The gray sedan pulled up to the curb and parked.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go in there with you? That guy...”
“No. No, thank you, David.” Malorie shook her head. Her soft, brown hair was pulled back into a knot. She hadn’t worn make-up in the last three weeks. Fortunately, the bruise over her left eye was completely healed.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, hoping it would be true. “When we talked on Monday, it was okay. He knows I’m not coming back. This is just... We’re just closing things. Talking about what to do with the house, and Justine.” She almost started to cry when she thought of her daughter, in the middle of this whole mess. But she breathed, deeply, and recomposed herself. “I can get through this,” she spoke to herself more than him.
“Well, I’ll be out here, waiting, if you need anything.” David had been really sweet. Yes, for the last two years he’d been very obvious about his attraction to her. Their working together, and his attentions, had been what held her together as things had gotten worse at home. Craig spent all his time at work. He scarcely looked at her, barely spoke a word about their relationship. They’d made love for the last time (and it would be the last time) almost six months ago. David may’ve just been trying to get into her pants, but he was the only thing close to a romantic interest that she had anymore. And he had been there for her since Craig finally snapped.
In time, who knew. But now, she just needed to work things out, in any way she could. She knew she couldn’t save her marriage. Wasn’t even interested in that anymore. But she could possibly salvage the friendship, or do something to make it easier. Keep a custody battle from happening. She knew she would win, but poor Justine... It would be too much for each of them.
“I’ll call if I need you. Thank you.” She opened the car door and stepped out. Steadying herself, she started up the steps to the house she’d lived in for the past twelve years. There was no familiarity left.
The door creaked open and she entered.
My god, she thought. It’s absolutely freezing in here. She walked over to the controller for the central air. It was mid-October, snow was right around the corner, but it was far warmer outside the house than within. She tried to adjust the temperature, but the switch had been tampered with. Broken, to be more exact. The air-conditioning was running, full blast.
“Craig,” she called. She started to notice the fact that the house was also unusually dark. Not much of a surprise, really. There was once or twice when she’d come home from visiting her parents on a given night, and found him sitting in the dark. Sometimes he would be watching television, the amber glow of the screen reflecting off his face. But one time he was just sitting there, in the blackness. No light. No sound. She’d thought he was asleep. She worried he was sick. But he was just sitting, waiting for her.
It was the first time that she had started to become frightened of him.
She flicked the light switch at the stairwell. Fortunately, it was still functioning. She walked up the steps to his office.
“Craig,” she said his name again. “Are you in here?” She walked in, saw an empty chair at his desk. He was supposed to be here. He had called her, he’d set up the meeting between them. It would be just like him to forget, and be out somewhere, or at his work. Probably immersed in some cadaver...
She saw a note on the desk. A folded over piece of scrap paper, with her name printed on it. Malorie, it called out to her. She lifted it, expecting it to be a notice that he wasn’t going to show. She wasn’t expecting an apology.
“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to attend our little meeting. I have left you instructions, and explanations, in the top drawer of my desk. “
That was it. In his usual, pompous way, he’d blown her off. There was a time when it would’ve infuriated her. Now, she just confirmed in her mind that it was over. Completely.
She opened the drawer.
In it lay his mini-recorder, the one she given him when he was still in med school. It seemed such a simple gift at the time, but he really loved her for it. He loved her, back then. When they were broke, and struggling. When they stayed up all night, talking, no matter how early they had to be up for work or class the next morning. When they’d make love until dawn, and drown themselves in each other’s scents.
It seemed forever ago.
She pressed play, and the hallow tone of his voice filled the room.
“It seems that we’ve turned the last corner in our marriage. I know that you’ve seen it coming for some time, of course. The fights, starting some time last year, I’m not even sure exactly when. The weekends you’ve been spending at your parents, knowing I would never consent to go with you. And that David fellow who’s been calling from your work.
“I’ll bet he fucks like a boy in his teens, now, doesn’t he?
“Come, come now, it’s all right. I actually know better. You were never the one to forgo the sacred vows of our wedding just because you were frustrated. Besides, you always knew how to pleasure yourself far better than I could give it to you. But six months is a long time, and I would wonder if it just might have become too much for you. And I wouldn’t blame you. I haven’t been very... forthcoming, if you’ll excuse the wording. It just became too complicated in the run of things.
“You see, Mal... there’s someone else.”
She stopped the tape. Anger seethed in her. She’d known. Deep within herself, she’d always suspected it. The late nights were one thing. But he just... kept turning himself off. No matter how much she tried to please him, in the home, in their bed. Even before she was pregnant with Justine, she would have to work harder and harder to arouse him. She opened herself to him in new ways, in ways she never thought she would, just in hopes that he would begin to find her attractive again.
