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The Bystander


Yesterday Ella left. She must have packed up sometime in the afternoon. I came back to a half empty house after a day at the office. It was really something. She’d been meticulous. Only her perfume, maybe Dior, loitered about the place like it was haunting the scene of an accident.

When I woke up the next day I reached for her but found her side of the bed unslept in. Sometime in the night I’d forgotten she’d left. It was about noon. The sun burst in through the windows and you could cut the air. That old window unit’s never managed to cool the place mid-summer. I had to get out. So I drove to the park for a walk on the beach.

Fourteen hours later I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I’d been staring at it off and on for hours. I kept seeing it: the sun, the ocean. The sad, perfunctory line of footprints. The dolphin, clambering out of the water, and the man with the gun. How many steps? How many seconds? Maybe I’d never sleep again.

I saw the dolphin before I saw the man holding the gun. I’d been out on the beach for about an hour and half. My phone was still in the car; otherwise I could have checked the time, afterwards. The sun burned so hot it scattered goosebumps across my arms. There was nobody about but my shadow, pooling around my legs. Sweat ran down my face, coating the string of black inked ladies along the bottom edge of what Ella with some measure of affection called my ‘big bull neck’ until they were all weeping. My head turned into a drum beating time with the waves. I downed the last few sips in my water bottle and, crunching the plastic, stuck it in the pocket of my jeans.

The dolphin’s fin was one in a group of four. They were all very close to the beach. I stopped to watch but the sand was boiling, so I got moving again, all the while keeping my eyes on those fins. The one that jumped was the last one in the group; the fin went down and instead of bobbing back up a little farther to the right, the entire dolphin rose up into the air, gleaming black in the sun.

I wished I had my phone so I could’ve snapped a couple of photos. I watched the dolphin turn on its axle and, spinning four times, dive head-first back into the sea. It jumped three more times. When it vanished, I realized I’d been holding my breath. I sucked in a big helping of hot air and thought of Ella. She would’ve loved that dolphin. She would’ve gone on and on about it all the way back to the car. On the drive home we would’ve stopped by Benny’s for a Coors Light for me and a sundae for her and she would’ve still been talking about it, probably. It would have been one of those lazy Saturdays she and I used to be so good at.

The dolphin did not reappear. I turned away from the ocean and faced the man with the gun.

He stood perhaps thirty or forty feet away and he held it out as though it was an animal which needed restraining: two hands on the handle, the muzzle pointed at a man on the ground, who, half-shielded by one of the boulders that cluttered this part of the beach, seemed to be smiling up at the first one. In the left hand of the man on the ground was a bright reflection; a mirror, I thought, and then: no, a knife.

I no longer felt the blistering sand. My ears rung with sudden vehement silence; the heat thrilled the stagnant air and all the while one man stood pointing a gun at another, who was in a bad position on the ground. As I watched, the man on the ground began to push himself up on his elbows. He moved very slowly. The blade in his hand hovered just above the sand.

It was as though the sun had wiped all thoughts from my mind. I did not even think about Ella anymore. I only stood there, watching and, I reckon, waiting. I think all three of us were waiting. The two men never even exchanged so much as a word. Maybe they, too, felt it was too hot to speak. Maybe there was nothing left to say between them.

Maybe they never meant for it to happen. Maybe—

I watched, waiting and aching with the waiting. The sun screamed. And then the man holding the pistol shot. One, then two, three, four times. It sounded like the earth breaking but in the sky. I watched the knife drop into the sand as the sitting man fell back, his black hair gleaming first blackly with sweat and then red full of blood, and his belly through the faded blue t-shirt full of blood and his hands clasping the seething air and then still. The man with the gun—shorter, squatter, paler, like curdled, stubbled milk—began to stagger away, past the rock and the man on the ground, past the edge where the beach took hold of the wood, not looking back once. The haze amidst the pines swallowed both him and his gun.

I did not think how lucky I was he had not seen me. Kneeling by the shot man’s side I wished again I had my phone. It would not have saved him if I did but I still wished it. Maybe a minute passed before the bubbly rasping in his chest stopped. It felt like a long minute. Maybe it really was longer. If I’d had my phone, I would’ve been able to check. His eyes were open all the while but he never looked at me, staring straight into the sun, instead, as he died. I stayed by his side for a while, talking to him even though he could no longer hear, stupid shit like just hang in there and we’ll get you taken care of. I felt like a fool but I could not stop my mouth, it kept blabbering on. There was something obscene about the way this man lay here dead and bleeding, in the way his body had folded in on itself in an odd spastic manner as he fell back and then the hands clenching and unclenching without any sort of purpose. I couldn’t accept yet that he was dead; I hated the purposelessness of him.

