The Woman in the Red Dress
Six months had passed since ex-cop John Michaels had been forced to retire early from the Memphis Police Department—but the wound was still fresh.
It was a Friday night at Blake’s Bar and Grill, a popular restaurant in the heart of the city, and just down the street from where John lived. He sat by himself at the bar, his thick wool jacket hanging on the back of the bar stool. The weather was bleak on this night in Memphis, Tennessee, and had been for the past week or so, ever since Winter Storm Wesley had come through with its thundersnow and quarter-sized hail. For a couple of days, half the power in the town had been knocked out. A foot of snow had covered the ground and the streets had been turned to solid ice. News broadcasts had reported the storm as being the worst the city had seen in over two decades. But it was finally over. The power was back on, and the snow had melted just enough to allow the local bars and nightclubs to reopen. Just in time for the weekend.
“I swear the people in here get younger and younger every night. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who’s aging,” a bearded man to John’s right said. His face was sagging and hair gray.
John couldn’t tell if he was talking to him or to himself. Still, he replied, “I hear ya.”
Thinking about the time, John glanced up at the clock on the wall above the bar. It read 3:13. Confused, he looked at the other clock by the door. It too said the time was 3:13. “That’s weird,” John said. “Both of those clocks stopped at the same time.”
“Huh, that is weird,” the man agreed. He checked his wristwatch. “It’s six past ten. ‘Bout time for me to get back to the missus.” He downed what was left in his glass then looked out the window. “Weather sure is killer out there.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s pretty bad. At least it’s not as bad as it was.”
“I reckon that’s one way of looking at it.” The man had a voice like gravel. “But boy, what I wouldn’t give to be in Hawaii right now.”
John looked at the man. The man smiled at John through his beard then got up and left.
Blake’s was fairly packed on this night. Looked like everyone who was brave (or crazy) enough to get out on the roads was there, searching for warmth and shelter in the restaurant. Everyone was either playing pool, getting drunk, or sitting at tables with full plates as they ate and talked with family and friends. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Not John, though.
This was the first time John had stepped foot back into public ever since the incident that changed his life for the worse. And all he could think—the only thing on his mind—was fourteen years.
Over a decade of John’s life had been given to the department, and for what? So he could have it all torn away from him? So he could have his name tainted by the papers and robbed of the legacy he’d built? The life John had tediously put together brick by brick was crumbling to dust and debris all around his feet, and there was nothing he could do about it. What made it worse was that it was all at the mercy of his own hands. After all, he was the one who couldn’t pull the trigger.
John had always imagined he’d be able to take the shot if the moment ever came, but when it did, he hesitated. That split-second in time came at the cost of multiple innocent lives. Now, the faces of those he couldn’t save were forever imprinted, branded, and carved into the backs of his eyelids. The most he could now was forget. Erase the old and build a new. The best way he knew to do that? Drink.
“What’ll it be?” asked the bartender, a baby-faced man with short spiked hair.
John contemplated on a beer, but he needed something fast. Fast and hard. “Jack, please. Neat.”
The bartender sat a drink on a cork coaster in front of John.
“Thanks,” John said, hardly looking the bartender in the eye.
“Of course. And hey, for what it’s worth, I never believed what they said. Papers, news… fuck em’. Let me know if you need anything else, Detective.”
John nodded. He knew the barkeep meant well, which was nice for a change, but John didn’t want pity. He didn’t want for anyone to ‘understand’ or to be on his side. All he wanted was for it all to go away. The days of walking down the street without whispers on every curb and eyes on every corner were the simple days he longed for. Days that were long gone.
John was sipping his drink when a woman took the empty space beside him at the bar. Her scent grabbed his attention before the sight of her even had a chance to. Something sweet like warm vanilla and sugar. It wrapped around him like a leash and pulled him in. He glanced over to steal a sight of the woman. She stood at the bar wearing a tight red dress that hugged the curves of her slim figure. A straw sun hat sat snug on her head; the floppy wide brim blocking out the hazy lights above and casting a shadow that hid her face. Her long rose gold hair ran from beneath the hat like a stream over her shoulders and down her back. And there was something about her—something John couldn’t quite pin—that was familiar to him. It was a sense of familiarity in the strangest way because it came like a storm of déjà vu and left just as quick.
She spoke softly as she ordered a drink. “One Martini please.” Her voice was smooth like a melody and faint like smoke.
