Stray

by Alison Stedman
Derek Monaghan was a nondescript sort of person in appearance, despite his exaggerated height. He looked in every way sensible, level-headed, unlikely to do anything dramatic. Tia agreed with me that he reminded one of a more awkward and less charismatic Tom Hanks. At first coming across as quiet in groups, he’d gradually open up and become clever, almost-but-not-quite charming. I’d even wondered if he was flirting with me on occasion in a very light way, but Derek was Maggie’s friend, not mine. Sometimes he came around to our place with his toolbox to fix Maggie’s door/cupboard/TV, and inevitably he would end up climbing over the piles of clothes to fix everyone else’s broken equipment as well. Tia had an economics class with him and he let her copy his notes every time she slept in. Occasionally we saw him at parties in the flat we shared and he’d be just as normal as everyone else—cracking jokes and behaving exactly as one should. He didn’t seem to take it with any sensitivity when people made jibes about him working part-time for Inland Revenue.

Over the summer, when the rest of us were away in our hometowns or working in exotic locations, Maggie was alone in the flat and Derek was pretty much the only person she knew still in town. They took bus trips to the beach on rainy days, wearing giant sunglasses. They handed over a fortune to the local cinema, watching everything they liked twice, and attended foreign film festivals religiously. Derek took Maggie fruit-picking; Maggie took Derek to the zoo. The photos were all over their facebook pages. Maggie’s auburn curls streaming down and an upside-down grin as she hung off Derek’s shoulders at the summit of a hill they climbed; Maggie and Derek dressed up as needle pulling thread at the Singalong Sound of Music; Derek smiling seriously for the photo, unaware of Maggie making rabbit ears and a face behind him.

I was working in Kaiteriteri when Maggie rang me one day to check what the online password for our flat’s expense account was. I gushed on for several minutes about the sun and the water and the nightlife and then remembered to ask her how she was spending the summer.

“It’s okay, actually,” she said. “Better than I expected. Derek’s still around so we’re hanging out a lot.”

“Derek Monaghan?”

“Yeah. He’s a nice guy, you know. No one else is in town so it’s just us two. Making the best of the summer. Have you heard from Nathan?”

Later, when Tia and I were discussing it, she remembered talking to Maggie as well that summer. Maggie, whose middle name was Too Much Information, hadn’t even brought the subject of Derek up.

Of course it was quite different for Derek. Maggie hadn’t noticed any major differences in him over the summer, but when we met his brother Jack months later he told us that Maggie’s name was always on Derek’s lips whenever he rang home. It was an open secret in the family that Derek was in love, every second sentence beginning with “My friend Maggie” or “Maggie says”. They laughed about it, pleased that Derek’s bachelor days were finally over.

The weirdness started when Maggie got a job. Unable to find something that satisfied her rather finicky requirements, she had lived on her savings from November through January, but finally, at the end of January, running out of money, she accepted a job on the phones for a government agency. When university started again in March, she could cut down her hours, but initially she worked six days a week, eight-thirty to six, in order to bulk up her savings account again. Derek was no longer a priority.

Derek started sending Maggie text messages saying things like “hey! Wana get a drink @ th phoenix ths fri nite? Havnt seen u 4 ages”—meaning, four days—“& i miss u like crazy”. Maggie would agree, and he would turn up at the bar, looking very intense when he discovered she’d brought along workmates. He was always on his best behaviour whenever the others were around, but he started to follow Maggie whenever she went to buy another drink or go to the bathroom, hissing in her ear that he didn’t like them and he wanted to see her, alone. One time he even followed her into the bathroom and grabbed her wrist so tightly that the next day she had a bruise. She would tell him she just wanted to be friends, and then text messages would appear in the small hours of the morning; “i dnt understand why u dnt want 2 b friends anymore, all im doing is trying 2 look out 4 u”. Day after day, assurances of friendship were demanded, and if Maggie happened to be busy when he called, he insisted on speaking to the man she was with.

We asked Maggie later why she didn’t simply cut off the friendship at this point, or, at the very least, send increasingly negative signals. As it was, although she wasn’t interested, Maggie couldn’t help feeling slightly flattered. She felt sorry for him, and besides that, there was something fascinating about having Derek there at the lift of a finger. Maggie was pretty, and as nice a girl as it is possible to be, the sort who would apologise for helping you, just in case you got offended; the sort on whom you could depend to provide a shoulder to weep on and chocolate to feast on during times of emergency. But, for some reason, she wasn’t the sort who had guys queuing up. The only relationships she had ever been in were heavily one-sided and she was used to being ditched and wondering what she had done wrong. “I was drunk with power,” she moaned to Tia and I, and we understood, while we tried to look disapproving.

Then Tia and I came back to the flat for the start of university at the end of February, and Derek started showing up, smiling at us on the front step and asking if Maggie was in and if we wanted him to fix anything for us. What a nice boy! we thought, and welcomed him in, fed him, and sat him in front of the TV until Maggie got home. She was a bit quiet whenever he was there, but we put that down to shyness or tiredness.

