"Honorable Mention Winner" in the Memphis Magazine 2007 Fiction Awards Contest
Every year, Memphis magazine challenges local writers to submit their best short fiction pieces for our annual contest.
Every year, they deliver.
We receive hundreds of submissions, but at the end of the day, we must narrow the entries to one first place winner and two honorable mentions. We publish the winning story in our December issue, but until now, the two honorable mention winning submissions have remained unpublished.
We're pleased to present Court Ogilvie's winning submission "Nothing Goes Unsolved." Check this space again soon to read Marsha McSpadden's "June Bugs."
For more information on the fiction contest, the rules, and our sponsors, go here.
I crossed the line. I killed a man. And I did it right. I got away with it. No one knew who did it. No one cared. But something happened, something I didn't expect: every morning I woke up arguing with myself. I replayed the murder over and over in my head visualizing every nook and cranny of the room, every angle of the murder weapon, every spot of blood—the body. And you know what, I didn't make a mistake, didn't leave anything behind. I was sure of it. But the guilt...I didn't expect the guilt. I didn't expect to see his face everyday in the mirror, in the windows on the subway, every other face in a crowd of people. I didn't expect a six-month headache. I guess I got tired of it.
"911 emergency," said the operator
"Hi. I want to report a murder," I said.
"Are you in danger at the moment, sir?"
"At the moment? No. No, I'm fine."
"Is your attacker in the room with you?"
"Attacker? There's no attacker. It's just me. I want to report a murder that's already happened."
"Did you witness the murder, sir?"
"More or less."
"Can you locate the victim, sir?"
"What? Like on a map?"
"Sir, do you know where the victim is at the moment?"
"Of course," I said. "He's at the cemetery."
"He's at the cemetery?" she said.
Kindergarteners ran through the hallway. Their tiny sandals slapped against the plastic floorboard that protected the school's heating system. Playtime screams and laughter filled the main office. I cupped the receiver and closed the office door so none of my students could give me away. Over the phone, I could hear the operator flipping pages in her Response Procedure Manual . There was no response scenario for 'He's at the cemetery.' I checked before I called.
"Sir," said the operator. "You said the victim was already at the cemetery or that you found the victim in the cemetery?" She was still flipping pages.
"But the victim is somewhere around the cemetery," she said, a hint of suspicion in her voice.
"That's right," I said.
"Above ground or below ground?"
"Neither?" she said; a little more suspicious.
"Neither," I repeated.
"Then where is he? In the sky?"
"He was cremated."
"Cremated? Sir, you can't just call 911 whenever you feel like it. 911 is for emergency purposes only."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I thought a murder was an emergency."
Calling Memphis PD from a private school in Korea was risky—too many background noises for the playback. But I had to be sure. It'd been six months since I committed murdered and I needed to know how the investigation was going.
"Sir," said the operator. From the sound of her voice, patience wasn't part of her hourly wage. "Are you reporting a murder you discovered or committed?"
I removed a tack from the school's bulletin board.
"I committed the murder," I said.
"You committed the murder," she said.
"Practically. I mean, yes. Yes, of course. I killed him."
"And how did you kill this person?" she said.
I stuck the tack into a child's forehead.
"Shouldn't I be talking to a police officer or something?" I said.
The child was a cartoon cutout tacked to the bulletin board. The cartoon kid was reading Crime and Punishment like it was a real treat. When I pulled the kid's remaining tacks, he swung back and forth like a brass pendulum.
"And what're you going to tell the police?" the operator said, abandoning all manner of professionalism.
"I need to know what they know," I said.
"What they know?"
"Could you just connect me?"
"Hold for second."
Outside the school, tires squealed. Car horns blasted. Some Koreans shouted at each other. I don't know what they were saying, but I knew why they were shouting: our school bus was blocking traffic again. Teaching English was the last thing I wanted to do at the moment.
I stuck a tack into each of the cartoon kid's eyes.
"Hello sir?" said the operator.
"Yes, I'm still here."
"Are you harming someone right now?"
"Now? No. Of course not. I'm at work. Look, this is about what I did a while ago. Didn't I already tell you that?"
Like everything in Memphis, the operator worked at half speed. I should have hung up, called again, and told her I was on fire. That might have sped things along. But I didn't feel like listening to the 'In Case Someone Calls Who is on Fire' procedure.