John went back to his drink. He finished the rest of what was in his glass and called the bartender back for a second—an attempt to put his focus elsewhere.
An attempt that didn’t work.
His attention kept gravitating to her, to that woman in the red dress. Where in the hell did he know her from? He fought to keep his eyes to himself, but it seemed as if they belonged to her now, whoever she was. Did he recognize her from work? Was she a reporter? Someone famous maybe?
The bartender sat a martini on a napkin in front of the woman. “Let me know if you need another,” he said.
“One’s enough. Thanks.” The woman then scooped up her drink and put some cash in its place.
Just then, John noticed a large rose tattoo on the back of her right hand.
Delicately wielding the glass by its stem, the woman walked over to the jukebox. She slipped a couple of coins into the coin slot and pressed some buttons. ‘Tiny Dancer’ by Elton John began to play. The woman then sat at an empty round table in the back corner of the room and slowly sipped her martini.
“Hey,” John said to the bartender as he passed. He made a subtle gesture to the woman. “That girl. Do you know her?”
The bartender frowned. “Uh, no. Can’t say I wouldn’t want to, though. She’s gorgeous.”
“You’re sure? She doesn’t look familiar at all? Maybe like someone on T.V.?”
“Can’t say I’ve ever seen her before. Sorry.” The bartender went back to wiping down glasses.
In a room full of people, everybody faded to black and white. Every sound was killed at the mercy of that song that poured from the jukebox and flooded the room. All John could see was that red dress as it tore through the crowd like a bullet. When she finished her drink, the woman in red stood from her table and sauntered through the room like a beam of light breaking through darkness. The soft clacks of her shoes on the wooden floor echoed in John’s ears.
Then she left.
John sat rigid as his eyes burned a hole into the bottom of his now empty glass. Not fifteen seconds had passed since the woman had left. The song she’d put on came to an end.
“Fuck,” John whispered to himself with a sigh.
He pulled a crumpled-up wad of cash from his pocket, tossed it on the counter, and followed the vanilla scent out the door. John stepped outside and was smacked with a wall of air as cold as ice. He zipped his jacket up to his chin and crammed his hands into his pockets. Then he saw her up ahead, walking down the sidewalk beneath a streetlight that may as well have been a spotlight, her arms and legs bare to the frigid winds. With his shoulders hunched against the cold, John followed the woman in the red dress.
The hour was nearing late, and the wintry air had herded everyone from the streets into local bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. John followed the woman east down Madison, his boots crunching in the snow with every step. She passed North 2nd Street, then continued on to North 4th. And all the while John followed her, he felt something following him. Lingering with him like a shadow, was a feeling. Déjà vu continued to blindside him; distant memories from an unknown place came and went like falling pieces of a puzzle. He tried to catch them, tried to get a grip to maybe put them together, but they fell through his fingers like sand. As odd as it was, it wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened that night, and it wasn’t near as strange as what was coming.
John watched the woman in red turn left into an alley between some buildings, one of which was a nightclub called The Night Owl. His feet shuffled quicker as he hurried to catch up. When John turned the corner, he saw the woman in red standing in the middle of the alley, facing him. Her hat threw a shadow that continued to hide most of her face. A nearby streetlight offered a faint glow that was just enough to reveal the grin that grew across her lips. Unsure of what to do, John inched toward her.
“You’re following me,” she said.
John’s head angled. “I’m not.”
“Why do you lie to me, John?”
“How do you know my name?” The woman didn’t respond. “Who are you?”
“You mean, you don’t remember me? I’m not sure if I should be offended or not.” There was a silence. “Try to remember,” the woman said as she raised a hand to brush a piece of hair from her face. Again, John noticed the rose tattoo on the back of her hand.
“I—I can’t remember,” he stuttered.
“Aw. Well that’s okay. Would you like to remember?” The woman asked, still grinning.
“Of course you would. Come this way.” The woman opened the side door to the nightclub and disappeared inside.
John took a step and heard his shoe land on something solid that made a clinking sound. He looked down to see a metal chain and a padlock on the ground. Then, he noticed something that grabbed the eyes right out of his head. Chills like the legs of a spider crawled across his arms and down his back. In the dark at the far end of the alley stood a figure. A silhouette in the shape of a man, blacker than the black it stood in.
“Coming?” asked the woman from the doorway, interrupting the sight.
Looking back at the end of the alley, John saw the figure was gone. “Yeah,” he said, following the woman into the nightclub.
