Mr. Howard Retires
by Kenneth W. Harmon
“Not much happens at the lake,” said the young man behind the counter at the Bait and More as he bagged Mr. Howard’s items.
“Anyone ever die?”
The clerk looked up from the bag, a crooked smile on his acne-scarred face. “There are a number of retirees living on the lake. From time to time one of them dies. Typical stuff most of the time: heart attacks, strokes. A couple of summers back old man Tate roasted when he tried to spray lighter fluid on a fire. Went up like a Roman candle. They say you can still smell him when the wind kicks up.”
Mr. Howard handed the clerk a twenty. “Was he old like me?”
The clerk hesitated. “How old are you?”
Mr. Howard picked up his bag and smiled. “Seven hundred and thirty-two.”
* * *
A deep blue settled across the forest that grew around Lake Travis. Overhead, stars blazed in the night sky like candles. A red moon painted the landscape a bloody hue. Mr. Howard drove with the top down on his convertible, wind rushing through his long silver hair tied into a ponytail.
The girl stood on the side of the road next to a suitcase, her right thumb stabbing the air. As soon as the headlights captured her lean silhouette, Mr. Howard knew he must have her. He stopped twenty yards past her and watched her jog to his car in the rear view mirror.
She arrived out of breath, a toothy grin on her face. “Hey, I’m Abby.”
“Kind of late for a young girl to be out hitchhiking.”
She brushed hair away from her eyes. “I’m not that young.”
His gaze traveled a path from her face, over teacup breasts, her flat stomach, and narrow hips. “Where are you heading?”
“It’s six hours to the city.”
She leaned forward to bring her face near his and ran her tongue over her upper lip. “Can you help me?”
“I’m not driving to the city,” he said.
She straightened, her forehead pinched into a series of long wrinkles. “You live around here?”
“I have a cabin on the lake.”
She massaged her chin as she thought. “You renting for the summer?”
“I just retired,” he said.
“Oh, from what kind of job?”
“I was a professor.”
“Wow, that’s great.”
“Listen,” he said, glancing down the road in both directions, “you can stay tonight at my place and in the morning I will drive you to the city.”
“Are you serious?”
He hit a button to unlock the passenger side door. “Of course.”
“No funny business?”
“Abby, look at me, I’m an old man.”
“A dirty old man?”
“A hungry old man. Care to join me for dinner?”
“How can I refuse an offer like that?” She hustled to the other side of the car and tossed a small suitcase into the backseat. “I really appreciate this,” Abby said sinking onto the seat.
He pulled back onto the road. “Are you from around here?”
She tugged her seatbelt across her lap and fastened it with a snap. “No, not really, but I’ve been to the lake a few times. You must have some money if you own lake property.”
“I have what I need.”
“What’s your name?” she asked, staring at her reflection in the rearview mirror.
“Call me Mr. Howard.”
A muted chuckle rose in her throat. “All right... Mr. Howard.”
He drove a couple of miles until arriving at the dirt road that led to his cabin. As soon as they left the main road, darkness closed in, as if someone had turned off a light switch. Abby squirmed in the seat. He heard the quickened beat of her heart, and ragged breaths that wheezed from her chest. The tree line ended about a hundred feet from the lake. They broke into the moonlight and she let out a sigh.
“Is that your place?” she asked, pointing to a cabin up ahead.
“It’s not much to look at.”
“It’s just what I imagined.”
“It was built back in 1922. There’s no electricity or running water, so the only way to heat it is by burning wood.”
She leaned forward to peer through the front windshield. “You must come here a lot.”
He parked in front of the cabin and shut off the car. “Actually, this is my first time here.”
“Could have fooled me,” she said reaching for her suitcase.
Inside the cabin, he found a kerosene lantern. Soon a warm circle of light spread across the gloom to reveal a layer of gray dust that blanketed everything. Cobwebs filled the corners near the ceiling. The air smelled like a damp towel that had mildewed. He found a second lantern. “Like I said, it’s not much to look at.”
Her eyes widened as though she had seen him for the first time. “You’re so pale.”
“I have PMLE.”
“Polymorphic light eruption, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m allergic to the sun.”
“Wow, what a bummer. You must not get down to the beach much.”
He smiled at her innocence. “No, I don’t.”
“How’d you get it, I mean, is it a disease or something you’ve always had?”