"Look, all I want to do is speak to a police officer?" I said.
"Hold again," she said.
Then, a tidal wave of Korean children poured into the school. A second grader cried because someone took her sandals. Two first graders fought over a small bottle of soymilk. One of my kindergartners blew snot into his hand and wiped it in his hair. All their screams and shouts and laughter made my skin crawl. My hands felt clammy. My tongue was a thick, hairy caterpillar in my mouth. Confession looked so easy on television. The guilty always wanted to confess. They wanted forgiveness. So did I. I hoped forgiveness could cure me. You know...aspirin for my guilt.
"All right," said the operator. She sounded tired and irritable. "I'm connecting you to Officer Wilson."
"Thank you," I said.
My principal walked into the office. She was a short, heavy-set Korean woman named Mrs. Kim. She had enormous breasts. She owned the school. While I was on hold, listening to the Charlie Brown theme music, she held up a small clipboard that read Teacher Meeting. 5 Minute. I nodded and smiled. One Minute , I told her .
"This is Officer Wilson," said a youthful, lethargic voice. Over the phone, I could hear the pop of the computer monitor warming up. "Where can I direct your call?"
"Hi. I'm calling about a murder," I said.
"You're reporting a homicide?" he said.
"A murder," I corrected.
"Where is the body located?"
"At the cemetery."
"Are you within the vicinity of the body?"
"Do you mean like walking distance?"
"How was the victim killed?" he said, ignoring my sarcasm.
"He was shot."
"And did you shoot the victim or did somebody else shoot him?"
"I shot him," I said.
South Korea was as safe a place as any to run. Tongduchon was a small mountain town an hour and half south of the North Korean border. Ten thousand people lived here, and that included Camp Casey, the second largest U.S. army base in the country. Tongduchon's hills were full of cemeteries. The tallest buildings were apartments. There was one corporate gas station, one Subway sandwich shop. Only the rich owned land and that included Mrs. Kim.
She stomped back into the office and waved her flabby arms trying to get my attention. She expected me to translate large, white eyes as exasperation. In the small library adjacent to the office, the three Korean teachers' aides played video games on their cell phones.
"And the name of your victim?" Officer Wilson said. He sounded indifferent as if I were reporting a common domestic abuse or a harmless act of vandalism.
"Officer—I'm sorry, what was your name again?"
"Look Officer Wilson, this isn't a joke. This isn't some prank. I'm confessing to a murder."
"Would you like to contact an attorney or have a court appointed one?" he said.
Mrs. Kim pantomimed a person talking on the phone. The person hung up the phone and walked into the library so the teachers' meeting could start. I enjoyed her non-verbal communication skills—a teacher teaches more with expression than with worksheets—and applauded her efforts with a thumb's up sign. She sent a hurtful, angry scowl in my direction and I signaled 'one more minute' to tranquilize her. Confessing to murder seemed more important than field trip schedules.
"Don't you want my name or something?" I said.
"Could I have the name of the victim first?" Officer Wilson said. I could hear him sigh over the distance.
"Okay," I said. I was a little confused by the procedure. "Charlie Olden."
"How do you spell it?"
"O-L-D-E-N." I could hear typing on a keyboard
"And when did you murder the victim?"
"Six months ago." More typing.
"Would you say he died of a gunshot wound?" Officer Wilson said.
"Considering I shot him that sounds right." More typing.
"And what type of weapon did you use?"
"A pistol." More typing.
In the office doorway, two of my kindergarten girls, Gun-Hui and Mi-Sun, argued in Korean. Their words had as little meaning to them as they did to me. From where I stood, it looked like a contest of chins: who could raise their chin the highest while shouting. So engrossed in the game, Gun-Hui failed to notice Son-Yon sneak up behind her and pickpocket a crayon box from her backpack. As a teacher, it was my job to stop Son-Yon. He was my student. He was a disruptive, maladjusted little brat. What he did was wrong. To tell the truth, it would have been a pleasure to bust him. But, I had more important things on my mind.
"Where did you shoot the victim?" Officer Wilson said.
"In the mouth."
"No. Where were you when you shot the victim?" he said.
"In the room with him?"
"Were you in the city? Where in the city?" he said.
"Oh. Sorry. I shot him in his house."
"Did you shoot the victim in Memphis is what I'm asking?"
"Yes, in his house."
"And what's the victim's address?"
