A Bo Fexler Short Story
by Clair Dickson
"Since she was seventeen, the police really didn't do anything about it. But she's still my daughter. That doesn't change no matter how old she is." Carrie Portage dabbed her eyes with the shred of a tissue that remained after being kneaded in her trembling hands.
I nodded and had to look away for a moment. Instead of Carrie and her husband, Tom, they could have been my parents. Except I was eighteen when I left home. And it was almost six years ago. Six years this fall. I pressed my lips together, trying to push the memories and the more insistent feelings from distracting me. After all, I tried to tell myself, getting upset over my own situation wouldn't help me find Jenny Portage, now nearly nineteen.
"You have much experience with… with this sort of case, Bo? Or is it Miss Fexler?" Tom asked as his wife tried to compose herself. She would have had more luck stacking soup.
"I've been a private eye for five years. Missing persons cases are the bulk of my job." Though, with honey blond hair, deep green eyes and dangerous curves, I look more like the damsel in distress than the detective. It gives me in edge since folks don't suspect me.
"Do you think-- do you think it'll be hard to find her?" Carrie whimpered.
"Depends. I don't know enough to even make a guess."
"What does it depend on?" She touched the tissue to her nose and sniffed.
I spread my hands and worked my mouth. The speech impairment that warps each of my words also catches my sentences sometimes. I worked my mouth, trying to get the answer out. "She-- could be living with someone else and wouldn't be in the phone book. She might have changed her name, legally or not. She could have changed her looks, even. All those things make it harder to track someone. So does crossing state lines." I knew about the last quite well. It was the whole reason I was in Ohio.
"But, let's not get discouraged yet. Tell me about the last time you saw Jenny," I requested, making a show of opening the notebook and adjusting it on the kitchen table. The tabletop had the same worn, forlorn look that my clients and their kitchen had.
"Oh, I've . . . I've relived this time over and over, trying to see if there was something I did, something I could have done different. It was Fourth of July weekend. We went to see some friends of ours and watch the little fireworks show they put on. Carrie went with us and brought a friend of hers. I did call Terry, and she didn't know anything."
I nodded. I invited her to continue with a wordless gaze.
"Well, um, after the fireworks Tom and I went right to bed. I mean, we stayed and talked for a couple hours, but once we got home from our friends', we were exhausted. I think Jenny stayed up and was using the computer. She has computer in her room. We didn't worry about her. She was good kid. Not quite honor roll, but she always had trouble with English."
Tom squeezed his wife's hand. When it was clear she wasn't able to continue, he picked up the tattered yarn of the story and plodded painfully onwards. "Next morning, Jenny was up when I got up. I asked her if she had gone to bed at all. She—I don't think she answered. I didn't think much about it, you know. Teenagers do that sometimes, stay up all night. I think she said something about asking if I wanted French toast for breakfast 'cause she was going to make some."
I made note that Jenny had sidestepped the question about being up all night. Quite well, in fact. It was a maneuver I could wholly appreciate.
Tom waited for me to finish writing. Then he went on, "I asked what she was going to do that day, and she said she wasn't sure. She was thinking of going to the library to drop off the books she checked out, then she wanted to hook up with a couple friends of hers. Some of her friends were heading off to college and she wanted to spend as much time with them as possible over the summer."
"She has her own car?"
"No. She takes ours. She was a good driver. She doesn't drink, doesn't stay out late, doesn't do anything wrong. I never worried about her, really. I mean, a little, but she was a good kid." Tom got choked up for a moment and tried to cover it with a work-roughened hand.
I didn't let myself think about my own father, who would have taken my sudden departure terribly. Like Jenny, I was an only child.
"She did date Cody Relinow for most of her senior year. They broke up shortly before prom. She said she wasn't ready to commit to one man for the rest of her life, especially since so much would be changing once they all graduated. He was going to University of Findlay, but she hadn't decided yet. She was talking about taking a year off to work, maybe do some volunteering and try to figure out what she wanted to do for a job." Carrie's chest swelled with pride.
"Did she say much about the break up?"
"No. It seemed to go pretty well. She wasn't up in her room bawling her eyes out or anything."
