Authors: Jonathan Korbecki
© Jonathan Korbecki, 2016
Published 2016 by Jonathan Korbecki
Payton Hidden Away
© 2016 by Jonathan
Korbecki. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means,
digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or
conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission from
Jonathan Korbecki except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical
articles and reviews.
The characters and events in this
book are fictitious. Any similarities to real persons, living or dead, is
coincidental and not intended by the author.
Inquiries should be directed to
who believed I could.
Dedicated to everyone else.
They say you never forget your
first love, but sayings like that are born of convenience. Clichés and puns and
motivational blurbs on Facebook walls are timely and thoughtful and funny for a
day. They might earn a number of ‘likes’ and result in a few Retweets, but they
fall apart when needed most the way memories fail with inconvenient precision.
Lambert,” she repeats. “Kristie.”
The name sounds
familiar, like finding something lost years ago but was never missed until
accidently stumbled across while looking for something else. Mentally, I start
spinning through my rolodex, my contact list, my clients, colleagues and
co-workers while trying to match a face with the name. I’m an accountant
because I remember patterns in numbers, yet I’m struggling to conjure up a clear
memory of who she is even though on some level I remember loving her the way
every teenage boy loves a teenage girl.
Lambert. My high school sweetheart. My first love. The one I swore I’d never
forget. I hear her voice over the tiny speaker of my iPhone, and I can place it
in context with her name, but it’s been so long that I can’t remember her face.
“How did you get
this number?” I ask.
There’s a long
pause. Long enough to make me wonder whether or not there’s anyone on the other
end. I even consider hanging up except I can still hear something. Breathing
maybe. And the longer I listen, the more uncomfortable I feel, squirming in my
chair, fidgeting nervously. Memories lurk at the fringes, coming back in
fragments. A smile. A wink. The sound of a laugh. A taste of her raspberry
drink on my tongue.
“Tony,” she whispers.
“I need your help.”
“Today’s not a
good day,” I say quickly.” I’ve got vendors coming in next week, and I’ve got wall-to-wall
meetings that I haven’t even started preparing for. It’s a—”
“I can’t do this
on my own,” she interrupts. “These last few days have been…” She pauses. “I
something? How did you find this number?”
“It’s been what,
eighteen, nineteen years, and suddenly you call me out of the blue to say you
need my help? I can’t just drop everything.”
“I don’t think
she just disappeared,” Kristie says. “And I think I have proof.”
This is not the
way I wanted to start my day. Whatever happened and whoever I was back then
isn’t me now. I’m just a guy in his late thirties who looks like a guy in his
early forties. Through premeditated acts of introversion, I’ve managed to blend
in with the rest of those carefully perched at the center of society’s bell
curve. I have an office, a desk, a brass nameplate, a plastic cactus and a
window seat overlooking our inglorious parking lot, but nobody seated on either
side of these paper-thin walls knows who I am or what I do.
“What are you
talking about?” I ask. “Proof of what?”
says, and this time there’s a crack in her voice. “I think she was murdered.”
After hanging up, I sit behind my
Herman Miller desk in my Haworth chair for several minutes. I’m trying to
remember what happened more than half my life ago, and I’m finding that it
actually hurts to drag out what I’d intentionally put away. It took years to forget
my past, and I was so successful in doing so that I’m not sure I could find the
house I grew up in even if I went looking for it. I don’t remember the street
number. I don’t even remember the street name. All I have is a vague
recollection that my leaving Payton County had something to do with the disappearance
I stare at the
clock on my desk. It’s one of those novelty items you earn as a reward for ten
years of servitude. It’s got a brass plate with brass hands set floating in a
clear glass blob, and it’s telling me I’ve been sitting in silence for nearly
fifteen minutes. Frustrated, I take a swipe at the clock, miss badly and manage
to push a stack of papers from my desk instead.
Burying my face
in my hands, I draw a breath, careful to fill my lungs, careful to exhale
slowly. Opening my eyes, I look around the empty office. It looks ridiculous
with the plastic cactus in the corner and my window seat overlooking our
inglorious parking lot.
I need you.
I turned my back
on her all those years ago, so it should be that much easier to look away again
now. Whoever Kristie has become is not the girl I left behind, so any emotional
attachment we ever had is long gone. I don’t owe her anything, and even if I
did, I don’t remember what. Yet there
a sense of guilt. Whatever it
was that happened must have been bad. Really bad.
I close my eyes to
think, clamping my jaw shut, trying to rewind two decades while attempting to
remember something—anything—that would clue me in as to why I would have—
And then it
A flash. It’s so
brief that had I not been concentrating, I would have missed it altogether, but
at the back of my subconscious, behind a lifetime of snapshots that include a
fatherless childhood, a mismatched wedding, a miscarriage and a divorce,
there’s a shadow in the corner of my memory banks, and in that corner I see a
smiling face. A big, dumb smiling face with one tooth cracked in half. It’s the
face of a man-child, a little boy trapped in a man’s body, and though that big
smile covers the landscape of his flushed cheeks, his eyes are dull, almost as
if he sees nothing.