"If it's all the same, I'd rather not say," I said. More typing.
In the library, Mrs. Kim announced the start of the teachers' meeting by banging her coffee mug against an oval table. When I didn't respond, she started gargling green tea to annoy me. The teachers' aides giggled behind their small hands, which caused Mrs. Kim to giggle. She spit some green tea onto her blouse. Scurrying to the bathroom, she blamed me as she fanned her chest with her small hand. I closed the other office door.
"Have you killed anyone else?" said the Officer.
"No. Just him." More typing.
"Do you still have the weapon?"
"No, I left it next to him."
"And where are you located?"
"I'm out of the country right now." More typing.
With a smile on his face, Son-Yon snuck into the office. He hid in the corner next to a gray filing cabinet and produced the newly pinched box of crayons. His back was to the desk so he didn't notice me right away. He pulled the red crayon out of the box and admired it in the light. Then, he peeled off the crayon's label.
"Okay, before I confirm the report," said Officer Wilson. "Is there anything else you'd like to say?"
"I guess not," I said.
When Son-Yon realized I was also in the room, he dropped the crayon and huddled against the wall. He covered his head with his arms and squatted into a ball. He looked like a turtle hiding in its shell.
"We'll send a squad car right over," said Officer Wilson.
"But I told you I'm out of the country," I said.
Son-Yon shook visibly. He refused to look at me. He couldn't stop shaking.
"That's right," Officer Wilson said. I could hear him slowly tapping the keyboard. Obviously, he was scrolling back so he could double-check the information.
"Let's just un-check that box," he said.
"So that's it?" I said.
"That's it," he said proudly, as if I should be impressed with the painlessness of the procedure.
"But, you still don't have my name," I said.
For a moment, all I could hear were thousands of miles of static.
"Give me a second," he said.
Since I wasn't angry with him, Son-Yon slowly reached for the red crayon. He picked it up carefully, and on his knees, offered the crayon for leniency.
"All right," Officer Wilson said proudly. "Here we go. It's back on screen. Now...what's your name?"
"My name?" I said.
"Yeah—for the record. What's your name?"
"What if I don't feel like giving it?" In my opinion, Charlie Olden deserved a little grunt work.
"If you don't want to give me your name, then we'll just leave it blank," he said.
"And that's it?" I said.
"Yep. Let me just confirm it again?"
"You don't want to talk to me?" I said. "Find out any clues that might, maybe—oh, I don't know—help you solve the murder?"
"Nope. We got it," he confirmed.
"So what are you going to do about it?" I said.
"About what?" he said.
"I just confessed to murder—what's the matter with you? A guy calls and confesses to murder and you sound like the manager for the Walmart complaint department."
"Sir, we've got your information. The next available officer will contact you."
"You don't have my number," I said.
"We're tracing this call," Officer Wilson said.
"But you can't trace this call," I said. "I'm out of the country."
"Sure we can," he said.
"No you can't. Memphis police uses the STAT 360 phone trace system. The STAT 360 doesn't have satellite hook-up. Without a landline, you can't trace this call."
"How would you know?" Officer Wilson said.
"Cause I did my homework!" I said, losing my patience.
Out of all the jobs in the world, teaching has to have the most homework. When the last bell rings, you can't just clock out, go home, and fall asleep in front of the television. There's always homework. Papers. Tests. Quizzes. Other kids' homework—you name it. Everyone thinks teachers work between the bells—far from it! You've got to add at least another three hours of grading and lesson plans to the day.
"You know what," Officer Wilson said. "You're right. System's still searching for your number."
"Right," I shouted.
"Well, I don't know what to tell you then," he said. "We can't help you."
So if you don't want teaching to suck up your life you learn how to cut corners. You learn how to steal other teacher's lesson plans, distract the kids with puzzles and Starburst candy rewards, find obscure movie trivia and compare it to Macbeth—just to add a few more minutes to the clock. In the classroom, if you're done and the bell hasn't rung, kids get irritable. They start asking questions about your personal life.
"You can't help me?" I said. "This is the best the police can do?"
"Not unless you want to give us more information," he said.
"Tell me something Officer Wilson," I said. "Are you a detective?"
"Is there anything else you'd like to report, sir?"
"Just answer the question. Are you a detective?"
"Not at the moment. No," he said irritably.
"Are you a lieutenant?"
"So what do you do for the police?"
"I'm the watch dispatcher."
