You still there?”
“Uh, yeah, I’m still here.”
“Gosh, Patti, how long has it been?”
“Well, let’s see now, Timmy. You were supposed to take me to my senior prom, and that was ten years ago. So, I guess it’s been ten years.”
“Wow. Time really flies, doesn’t it? How’ve you been?”
How’ve I been? Wondering whatever happened to you, that’s how.”
“I’ve been fine,” she lied, “just fine.”
For a long time after that night, she would often put on her prom dress and dance in her room with a pillow. Even now, every once in a while, she’d open the closet door and just look at it. How many times had she decided to throw it away but couldn’t? Did she think it had some magical power to bring him back?
Two years after the night of her prom, she ran across a cousin of Timmy’s who said Timmy was living in San Francisco but didn’t know exactly where.
“I’m sorry about missing the prom, Patti.”
He sounded closer than before. She imagined him standing on the other side of the door between them. After ten years, he was only inches away. “That night meant a lot to me.”
“I know, but I was, uh, kinda tied up.”
“Oh, really? What were you doing that was more important than taking me to my senior prom?”
After a moment of silence, he said, “Eighteen months.”
“That’s why I didn’t show up that night. I was in jail in Fresno.”
“Fresno? That’s a hundred miles from here. Why were you in jail?”
“Oh, it was no big deal. I just knocked over a jewelry store.”
“You robbed a jewelry store?”
“It’s true, Patti. Wild horses couldn’t have kept me from taking you to your prom. It took a whole SWAT team.”
Patti leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. She was too humiliated to go to the prom alone and cried every night for the first two months. She couldn’t face her friends for another two months.
She shook her head to remind herself where she was and why she was there. “Well, all that doesn’t matter now. You have to come out of there and I have to take you in. By the way, why did you hide in the ladies room?”
“Oh, that. I was in a hurry and didn’t notice what door it was. I guess that explains why there are no urinals in here. And why there’s one of those machines where you girls get your whatchamacallits.”
“Tampons, Timmy. They’re called tampons.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Us guys used to call them torpedoes because. . .”
“Never mind that. Just put your weapon on the floor and unlock the door.”
“I really am sorry about the prom, Patti.”
“I paid a hundred and sixty dollars for my prom dress and didn’t even get to wear it. You could have let me know something.”
“I know, but they only give you one phone call, and I had to call my lawyer.”
“Ten years, and you couldn’t call or write or anything?”
“Believe me, Patti, I wanted to write you, but I was too ashamed. I thought you’d never want to see me again. I mean, your daddy was a judge and all, and you were such a good girl.”
Flashes of their times together swirled in Patti’s mind. Evenings on the sofa in her living room. In the back seat of her car. They hardly ever went anywhere. Timmy was always broke. When they did go out, she paid. She didn’t care. As long as they were together, she was happy.
“Everyone makes mistakes, Timmy. What really counts is learning from your mistakes and turning your life around. Which reminds me, why did you rob the hardware store?”
“Awww, Patti, I’ve had a real streak of bad luck. It’s not my fault, but I really needed some money. All those credit card companies keep hounding me, and my ex-wife is after me for back alimony.”
“Ex-wife? You married someone else?”
How could he? We were so much in love. We had our future all planned, the two of us, together forever.
She heard him let out a long sigh. “Yeah,” he said, “but it was a big mistake. I only married her because she reminded me of you. She had the same long blond hair as you and. . .”
“My hair is brown, Timmy, always has been.”
“Did I say blond? I meant brown. You know me, Patti. I was never good with colors. Anyway, I should have left her and came back to you like I wanted to, but after the kids came along, I couldn’t just go off and leave them.”
“Kids? You had kids with her? How many?”
“Four, that’s all.”
Four kids? That’s how many we said we would have. Two boys and two girls. The boys would have his dark wavy hair and look like little Clark Kents, and the girls would have brown hair and dimples like me.
“Timmy, we have to stop this reminiscing. I have a job to do, so put your weapon on the floor, unlock the door, and come on out.”
“I don’t have a weapon, Patti.”
“The man at the hardware store said you had a gun.”
“I was only bluffing. It was just my hand in my pocket. People always fall for that. I’ll come out, but you have to help me. For old time’s sake. If you lock me up, I’ll go away for a long time. I’ll never see my kids again, and you and I will never have a chance to get together again. That’s why I came back here, to see you.”
Is it possible? Could we start over again after all this time? Did the dress really have some magic and brought him back to me?
“So what are you suggesting, Timmy, that I walk away and forget about you robbing the hardware store? I can’t do that.”
“Think about my poor kids, Patti, and think about us. We could have a real future together. Besides, I only got about a hundred dollars out of that store. That’s no big deal. We could give it back and everybody could just forget about it. Whattaya say?”
“I. . . I can’t do that, Timmy. I have to do my job and take you in. Like you said, though, it’s not like grand larceny, and you weren’t really armed, so it won’t go too hard on you. You might only get probation.”
