What Rafael Wrote

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What Rafael Wrote

by

Phoenix Hocking

You knew him, didn’t you?” the reporter asked.

I swirled the highball around, making the ice tinkle merrily against the glass. I took a sip. “Yes,” I answered. “I knew him.”

“How did you meet?”

“He was a member of my writer’s group,” I said. “I belonged to a group that met on Thursday nights. It was a critique group, so we each brought something to share and the other members of the group gave their opinions on what you wrote. Corrected grammar and punctuation, tense and point of view, that sort of thing.”

The reporter leaned forward. “And what did he write?”

I gave a shrug. “Well, in the beginning it was pretty mundane stuff, but as he got to know us, his work got …,” I paused. “well, it got sort of …odd.”

“Odd how?”

“His writing took a sinister turn,” I said. “Creepy. Yes, that’s the word. Creepy.”

It was terribly uncomfortable talking like this, especially to the press. I mean, I understood, of course. Everyone wanted to know what Rafael was like, but the truth was, we only saw the person he wanted us to see. We never really knew what he was capable of, though I suppose he tried to warn us, in his own way.

I put my drink on the table for George to collect when he next came around. “I don’t think I want to talk about him any more,” I said, standing up. I walked away. I heard the reporter calling after me, but I didn’t stop. Just talking about Rafael gave me a queasy feeling in my stomach, and I just wanted to get home.

The night was chilly when I left the Gentleman’s Club, so I wrapped my cloak a little more snugly around my shoulders as I prepared to walk home. As much as I wanted to put Rafael out of my mind, I couldn’t shake my image of the man, lying on the gurney, the needle in his arm, staring straight into my eyes.

I shook my head and tried to banish him from my thoughts, but to no avail. He simply would not go away.

He seemed a personable young man at the time, and our small group welcomed him into our circle. His later writing was taut, exceptional, atmospheric. He drew you into his stories until you felt as though you were part of them. His early work, however, was not.

In the beginning, his writing was, as I told the reporter, fairly mundane. He wrote a simple short story that was good, but lacked a certain something, as if he was trying too hard. His sentences were long and convoluted, with big words that he thought would make him sound more intellectual than he really was.

One evening, during the critique period, someone (I think it might have been Arthur, though I could be mistaken about that) told him, “Your writing sounds too much like you’re trying to be a writer. Ease up on the big words and just tell the tale.”

“Well,” Rafael answered, “I do have this one story I’d like to tell, but I’m afraid nobody will like it. It’s a little dark.”

We encouraged him to bring it to the next meeting, two weeks hence, and let us decide.

A little dark turned out to be an understatement. His story was spine-chillingly gruesome without being graphic, dark and sinister. We were mesmerized, and I, for one, was a little revolted.

It was the story of a woman who killed those who tormented her, then chopped up their bodies in the butcher shop where she worked, and fed the result to her customers.

It turned my stomach, it did. In fact, it makes me a little sick to think of it, even now.

No one in our group had any inkling that what he wrote might be in the slightest bit true.

I mean, really. Why on earth would a murderer write about his exploits like that? It made no sense, so of course we didn’t believe it. We wrote fiction in our little group, so we made suggestions that we thought would make his writing even better. We corrected his grammar, because English was not his first language. We corrected his spelling, his point of view, and other elements of his style.

And, because his story made us uncomfortable, we made jokes. We gave suggestions on how to serve human meat chili. With corn bread, or crackers? We laughed about serving it with shredded cheese and “a nice Chianti.” Some of our discussions were quite lively, and we laughed a lot.

None of us had any idea that our suggestions were being taken to heart, so to speak.

Rafael had been with us for about six months when he began to miss meetings. He was busy, he said. He was thinking about moving to Los Angeles, he said. He lost his job and was having trouble finding another, he said.

And then, he disappeared. With no word to any of us, he simply stopped coming. To tell you the truth, I was just as happy that he was gone. His story had become so dark, and the murders more and more gruesome, that I had begun to dread attending the meetings.

About six weeks or so later, I had a business meeting in Los Angeles. It was lunch time, so a few of my colleagues and I decided to eat at a local sandwich shop that came highly recommended.

There were four or five of us, as I recall, and we were busy talking “shop” when the server came to take our orders. Imagine my surprise when I saw that our server was none other than Rafael!

He seemed pleased to see me, but when I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, he lifted his eyebrows and said pointedly, “Perhaps you might be happier with the seafood salad.”

I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, remembering his stories. Surely he wasn’t actually murdering people and serving them up in sandwiches. Surely not!

Was he?

I had the seafood salad, but two of my colleagues had the pulled pork sandwich, which they proclaimed the best they had ever eaten.

That night, in the hotel room, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. The thought that Rafael’s story might have a hint of truth bothered me so much that I got up. I turned on the light in order to read the book I had brought, but I couldn’t concentrate. It was far too late for room service, but there was an in-room coffee pot, so I made myself a cup of coffee.

As I sat there, trying to decide what to do, if anything, there was a knock on the door.

Puzzled, I peered through the security hole and was surprised to see Rafael standing there.

I opened the door, God alone knows why.

“How are you?” he said, all smiles. “I was so surprised to see you today. Are you still writing?” He made himself comfortable in one of the easy chairs. “I miss the group.”

We had chatted amiably for a while, when suddenly I asked, “Why didn’t you want me to order the pulled pork?”

He looked startled, then smiled at me with wide-eyed innocence. “The pork? I just thought the seafood was a better choice, of course.”

“Nothing more?”

His countenance seemed practiced puzzlement. “More?” Then he laughed. “Oh, that! Well, one can’t be too careful, I suppose. Right?”

I paced the room for a while after he left then picked up the phone and dialed the police. When they arrived, I told them what I knew about Rafael. I shared what I remembered of what Rafael wrote. They thanked me, and left.

Rafael was arrested the next day. He protested his innocence, of course. He fought in court, long and hard, but to no avail. He was sentenced to death for the murders of seven people who had disappeared over the years. Seven people. Seven!

It was quite chilly by the time I arrived home from the Gentleman’s Club. I had almost managed to banish Rafael from my mind and my conscience. It was just a brisk Autumn night, that was all.

I stopped at the liquor store on the way home. The street was quiet. There was practically no traffic, and I paused outside the store. The leaves fell silently to the sidewalk. I picked one up and held it, then crushed it as I closed my fist around it.

I got a sudden picture of Rafael, lying on the gurney, a needle in his arm, looking straight into my eyes. In his final moment, he mouthed, “I know.”

Then he was dead.

The newsman came by and filled the kiosk with the late evening edition of the paper. The headlines screamed of yet another young boy who had gone missing. I shook my head sadly.

I went into the store and made my purchase, then went home to my little apartment above my butcher shop. I took off my cloak and hung it in the closet. Took a box of oyster crackers from the cupboard and placed it by the Chianti from the liquor store on the kitchen counter.

I went down the back stairs into my shop and opened the door to the walk-in refrigerator.

Inside, the body of a young boy lay waiting.

As I took up my knife, I paused, then raised it in a sort of salute.

“For you, Rafael,” I said solemnly. “For you.”

Then, I got to work.

The End