"You're the cop secretary," I spat. By this point, I was frustrated with the entire conversation.
Son-Yon crawled back to the corner. He pulled out the yellow crayon and peeled off the label. He pulled the purple crayon and peeled off the label. He peeled the label off of every crayon in the box. I'd never seen a child so happy.
"I have other duties," Officer Wilson defended.
"Are they more important than talking to a confessed murderer?" I said.
"We got your information. What else do you want me to do?"
"Why don't you ask my why I did it?"
"There's not a space for that," he said.
When Son-Yon finished peeling the labels off all the crayons, he broke the red crayon in two. The snap was very loud, very sharp, like a cap gun or a popped balloon. I jumped a little. Son-Yon offered me half the crayon. I ignored him. He placed my half on his right, his half on his left, and broke the blue crayon next.
"You don't have my name. How about that?" I said to Officer Wilson.
"You said you didn't want to give it. Do you want to give it?"
"Then what do you want me to do?"
Son-Yon broke the purple crayon next.
When he broke the crayon, for some reason, I pictured a cracked neck bone. I pictured torn flesh and pulsing brain matter. I imagined warm blood in the back of my throat. Son-Yon broke the black crayon and I ducked. He smiled and offered me half.
"Then ask some more questions?" I said, ignoring Son-Yon's generous offer. "Questions not on the screen."
"My shift ends in an hour," Officer Wilson said.
"Then get some overtime. Do your job."
"I confirmed the report."
"And that's it? That's all you can do?"
When Son-Yon broke the white crayon, I nearly dropped the phone. Mrs. Kim opened the door and marched into the office bearing her stained chest. She pressed her fists on her wide hips and frowned in that cartoon-like way elementary teachers do whenever they want to demonstrate disappointment.
"Sometimes these things go unsolved," Officer said.
"But you're talking to the killer."
"And?" he said.
"Show some initiative, Wilson. It's not totally unsolvable if you got the killer on the line."
I cupped the receiver and said, "Mrs. Kim. Son-Yon's breaking Gun-Hui's crayons." Son-Yon dropped the crayons and pressed against the wall. He huddled into a ball and remained very still.
"But, I'm just the watch dispatcher," Officer Wilson said.
"So?" I said.
"Let me transfer you to a detective."
"That's fine, Wilson," I said into the phone. "Do what you want. But don't you want to solve this crime? Think about the promotion. Do you want to stay a watch dispatcher all your life?"
"There's a procedure to these things," he said. "If I don't follow procedure, they write me up."
"Then I'll help you out. If you transfer me, I'll hang up. There. Now, you can break procedure without getting into trouble."
"Son-Yon!" shouted Mrs. Kim. She turned her cartoon posture onto Son-Yon. He stared blankly at the dark space between the filing cabinet and the wall. He started shaking. He couldn't stop.
"I don't feel comfortable with this," Officer Wilson said.
"Comfortable? I'm the one confessing," I said.
Mrs. Kim grabbed Son-Yon's arm and yanked him to his feet. He shouted and flailed like a wild animal. Mrs. Kim released him immediately. Son-Yon dropped to the ground and pressed against the wall. He stared at the dark space behind the filing cabinet. He couldn't stop shaking.
"Yeah, but I'm not trained for this," Officer Wilson said.
"All I'm asking you do is listen," I said.
Alarmed by the screaming, the teachers' aides hurried into the office. Mrs. Kim knelt down beside Son-Yon and rolled up his shirtsleeve. She found black bruises all along his arm. Son-Yon kept staring at the dark space.
"Look sir," Office Wilson said. "I confirmed the report. That's all I can do at this end. Let me see if a detective is available right now."
"Why can't you help me?" I said.
"Hold for a moment," he said.
"You know what..." I slammed the phone in its cradle.
Mrs. Kim gently touched each of Son-Yon's bruises. He winced in pain every time she touched him. Mrs. Kim leaned back and allowed the teachers' aides to take over. All three women huddled around Son-Yon, caressing him and hugging him and whispering sweet Korean promises in his ear. Son-Yon continued staring at the dark space. He couldn't stop shaking.
Mrs. Kim rose to her feet and cupped her hands over her mouth. She coughed to hide her sobbing and then straightened her blouse, ready to return to work.
"Teacher meeting," she said to me. She sounded very tired.