"I don't suppose I could get whatever list there is of Jenny's friends, including phone numbers. And maybe I could get on the computer to look at her list of email addresses and such."
"You can look, but we don't know her passwords."
Carrie took me up to Jenny's room and watched as I poked around. I gathered a few things, tossing them on the bed. Some notebooks, a few scraps of paper. A couple photos taped on the mirror. And her laptop computer. I promised to return everything. Once I was done rummaging and recording their tale, I shook hands and made a quick exit.
I knew my parents wouldn't hire a PI. They didn't think very highly of the profession. My profession. Not that I've ever shied away from things that would disappoint them.
I pushed those thoughts out of my head and made a half dozen phone calls to Jenny's friends. Most of them didn't have anything they could add to the story. Then I decided to get intimate with Jenny's computer. I scrolled through her documents. School files. Some poems-- cheesy high school girl poems. Some downloaded articles from news sites. And a collection of usernames and passwords. In a world where lost passwords can mean life comes to a halt, plenty of people resort to making lists that make my job as a snoop easier.
With the passwords, I easily logged into her email. Most of the messages were from friends I'd already contacted. There were a couple messages from Aaron Simony, though. They were recent-- and opened. She was keeping up with email. I skimmed a couple of the emails. Nothing there that indicated that Aaron knew where Jenny was. But there were questions from Aaron about Chris.
It was time to talk with Aaron. He eagerly agreed to meet me at a little coffee shop in ninety minutes. Which was fine with me, I could spend most of those minutes in the bookstore behind the coffee shop. It's not possible to own too many books, though I've been trying.
With a couple new books, I went to the coffee shop. I bought a smoothie and found a table where I could watch both entrances. Aaron walked in, scanning the scant patrons. His face lit up with a smile when he recognized me from the description I'd given him.
He'd apparently mistaken some article on gay stereotypes for a how-to manual. He shook my hand and stretched my name out with a flourish. "How are you?" He even flipped his hand.
"I'm okay. I'll be better if you have something new on Jenny."
He smiled. "Has anyone talked about Chris?"
"No. A close friend?"
He grinned. There was something in the smile-- but I didn't understand what it was. "Very close."
"That does surprise me. None of her other close friends mentioned Chris."
"Probably because some of her friends just thought it was a phase."
"Explain that to me."
"Last time I saw Jenny, Chris was her girlfriend."
"That doesn't bother you?"
"Is Chris Jenny's first girlfriend?"
"Yeah. I don't think it was a phase. I think Jenny figured out what she was missing in her other relationships. Mmm-- that look's good. What is it?"
"Is it good?"
I nodded. "Sounds like I should talk to Chris. You know her full name?"
"Christine Esposito. She's from McComb, but I think she went off to college."
"You know which one?"
"Not local. Her mom wouldn't have that. From what I heard--" He leaned forward to whisper the gossip. "Her mom told her she had to move out and move away. If she went to a local college, Mom wasn't going to pay for it! But, I don't think Jenny'd still be with Chris."
He waited for me to prompt, "Oh?"
"Nope. Jenny doesn't stay with anyone for very long."
"Her parents only mentioned Cody."
"She was with him for a while. A couple months. She didn't usually tell her parents when she went out with guys. And I know she didn't tell them that she was dating when she was thirteen."
"Do you know if she's sexually active?"
"You think maybe she wouldn't tell me because I'm gay?"
"Did she say anything about it?"
He studied me. He kept baiting the hook, but I had my own agenda. "She's easy. That's what you want to know. She's slept with most of the guys she went out with. And another thing, she seems to like the assholes. Controlling guys. Cody was one of those. Well, she likes it for a while. Seems to think it's exciting. Maybe it's that 'bad boy' thing. I don't know."
I sucked on my drink. "Do you think she's changed that tendency by switching to women?"
"You mean, does she date controlling women?"
He thought about it. "Well, I only knew Chris, and not real well. Chris never bossed her around, not like Cody did, but maybe Jenny didn't change. She did keep dating guys who were jerks. The ones who burp and, ew, fart. And call her names even before they date. Maybe they think it's a turn on." He shook his head.