And he was with Her. Whoever she was. It didn’t matter. She just knew, again, how much she hated him. How far lost they were from each other. He could die, for all she cared...
And then, she realized.
She looked at his note, again. “...instructions and explanations...” For what? Not their separation. He wouldn’t think enough to tell her why, not unless he was gone.
Her thumb unconsciously found the play button again. She pressed it, and it seemed the hardest thing she’d ever done.
“...one else. Perhaps this is a shock to you, although I don’t see how it could be. I was always able to look into your eyes and see the love that you felt for me. I watched as, over the years, it pleaded, and finally died slowly away.
“You must’ve asked yourself why you never saw it in mine.”
She had. Over and over again.
“Her name is Allison. I know I’ve told you about her before. Years ago, back when we first started dating in college. Back when you couldn’t get enough of my stories, even the ones about other women. What, all two of them then.
“Allison was the girl in my chemistry class. The one with far too much going on in her life and mind... in those deep, blue eyes of hers... to be paying much attention to any of her classes. So, I tutored her. Actually, I wound up completing most of her homework, for that class and others. I was young, then. Quiet. I didn’t fit in much, so, just to have the excuse to be near her... It’s not like I didn’t know she was using me. I just didn’t care.”
“Shut-up,” she told the recorder, although she didn’t touch the switch again. She had heard this before, and, unbeknownst to him, it had always hurt her to think of him being with someone else. Especially someone he seemed to love so much.
“But she made up for it. I don’t know if it was a sense that she owed me something. She didn’t seem to care about it. Football players, lettermen, all the rich and good-looking guys in school wanted their piece of her. She walked past them in some daze that no one could figure. They would call her a dyke, although she gave no indication of such. Or they thought she was stoned (sometimes). They claimed she was too stupid, that it was her loss.
“I lost my virginity to her on the leather recliner in her father’s den. Not the romantic setting of your first time, right? In the back of that boy’s van. Brian, wasn’t it? But to me, it was like the world had stopped spinning, for just a moment, and then started again, but in an entirely new direction. I saw things differently; I could smell things I hadn’t noticed before. There were new colors in my palette.”
“shut-up, shut-up, shut-up...”
“As I came inside of her, my body convulsed, like I was having a seizure. It was... painful, to be quite frank. I had to close my eyes for fear that they would explode with the pressure that was releasing from the rest of my body. I shuddered and shook and gasped; breathing was beyond me, a lost skill, overtaken by this new sensation. And, as I opened my eyes, she was still atop of me, staring blankly at my face. She had cum too, I was sure of it. I knew I could feel it.
“But nothing took a hold of her. No explosion. No touching the next plane of existence. I was a changed man. By god, I was a man now. But she was just the same dazed little girl. Nothing to show she loved me, as I now knew I loved her.
“I promised her, at that moment, there would be no one else. Then she climbed off of me.”
Malorie retched, her stomach pulling into itself liked she’d just been dealt a blow. She coughed, threatening to vomit, but steeled herself against it. No more waiting, she decided. Get it over with. Out of the way. If he was hanging in a closet. If he was floating out to sea, she would finish this now, today. No more.
“I was blind to her apathy. As far as I allowed myself to believe, we were destined. I started telling my friends that she was my girlfriend. Word got out around school. Some of the jocks harassed me, one beat me up after fifth period, having snared me on the way to my bus. They said I was a liar. No one would believe me, and she never said a thing, either agreeing or to the contrary. She kept to herself, had no close friends. She ignored the question when it was brought up, and I was too stubborn a fool to try to get a straight answer out of her myself.
“I kept tutoring her. She kept offering herself up to me as payment. And I lost myself to her more and more each time.
“Her father moved the family away in our senior year. I threatened to follow, but, being the bookworm I was, I didn’t work. I had no real savings. And she never asked me to come, never said it would be okay. When I kissed her good-bye, sure that I would find her and we would be together again, there was no passion in return from her. No tears shed.
“She was devoid of any emotion at all. And I’d known, deep down, that she had been like that all along.
“I ran home and destroyed most of my things in a blind rage. I threw my typewriter across the room. What I’d built as a lab, knocked over, shattering, splintering. My parents came to me, more furious for what I’d done than concerned for my well-being. I hit my father (the reason we don’t speak now). I broke my knuckles on the bedroom door.
“Throughout the next year, I drank heavily. I experimented with drugs, but never found the solace in them as I did in alcohol. I became such an open abuser that some of the other students found a new respect for me. After graduation, a blur in my mind, I was invited to a party. That’s where I was introduced to Karen. She was shy, like I had once been. She’d had a crush on me, it seemed, for the last two years.