“I inherited the condition from my creator.”
“Is creator a fancy way of saying your mother, or were you referring to God?”
He watched a mouse dash along the baseboard. “God, I should think.”
She traced a heart in the dust that covered the dining table. “You have food?”
“I brought it with me,” he said carrying the light into the family room. He placed it on the mantel over a wide stone fireplace. He returned to the kitchen and dug through the bag of groceries until finding two rags. “Maybe we should clean up a bit before dinner.”
Abby took a rag from him. She wiped off the table in wide circles. When they had finished cleaning, Mr. Howard produced a pair of tapered dinner candles and two candleholders. He spaced them evenly on the table.
“Have a seat,” he said motioning to a chair at the end of the table, which faced the door. He lit the candles and leaned back to admire his work. The flickering flames cast reaching shadows across Abby’s face and slender neck. He wondered if she was a virgin, not that it mattered.
“The candles are lovely.”
“No,” he said moving behind her, “you are lovely.” He cupped his hands around her neck and started to massage her tense muscles.
“Hey!” she said and tried to stand.
He pushed her down onto the chair. “No funny business,” Mr. Howard said his voice calm and assuring. “I’ve had massage training and thought you might enjoy one before dinner. If you want me to stop, just say the word.”
Her head rolled back as his fingers probed the texture of her skin. “Yes, please...”
She moaned softly and closed her eyes. Mr. Howard’s stomach rumbled. “You’re beautiful Abby, and beauty is fragile, and fading. You have come to me of your own free will and desire, like steel to my magnetic pulse, and you belong to me now.”
* * *
Mr. Howard stretched out on the floor next to Abby. His fingers traced the curves of her silken body. He stayed with her for several hours and then stood to go outside. The red moon became memory, replaced by a full white sphere that cast shimmering light across the surface of the lake.
He walked to the edge of the dock by his property. A breeze rippled across the water and for a moment, he thought he could smell old man Tate. His gaze returned to the cabin where Abby lay naked. I think I’m going to enjoy my retirement he thought and turned to go back inside.
* * *
Danny worked nights at the Bait and More. Mr. Howard recognized early on that Danny was a typical teenage boy, full of hormones and bad intentions.
“Are you going to the summer dance at the Lodge?” Danny asked as he rang up Mr. Howard’s purchase.
The boy simulated the act of nudging him in the ribs while making a clicking noise with his tongue. “It’s a seniors’ dance. Great place for a fellow like you to meet women.”
Mr. Howard gazed at a piece of paper taped to the front of the cash register. At the top in large black letters was the word missing. Further, down, a photograph showed a young girl.
“Guess you heard about the missing runaway,” Danny said handing back Mr. Howard’s change. “And I told you that nothing ever happens around here.”
Mr. Howard accepted the money with a nod. “When is this summer dance?”
* * *
Heat pulsed over his face as Mr. Howard stood outside the lodge, bathed in the glow of warm yellow light. He watched through a window as silver- and white-haired couples twirled around a dance floor.
“Are you going inside?”
He turned toward the voice. A tall woman with short silver hair watched him from the sidewalk. “I’m not much of a dancer,” he said.
She stepped closer and he saw that her skin remained free of wrinkles, except for a series of tiny lines that fractured around the corners of her eyes. He found her attractive for a woman her age. “I’m Rita Williams. You must be Mr. Howard.” She held out a hand, which he accepted with a bow.
“I am indeed. How did you know my name?”
“Kathryn down at the real estate office said that you had purchased the old Armstrong place. She tells me about all the single gentlemen who retire at the lake.”
“Kathryn is a good friend,” he said with a condescending smile.
Rita scanned the surrounding area before looking back at him. “Are you here alone?”
“Yes, Danny at the Bait and More said this would be a good place for an old guy like me to find women.”
A soft chuckle escaped her throat. “I’m also alone. Would you like a date for the evening?”
“Are you sure about that after learning of my motive for being here?”
She curled her right hand against his ribs and waited for him to take a hold of her arm. “You look harmless to me.”
* * *
Rita introduced him to everyone inside the lodge as if displaying a trophy she had won. He impressed them with his intellect and wit, and left them envious as he whirled Rita across the dance floor during the Viennese Waltz.
“I thought you couldn’t dance,” she said as they walked off the floor.
“I didn’t want to brag.”