I wondered who the man had been and why he’d had the knife and I thought about his family, and then after a while I began to think about Ella again. Ella who had left in a rush, yet who’d left nothing behind. She must’ve been planning it for some time. I wondered if she hated me. I thought about how she would have felt if I’d been the one on the ground with four bullets in me. It did not make me feel any better.

When I finally got up the dolphins were back. None of them jumped, but you could see their fins make their way along the length of the beach.

By the time I got back to the parking lot the pounding in my head drowned out the waves. I called 911 and waited. After a while I went back to the water and stuck my feet in the surf. When I sat down in the wet sand, the plastic bottle crunched in my pocket.

The police car baked in the sun next to my beater. As I approached, two officers got out. They asked a great many questions. What did I see? What was I doing there? “Ella left,” I told them. “Ella left yesterday.”

They asked if I could be more specific. Who was Ella? So I told them all about Ella taking her stuff and waking up in the empty bed. “So then I came here,” I said to the police officer who kept staring into his Starbucks cup, as though his latte held more truth than my mouth. “Figured I’d take a walk on the beach, clear my head. Though I hadn’t reckoned on it being so god-damned hot.”

One of the officers, the other one, said he knew how it was. I wasn’t sure if he meant Ella leaving or the heat. I told them about the dolphin. It didn’t seem to matter but they kept saying I shouldn’t leave anything out. “The way that thing was jumping, you wouldn’t believe it.”

The police officer with the coffee made a note of it. He said they’d caught the murderer on the other side of the wood, near the main parking lot, not long after my 911 call. He was still holding the gun. “I’ve shot Johnny,” he had said, apparently, as they cuffed him. “I’ve really shot him.”

“He said it like he was proud of it,” said the coffee cup officer. “Can you believe that? Dude’s got something wrong in the head, I’m telling you. But then all killers do, don’t they?”

The other one, with the bald, puffy face turned to me and said, “does that mean anything to you?”

“Does what?”

“Johnny. ‘I’ve shot Johnny’.”

“I don’t know any Johnny. I don’t know either one of them.”

“Thank you,” Bald Face said. “We’ll take your official statement back at the station.”

The coffee-cup officer asked if I felt feverish or dizzy. Did I need some water? If it wasn’t heat stroke, he said, then maybe I was still in shock from what I’d witnessed. “It happens,” he said. Did I want to talk to somebody? A psychologist? That could be arranged.

I told them I only wanted to talk to Ella. “Okay buddy,” the bald- faced officer said. “That’s an interesting tattoo, by the way.” He was pointing at the ladies. Coffee Cop looked up. I looked down at my collarbone, could only see their chins. Marilyn’s succulent butterfly mouth.

Coffee Cop said, “Tell me, what compels a man to have a bunch of faces tattooed around his neck?”

“Leave it, Chuck,” said Bald Face. “To each his own, right?”

Coffee Cop gave Bald Face a look. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. And, “we’ll be in touch.”

I went home and tried to call Ella. She let it go to voicemail. I could think of too many things to say, so I said nothing. I went to bed early. The bed still smelled like her. I pretended she lay next to me but it was no use. The room baked. Whenever I closed my eyes I sweated regret on the beach, witnessing the killing of the man on the ground again and again.

How many steps? Enough. Not that many. How many seconds from the moment I spotted them? I easily could’ve taken the shrimp; I knew I could have. I’d taken down guys twice his size in the ring. Sure, he might’ve turned the gun on me. There was that risk. But I could’ve had a pretty good stab at taking him down before he’d ever even noticed me. If I had tried.

Inside, everything cringed. I recoiled from my own indecision. No—cowardice. Now that I’d put a name to it, I could taste it, the flavor of two-day old sick, thick on my tongue.

