When I saw the girl in the grocery store, my heart stopped.
I had turned the corner into the dairy aisle, carrying a basket with just a few items inside. Cereal. Crackers. Spaghetti. Beer. I lived alone, worked a lot, and rarely cooked. I was checking a price when I almost ran into the girl. I stopped immediately and studied her in profile, her hand raised to her mouth while she examined products through the glass door of the dairy cooler.
I felt like I was seeing a ghost.
She looked exactly like my college girlfriend, Marissa Minor, the only woman I ever really loved. Probably the only woman who ever really loved me.
The girl didn’t see me right away. She continued to study the items in front of her, slowly walking away from me, her hand still raised to her mouth as though that helped her think.
The gesture really got me. It made my insides go cold. Not with fear, but with shock. With feelings I hadn’t felt in years.
Marissa used to do the very same thing. When she was thinking, she’d place her right hand on her lips, sometimes pinching them between her index finger and thumb. Marissa’s lips were always bright red—without lipstick—and full, and that gesture, that lip-twisting, thoughtful gesture, drove me wild with love and, yes, desire.
I was eighteen when I met her. Desire was always close at hand.
But it wasn’t just the gesture that this girl shared with Marissa. Her hair, thick and deep red, matched Marissa’s exactly, down to the length, which fell just below her shoulders. From the side, the girl’s nose came to a slightly rounded point, one that Marissa always said looked like a light bulb. Both the girl and Marissa had brown eyes, and long, slender bodies. This girl, the one in the store, looked shorter than Marissa by a few inches, and she wore tight jeans and knee-high boots, clothes that weren’t in style when I attended college.
But other than that, they could have been twins. They really could have been.
And as the girl walked away, turning the corner at the end of the aisle and leaving my sight, I remained rooted to my spot, my silly little grocery basket dangling from my right hand. The lights above were bright, painfully so, and other shoppers came past with their carts and their kids and their lives. It was close to dinner time, and people had places to go. Families to feed.
But I stood there.
I felt tears rising in my eyes, my vision starting to blur.
She looked so much like Marissa. So much.
And Marissa had been dead for just over twenty years.
Finally, I snapped out of it.
I reached up with my free hand and wiped the tears out of my eyes.
No one seemed to notice that I was having an emotional moment in the middle of the grocery store, in the milk aisle. I probably looked like a normal guy. Forty years old. Clean cut. Professional. I had my problems. I was divorced. My ex-wife didn’t let me see her son as much as I wanted. He wasn’t my kid, but we’d grown close. My job as a case worker for the housing authority in Eastland, Ohio, didn’t pay enough, but who ever felt like they were paid enough? I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed helping people. I tended to pour myself into it.
Outside of work, I spent my life like a lot of single people. I socialized with friends, even though most of them were married and had kids. I played in a recreational basketball league. When I had the time and motivation, I volunteered at our local animal shelter, walking dogs or making fundraising calls.
Like I said, I probably looked like a regular guy.
I decided I needed to talk to that girl. I started down the aisle, my basket swinging at my side. I figured she had to be a relative of Marissa’s, right? A cousin or something. I turned the corner in the direction she went, deftly dodging between my fellow shoppers.
I looked up the next aisle and didn’t see her. Then I went to another one, the last aisle in the store. At first, I didn’t see the girl there either. It was crowded, and a family of four—two parents, two kids—blocked my view. One of the kids was screaming because her mom wouldn’t buy her the ice cream she wanted.
But then they moved, and I saw the girl. She was halfway down the aisle, opening another one of the cooler doors, but not removing anything. She lifted her hand to her mouth again. That gesture. She looked just like Marissa.
I felt the tears again and fought back against them.
I walked up to her. She looked so small. And young. I guessed she was about twenty, probably a student at my alma mater, Eastland University. I felt ridiculous, but I had to ask who she was. I wiped at my eyes again and cleared my throat.
“Excuse me,” I said.
