Do Us Part by A. Elizabeth Herting
Do Us Part by A. Elizabeth Herting
The body floated like a cork on top of the lake, bobbing and dipping along with the current. It was impossible to say how long it’d been there, marinating in the mountain lake, the fish and other creatures feeding upon it. It wore a waterlogged black tuxedo with a royal blue cummerbund, a corsage expertly pinned to the lapel. Aside from the bloated carnage, the man could’ve been a guest at a wedding party, or better yet, a participant. As it was, there was going to be a very unhappy bride for this was one groom for which “death do us part” came a little too early.
Sam Turner had always been the black sheep, the youngest of five boys, indulged as the baby of the family. His older brothers would say he was spoiled, given things the others had to work for and that their parents were exhausted by the time they got to him. He squandered advantages, lived fast and played hard, leaving a string of broken hearts in his wake.
He’d been in and out of jail for various offenses throughout the years, nothing earth-shattering, mainly youthful indiscretions. Sam never really did an honest day of work in his life, knew how to play the system just enough to get by without too much effort. His mother defended him (he was her baby after all) while his father ignored him and his brothers seethed with resentment. Sam was a tornado and it was best to get out of the way before getting caught in his destructive path.
Lately, it seemed something was happening in Sam’s life. Something quite unusual. He settled in one place for longer than a few months, landing a perfectly respectable job at a local construction company. He began to spend long stretches of time outdoors, hiking the trails and mountains, camping and fishing. The family began to speculate, what could possibly be the cause of such change? The brothers debated it endlessly at family gatherings, but his mother knew. It was the oldest and simplest thing in the world.
Sam Turner was in love.
Grand Lake was a quaint little mountain town in Colorado that sat at the headwaters of the Colorado river. The lake was the largest natural body of water in the landlocked state. Tourists flocked to the lake in the summer, the majestic mountains rising all around them as they swam or sailed on its placid waters. It was awe-inspiring, a picture postcard and a natural destination for the discerning Rocky Mountain bride. June, of course, was the month for blushing brides, when the temperature was just beginning to heat up and the last winter snow dusted the surrounding peaks before melting. Grand Lake sat at 8,369 feet, not the highest elevation in the state, but pretty close. The lake was a feast for the eyes, God’s backyard and a natural place to take the plunge (in more ways than one.)
Unfortunately, the body in the lake had also taken a plunge, an irredeemable one. A brief afternoon rainstorm riled up the lake, the waters were choppy as the raindrops fell mercilessly upon its bloated face. It spent a good amount of time traipsing the lake’s bottom before biology took over, gases causing it to slowly rise to the surface. Its skin had turned a greenish-bronze color, the hands and feet just beginning the process of disconnecting from the body as it continued to dive and bob in the storm.
There were no tourists on the lake, the storm temporarily sending them fleeing into the local gift shops and ice cream parlors. There was one lonesome bystander hiking the perimeter of the lake, his jacket pulled up high over his face. The man was determined to make the trek, not letting the rain stop his progress as he trudged on, storm be damned. He didn’t know it yet, but he was about to become acquainted with Grand Lake’s lone swimmer as the body was slowly pushed ashore by the storm.
Sam proposed in a meadow filled with columbine. They’d been dating for just six months. Sam got down on one knee as the sun set behind the majestic Rocky Mountains, his lady love laughing with startled delight. He’d met her in one of those internet coffee houses, Sam offering to buy her a latte as they both waited in line. Her name was Sara and she was definitely not his type, but even so, he was instantly smitten.
She was an earthy, nature-loving girl from Boulder. Long flowing skirts with flowers in her hair. A gentle soul. From the very beginning, she never passed judgment on him or his colorful history. He could start fresh with her, put his past behind him once and for all. Sam was always honest about his life, wanting her to be sure about what she was getting into, but it made no difference to her.
They spent every weekend together in the mountains. Sara was an avid hiker and showed him all the trails from her childhood. In the evenings, they would sleep under the stars talking late into the night, searching for constellations. By the end of the third month, she moved in with him and Sam began contemplating wedding rings. His job was going well, even his parole officer began to take notice. He’d purposely put off taking her home to meet his family, but after she accepted his proposal, Sam knew he couldn’t delay any longer.