I took a long drink.
Aaron went on. "I could see why Jenny wouldn't want her parents to know."
"Perhaps. You don't know--"
"Let's not be presumptuous." My voice was low, almost threatening.
He sat back in his chair like I had kicked him in the shin. "Jenny disappeared right after Chris moved away to college. I wouldn't think she's still with her, given her track record, but sometimes people turn over a new leaf."
"Sometimes." I stood. "It's the same old leaf." I shook his hand, gave him my business card and finished the last of my drink before I reached the trash can by the door.
The next task on the to-do list was the find Christine Esposito. I found a pair of listings in McComb for Esposito and called them up. I left a message at the first, but got a live one at the second number. The man, Anthony, admitted to fathering Christine Esposito and still agreed to meet me at a little diner in town. He said he'd be there in forty-five minutes. Which he was, but only if it was forty-five minutes from the time I arrived at the diner. Close enough.
He was probably a handsome man once. His hair was streaked with gray, but any chance of looking distinguished was ruined by the rumpled look he sported from head to toe. It takes talent-- or chemical alteration-- to make a clean shaven face look rumpled. His sport coat was crooked, his shirt buttoned wrong, and his zipper was down. I could even see boxers poking out of the flap.
"You must be the blond lady. Bo Fexler!" he announced so that any deaf people might be aware of the conversation.
A waitress pretended not to look as she poured coffee at a table by the front window. The rest of the people in the diner were less covert in their curiosity.
"I am. Have a seat."
"You're looking for Christine."
"She's not around here anymore." I've seen towels that sat more upright in a chair than he did. His pupils were only slightly dilated, and there was no odor to indicate just what he was on. Could have even come from a pill bottle with a legit 'script. The wonders of modern pharmacology.
"Where is she?"
"You sure are pretty."
"I know. Where's Christine?"
"She went to college. Her mother was always big on that. Didn't want her to end up stuck in some… dead end marriage! As if what I did was so bad for a job. Chris is a bright girl, though. She says she's not gonna get married. My wife-- Denise never wanted to have kids. Chris isn't going to have any. She used to be a really good student and did good in school. She's up at college now. Her mother wanted her to go to California. I'm going to Traverse City for the Cherry Festival. Denise is gonna see Chris at Christmas time. They always get in fights when they're around each other. She couldn't have picked a further place to go." I read one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books once without flipping pages, and his story reminded me of that. It wasn't completely incoherent, just disordered.
"Is Chris attending college in Traverse City?"
"She got a nice apartment. Denise helped her and she got her-- that job up there. Makes good money. Better money that I did. Got married too young, but it was still a good job." He nodded so hard, his hair bounced.
"Yes or no-- I'm blond." I offered a smile to cover my gritted teeth. "Christine is attending college in Traverse City?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Yeah--"
"Thanks. That's all I need."
His head lolled to one side. As I walked towards the front door, he called out-- though not necessarily to me. "She was a good kid. Her mother was too hard on her. She only dates the girls 'cause her mom doesn't like it. She'd like you. She likes smart women. Likes women." The last words died with a moan. He buried his head in his arms.
The wait staff would eventually shove him on his way. In the meantime, I looked up addresses in Traverse City on my laptop. I found C. Esposito's apartment on the map, swung by home to gather a few travel items, and settled in for a long drive.
It gave me time to think. I'd been gone from home-- that is estranged from my parents-- for six years. Even I couldn't answer why. A Magic 8 Ball would have a more useful answer.
One of my many past therapists would have told me that was significant.
It started to rain. The sound of the windshield wipers scraping sadly across the windshield without even coming close to completing their required task was enough to distract me from the mental image of my father. Shaking his head.
As the rain became torrential, I pulled off the expressway and made my way to a gas station by leaning close to the steering wheel and praying to several different deities in case one missed the pleads to guide me safely.
I parked under the large metal awning, purchased some new wiper blades and changed them so I could continue on my journey. I had work to do. After I ran through the list of questions I wanted to ask Chris and a couple dozen what-if scenarios, I just turned up the music and enjoyed the remaining hours of my drive.