Colorful lights flashed and beamed from the high ceilings down onto a bouncing crowd on the dancefloor. The woman in the red dress lead John into the crowd.
“Hey,” John said. Even when shouting he could still barely hear himself over the music. “Why don’t you make this easier for both of us and just tell me who you are?”
“Because you know who I am. It’s not me who’s hiding who I am, it’s you,” the woman said. “Answer me this: why did you follow me?”
“Because I thought you looked familiar.”
The woman chuckled softly. “John. How are you going to remember if you keep lying to yourself? Look around. You don’t remember this place either?” She waited a moment but John didn’t answer. “Now, who am I?”
John glanced around at the club then shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Who. Am I?” the woman repeated, more aggressively this time.
“I just told you I don’t know.”
The woman took a step closer to John. Close enough so that he could smell the vanilla. “My tattoo. What is it?”
“It’s a flower.”
“But what is it?”
John stared down at the back of her hand. “It’s a rose.” Then he thought. “It’s a rose…. Rose.”
As the song that blared through the speakers faded to an end, the next began. It was ‘Tiny Dancer,’ by Elton John, the same song the woman had played on the jukebox at the bar down the street. That song—for reasons John couldn’t explain—was speaking to him like the lingering fear left from a nightmare he couldn’t remember.
“Let me help you,” the woman said.
The woman grabbed John’s hand and triggered something inside of him he never knew existed. It was like a switch he’d never known was there had just been flipped. He put his other hand on her waist like it belonged there, and she circled her arm around his neck, pulling him close. She pressed her body into his.
“Do you remember now?” the woman asked.
For John, it was like his heart remembered but his mind couldn’t. All he had were the feelings of a memory that his mind had tossed out.
“No,” John replied.
Fireworks sounded off outside the club. The woman whispered something, but John couldn’t make it out.
“What?” John asked. He turned his ear to her.
“…so cold. I’m so cold. I’m so cold. I’m so cold…”
John watched the woman’s lips turn pale as the blood ran from them. In that moment, a sudden flood of memories knocked the breath out of John. Just like that, he remembered.
It was a summer night. After finishing his last shift before vacation, Detective John Michaels of the MPD headed to Blake’s Bar and Grill for a drink. In his hand was a paper gift bag. John took an empty space at the bar and sat the bag on the counter.
“What’ll it be, Detective?” asked the bartender.
“Jack, please. Neat.”
John twisted the wedding band on his ring finger as he waited for his drink. Then two arms wrapped around his stomach from behind, and a face nestled against his back. Looking down, he saw a rose tattoo on the back of one of the hands that held him. He turned to see a petite woman, the brim of her straw hat casting a shadow that hid her face. Her rose gold hair flowed with ease over her shoulders and stopped halfway down her back. She was dressed in a sleeveless white dress.
Her name was Rose Michaels.
John lifted Rose’s face by her chin and fell into her wide green eyes. He kissed her lips and told her how beautiful she looked, then watched her say thank you with a grin.
John grabbed the gift off the bar’s counter and handed it to his wife. “Happy anniversary, baby.”
“Aw, you did remember,” she teased.
“Just open it.” John took a sip from his drink.
From inside the bag, Rose pulled out a small stuffed elephant. Its ears were large and floppy, and on the inside of one, Rose’s name was stitched in cursive lettering.
“What a cutie,” Rose exclaimed while rubbing the animal against her cheek. Then she noticed a zipper on the elephant’s back with something inside. Rose unzipped the pouch to find two folded up pieces of paper. She unfolded them and saw that they were plane tickets.
“Oh my god.” Rose slapped John on the arm. “Hawaii?”
“We leave tomorrow morning.”
“This is too much.”
“Too much? Sweetheart, this isn’t just another anniversary—this is the big ten! That’s ten years of you putting up with my shit without a single homicide charge. All the mornings I used all the hot water, all the date nights I missed when I had to work… For you, nothing is too much.”
“I love you. Do you know that? And as for your present… well you’ll just have to wait a tad bit longer,” she said and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Right now, momma needs a drink.”
Rose ordered a Martini. After drinking it, the bartender asked her if she’d like another.
“One’s enough. Thanks.” Then she turned to John. “Okay, I need you to hurry and finish that,” she said, looking to the Jack left in his glass.
“Oh, let’s not waste time asking questions, Mr. Officer-man. The night’s still young, isn’t it? Let’s go live a little.”