Then it’s gone.
My eyes flutter
open, jarring me back to reality and my empty office with papers scattered on
the floor, the sound of a car alarm drifting in from outside and a phone
ringing from the other side of the thin walls.
I don’t remember
a lot about what happened or who was involved, but I remember that face, I
remember that smile, and I remember being afraid. I also remember my best
friend, and Kristie, and that summer—that magical, beautiful, horrible summer.
I know I left for the wrong reasons, and I know there was something I could
have done or something I
have done, but I don’t remember what. None
of it adds up to a complete memory, but it does reaffirm one thought, and that
is that I need to go home.
Logging off the
PC, I pack a few things, fitting them into my laptop bag. I restack the papers
on my desk, put away the pens and pencils, turn out the desk lamp and stand. I
take one last look around to see if I’ve left anything before—
somewhere?” Phil asks. Phillip Beltran. My boss.
“Yes,” I murmur
while slipping my laptop into the bag. I zip it shut before wrapping it over my
blocking my exit, his impressive business paunch hanging over his belt and causing
the buttons on his neatly pressed navy blue shirt to stretch to their limit. “Going
“I don’t have
time to explain,” I answer. “I need a hiatus. A few days.”
“A few days? You
can’t take a few days. A few days is competitive suicide in our business. I
need you here. Next week’s critical, and we have a lot of prep work between now
“I should be
back by then.”
rooted in the doorway. “What’s this about?”
I pause knowing an explanation so vague won’t be enough. Sighing, I lean
against the desk while trying to figure out the best way to summarize something
I barely remember into a single sentence. “Look, I just got a call from a
childhood friend. Someone died that we both knew, and she asked me to come home.”
“Where I grew
Phillip shrugs. “I
thought you said you grew up here?”
“I went to
school here. I’ll call you from the road.”
“Flying.” I grab
my bag and brush past him. “It’s a figure of speech, Phil.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I’m
not, but I pretend that I am. If I were actually okay, I’d be filling a glass halfway
full all the way to the brim, I’d be demonstrating moral fiber in the context
of core values, and I’d be talking a lot of bullshit. Lying isn’t easy, and I
know this because nobody gets good at anything without years of practice.
“I’ll see you on
Monday,” I say, punching the down arrow. I’m trembling as I wait for the elevator.
One floor after another, the numbers light up. I can hear the gears grinding,
the pulleys squeaking, and the elevator car climbing. Eventually, the doors
will open, and then?
And then this is
where we’ll start, picking up where we left off two decades earlier when I fled
town. Memories in fragments, conveniently imprecise, mashed together as
expressionless faces in a blurred class photo. But there’s also that stupid
smile and that cracked front tooth, there’s Kristie sobbing while looking at me
with hatred in her eyes, and there’s someone else who looks just like her
hiding in a place I swore I’d never go. The bell goes ‘ding,’ the elevator doors
open and then…
When I woke up this morning,
things were good. Not great. There’s always room for something better, but I
felt moderately optimistic right up until she called. At 10:21, I was Tony
Abbott, master of my own universe. I had a good job, a decent apartment, a
mediocre outlook and a relatively okay life. Now, at 10:52, everything I’ve
made myself into has been undone.
The sun makes me
squint as I step from the revolving doors. The over-ambitious entrance to InteGREAT
Inc. boasts a waterfall and a brick walkway lined with greenery leading right
up to its front door. It’s like a stranger luring a kid with candy. InteGREAT
Inc. is the windowless van parked near the school, Phillip Beltran is the suspicious
looking guy selling ice cream at recess, and I’m the sucker lured by the
promise of the great American dream.
I make my way
across the lot, but my car isn’t where I remember parking it just two hours
ago. Baffled, I look around, but all the cars look the same. Same color,
similar make and a style like any other. I have to hold my key ring over my
head and walk around like an idiot while repeatedly pushing the panic button
until the lights of my Camry finally light up. It’s not until I close the door
and shut out the sounds to lock in the silence that I allow myself a moment to
acknowledge even a hint of the fear I’m feeling.
It’s real. It’s
happening. I’m going back.
I start the
engine, back out of the parking space, pull forward and drive toward the exit. Robotically,
I stop and look both ways. There’s no traffic, but I feel compelled to wait a
moment anyway just to see what’s coming around the next corner. I’m an
accountant because I remember patterns in numbers, yet for some reason I’m
thinking in fractions that don’t add up, like a hanging chad—something of a
misnomer that I can’t seem to get out of my head. I don’t even remember what it
means. I keep coming back to the number 44, and I can’t figure why, but
something tells me it has something to do with the fourth row, fourth seat in
some little baseball park hidden away in the armpit of America.