Eventually Maggie decided she had gone too far, allowing Derek to string himself round her finger, and she told us she didn’t want us to encourage Derek to come in all the time. We didn’t understand why, and felt incredibly uncomfortable telling him he wasn’t welcome, so she changed her work hours in order to provide a good excuse. He was suspicious. But it wasn’t really bad yet; it was still only mildly disquieting, and we settled into the year thinking about him very little. This would change.

/

There are police cars and ambulances outside our house, lights flaring silently in the dark, blurry and frightening. An orange tape is strung around the perimeter itself, and the entire street is closed to traffic. I can see dark shapes moving into position around the house. Tia and I stand on the other side of the road shivering in the cold with blankets around us, and someone hands us a mug of hot chocolate. My head feels fuzzy—literally heavy, pounding away in thoughts that run parallel and perpendicular and never quite meet up, but with one repeated question overwhelming them all. Maggie?

“How did we get here?” asks Tia aloud, slowly, as if the question is repeating itself over in her head.

I shake my head and sit down on the fence, arranging my blankets underneath me, my arms reaching up to press into my forehead. Maybe the throbbing will go away.

“I don’t even know when it was I figured out he was a creep,” she continues. “It’s like he goes from nice little stray-dog Derek to creepy stalker in my head. Like two different people.”

For me, it was the letter I got from him. Tia got an identical, heavily underscored letter, as did two more of Maggie’s friends, but I think Tia only twigged later.

I’m writing to you because I feel like you’re the only person I can approach, the only person who can understand. Maggie has given up on our friendship, and I don’t understand why. All I’ve ever wanted was to be there for her, and I’m worried about her. I know she’s interested in James Mander, but he’s simply not a good guy, and I need her to listen to me so I can explain why. All I know is that we are meant to be friends with each other and I need you to persuade her to talk to me. I know that if I can just talk to her, she’ll understand, but people have been turning her against me with false accusations. I don’t blame her. It’s not her fault she’s doing something wrong. All I want is to protect her and let nothing hurt her. Please talk to her.

Thanks,
Derek


I asked Maggie what was going on, and she tensed up straightaway. “He’s been sending me e-mails,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t like James at all, in that way, but I’ve had coffee with him a few times, and Derek acts like I’m having an extra-marital affair. I don’t even know how he knows. Perhaps he’s been following me.” She rushed off to her room, and brought back a pile of paper. “I’ve been printing them off because they’re freaking me out. I don’t know what to do about it. I sent one reply once, very calm, very understanding, but very negative, and it just encouraged him. So I’ve been ignoring him ever since. Look. I got these this morning when I woke up.”

Three pages of tightly packed e-mails.

11pm. I understand you. You want to learn from your own mistakes. You don’t want me to worry about you. But I can’t help it. You’re so innocent, in a world of people who just want to take advantage of you. You can’t know what it’s really like. …

12am. If you need some time to think, I’ll give it to you. It must be a shock to find out all this. To realise that you need a friend. I don’t want to frighten you. I’ll leave you alone for a while. …

1am. You are the most cruel, disloyal person I have ever met. And after everything I’ve done for you! You don’t understand true love or destiny or anything! You deserve to get a shock when you find out all these ‘friends’ of yours are just as empty inside as you. I offered you everything and you just threw it back in my face. But you can’t just get rid of me. I’m a part of your life, for better or for worse. …

2am. Maggie, ignore everything I said. You are the kindest, most perfect person in the world and I hate myself for saying anything that might hurt you. It’s just that I feel for you so strongly and sometimes I get frustrated that people are getting between us and that you always brush off my friendship as if it’s something wrong. …

“Maggie,” I breathed. “He is seriously obsessed. Why didn’t you tell me before? I thought it was just a silly crush.”

She shrugged. “I didn’t think it was fair on him to exhibit them round like a freak show. I thought people might laugh at him and that wouldn’t help.”

“What are you going to do? Get a restraining order?”

She didn’t answer for a while. “I guess I’ll just ignore it. I can’t see a restraining order helping him to understand.” She sighed. “I just feel really bad for him. I wish I’d been harder on him earlier.”

For Tia, the moment of understanding came when he started leaving things on our doorstep. First, it was a bunch of flowers, which wasn’t so bad, initially. Maggie thought it would be too ‘crushing’ to put them straight into the bin, so we put them in a vase on the kitchen table. Somehow, Derek found out about them, and left a joyous email in Maggie’s inbox congratulating her on finally accepting his friendship and foreseeing a bright future for both of them, together. The flowers went into the bin, and Maggie asked a mutual friend to tell Derek’s flatmate to tell Derek.

Second, chocolates. This time we threw them out immediately, although Tia found this hard. After this, Maggie decided she had to talk to him, and they met up one day on the library steps, where he shouted at her in complete obliviousness to the groups of students watching. She ran home in tears. He followed her to our front gate, crying, apologising and offering to “punish” himself, and then paced up and down our road for a few hours while Maggie shut herself in her room.

Third, a drawing of Maggie, taken from one of their summer photos, with a note saying he was thinking about getting a tattoo.

Fourth, a bundle of letters she had sent back to him, unopened—by this time, he was sending snail- as well as e-mail—with an angry note calling her a ‘stupid bitch’.