John finished his drink and tossed a few crumpled-up bills onto the bar and followed his wife outside. Rose hurried down the sidewalk, tugging John along behind her by the hand. As John followed, he caught the sweet vanilla scent that trailed from her. They continued East down Madison, crossed North 2nd Street, then North 4th, and stopped in front of a nightclub called The Night Owl.
“Oh, look,” John said, unamused. “A nightclub.”
“Now, I know these places aren’t your favorite, but—”
John stopped her. “I’d love to,” he said.
John was walking toward the back of the line when rose pulled him in the other direction. She walked up to one of the bouncers at the front and began saying something. People standing outside the club were loud and kept John from being able to hear. After flipping through a couple of papers on a clipboard, the bouncer let them in.
“What the hell just happened?” John asked once they were inside.
Ignoring the question, Rose grabbed a table by the railing just off the dance floor then pulled out her phone and checked the time. “Hey, will you order us some drinks if a waiter comes by?” she asked John. “I have to run to the bathroom real quick.”
“Oh, uh, yeah, I guess. What do you want?”
“Surprise me,” she said with a shrug before darting away.
John stood at the table watching the crowd on the dance floor bounce in synchronicity to the pounding bass of the music. After a brief moment, he saw Rose’s rose gold hair and white dress squeeze through the crowd. Her smile stretched ear to ear as she grabbed John’s hand and pulled him onto the dance floor.
“What’s going on?” he asked, shouting through the music.
“You’ll see,” Rose responded.
Suddenly, the music turned down low.
“Hey, how’s everybody doin’?” The D.J. said through the microphone.
All at once, the whole crowd responded with a single cheer.
“That’s what I like to hear. So, we’re going to do things a little different tonight. In the crowd right now, we have a couple celebrating a very special moment in their lives. Tonight is their 10th anniversary. That’s right, let’s make some noise for Rose and John, everybody.”
A spotlight fell upon the two as claps and woo-hoo’s filled the club.
“Fantastic,” the D.J. continued. “Now, for their special night, Rose has requested I play a song that she’d like to dedicate to her husband. So, everybody grab somebody, get on the dance floor, and get close. Happy anniversary you two.”
‘Tiny Dancer,’ by Elton John began playing.
“Our wedding song,” John said. He cupped Rose’s face in his hands. “You planned this?”
Rose nodded. Then she took a deep breath as if to calm herself. “You ready for the rest of your present? Close your eyes.”
While John’s eyes closed, Rose let hers freely roam over his face, all the features she adored: the freckle over his left brow, the scar on his chin, the salt and pepper of his beard. Her hand dug through her purse. Then she stopped.
“Whenever you’re ready,” John said, his eyes still closed.
“Do you hear that?” Rose listened. “Sounds like fireworks.”
“I swear, if you’ve also had someone set off fireworks…”
Then John heard it too. His eyes opened to a realization. Those distant pops, such a familiar sound. They weren’t fireworks, though. As they continued, what was happening became clear, and the most horrible feeling imaginable fell upon John.
From beneath the music, a roar of screams erupted, beginning first outside the club. Then the double doors at the front opened. A man dressed in full black and a ski mask stood at the front entrance. In his arms was an AR. In that brief moment, John’s thoughts ran faster than his legs ever could as time reached a standstill.
John pushed his wife behind him just as the masked man raised the gun and began firing into the crowd. People fell as the music stopped. Everybody ran every which way, bumping into some and trampling a few. Most in the dense crowd darted to the side door, but it had been locked from the outside.
John scrambled for the phone in his pocket and called 911. “This is Detective Jonathan Michaels with Memphis Police; I need backup at The Night Owl Nightclub on 4th and Madison,” Jonathan said under the sounds of rapid shots. “There’s a shooting in progress. One assailant, multiple civilians down. I repeat: a shooting at The Night Owl, send backup.”
John drew his gun. With Rose’s hand in his, he pulled her to the side. “Everybody get down!” he shouted. But his voice was lost in the screams. He raised his gun. People were scurrying. There wasn’t a clear shot. Then the crowd parted just enough. John’s finger tightened around the trigger… but he froze. The shot was gone.
Just then the shooter took aim in John’s direction, and fired.
John growled in pain as a bullet pierced through his bicep. He raised the gun again, aimed, and took the shot he had. PAH! The bullet hit the gunman center mass. He lost balance, stumbled—but the bullet didn’t make it through the Kevlar. The gunman resumed aim just as John fired once more, this time shooting the gunman in the head.