The family was charmed by Sara, she was a natural addition to the Turners right from the start. His mother cried as his father offered him a celebratory shot of bourbon. His brothers were more reserved, knowing Sam’s checkered history with women.
They planned a June wedding, at the very spot where Sam proposed at Grand Lake. Sara’s parents were both gone, tragically killed in a fire years ago. Sam’s parents picked up the slack and paid for most of the wedding expenses. His folks were comfortably well off, thrilled beyond all measure that their youngest child was finally settling down. Sam’s mother insisted on only the best as the guest list kept getting larger and larger. It was completely overwhelming by the time the big day approached. Sam began to get panic attacks every time his mother called or Sara asked his opinion on any of the million wedding details. Before long, he began waking up every day with a sense of dread, feeling the weight of responsibility falling heavily upon his shoulders.
The sun finally came out as the bystander completed his hike around Grand Lake. He was in training for a mountain marathon and wanted to acclimate himself to the altitude, pushing himself to get ready. He sat down on a large rock by the shore, drinking in the beautiful scenery when he saw something floating towards him in the lake. He stood up to get a better view, confused by what the object was. Is it some kind of log? It can’t be a fish, there’s no way. As it touched the bank, he finally grasped what he was seeing as he backed up in sheer panic, crashing down over an overturned log. He frantically grabbed his backpack, scrabbling for his cell phone and managed to punch in 911, tears of disbelief streaming down his face.
Sam was hyperventilating. Someone brought him a paper bag as he sat in the tent they’d set up for the groomsmen. His brothers all surrounded him, trying to calm him down as he waited, the hour of the wedding finally upon him. He loved Sara, wanted to spend his life with her, but for some unknown reason, he was cracking up. His heart was racing so hard, he thought he was having some sort of attack. Sara was in another tent across the meadow getting ready, the view of the calm blue lake a perfect backdrop for their wedding pictures later in the afternoon. Everything was set up, hundreds of white fold-up chairs in perfectly straight lines, the guests all sitting eagerly in anticipation. All of their family and friends were waiting for him to stand at the silk-draped altar and pledge his eternal loyalty to her. It was the biggest day of his life.
Sam told them he needed to get the ring from his car, that he’d forgotten to put it in his pocket. He just needed a few minutes to collect himself, the walk to the car and back being the perfect amount of time before the ceremony was to begin. He felt bad about the lie as he fingered the ring box in his jacket pocket, but it was the only way he could think to extricate himself without raising alarm. He ran the last few yards to the car and jumped in, starting the engine and driving away before anyone was any the wiser, the cans and “Just Married” sign on the back bumper clattering and clanging as he opened it up to full speed on the highway leading out of Grand Lake.
The police swarmed the lake, cordoning off the area and removing the summer tourists. This was the most excitement this little mountain town had seen, possibly since 1905 when a local mother killed her four children and then herself in a bout of insanity.
People strained at the yellow tape, cell phones held over their heads as the coroner and officers busily milled around. The bystander sat shaking on his rock, a blanket covering his shoulders as the detective talked to him. He was clearly in shock from his gruesome discovery. The body still needed to be officially identified by family, but the detective believed this was a man who’d been missing for over two weeks. The tuxedo was the biggest clue, the man was reported missing right after his wedding.
Sam was gone for just over a year. He’d finished his parole so there was no reason for him to stay in Colorado. He turned back into the drifter he’d always been, occasionally checking in with his parents, but never daring to ask what had happened to Sara. He would hang up if they even said her name. Sam was filled with remorse that he’d broken her heart, regret and relief mixed together whenever he thought about their wedding day.
He drove back to their apartment after he made his escape, quickly throwing things in a bag, just enough to get by. Before he left, he took out the wedding ring box and placed it on the kitchen table with a note that simply read “I’m sorry,” locking the apartment door behind him and never looking back. He thought about Sara constantly, had picked up the phone to call her a dozen times before stopping himself. He began to think about going home to see his family when his mother called crying and raving, her voice nearly impossible to understand through frantic tears.