She whipped her head around in my direction. She seemed startled that anyone spoke to her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
But I really wasn’t. In that moment, I saw her head-on instead of in profile, and the resemblance to Marissa only grew. Her forehead was a little wider than Marissa’s. And her chin came to a sharper point. But the spray of freckles, the shape of her eyes . . . all of it was Marissa.
If I believed in ghosts . . .
Ghosts from a happy time in my past . . .
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
The girl just looked at me. Her eyes moved across my body, sizing me up. Taking me in. She looked guarded.
“I was wondering if you were related to the Minor family,” I said. “They lived in Hanfort, Ohio. It’s been about twenty years since I’ve seen them. I know it’s a long shot—”
The girl had been holding a box of Cheerios and a carton of organic milk. When I said the name “Minor” she let them both go, and they fell to the floor at my feet. The milk was in a cardboard carton, but the force of it hitting the floor caused it to split open. Milk started leaking out onto the cruddy linoleum, flowing toward my shoes.
“Careful,” I said, reaching out for her.
But the girl took off. She made an abrupt turn on her heel and started walking away briskly, her boots clacking against the linoleum. She didn’t look back. And when she reached the far end of the aisle, the end closest to the cash registers, she started running.
I took one step in that direction, lifting my hand. I wanted to say something. Apologize. Call her back. Let her know that I hadn’t meant any harm.
But she was gone.
Just like Marissa, she was gone.
Then the family of four, the one I had seen earlier with the child screaming for ice cream, came abreast of me. The child appeared to have calmed down. She clutched a carton of Rocky Road, the tears on her face drying. The father pointed to the mess on the floor, the leaking milk and the cereal.
“Something wrong with her?” he asked.
My hands were shaking. I felt off-balance. Above my head, the cloying muzak continued to play, indifferent to my little drama with the girl who looked so much like Marissa.
“I have no idea,” I said. “I don’t even know who she was.”
I thought of Marissa all evening. It’s safe to say I was feeling a little sorry for myself. Indulging in nostalgia, which can be enjoyable up to a point.
I drank beer on the couch in my apartment while a basketball game I didn’t care about played on the TV. A pile of work waited in my briefcase, but I ignored it. I never did that, but after seeing the girl in the store, I did. I ate some cheese and crackers but gave up on my plan to cook the spaghetti I bought. My only company that night was Riley, the aging mutt I’d rescued from the local humane society shortly after my divorce two years earlier. I volunteered there to keep myself busy and to give something back. Eventually, they convinced me to take a dog home. He looked to be a mixture of German Shepherd and Retriever, and the humane society estimated his age to be at least eight when I adopted him, maybe older.
The humane society didn’t know much about Riley’s life before he was abandoned to their care, but they suspected he’d suffered some neglect or abuse because he was so passive and skittish when I adopted him. He used to jump and cower at every noise, and he rarely if ever barked or growled. He’d grown slowly more comfortable and confident over the previous couple of years, and I’d grown used to having him around. As I lounged on the couch brooding, he sat at my feet, hoping for cracker crumbs.
Marissa and I met during our freshman year at Eastland University in Ohio. When I think of who I was when I arrived at college, I realized I was just an awkward man-boy who only dreamed of meeting his soul mate. Marissa was beautiful, confident, outgoing, determined. Meeting her unlocked things in me that might never have been unlocked. She got me like no one ever had. And no one has since. We understood each other without words. I felt my connection to her in the deepest core of my being. How many people meet someone like that in their lives? Not many, but I did. And then, two years later, she was taken away from me in a house fire on a warm fall weekend.
That was why seeing the girl in the grocery store shook me to the core. I’d managed to get on with my life. I’d managed to tell myself I’d gotten over losing Marissa.
But I hadn’t.
I went into my bedroom and dug around in the bottom of my closet. I kept a shoebox there full of items from my time in college, mostly from my relationship with Marissa. Letters, notes, ticket stubs. And the multiple time zone watch she gave me on my twentieth birthday.
We were supposed to travel after college, which explained the need for a multiple time zone watch. We never got to take those trips, and I never wore the watch again after Marissa died. But I kept it, and from time to time, I’d take it out of the box. When the battery died every few years, I took the watch to the jewelry store and replaced it. I liked to think about that watch being there, close by me, and always running like a beating heart.