“I used her, in as close to how I had been used as I was able to, and then I left her.
“That’s when I went to college, and where you and I met.”
A part of her, the part that was slowly being raked across the verbal blaze of abuse he was dealing her, that part still found the reserve to hope that he would start speaking of their relationship, of how he looked at her with a new sense of love, or at least attraction, when they’d met. As he ignored those details completely, that part of her finally, mercifully, withered away.
“By the time we’d married, I’d given up on the idea of ever seeing Allison again. I’d written to the address she gave me when she’d left. For the first year, I wrote what must’ve equaled at least a letter or two a day. There was no reply. I tried to track down a phone number. Once, I’d gotten through. Her father had answered, hung up on me. The phone was off the hook for days, until they finally got the number changed.
“I even flew out there once. Remember, junior year at the university? I told you I was going to see a cousin, said his family was strict Catholics and wouldn’t understand if you came along. You asked me, later, why he didn’t come to our wedding, and I fumbled through some excuse.
“No cousin. No born-again aunt and uncle. They were as fictitious as the address I had been given on the day she had left me. If she’d lived in West Maine, it wasn’t where she had said. And, when I’d finally come to find her, she wasn’t there at all.”
Lies beget lies, Malorie noted to herself, feeling only slightly vindicated, but mostly like a cheap, stupid whore.
“So, I returned home, defeated. To console myself, I married you. Started my new life. I became a husband, and a father. I finished school, eventually. I watched as people either flunked out or gave up on their doctorates. People with dreams are weak, I realized. I had the stomach to go the distance, because I didn’t care anymore. It was so much easier then.
“You always used to ask me how I could handle being around the dead all day and night. You never understood that I was with my own kind.
“Life, such as it was, plodded along as was expected. You started busying yourself more with building a home, wanting me there more when Justine started school. Or wanting another child. Something to fill the void that my not loving you must’ve created within you. Our lives became the mundane drama that people lose themselves to in midday soap operas. I awaited your first affair with a sort of... eagerness. Something to help satisfy your cravings, so I could be left alone. I pushed you to spend more time with your sisters, and your parents. To go out with friends. Take your trips, go out dancing. Stay the hell away from me, that’s all I wanted.”
She’d sensed it. It was plain as day. Tasha, her sister, had taken her aside and said nearly those exact words to her, almost four years ago. Her family knew that he didn’t love her. It was easier to accept now, of course. She wasn’t even worried about the ‘I-Told-You-So’ that she knew she would receive. They would all just be relieved that he was gone.
Really, even dead, no one in her family would miss him. She was trying so hard to follow that way of thinking.
“I wasn’t interested in cheating, of course. Not out of respect, certainly not out of love. I just didn’t see the sense. Sex was useless to me. I could lose myself in a damp cloth with as much emotion as I felt with you or anyone else. Anyone, except her.
“So, imagine my amazement when she walked into my office. Two years ago now, almost to the day. She came right in, looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Hello, Craig. I’ve missed you.’
“She may as well have said, ‘Take me right here next to these cadavers.’ Which is precisely what I did. That day, and the next. Then we arranged for a hotel suite, which we met in every day after. She was married, but it didn’t matter to me. She was mine, like she always had been. I had been right when I had said it before.
“Destined. We were meant to be together. It had only taken time.
“Over time, of course, I started to want more. Afternoons were too short. Giving her back to that... man. Coming home to you.
“I became demanding. I told her we had to run away together. We could go anywhere. Do anything that she wanted.
“We made love again. It was the same as every time before. Empty eyes. Window to a hollow soul. But I made those eyes, her entire body, my home. I could never be without her.
“She left me. I’d asked for too much again, and she exited my life with the same ease, the same carelessness of my needs.
“I didn’t care. By now I knew better. She would return. You can’t argue destiny, and she would be back. This I knew.
“And I was right, of course.
“What I hadn’t known, although it should have been obvious, was that Allison was sick. Not just the sickness of scared, quiet little girl, which had always been who she was. I’ve realized things now. How her father abused her. I had always wondered if I was her first as well. Now I know.
“But she had been wasting away. It may’ve been her husband. Or her father. Or any number of gentlemen throughout the years. The numbers hadn’t mattered to me. All that mattered was that someone had taken my Allison from me.
“She came in on my slab as an anonymous drowning. Suicide. She had thrown herself into a lake and let it take her under. She didn’t have any identification with her. No way to figure out who she was. Not even a note.