“Oh, no, Patti. They’ll throw the book at me. With my record, I’ll probably get at least twenty years.”
“That jewelry story robbery was a long time ago, and you served your time. That won’t count against you all that much.”
She heard another long sigh through the door. “Yeah, well,” he said, “there’s more than just that old jewelry store thing. I told you. I’ve had a real streak of bad luck.”
“Good grief, Timmy! What else have you done?”
“Nothing really bad, Patti, but there was that little bank job in Sacramento.”
“You robbed a bank?”
“It was just a little bank, and I did my two years for that.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Timmy. I can’t believe you robbed a bank.”
“And there was that supermarket job in Bakersfield, but I only drove the car for that one. No big deal. I only did eleven months that time.”
“Timmy! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Is that all? Are you sure there aren’t a few more banks or jewelry stores you’re not telling me about?”
“No, Patti, I swear to you, those are the only jobs I ever did. Honest. Times have been tough for me. Real jobs are hard to find when you don’t have an education.”
Patti remembered how upset she was when Timmy quit school, but he was going to be an electrician and work hard to support her and the kids.
“Okay,” she said. “As long as you did your time, it still might not go too hard on you.”
“Uh, Patti, is your dad still a judge?”
“Can you talk to him, ask him to help me out?”
“I don’t know about that, Timmy. He never really liked you, you know.”
“But you could try, couldn’t you?”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“That’d be great, Patti. Maybe he could do something about that under age thing, too.”
“What under age thing?”
“It was all a big misunderstanding. No big deal. She looked at least twenty-one. She had knockers you wouldn’t believe and dynamite legs. How was I to know she was only sixteen? After I got out of jail for that convenience store job in Santa Barbara, her parents swore out a warrant for me.”
“You did time for robbing a convenience store, too?
“Didn’t I mention that? I thought I did. How about it, Patti? We could wipe out the past and pick up where we left off ten years ago. All you have to do is fix it with your dad.”
“I said I’d think about it, Timmy.”
“I’ve never forgotten you, Patti. We had some good times, didn’t we?”
“Yes, I guess we did, Timmy. You still have to come out, though, and I have to take you in, okay?”
“All right, I’m coming out, but I want you to know I did it for you.”
“For me? Did what for me?”
“That jewelry store job. I was just walking past it when I saw a ring in the window that was perfect for you. I couldn’t help myself. I had to get it for you.”
“Awww, Timmy. Really? What kind of ring was it?”
“It was a whattayacallit, a sapphire. Yeah, that’s it. A sapphire. It matched your eyes, and I wanted you to have it, but I was broke, so I…..”
“Sapphires are blue, Timmy. My eyes are brown, just like my hair.”
“Oh, yeah, brown. Well, you know how I am with colors. Okay, Patti. I’m coming out now. I can’t wait to see you in person after all this time.”
When the door opened, she looked at her handsome Clark Kent from long ago. His broad shoulders had drooped, and his slim waist had ballooned into a beer belly. His dark wavy hair was a tangled mess of greasy strings hanging haphazardly all around his head. His perfect white teeth were yellowed with one missing right in the front. As strange as it seemed, he wasn’t as tall as she remembered.
And he doesn’t even remember the color of my hair and eyes!
Timmy spread his arms wide as if putting himself on display. “Well, what do you think of ol’ Timmy after all this time?”
Patti didn’t speak. She couldn’t. Her mind flooded with more memories. The broken dates, always with good reasons, and she believed him every time. The times she saw him with other girls, but he always had good excuses, and she bought every one of them. Those times when money went missing from her wallet, and he convinced her she’d lost it or miscounted. Where had these memories been hiding? In her closet with that stupid prom dress?
When Patti still didn’t say anything, Timmy frowned. “Patti? Why are you looking at me like that? You look almost. . .uh. . .mad. . .or something. Don’t you have anything to say to me?”
Patti finally found her voice. “Yes, I do, Timmy. I have three words to say to you.”
His gaptoothed smile returned. “What are they, Patti?”
Patti raised her service revolver to eye level and extended it toward him with both hands. “Assume the position.”
Timmy’s face twisted into a look of confusion. “Huh?”
“You heard me. Turn around, put your hands against the wall, and spread your legs. You ought to know the drill by now.”
He turned to face the wall but looked back over his shoulder. “Uh, okay, Patti, I know you have to do your job and all but, remember? You promised to get your dad to help me out.”
“I didn’t promise. I said I’d think about it. And what I remember is what a liar you always were and how you’d say anything to get what you wanted. I’ve thought about it, and after I talk to my dad, he’s going to put you away for a long, long time. I will promise you one thing, though.”
“If you promise not to say another word to me, I promise not to shoot you on the way downtown. Know what I’m going to do then?”
“I’m going home to burn an old rag that’s been hanging in my closet way too long.”