Denial is not just a river in Egypt. It flows much closer than that.
Road construction detoured my car and my thoughts onto some side roads, but I arrived at the apartment as dusk was falling. The rain had stopped and a thick fog had rolled in from the lake. I pulled my sweater closer around me and strode unhurried to the door. Dull yellow light seeped through the thin off-white vertical blinds.
I rang the door bell, readied a business card between my fingers. The deadbolt clicked. The door knob turned. With a jerk and the slucking sound of sticky paint, the door parted from its frame.
"Ah," I breathed with all the intelligence of a Department of Transportation detour. "Jenny Portage?"
Dimples appeared when she smiled. "Yes. Who are you?"
"Bo Fexler. Could I talk to you?"
"Just for a bit. I've got some questions for you. About why you're here."
She put her hand on her belly, drawing attention to the protrusion. Her mouth pressed into a slight frown, her chin lifted. Her brown-eyed gaze was a level as possible given the foot of height difference.
"I'm a private investigator. I was hired to find you."
"Well. You found me."
"I was also hired to get some answers. Does Chris live here?"
She pouted. Maybe next she would hold her breath until she got her way.
"The phone's in her name."
Her eyes widened in alarm.
"Yeah. I know. The thing that I seem to be missing is how you ended up pregnant."
She rubbed her belly. Easily only a few weeks away. She pulled her lower lip in to bite it. "Chris wouldn't like me talking to you."
"Some people don't like… us. She's very worried about that."
"I already know that you're lovers. That's your business. My business if finding out how you got here, why you're here, and… what's the plan for the future." I even offered her a charming smile that I've been practicing. She wasn't charmed.
"My parents?" Her voice rose to dog-whistle shrillness. "My parents would take my baby! They'd send me to those places that reprogram gay people. They'd lock me up! I love Chris, and they'd never understand that!" She shook her head and tears streamed down her cheeks. "You don't understand what they'd do to me!"
"They're a long way from here--"
"But now they now I'm here. They'd come up here. Haven't you heard of parents kidnapping their own kids? Sending them to religious camps and stuff to get 'straightened out'. They'd take my baby!"
I switched gears, hoping that I could get past the hysteria. Hormonally induced, no doubt. "What about the baby's father?"
She wiped at her tears. "What about him?"
"Where's he in all this? I mean, it's his baby, too."
"He agreed to this. Agreed that he wouldn't have anything to do with it. He even signed papers to give up his rights. I'm all this baby has."
"What about Chris?"
"She can't adopt the baby. If something happened to me, she can't do anything. It's stupid." She wrapped her arms around her belly, cradling the unborn baby.
I was about to speak when I heard movement, quick footsteps. I turned in time to see the dark head coming at me. I put up my hands to catch the attacker, but was tackled as easily as a Lions quarterback. The dual impacts left me gasping for breath and a bit disoriented.
She was a small woman, but wiry and ferocious. She scratched at my face. I grabbed her by the wrist, then lifted my legs and flipped her off me. I rolled away, got into a crouch and she pounced on my back.
Stupid. I just fell back, smashing her beneath me. She cried out and grabbed fistfuls of my hair. I hate girl fights-- almost as much as I hate giggly girls. I twisted and punched her in the face. Then Jenny started pounding little fists on my shoulders and head. I grabbed her hand, but stopped.
Can't hit the pregnant bitch.
Chris got in a wimpy punch to my mouth. I bounded to my feet and grabbed her forearms. I twisted one around behind her back, bending and binding her in a malevolent embrace. Like a Boa. Maybe the Bo A. Fexler is a type of Bo-A Constrictor.
I turned Chris to the open apartment door. Jenny continued her annoying pounding. The blows were unlikely to leave any bruises. She'd be a better masseuse than attacker.
Chris stumbled painfully into her apartment. I ordered Jenny, "Shut the door."
She stood, stupid, mute. Waiting.
I twisted Chris's arm. The remote control worked fine and Jenny closed the door per Chris's instructions.
"I want some answers. Tell Jenny to answer my every question."