I looked at Son-Yon. The narrow bruises wrapped around his arm like prison stripes. It wasn't hard imaging the leather belt snapping against his skin.
"Come," Mrs. Kim said to me.
"What..." I said pointing to Son-Yon.
"Father," she said. "Come."
"Father?" I said. "Call somebody."
"Call somebody?" she said.
"Yes, call somebody," I shouted.
"Who?" she said.
"Social Services? Child abuse hotline? The police, maybe?"
She folded her hands and rested them on her stomach. She lowered her head as if to pray and then sighed. Her tranquility confused me.
As she started to explain why there was nothing she could do, I imagined Son-Yon pressed against an apartment wall, shaking, silent, staring at the dark spaces between the furniture. The heating system underneath the plastic floorboard warmed his knees. He patiently awaited the next snap against his skin.
"If I call police," Mrs. Kim said patiently. "Other families get angry."
Get angry, I thought. Get angry at what? At a father beating his kid? If Charlie Olden's death proved anything, it was that I could do something. I could break open Son-Yon's apartment door. I could rush inside and snatch the belt out of his father's hands. I could wrap that leather belt around his scrawny neck and twist the straps—choke the life out of him.
"Parents do not like it when school interferes," Mrs. Kim said.
I'd watch, with a smile on my face, his eyes bulging, his tongue waggling, his face turning red, then blue, then purple, then white.
"In Korea, school can't interfere with childrearing," she said.
It'd be easy. His father would fall to his knees, and I'd drive my knee into his spine, pull his head back so he could see I did this to him . There was nothing he could do about it. He would know what it's like to be helpless, to be weak—I could do that.
"Other parents take children out of our school if we interfere," Mrs. Kim said. "Then, we have no students. No students. No school."
"So that's it!" I shouted. "There's nothing you can do?"
"We make Son-Yon's time here happy," she said. Tears filled her eyes.
I could do that for Son-Yon, I thought. It was easy imagining his father dead at my feet. But then, the police would arrive. Wouldn't they? They'd slap the cuffs on, haul me to jail. Against the apartment wall, Son-Yon would cry. He wouldn't understand why I killed his father. He wouldn't understand I did him a favor, no matter how many times I sent him to the principal's office.
It wasn't hard imagining jail. It wasn't hard imagining a cold cell, a concrete cot, barred windows with nothing to do. I bet a U.S. Embassy lawyer would visit. He'd lean against the bars and smile. The dirty metal would soil his three-piece suit. His polished smile would annoy me.
He'd stand and smile and say there's nothing the government can do. They won't even extradite me for Charlie Olden. He'd tell me I was going to spend the rest of my life in a Korean prison. However long that lasted. I'd stick out like a sore thumb. Korean criminals don't really like Americans , he'd say. I'd be dead in a week.
Before he left, I'd ask about Mrs. Kim's school. The school had to close down . No students. No school .
The three teachers' aides continued whispering sweet promises in Son-Yon's ear. From the look of it, their words had as little meaning to him as they did to me.
There was nothing I could do. It was all in my head, nothing on paper. And poor Son-Yon would have to go home, hide between the dark spaces, hope his father came home happy.
And then the phone rang.
"Kim's English Language School," I said mechanically.
"May I speak to Jack Olden?" a familiar voice said. My heart leapt into my throat.
"What?" I said.
"Jack," repeated the voice. "Can I speak to Jack Olden?"
"This is Jack. Jack Olden speaking."
"Jack, this is Officer Wilson. System finally locked onto your number. Turns out we can trace the call. Go figure? Anyway, I told the detectives about your call, and they handed me Charlie Olden's file—"
"I killed him," I said.
"Not according to the file," Office Wilson said. "He did die of a gunshot wound, but apparently it was self-inflicted. That means he committed suicide. Charlie Olden shot himself."
"No he didn't. I killed him," I said.
"Gunpowder residue from the murder weapon was found on his fingers. No forced entry. Suicide note left on the nightstand."
"I killed him," I defended.
"Look, I got another call. Detectives wanted me to tell you to stop calling."
"What?" I said.
"They want you to stop calling. I don't know what else to tell you. There's nothing we can do. Sorry to hear about your dad." He hung up.
"Come," Mrs. Kim said to me. "Teacher meeting."
I went to the teacher's meeting.
I volunteered to chaperone the kindergarten bus.
I'll call again around Christmas time.