John turned around and, to his horror, saw Rose on the ground. A single bullet had torn through her chest. Her blood covered the front of her white dress, staining it red.
“No, no, no, no…” John pleaded as he hurried to Rose’s side. He took a plastic card from his pocket, placed it over the wound in Rose’s chest and applied pressure. Beneath his hand he felt the rapid but faint beat of Rose’s heart.
“John.” Her voice quivered as she struggled to speak through the pain.
John held her hand tight. “I’m here.”
Over the sound of cries that filled the club, sirens could be heard just outside. Beside where Rose laid, her purse had spilled. There on the ground, John noticed a pregnancy test. With his bloodied fingers, he picked it up and saw two lines. His vision blurred as a tear trickled down his cheek. He looked to Rose.
She fought her lips into a smile. “Happy anniversary,” she managed.
“You’re going to be okay.” He kissed her head. “You’re going to be okay. I promise.”
Amongst the scattered things that fell from Rose’s purse, John also noticed a folded piece of paper. On one side of the paper, the word boy’s was written. On the other side, it said girl’s. It was a list of names. The first name written under the boy’s side was Wesley.
Rose tried looking down at where she’d been hit, but John stopped her. “Is it bad?” she asked.
John tried his hardest to look as nonchalant as he could. He shook his head and said, “No. No, it’s not bad,” hoping he could even fool himself.
Rose shivered. Her face, her lips turned pale. “I’m cold. So… so cold.”
Swat flooded into the club. John quickly stood and identified himself, then had an officer fetch a medic for Rose. Then, John realized something. He realized the hand he gripped no longer gripped his. And beneath his hand where he’d once felt the beat of Rose’s heart, he felt an emptiness.
“Rose?” John lifted her head and stroked the hair from her face. “Rose. Rose!”
But the light in Rose’s eyes had fallen dark, and her body, in that dress of red, had fallen limp. Her unblinking eyes, no longer staring into John, stared straight through him. John turned back to the swat and ambulance personnel with terror in his face, shouting as loud as he could for somebody to hurry—but no one was there. The frantic crowd whose screams and cries had just flooded the club were also gone. The chaos, the bodies on the floor, the masked gunman… Everything was gone. Instead, all John saw were the white walls of a claustrophobic room. When he looked back to Rose, he instead saw a woman in her 50’s with dark curly hair. She was dressed in scrubs and wore a name tag that read, Louise Schean, LPN. Across the top was, Greenoaks Hospital, Behavioral.
“What—what’s happening?” John asked, his voice stricken with panic. But as he continued to look, and as his thoughts continued to settle like the pounding in his chest, John became aware of just what was happening. Looking down at his clothes, John saw he was wearing a white t-shirt, gray sweatpants, socks, and a pair of flip flops. Around his wrist was a plastic band that had his name, date of birth, and Patient 313 on it.
“He’s coming out of it,” said the nurse.
John was trying to move when he felt the blood-cutting grip of the four hands that kept him restrained. On either side of him stood two bulky techs in green scrubs, holding John by his arms.
“Hey, it’s okay,” the nurse said as she held up her open palms. “John. You’re fine. Remember the grounding techniques you practiced with Dr. Davidson. Slow, deep breaths. Think about where you are, what you see, hear…”
For a moment, John stopped resisting as his body relaxed. He let out a long, slow breath and let the nurse guide him through the exercise. But as his eyes closed, the faces of those he couldn’t save—the faces of those who’d died that night at the club—stared at him from the backs of his eyelids.
John began jerking and thrusting his arms, trying to pry himself from the death grips of the technician’s. He twisted and grunted, pushed and heaved… but he couldn’t get free. The nurse drew a syringe from her front pocket and bit off the cap as she used her other hand to push up John’s sleeve. She then stuck the needle into his arm and pushed in on the plunger with her thumb.
The last thing John saw, just before those faces on the backs of his eyelids, was a picture of Rose taped to the brick wall beside his bed.
Honestly, this was one of those stories I wrote but didn’t know what to do with.
It’s hard to believe it’s almost been a month and a half since I last wrote anything on this blog because it seems like it’s been longer. Anyway, I’m alive. Been doing a lot of traveling these last couple months. On the west coast just outside of LA right now. Yep.
Talk soon, (maybe)