"No! Ow!" She hissed through her teeth. "Fine. Fine. Jenny. Tell her whatever she wants to know."
Jenny nodded like a bobble-head doll. Without the goofy grin or marketability.
"Why did you move up here?"
"Because-- because I love Chris."
"Whose idea was it to have a baby?"
Tears came up again. "Chris's. But we both want a baby. I'm going to stay home and raise the baby. Raise her to be more tolerant than anyone else."
"Why didn't you tell your parents?"
"I couldn't. I told you."
"I don't believe that."
"What?" Jenny's brow wrinkled like basset hound.
"Call them. Tell them that you're a lesbian."
"Do that and you'll lose me, lose the baby!" Chris shouted
I twisted her arm again. She made a little whimper. "When I want something out of your mouth, I'll let you know. See, Chris, you're not in charge anymore. I am. I know you don't much like that, because you're the boss. Except when someone who's tougher than you comes along."
"How about this-- Jenny, call the police."
I looked at Jenny. "And then I'll press charges on Chris for assaulting me out front. There are security cameras that'll show her assault was unprovoked. And then, Jenny, you'll be alone."
Her lower lip quivered. "I-- Chris?"
A tense silence. The clock on the wall ticked to a new minute. Someone in an adjacent apartment flushed their toilet.
"What should I do?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Call your parents. You don't have to tell them where you are."
She sighed, her whole body slumping, which caused her arm to twist. "Fine. Do what she says."
Jenny picked up the phone and dialed with a hand that I could see shaking from across the room.
"Mom. It's Jenny… yeah. I'm fine." She looked at me and Chris. But Chris wouldn't look at her.
"Tell here there's something she should know," I said.
She did. Obedient Jenny. It made me ill.
"You're in love with a woman."
Jenny parroted my words. After a pause she whispered, "What?" I would have paid money to listen to that conversation. Only because I wanted to know that I was right. I let go of Chris's arm.
Jenny said, "I'm sorry. I just-- I don't know."
"Let me have the phone." I held out my hand.
Without a segue, Jenny handed me the cordless receiver.
"Jenny?" my client asked.
"Ah, this is Bo."
"Oh! Bo! Then… you found her."
Which meant my client was obligated to pay my fee. "Yeah. Did I hear right that you're okay with her sexual orientation?"
"Why wouldn't I be? My older brother came out about five years ago."
"And you're okay with it?"
"Absolutely. Is that-- is that why she left?"
"That and she has a controlling girl friend. She's in Traverse City."
Chris protested. But taking my knife out sat her back on the couch with lips zipped.
"I should go. I'm gonna get a hotel room for the night and I'll call you then."
"Thank you. Can you put Jenny back on?" Her voice trembled with emotion-- tears and excitement that were evident even over the phone.
"Sure." I gave the phone back. Jenny took it, put it to her ear and was mute until I poked her in the arm.
Chris glared at me. I returned the unfriendly look. "Two things for you. One-- there is always someone who's more of a bitch than you are. And two, not all parents are like yours. Some actually do accept their children." I focused on my pronunciation, not the meaning of the words.
I found a hotel room for myself. Before getting into bed, I picked up the phone, started dialing. I didn't have anyone to tell me what to do and how to do it. I just had myself, my pride, and my fears.
I pressed the receiver switch down and closed my eyes.
Six years was long enough. I poked the numbers quicker this time. But then I touched my tongue to my swollen lip and set the receiver back into its cradle. Another fight. Another disappointment. Went well with the criminal record. All I needed was a baby and I'd be everything my parents were afraid I'd become.
But they were my parents. I started a third time to dial. Even if I did leave home suddenly and cut off all contact with them. After everything they'd been through with me. I fumbled the numbers, pressing several at once with a discordant sound. I slammed the phone down.
Some daughter I was.
I crawled into bed, knowing deep inside cobwebbed corners of my mind, that my parents would still love me, just because I was their daughter.
BIO: Clair Dickson writes when she's not teaching Alternative High School. Or sometimes during. She's had over 30 Bo Fexler stories published. Visit www.bofexler.blogspot.com for links to those stories and more.