I brought it back to the couch with me and slumped down into the cushions, opening another beer. I was supposed to play in my basketball league, but I just didn’t feel like it. I never drank very much, never more than one a day, if that, but when I came home from the grocery store, I threw back three and then four and opened a fifth, staring at my watch and wondering who that girl was. And why she’d acted so damn spooked when I simply spoke to her.
I fell asleep in the couch that night, the TV still playing, the open but unfinished fifth beer on the coffee table before me. My neck felt like hell from sleeping at an odd angle, and a trail of drool ran down my chin.
I slept until something started beating against my apartment door.
Someone was there, pounding on the door. Each heavy knock caused a miniature earthquake in my skull. I winced. A hangover at my age. Pathetic. I vowed to never have more than one beer again. I vowed to stop thinking about Marissa.
I probably would have agreed to anything to get the person outside my apartment to stop pounding on the door. But they didn’t.
I turned my head to the right, looking at the watch Marissa gave me. 6:53 a.m. 12:53 a.m. the next day in New Zealand, as if I needed to know that.
I normally woke up around eight. Made it to the office by nine. But I felt like shit. I needed a shower. Coffee. Food. I stood up, feeling a little wobbly. I looked down at Riley. He hadn’t barked despite the pounding on the door. He never barked.
“Nothing?” I said to him. “Not even a growl?”
His tail thumped against the floor, and he yawned.
“One of these days I’m really going to need your help,” I said. “I hope you’re ready.”
Riley walked off toward the kitchen, which meant he was hungry.
I was still wearing my work clothes from the day before. My tie and my shoes were off, and I needed to pee. But whoever was outside the door really wanted to talk to me. They beat on the door again, shaking my brain like dice in a cup.
“Stop,” I said. “Jesus.”
I thought about calling the apartment complex security guard and asking him to find out who was making the endless racket. But he was an elderly man, the owner’s uncle, and he usually didn’t arrive until late morning and was gone by five. The noise wasn’t the knock of a friend or someone selling something. It sounded urgent, determined. But my desire to make them stop overwhelmed any fears I had about who was out there. I stumbled to the door and looked through the peephole.
It took a moment for the scene outside to make sense to me, but when it did, my heart started racing.
I understood immediately why the knock was so heavy.
Through the peephole I saw two uniformed police officers and a detective I already knew.
“Mr. Hansen,” the detective said. “It’s the Eastland Police. We know you’re in there. Open up.”
“Shit,” I said.
A rough morning became totally shitty.
The morning sun nearly killed me.
It poured in when I opened the door, its rays penetrating my eyeballs like knitting needles. I took a step back, feeling as if I were a man under siege.
“Can we come in?” the detective said.
I didn’t have to answer. He was already stepping across the threshold with the two uniformed officers right behind him.
“You can do anything you want if it means you’ll stop knocking,” I said.
Detective Reece stood about five-nine, a few inches shorter than me, but he was powerfully and compactly built. I suspected he wrestled in high school or college. Or maybe played nose tackle at a small college. He looked like that kind of guy. He didn’t offer to shake my hand, but I’d shaken it before, the last time he and I encountered each other. I remembered he possessed a strong grip, and I always pictured him sitting at his desk, endlessly squeezing one of those hand strengtheners.
Reece saw the beer cans on the coffee table, and his eyebrows went up. He was probably a few years younger than me, and his hair was thinning. He wore it cropped close to his head, and his suit coat looked too small for him.
“It’s recycling day,” I said.
“Think green, right?”
“Exactly,” I said.
He pointed at Riley. “Does the dog bite?”
“Only his food,” I said, trying to keep the mood light.
But Reece wasn’t smiling. He looked around the room, taking it all in. The TV still played with the sound down, showing highlights of a hockey game from the night before. There were dirty dishes in my sink, discarded gym clothes on the floor. I needed to pick up, and I would have if I’d only known the police were going to show up.