The young blonde reporter on WTVA talked about the murder on the beach for thirty-three seconds. She looked bored. No doubt she wished she were on the other side of town, where her salt-and-pepper-haired, square-jawed coworker was reporting on the triple murder that happened the same day. Man killed neighbor, neighbor’s wife, and his own wife, all of whom he’d found in bed together. Salacious stuff. The house bordered on a golf course; the murder weapon was a heavy golf club. The news cycle, nationally, slobbered up the lewd barbarity of the killing, regurgitated it, club and all, and spit it back out in small, insignificant details once the more gory ones had been exhausted— the color of the sheets (red); the phone calls he made the day before (his mother, his boss, his estranged grown daughter from a previous marriage). The weather: too hot to play golf that day. The murder on the beach was nothing, interested nobody, shouldn’t have happened, even. Sometimes I thought I’d dreamed it. I liked thinking I’d dreamed it but I couldn’t really fool myself and the sick taste remained.

When a week later the park reopened, I returned to the beach and counted. There were no dolphins now. The sun still screamed. On the edge of the beach hung the smell of dry pine. The sand was smooth, untouched.

There were fifteen steps. The tattooed girls wept. The dead man laughed and asked, What kind of a coward are you, anyway? Easy for you to say, I told him, leaning against the boulder. And what would you have done with that knife, huh, had I stopped your killer? You were no Saint Theresa, either.

At least I had balls, laughed the dead man, and I felt it in my bones. They were the bones of a wimp. The broken nose of a scaredy cat. The inked skin of the kind of man who would stand by and watch another get murdered.

When I got home I tried to call Ella again. I wanted to talk to her about it all, about her leaving and my still loving her and how I did not mean to be a coward but I was and it was a terrible thing to know about yourself. But maybe she already knew. Maybe she knew it about me before I did and that was why she’d left. I’m sorry, I wanted to tell her, but I could not say it to her voicemail because I knew she liked to play her messages on speakerphone and who knew who else might be around to hear them.


On the way to the courthouse the streets were slick with rain. It was all a little blurry, due to the weather and the lack of sleep. I had gotten used to not sleeping, though. It did not affect my driving, even if most things were devoid of clearly defined edges.

A bum on the corner of Third and Pershing, near the Walgreens, held up a cardboard sign that said he was a veteran. The sign had turned soft with water. I rolled down my window. The rain blew in and nibbled on my roomy black suit. “Hey,” I said to the homeless man. “You fight for your country?”

“Yeah, man,” he replied. His face was blurry, too, like a bearded, imprecise pancake. “In Iraq, man, and in Afghanistan.”

“Yeah? You see real combat?”

The light turned green. Behind me, the ballcap-covered driver of a beat-up Ford Explorer sat on his horn.

“I did, man,” said the homeless guy.

“Okay,” I said and handed him my espresso and the forty bucks I had in my wallet.

I rolled up the window, gave the driver behind me the finger and began to drive again, very slowly at first, crawling across the intersection.

At the courthouse all the parking spots were full. I circled the lot three times before parking five blocks away. The courthouse was a massive concoction of modern glass and faux Greek columns. News vans were parked in most of the handicapped spots; the golf club murderer’s trial was in full swing. Inside, an officer escorted me to a small room on the second floor. The Greek column glitz did not penetrate here; the tone was 1980s beige. The Formica table and brand- new looking folding chair lent the room a temporary air similar to that of some of the waiting rooms of the rural southern doctors’ offices I had frequented as a kid, a room that strove to be something better than finances currently allowed. The window looked out on the wet, car-studded parking lot.

The court officer apologized for the chair. “We’ve had to get extra ones in, what with the press and all. We’ve never seen so much interest in a trial. But you’re here for the other one, of course.”

I said I was and was there a place I could get some coffee? The officer apologized again, more profusely this time; the coffee machine was broken, had been since the start of the murder trial—the other one, with the golf club. They’d had three technicians look at it already. But if I wanted, he could get me some Nescafé.

The rain drummed against the window. It was thick autumn rain from a clammy sky, but inside the A/C blew like the northern wind. After a while I began to think I’d say yes to that Nescafé now, but the court officer had not returned. Leaning against the wall, I looked out the window. I felt as though I was expecting somebody. Sometimes a car left and then another would take its place; the people emerging from it would rush into the building, cowering under the onslaught from the sky. Every once in a while I heard voices outside the room and thought someone was coming to get me, but no one did.

I tried reading the news on my phone but it was all about the golf club murderer’s trial. You’d think from the coverage nothing else had happened in the world all week. The rain intensified. I began to think perhaps they’d forgotten about me and I would not have to testify. That would be all right. I preferred not to do it. I had said so to the cops, too, but they told me as the only eyewitness I did not have much choice.

Just as I got up to go find the bathroom the door swung open. A woman about ten years younger than Ella stood in the door opening. Even with huge sunglasses covering half her face she managed to look startled. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said in the drawl I’d worked hard to get rid of. “I didn’t think anyone was in here.”