“She didn’t need to leave one. She was the message. We were meant to be together. She knew she would come to my table. She knew that I would find her again. Her husband would never know what happened. Hell, he probably didn’t even know of her illness, how she was dying anyways. But now I could know.
“I could know her in ways that I’d never even dreamt.”
Malorie was throwing up into the wastebasket. She had dropped the tape recorder, but could still hear it over her quiet heaving. The words permeated her entire being, eating away at whatever was left of her insides. Her illness? What had he given her? With his careless fucking. Not from being with his beloved. With her. With his own wife, who he screwed once in a while just to placate her. What had he left her with?
Panic overtook her. “You fuck-- (hurk) --fucking bastard,” she choked out. The tape played on, somehow drowning her sobs in the otherwise silent house.
“I found out so many things that day. I tested her blood. I examined her body in ways I had never really been allowed before. But eventually they would want to take her from me. I had no other choice. I had to take her away from there.
“That is the night that I struck you.”
Of course it was. And what better reason. It couldn’t be because of the weight of their marital problems coming to a head. Or the fact that she had provoked him (or so she had thought). It couldn’t even be because he was just some asshole who suddenly thought it was okay to beat up his wife. No. It had to be because he wanted the house to himself so he could fuck his dead girlfriend.
“I needed you out of here. Predictably, you didn’t try to talk anything out after that. You took Justine and you ran as fast as you could. I’d given you what you wanted for so long; the excuse to leave me. That sickening need you feel to always do the right thing. You can never be selfish enough to do what you know you’ve wished for deep inside if it can somehow make you feel like you’re a bad person for not trying harder.
“It’s amazing how a fist in the eye can give a woman that sense of righteousness.
“I set to making the house more... suitable... for my guest. The heat was traded for air-conditioning. I cleared out the deep freezer in the basement. After the second day, I grew accustomed to it myself.
“And I took Allison, day and night. I made love to her in the most delving of ways. People who think they know anything about lovemaking are fools. She and I had no boundaries now. No limits. When I thought I’d learned everything about her flesh, that’s when I took out the bonesaw.
“And I’m going to her now. As you’ve realized, I’m sure, this is the last you’ll ever hear of me. I never thought you stupid. You knew, possibly even before walking into the house today, that we were over. Maybe you even knew that I was gone. But I felt you should know it all now, Malorie. With all the things I never was able to give you, at the very least, you deserve this.
“We’re in the basement now. She and I. You will be the one to find us. Whatever happens after that, it’s up to you.
“Good-bye, Mal. Give Justine a kiss from her daddy.”
The tape made a clicking noise. Dead air followed.
Eventually, with what strength she had in reserve, Malorie pulled herself off the den’s carpeted floor. She stared unblinkingly at the recorder for several long moments. No more words. No more pain.
She turned and walked out of the den. Down the stairs. Around to the kitchen, and down the next flight.
It was even colder here. There was frost on the windows. Her breath steamed in the open air.
Twenty paces from the stair was the freezer. The lid was open.
She could see them.
There was so little of the woman left that Malorie couldn’t have made out what she looked like even as she closed the distance towards them. No way to know if she had been strikingly beautiful, or plain. If her eyes really had been those of a sad, empty-hearted girl. No solace in even being able to compare herself.
Craig had spent his last hours cutting himself open, bleeding over and into her. Mixing his death with her death. Being one with her at last.
She was surprised at her own lack of emotion. Surprised, but not saddened. She pushed herself, but couldn’t even feel the pain of knowing she didn’t care anymore. It was all gone. Every last speck of her feelings for him. Nothing.
She was like him now. Like the both of them. With everything he’d taken from her, this emptiness, and Justine, were his only gifts.
She reached out a hand, and softly closed the lid.
Out at the car, David fawned all over her. “You’re freezing,” he said as he touched her white cheek. “Here, take my jacket.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. The coat offered her no warmth.
They sat in the car for ten minutes. The engine running. The heat going. Malorie shivering.
Eventually, David coughed. “Do you want me to take you to your parents? I’m sure Justine is wondering when you’ll be home.”
“No.” Malorie was still shaking. “Justine will be fine with my parents.” She looked out the window, up to the house.
“Why don’t you take me to your place,” she heard herself say. “I don’t want to go home just yet.”
“Are you sure?” He tried to disguise the eagerness in his voice.
Her eyes misted over, ever so slightly. Not quite tears. But through them, she thought she could see the house as it would be in wintertime. Snow covering the rooftop. Icicles hanging on the awning. Her home, her old life, standing strong against the cold.
“Yes,” she murmured. “Absolutely sure.”