Fifth, an expensive necklace to beg forgiveness for his moment of anger which was just because he was so frustrated by the people who were telling her what to do with her life, stopping her from being happy and accepting his friendship. Every time she tried to post it back, it turned up on our door step again.

There were other things too, but the culmination of creepiness was the dead bird. It was, he wrote, so beautiful that it reminded him of her. It lay, broken and twisted, in a little basket. Tia had opened the door, screamed, and we all came running, staring at it for a few shocked moments in silence. This was when we stepped in, and I wish now it had been earlier. Maggie was beside herself but didn’t know what to do; we put her in Tia’s car and drove her to the police station, explained what the situation was, and then sat with her, interjecting with angry corrections of her understatements, while she stammered through what had been going on to an increasingly grim-looking police officer. A restraining order it was.

After a few weeks passed, with no sign of Derek, whether by letter, e-mail or unwanted presents, we started to relax. We heard that he had dropped out of university for the semester and hoped he had gone back to his family home in Wellington.

/

I finish my hot chocolate, take Tia’s empty mug, and hand them both back to our neighbour, who stands clutching her husband’s arm. “Thanks.”

“Oh, no problem, hon.” She’s looking at me with nervous interest. “Listen…”

“Yeah?”

“When you ran in before, you said he made you leave her there. Of course we just rang the cops straightaway, but—”

“He had a gun,” Tia said blankly. There is a bruise starting to appear on her cheek. Down the street, I see that a news crew has arrived, and Mrs O’Reilly from down the street has seen them too. She’s playing it up for them, of course; one arm waving, hand on heart.

It was only that week that Maggie had really started to relax. A report came from a faithful source that Derek had been seen at the airport a week before, getting on a plane to Wellington. He looked tired, but normal. I was the one who told Maggie, and she nodded slowly for a minute or two, breathed deeply, and smiled. It was a relief, because she’d been really reluctant to go anywhere or do anything, preferring to stay at home with the curtains closed and begging us to stay with her. But after the news of Derek’s departure, she agreed to go to the movies with us, and she even stayed at the house by herself for an afternoon when Tia and I had a wedding to go to.

It’s hard, now, to go over in my head what happened next. I’ve already tried, for a policeman, to remember every little thing he said to us when he burst into the house only an hour ago. What he had with him—all I saw was the gun. Was it real? Well, yes, I think so. I’m not exactly a gun expert. How big it was—small. How he got in—through the back door. We were sitting in the lounge with the curtains closed, watching re-runs of Friends, eating spaghetti bolognaise, and we didn’t even hear him coming. How he seemed. Calm? Upset? Angry? I can hardly say. The moment I saw the gun I wasn’t especially interested in analysing the situation. But I’ll do my best to remember.

He was certainly loud. And I think he was sweating. And I had never seen him like this before. Nondescript, cumbersome Derek suddenly seemed very memorable. He was shouting at us—“Get out, you bitches!”—and we were standing in front of Maggie, who from the moment the door slid open had clutched my arm like it was her lifeline. The overwhelming feeling from then on is the guilt. The guilt that it was Tia he hit across the face; the guilt I felt when I had to wrench my arm out from Maggie’s grip. Stumbling out of the house, leaving Maggie. Running across the road to our neighbour’s, whose name has gone completely out of my head, and hysterically calling the cops. Her husband running out to warn our other neighbours not to leave their houses. The police took forever, very quickly, and everything seems blank yet it swarms with images. Underlying it all, the guilt endures.

I move to sit on the ground next to Tia, our arms around each other, and we wait. When we hear the shot, we don’t jump, because we have been waiting for it. Neither do we move.

But when it’s Maggie that appears, walking down the driveway, drooping like an old woman, we jump up and run to her. The police hold us back as others grab Maggie and rush her to the ambulance. Other dark shapes move like a streamline into the dark, empty house.

/

Jack Monaghan sits across from us, holding a coffee mug in his hands like a bird. It’s taken Maggie six months, but we finally persuaded her to see Derek’s family.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeats, voice low and looking into the carpet.

“No,” he mumbles. “No, it’s not your fault. If anything, we are to blame. I don’t know how we didn’t pick up on it all. He was my brother… if you can’t figure it out when something like that is going through the mind of someone you’ve known all your life, how can you know anybody?”

The wind tugs at the curtains, and Tia rises to close the windows. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault,” she says firmly, “and I think you should both stop blaming yourselves. Derek did it, but he was ill, and that’s all there is to it.”

Maggie shakes her head. “I should have been…”

“No, I should have…” says Jack.

Perhaps it isn’t possible to make everything simple again, I wonder. A new flat, a trip to Fiji with her parents, counselling, even religion, and Maggie still has nightmares about the moment she saw Derek point a gun at his own head and pull the trigger. She still tortures herself about things she could have done differently, and no matter how many times Tia and I sit her down and tell her that nothing is her fault, she has changed for good.

But she looks up now, and when Derek’s brother looks at her without a trace of hatred in his eyes, she smiles. She's changed. But she smiles.
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2010, Alison Stedman