“Have you seen your ex-wife lately?” Reece asked.
“Not in six weeks,” I said. “Not since . . . that night you and I met.”
“The night of the late unpleasantness,” Reece said.
“I wasn’t stalking her.”
Reece turned to one of the uniformed officers. “He says he wasn’t stalking her. The ex-wife says he was. Who would you believe?”
The young, uniformed cop didn’t answer. He wasn’t supposed to.
“I was trying to see Andrew,” I said. “I told you that then.”
“This is the ex-wife’s son from a previous relationship,” Reece said to the cop again. He stopped looking around and turned to face me. The two uniformed officers stayed near the front door, serving as Reece’s audience. “Kid’s not even his son.”
“Gina and I were married for five years, and Andrew and I became close, and I just want to see him from time to time. It’s not unusual. I just wanted to see the kid.”
“But she didn’t want you there, and you showed up anyway. You’ve been divorced almost two years. Maybe you need to move on.” He turned to the uniformed cops again. “What do you guys think? Is it time to move on?”
“Is that was this is about?” I asked. “Is Gina pressing charges? That was six weeks ago. I thought it was over.”
Reece gestured toward the cluttered dining room table. “Why don’t we sit down and talk, Mr. Hansen.” He waited for me to move, and when I didn’t, he spoke again. “Please?”
He was acting like we were in his apartment, and I was the guest. He’d reversed the situation and taken over my turf. I couldn’t say anything to stop him, so I sat down. Reece took the seat across from me, and after he did, he reached out with his hand and brushed some old crumbs off the table and onto the floor. Then he took out his phone and started scrolling through it. I waited. For all I knew, he was checking his Twitter feed or looking up movie times.
“Can I ask—”
“Where were you last night, Mr. Hansen?” Reece asked.
I looked over at the beer cans on the coffee table, the deep indentation in the couch where I’d slept without a pillow or a blanket.
“I was here,” I said.
“Were you alone?” he asked.
“Yes. I live alone. I work a lot. I’m single.” Then I glanced at the dog. “Riley was here.”
“What time did you get home from work?” Reece asked.
“About five-thirty. I stopped at the grocery store first.”
Reece nodded. He peeked at his phone, tapped it a few times, and then looked back up at me. “I’m going to show you a photograph of someone. I want you to tell me if you know this person, and if you do know them, I want you to tell me how you know them.”
He turned the phone around so that I could see the photo. I should have guessed who it was going to be before he even handed it to me.
It was a photo of the girl from the grocery store.
It looked like a driver’s license photo. Not many people look good in those, but the girl did. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a loosely seductive way, and she wore a friendly smile, a far cry from the look of fear she flashed at me when I spoke to her the previous evening.
“Do you know her?” Reece asked.
A little of the emotion from the grocery store welled up in me again.
“I think I know what this is about,” I said.
“You do?” Reece looked surprised.
“Yes,” I said. “After what happened with Gina, and then the way this girl acted in the grocery store when I spoke to her, you’re thinking I’m some kind of serious creep. Someone who stalks strangers now and not just my ex-wife.”
“What happened in the grocery store?” Reece asked.
“If you just let me apologize to her, I will,” I said. “I’ll call her or write a note—”
Reece interrupted. “The grocery store. What happened?”
I took a deep breath. I told him I’d seen the girl in the store the night before and she reminded me very much of someone I once knew. When I told Detective Reece she reminded me of my college girlfriend, his eyebrows rose again, even higher than when he’d noticed the beer cans. I said I just wanted to talk to the girl, to ask if she might be related to Marissa or her family, but when I approached her, she took off, dropping her groceries at my feet.
Reece took this all in, and when I was finished, he asked, “Did she say anything?”
“Not a word?”
“Not a word. She acted like I was Attila the Hun. She ran off. Maybe she’d had a bad experience with a man before. Maybe she’s just really shy and gets skittish around strangers. I don’t know.”
“Who did you think this girl was related to? Your ex-girlfriend?”