“Are you looking for the bathroom?”

“What? No. I just wanted to get away for a moment.” She pushed the sunglasses on top of her head. Her eyes looked tired. “You’re not with the press, are you?”

“I’m a witness.”

“Oh. Of course you are. I don’t think I should be talking to you, in that case.

She turned to leave and I said, quickly, “With the other trial. I’m a witness with the other trial, I mean. So I think it’s fine. Assuming you’re here for the big one. You’re welcome to hang out here for a while. I’m just waiting.”

“There’s another trial?” The woman stepped back into the room and closed the door behind her. She carried a pink, shiny leather purse, which she set on top of the table. The bag argued with her conservative navy skirt suit, the sunglasses nestled among platinum blonde tresses. She was the kind of woman I had dreamed of before Ella. “Here,” I said, getting up. “You can have the chair.”

She sat down and planted her elbows on the table, leaning her head in her hands. “A real Southern gentleman.”

“You can hear that, huh?”

“Sure can. So what’s this other trial?”

I tried to choke down the sick-fuzz rising in my throat. “Just—another murder. It happened on the same day as the—” I was about to say ‘golf club murder’ when I realized I did not know the woman’s relation to the victims.

“Golf club murder. You can say it. Everybody does. It doesn’t make it hurt more, if that’s what you think.” She held out a manicured hand. “Sheila. I’m the daughter.”

“Jonas.” I said. “Of the victims?”

“Nah. The murderer.” The last two syllables of the word rose two octaves. With her finger, she traced circles on the Formica, following the pattern of scattered flecks in the material. “I just wish I could’ve done something. In the news they keep going on and on about how he called me just before. I hadn’t talked to him in two years. How was I supposed to know he was going to commit murder?” Her voice cracked in a hard way. “He called me and said he wanted to talk to me, but I wasn’t ready. I told him, ‘Daddy, you gotta give me more time. You’ve got Ella now’—and you know he cheated with Ella on my poor mom, and she’s still not over it, I mean, thirty years of marriage chucked down the drain. Heck, I’d never—”

“I’m sorry,” I said. The room spun. “What did you say the name was? The... the woman he cheated with?”

“Angela. Miss perfect little Angela. That’s what we call her, mom and I, because she was always so put together.”

I wiped my forehead. The room stopped spinning. Ella, oh Ella. She’d never answered any of my calls. I had left some voicemails in the end, no longer caring that others might hear them. Just to explain what had happened and tell her I missed her. Apologize, too. But she hadn’t called back.

Sheila was still talking. “Twenty years younger than him, of course, and with a figure like one of them swimsuit models. God knows what she saw in him.” Her words became fluid, sliding off the window panes like the rain. In my head, I was talking to Ella, explaining it all again.

“Could that’ve been it, you think?”

It dawned on me that Sheila had repeated herself. “I’m sorry, what?”

“That it was all out of guilt. That he did it because he was missing my mom and me. I mean, he did call me just before, and then he walked in on them like that. Do you think that may have been it?”

I wanted to say, how the hell should I know? But Sheila looked at me so hopefully with those worn eyes that I said, “Maybe. I’m sure he must’ve missed you two.”

“Yeah,” she said, taking the sunglasses off her head and shoving them back onto her tanned nose. “That’s what I reckon. I just wish I could’ve done something.”

For a while we were both quiet. I tried to scrape the flavor off my tongue. Sheila cried very quietly, only emitting a mouse-like squeak from time to time. I thought about putting my arm around her but it seemed the wrong thing to do.

Eventually I got up and told her I had to go find the bathroom. She stopped crying and said she’d show me where it was. “Don’t talk to the press, please,” she said.

“I won’t.”

“At first I kept telling them, ‘we never saw this coming’. Now I just say ‘no comment’.” She shrugged. “I guess I’m supposed to hate him now, but he’s still my daddy, you know?”

From the witness bench I was gratified to see my suit matched the accused’s. The light inside the courtroom was cold and clear in a synthetic way. The faces of the murderer, the murderer’s family, the victim’s family, the jurors confined to their box and the prosecutor were all wan in the light. Only the murderer’s lawyer’s face was red and florid with a myriad of tiny cracked veins. He smirked slightly whenever he looked at the jurors, as though defending the murderer was his own private joke.

The steady murmur in the room died at the hands of the first question. I described Ella leaving, the beach, the dolphin. The rain pummeled. Then the man, the pistol and the shots. Four? Yes, four. In close succession? Yes—no. There was a pause, after the first shot. Then three more, close together.

And there we have it, folks, the prosecutor said. In cold blood. The jury seemed to sway, the florid face of the defense lawyer clearly no match for the prosecutor’s salt of the earth familiarity.

The prosecutor carried on. I wished the witness bench faced the other way. The victim’s family stared at me. There was an elderly, overweight mother with an appropriately mournful look on her pallid face and there were two sisters in their late twenties and a girlfriend or wife (now widow) of about the same age. On the other side of the courtroom, the murderer’s family stared, too, the mother slightly less overweight but just as mournful. They knew. I could tell they did. I could read it in their hunched, defensive postures. Looking away, I felt the window-thumping of the rain in my chest.

There were more questions. My answers seemed to frustrate the prosecutor. Perhaps I was not being clear enough; looking back, it was hard to make out the events of that day through the haze of guilt. Halfway through the questioning, I found Ella. She sat a few rows in from the back, to the right. I smiled at her but she did not smile back. One of the lights kept flickering, enough of a constant quivering at high frequency that it gave me a headache. Ella blinked, once, twice. I realized I was staring at her and tried to look away. She knew, too. It was why she had come, wasn’t it?

I sweated under the light. My memory twitched. The sun blared, the dolphin pulled the trigger, the gun jumped. Oh, Ella, I thought. Outside, the wind pushed the trees around. I thought about Sheila with the oversized sunglasses. The faces of the families blended into one grotesque, tearful face—the murderer’s and the victim’s families were one and the same. The victim’s mother, the murderer’s, the same; grief bound them in strands of courtroom gabble; Ella was their mother, both their mothers, and all of them accused. Innocent bystander, the prosecutor called me. The sick taste on my tongue intensified until I thought I’d vomit.

A blur of voices chased me out of the courtroom. My footsteps rang in the empty corridor. I had no desire to remain for the rest of it. The verdict seemed a foregone conclusion. Only Ella’s presence could’ve kept me in there, but she had left while I was still on the stand. I had not seen her go, merely glimpsed the empty space where she’d sat wedged between two middle-aged women with sensible short haircuts. I had half-risen to go after her, but the judge reminded me to stay seated.

On my way to the beach the rain began to slacken, then stopped altogether. The sun wrenched apart the clouds. I parked in the same spot as I had the day of the murder. The sky was a hot, wet blanket; my feet broke the sturdy surface of the beach as I walked, revealing the powdery dry sand underneath. I looked for dolphins but did not see any.

Nothing had changed on the stretch of beach by the boulder. The same smell of pine hung over the edge of it, only it smelled a little wetter on account of the rain. The shadow fell on the same side of the rock and the same man lay bleeding in it while the other held the gun, which he had just fired. And just like the first time, I stood by, complicit, watching, doing nothing. It did not matter that the man with the gun and the one on the ground were phantoms; my actions remained unchanged. No amount of wishing differently could save me from my own lack of courage.

Up close, the sand smelled musky with dampness. I lay in the shade of the boulder and tried to stare at the sun, but within a few seconds I had to close my eyes. Bright red circles swarmed my vision, liquid red like blood; they exploded against my closed eyelids.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Ella said. “It’s really bad for your eyes.”

Ella, phantom Ella, lay beside me, her dark gaze gently accusing, her perfume mixing with the smell of sand and pine. I turned to the sky again, taking care not to look directly into the sun. The clouds had mostly disappeared. Here and there lingered a smear of grey; other than that it was all blue. A single seagull trailed along the edge of my view, not making a sound. I could hear the waves but they were dim in the background. It began to grow hot, even in the shade. Soon, I was sweating through my shirt, then through the scratchy wool mix of the suit jacket. I contemplated taking it off but moving meant I’d have to face Ella and the dying man and the one with the gun. I lifted my hand to my forehead, feeling the wetness on my temples.

The smallest movement felt slow and heavy. With one hand, I loosened the red tie and undid the top buttons of the shirt. Underneath the fabric, the tattooed girls wept. Or maybe it was me who wept. In that place in the heat it was hard to tell.


A graduate of the University of Amsterdam, Linda Wilgus is a Dutch writer who makes her home in the UK, the US and Belgium with her husband and three kids. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among others, The Bitter Oleander, Stonecoast Review, and Kestrel.

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