“Sammy, you need to come home right away. It’s your brother.” Sam sat down hard, waiting to hear whatever awful news was coming next. “Sam, it’s Joey. He’s dead.”
His face was bloated beyond all recognition, but his mother identified him easily, citing a mole on his left arm and the fact that he was wearing the tuxedo she had gone to the store to help him pick out. She’d even pinned the corsage on herself. There was no longer any doubt that this was the sad fate of Joseph Turner.
Sam was initially furious they’d never told him in all the months he was gone that Joe and Sara were getting married. After he’d thought about it for awhile, he had to admit that he’d never actually given them the chance to tell him.
Sara was rightfully distraught after their wedding day, Sam’s family mortified and angry at the pain he caused her. They supported her after he left, bringing her more and more into the family in shared grief at Sam’s behavior. It was only logical that Joe, the only single brother left (other than Sam himself), should be the one to comfort her. That they would fall in love.
Joe was the quiet one, always determined to make something of himself, getting straight A’s in school and a full-ride scholarship to the university of his choice. He was a successful investment banker, well on his way to being a partner in the firm. Everyone recognized that he had a bright future, would be a leader in the community one day. A day that would sadly never come.
He and Sara planned a quiet wedding, just the immediate family, not wanting a repeat of the earlier fiasco. They never should have worried, Sam thought, tears falling from his eyes, Joey was the dependable one. He’d never let them down, God how I miss him already.
They left for Grand Lake immediately after the wedding, Sara wanting to say goodbye to her past with her new husband beside her. They were going to spend a week in the mountain paradise on a honeymoon. Joe was never much of a hiker but he was willing to learn for Sara, he truly loved her. He loved her so much that he never even saw it coming. Sam thought that was somewhat of a blessing, that he never had time to process what happened to him.
“She stabbed him twice in the back, presumably while they were embracing,” the detective told them, the skinny stiletto knife she was famous for clutched in her left hand. When they separated, she moved in for the coup de gras, a single stab to the windpipe before kicking him backwards into the peaceful lake, the sun setting behind the mountains in a picture perfect evening.
Joe put her on all his accounts right before they married, a net worth of many thousands that Sara had cleaned out immediately after leaving him at the lake. She disappeared completely after that, Sam and Joe’s parents frantically calling the police when neither one of them materialized at the end of their honeymoon. The alarm was greater with Joe for he had never acted impulsively before, would never disappear like Sam.
The police and federal agents were called into the case. They’d been searching for Sara for years, beginning when she lit her childhood home on fire as a teenager, locking her parents inside. Since then she had married at least nine times under different identities, all of her grooms falling victim to her stiletto knife. Two cuts to the back, one to the throat every single time. She was infamous, one of the most wanted serial killers in the country. She was called the “Black Widow of Boulder” and Joe Turner was now officially known as “Victim #10.”
A title that rightfully should have gone to Sam.
Sam stood in the meadow where his ill-fated wedding should have taken place. His grief and anger were overwhelming, that Joey had died because Sam had brought a killer into their lives. He looked out over the lake, it’s beauty bringing a lump into his throat. His family was completely shattered and afraid. Could they ever forgive him? Would he ever forgive himself? The Black Widow of Boulder had gone into the wind, but Sam knew it wouldn’t be the end of her. He had a feeling that Sara wouldn’t let being stood up at the altar slide. She had a big score to settle with him. He waited until dusk, when he heard a light step tread somewhere behind him.
“Hello, Sara,” he said out loud before turning around, feeling her silent presence behind him. “I knew you’d come.”
He could picture her in his mind before he saw her, bloody white wedding dress, the train of it dragging through the mountain flowers, stiletto gracefully held in her left hand–the hand on which she wore his ring. He let the butcher knife slide out of his sleeve and gripped it hard, waiting for the clash to come. Joey was his favorite brother after all, his death could not go unpunished.
Sam could hear her, each step deliberate and slow. It looks like we will have our wedding day dance after all, he thought as he felt the weight of the knife in his hand. In one way or another, this will be til death do us part.
It was his final thought as he turned around and prepared to receive his new bride.
Copyright A. Elizabeth Herting 2019