“My girlfriend from college. I guess technically she was my ex-girlfriend. She did break up with me right before . . .” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I held the image of the girl in my mind, and I could see Marissa’s face there as well, the two of them as vivid and three-dimensional as real life. A piercing stab of nostalgia traversed my chest, hitting every major organ and even some minor ones along the way. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
“Before what?” Reece asked.
“Before she died,” I said. “She died in a house fire when we were twenty. Right here near campus. She and her three roommates were killed. But right before the fire, a couple of days before, I guess, she broke up with me.”
“She broke your heart,” Reece said. It wasn’t a question. He must have read something on my face or in my voice. I knew I couldn’t hide my feelings for Marissa, then or any other time.
“She did,” I said. “Completely.”
“And what was her last name?” Reece asked. “The ex-girlfriend or girlfriend. Whatever she was. What was her last name and where was she from?”
“Her name was Marissa Minor. Her family lived in Hanfort, Ohio. It’s about an hour from here.”
“I know it.” Reece wrote something down in a little notebook he had pulled from his jacket pocket. His fingers were stubby, the nails bitten. “And you thought maybe this girl in the grocery store was related to your ex-girlfriend, and so you wanted to talk to her? But instead, you spooked her.”
“It all sounds far-fetched and ridiculous, I know. At least, you’re making it sound that way.”
“I’m not making it sound any way. It sounds the way it sounds.”
“Look, Detective, I have to get to work. I had a shitty, embarrassing night last night. And I’m sorry if I bothered that girl in the store. If you just give me her name or something, I’ll apologize. I know you’ve checked my record, and you know I’ve never been arrested and never hurt anybody. I’d just like to make this go away if I can.”
“And you think an apology will make it go away?” Reece asked.
“It seems like the gentlemanly thing to do,” I said. “I apologized to Gina after she called you.”
Reece put his notebook away. He looked around the apartment again, his eyes passing over the clutter, the beer cans, even the impassive officers who still stood by the door. One of their radios crackled, but the officer ignored it. He pressed a button, silencing the sound.
“You can’t apologize to this girl,” Reece said, staring at me with more intensity. “This girl from the grocery store.”
“What do you want me to do then?” I asked. “You can’t charge me with anything. It’s not a crime to talk to someone in a store.”
Reece kept his eyes on me. “You can’t apologize to her because she’s dead. Her body was found in a shitty motel out on Highway Six last night.”
I studied Reece’s face, looking for some sign he was joking, that he was trying to scare me by saying something so patently ridiculous and absurd. But he wasn’t joking. I could tell by the stony, stolid expression on his face. And the news hit me like a blast of cold air. My body tensed, locked up. I felt a pain at the base of my skull and realized I was clenching my teeth as tight as I could.
That girl, that beautiful young girl couldn’t just be gone. Extinguished like a snuffed candle.
“What happened to her?” I asked. The question sounded dumb to my own ears, insufficient to the gravity of the situation. But there was nothing else I wanted to know. What happened?
Reece continued to study me, as though I were a specimen in his lab. He reached up and rubbed his chin, his thumb and forefinger easing over his freshly shaved skin. He seemed to have decided something.
“She was murdered,” he said. “Most likely strangled, although we’ll wait to hear from the medical examiner’s office for the official word.”
Then I felt cold inside, as though the bitter wind that had first buffeted me had been internalized. I shivered, my torso shaking involuntarily.
“Murdered?” I said, sounding dumb again.
Reece nodded. “Are you sure you don’t know this girl? I mean, outside of chatting her up in the grocery store.”
“I don’t know her,” I said. “I’ve never seen her before yesterday. Never.” But then some things started to come together in my mind. I was telling the truth—I had never seen the girl before. And when I spoke to her, I didn’t say my name or identify myself in any way. So if I didn’t know who she was, how had the police ended up at my apartment—
“You didn’t know her,” Reece said. “But she seemed to know you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why are you here?”
“This young woman you talked to in the grocery store, this woman you say you didn’t know? She had a slip of paper in her pocket when she died, a slip of paper with your name and address written on it.”
If you liked this preview of Somebody I Used to Know, you can order the book here: