Calvin stands outside a house, shivering. He’s been riding his sister’s bike for an hour in cold rain and he’s frozen through. Through an opening in the curtains, he sees a woman washing dishes. He compares her to the pictures she sent him. Her hair’s shorter and she’s older, too. Should he bother? What the fuck. He’s freezing his ass off and she’ll let him in. Julia was all hot to meet him in her letters.
His cellmate at Butner told him about PrisonPenPals, and though Calvin didn’t think anyone would write to a sex offender, right after his ad went on the Internet, he started getting lots of chatty letters containing pictures and proposals. The letters helped him get through his eight years and he taped their pictures to the wall next to his bunk. With her long blonde hair, Julia was his favorite.
Calvin’s been out of Butner for a week. He’s staying at his sister’s and sleeping on her sofa. The first day – Christ, the first hour – his sister shoved the newspaper at him and showed him a dishwashing job, seven bucks an hour plus a free meal. The free meal was why she wanted him to take the job. So that’s how it’s gone, his sister on his case about a plan, a job, starting out right, and he woke up this morning with a bad itch for a new and different relationship.
He knocks hard on Julia’s window and she jumps, then sees him. He’s grinning hard as he can with his frozen face, just being friendly old Calvin. He gets to the front door just as she does.
“Is it who I think it is?” Julia says. She pushes her hair behind her ears and holds onto the door. He sticks out his hand until she takes it with limp fingers. He explains his early release, thanks her for writing and keeping him going all those years. Then she has to ask him in, just to be polite.
“You got your hair cut,” Calvin says. “Looks nice.” He wants to give her a little squeeze, but she keeps backing away. He’s pissed that she’s not more excited, that he’s having to do all the work.
“Sit, please sit! I’ll get us some tea.” She backs into the kitchen and Calvin sits, glad to be where it’s warm even though he hates tea, it tastes like what you’d expect from dried leaves. He wants to change his order, get a beer instead, and gets up to follow her into the kitchen, where he sees she’s picked up the phone.
“I was just going to call out for a pizza, how’s that sound,” she says. “Pepperoni and mushroom?” She orders the pizza then the teakettle is whistling and she pours water into mugs. He doesn’t want to be caught staring at her body but when she turns her back to pour the tea, he studies her, looking for curves under the baggy sweat shirt, feeling a rising tension like a zoo lion waiting for dinner.
Julia acts nervous, patting pillows and humming. “What’s the best part about being a free man?”
He laughs. The best part, which he isn’t going to tell her about, is the end of sex offender therapy group, two hours of listening to the furry social worker drone on about denial, the blame game, and cognitive distortions. Every day Calvin had to come up with apologetic speeches, such bullshit because he’s nothing like the repulsives with their Internet videos of little boys.
“Just being able to go where you want?” she offers.
“That’s it. I can wake up in the morning, decide to visit pretty Julia, and here I am.” He sips the dusty tea, then points at pictures of two kids, a boy and a girl. “These your kids?” he asks. Both have light straight hair like their mom’s. The girl’s wearing braces and looks familiar. He can’t remember where he knows the girl from. She wasn’t a pen pal, none of them had braces. No, it’s the picture he remembers, the smile with the wired teeth. He shivers from a sudden chill.
“You look cold. Let’s make a fire.” She opens the fireplace doors and pokes at the ashes. “Help me get firewood from the shed?”
“What else, wash the dishes? Walk the dog?” He smiles to show he’s joking but he’s always hated chores, working off the endless list every woman he’s ever known spent her livelong day composing for him.
“It’ll just take a minute. Then our pizza should be here.”
He shrugs, he’ll go, he wants to move around. They pull on their coats. It’s stopped raining now, and Calvin sees his breath cloud in the moonlight. The shed’s a crude log cabin with no windows and it’s hard to see, even with the flashlight she swings about and shines onto the wood pile. “There it is,” she says. “Watch out for mice!” As he leans over to pick up a few sticks of wood, the light goes out.
“Wait here,” she says, “I’ll get another flashlight.” And then she’s gone, shutting him in. He makes his way to the door and shakes it but nothing moves. It’s a serious lock, probably a deadbolt. What kind of weirdo puts a deadbolt on a nothing shed? A sliver of moonlight slips under the door and his eyes adjust to make out shapes. Not much in here but wood, a small mountain of it. He hopes Julia gets over her stupid prank soon. Something rustles near the woodpile. Mice, she’d said. Hope to Christ it’s not a snake. He pulls his hands up into his jacket sleeves and shuffles, trying to keep warm.
“Calvin. Calvin.” It’s Julia, whispering at the bottom of the door. “Are you cold?”
“What’s going on?” He’s going to be polite, at least until he gets hold of her scrawny neck.
“Did you recognize her?”
He knows who she means, the girl in the picture, and begins to remember. The newspaper articles, the pictures of the three who died in the trailer fire. Neil, wearing a Padres sweatshirt and holding a beer. The two girls’ pictures from high school yearbooks.
DNA evidence got him on the sexual assault charges, but Calvin swore to the jury that Neil started the fire. And the jury had to believe him – the witnesses had burned up and got their pictures in the newspaper. His heart starts to pound out of his chest as he remembers that one of the girls had shiny beige hair and braces. What. The. Fuck.
He speaks though his voice is rusty. “Julia? Sweetheart?”
“I’m just waiting for the other mothers,” she whispers. Something rustles behind him, behind the musty dry wood.
“You gonna let me out?” He’s shaking violently now, dancing from foot to foot.
“I’m just going to light my lantern here.” The scritch of a match, then a yellow glow under the door.
He crouches to catch any bit of warmth from the lantern. He’s worried about what she said, the other mothers. “What’s going on?”
“It won’t be long now.” She pauses for a moment. “I used to pray to die, until we thought of this. What does a man like you pray for?”
“Right now, a key to the door.” His teeth are chattering so hard he can barely get the words out. “They said I wasn’t guilty. I did my time on the other.”
“You had a good lawyer. But there was no doubt, really. Wait. They’re here.” He hears the thunk of car doors closing, and then nothing for a long while. He’s heard that freezing’s not a bad way to die, you just fall asleep, but he’s not at the drowsy stage yet. He’s still at the violent shivering stage, all his bones rattling as he stamps the floor.
Then he hears the whispering again. “Calvin? Meet Ellie and Faith, your other pen pals. They’ve been spreading pine straw.”
“Let me out. Please.” He’ll beg. Women change their minds when you beg, when you humiliate yourself. “I’m really really sorry!”
“Be grateful. You had eight years more than they did.”
He feels around, grabs a shovel and whacks at the walls, the roof, looking for a weakness. Someone spent way too much time building this goddam shed. He gets the shovel into a chink and leans on the handle. It snaps and the splintered end of the broken handle smacks him in the face. Tears come to his eyes and he gags at the smell of the gasoline puddling under the door. He moans but the women don’t respond. They are murmuring a low chant, like prayer.
Karen Pullen is trying to find a publisher for her mystery, Cold Feet, while she works on another novel. She is an innkeeper and teaches memoir writing. She received an MFA in popular fiction from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine in 2008. She lives in historic Pittsboro, North Carolina.