Rita squeezed his hand. “Let’s go walk by the lake.”
The combination of moonlight and darkness softened the age on Rita’s face, and he imagined her young and wild. When they kissed, he found her lips soft and warm.
“Perhaps we’re moving too fast,” she said.
“Perhaps,” he agreed, tracing the course of a vein in her neck.
Rita stepped back into shadow. “Make love to me.”
Mr. Howard’s throat went dry. “I thought you said we we’re moving too fast.”
He reached up and started to undo his necktie. From the darkness came the sound of buttons unsnapping. Her hand emerged from the black to motion him forward.
They made love twice and then stretched out on the forest floor to gaze at the sky. The trees formed a sheltering canopy and beyond their reach, stars blazed. Lying next to her, he felt invigorated and satisfied.
He knew the feeling would never last. Fireflies mounted the darkness in streaks of white light. Mr. Howard wanted to capture one. He would feed it to Rita and watch as it glowed within her. She could be his lighthouse.
“I haven’t felt this good in a long time,” she whispered. “God has brought you into my life for a reason.”
A dull ache settled in his chest. “Would you like to come over for dinner? I’d need to do some cleaning first.”
She sat up to look into his eyes. “I’d love to come over. What are we having?”
His hand returned to her neck. “Something warm and exotic.”
* * *
Mr. Howard awoke at the sound of thunder. He listened in the darkness for the thunder to return. Three heavy knocks banged on the door. He sighed and went to light one of the lanterns.
A woman in uniform with a gleaming gold badge stood on the front porch. A patch on her shoulder identified her as belonging to the sheriff’s department. She turned on a flashlight and shined it into Mr. Howard’s face.
“You must be Mr. Howard.”
“I am,” he said squinting against the harsh light. “And you are?”
Mr. Howard nodded. “Care to come inside?”
He stepped aside to let the sheriff pass and then closed and bolted the door. “How can I help you, Sheriff?”
“This place is kind of a dump,” Sheriff Yalin said.
“Yes, well, I’m old and it takes me a while to get things done.” He motioned toward the table. “Please, have a seat.”
The sheriff eased onto a chair, her leather holster creaking. “I’ve been trying to reach you all week.”
“Oh really?” Mr. Howard shuffled into the kitchen. “Care for some coffee?”
Sheriff Yalin shook her head. “I came out on Monday and Thursday, but no one answered the door.”
“I sleep during the day.”
“And didn’t hear me knocking?”
Mr. Howard smiled. “I sleep like the dead.”
The sheriff pulled a small notebook and pen from a shirt pocket. “No one around here sees you out during the day. Danny at the Bait and More says you come in at night about twice a month to buy a few things.”
“Danny is a nice boy.”
“He says you never buy food.”
Mr. Howard continued to smile as he stepped into the lantern’s glow. “I’m a light eater.”
Sheriff Yalin cleared her throat. She flipped open the notebook and started to read. “You recently retired from your professor’s job.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
The sheriff looked up. “You taught only night classes.”
“I’m allergic to the sun.”
“That so?” Sheriff Yalin reached back into her pocket and removed a folded slip of paper. She spread it across the table. “Abby Rogers, age sixteen. She look familiar?”
Mr. Howard leaned down to stare at the picture. He bit the inside of his lip. “No, I’ve never seen her.”
“She’s a runaway. Went missing a few weeks back. A trucker saw her hitchhiking near the lake.”
Sheriff Yalin grunted. “Yeah it is.” She rocked back in the chair. “You do know Rita Williams.”
Mr. Howard stepped away from the table. He walked toward the family room, working his way behind the sheriff. “Yes, I met her at the summer dance. Has something happened to Rita?”
“She’s gone missing.”
“Have you checked the lake? Rita told me she likes to swim.”
“I haven’t checked the lake,” Sheriff Yalin said over her shoulder, “but I did some checking on you.”
“It seems that while you were teaching at the college a number of girls went missing.”
Mr. Howard eyed the back of the sheriff’s neck. “Sheriff Yalin, I believe if you checked you would find that a number of girls vanish each year from major universities.”
The sheriff turned in her chair. “I’d like you to come to the station for a few questions. Would you mind doing that?”
Mr. Howard returned to the kitchen. “Of course, but first a little dinner. I’m starving.”
Copyright © 2011 by Kenneth W. Harmon