Jeremy and Sarah
I had two phone calls from Don before he killed himself. Each call should have tipped me off. Maybe not the first one, but certainly the second. I couldn’t have gone to him anyway; he lived in another state far away. Still, I could have done something, called somebody. I wonder if Don knew at the time of the first call–the first contact I had had with him in three years–that he was going to commit suicide. When do suicides know for sure: just before they pull the trigger?
He had called that first time to say hello, but instead of wanting to hear an update on my life, he had launched into a rambling account of his own. Then he told me:
“You know, the other day I suddenly remembered I left a notebook in the attic of that house where I had my college apartment.”
“What’s in it?” I had asked him. The mention of his college apartment had brought back memories of heaps of books, his cluttered desk, stacks of papers. A mess, but ordered, it seemed, to make an impression of disorderliness.
“I can’t remember. Poems, story ideas, philosophical arguments. Maybe nothing,” he had replied. “I can’t imagine why I hid it. I was in one of my states, I suppose.”
Then two months later he put a bullet in his brain.
But not before he had called one more time. He had to confess, he said. Confess to something horrible. I didn’t believe him. I simply didn’t believe what he was telling me. It was too outlandish. That occupied my thoughts when I should have been wondering about his mental state. The incredible confession had been the sign of a tormented and deranged mind crying out for help. A cry I hadn’t heeded. I should have gone to him, but I hadn’t. Now he was gone from me, gone from the world.
That was five years ago. I really hadn’t even thought about him until I happened to return to our old university when I was asked to deliver a paper on the patrons of Victorian art. Driving up and down the old streets, I passed by the house where Don had had his second-floor apartment. It made me remember the notebook and wonder if it were still where he had said he had hidden it in the attic.
The brick streets, the towering elms, the early fall. It all brought back nostalgia for my college life, and it made me remember how envious of Don I had been. He was what I wanted to be, a Balzac sort of character, up at all hours, writing stories, dashing them off through the night in his cluttered cave of an apartment, and then stumbling out in the morning light, his hair as frazzled-looking as his brain must have been, feeling he had accomplished something. I feared all I’d ever accomplish was a neat desk.
He’d miss classes, but I’d keep notes for him. He’d entertain me with the wide range of his thoughts, his ideas, his passions. I was the neat, orderly, scholarly sort, now expert on arcane matters Victorian. He was consumed with the idea of creating things fresh and new. All I could do was study what had been created in the past and make puny comment upon it that really amounted to nothing more than neat categorizations.
The house was in better repair than I remembered it being when Don lived there. I opened the screen door of the small, clean-swept porch and rang the doorbell. Just how was I going to frame this odd request?
I was sitting with my cheeks in my palms when the doorbell rang, and I wondered why it always rang at the wrong time. Then I laughed and wondered aloud, “When would be the right time?” It rang a second time. I rubbed the heel of my palms into both eyes and across my cheeks to wipe away the wetness and stood up.
He didn’t look like a salesman.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he was saying.
“Yes?” I blinked my eyes but knew he could tell I had been crying.
“I know this is an odd request...”
I wondered what he wanted. I tried to connect my life with what he was telling me. He was handsome, but in an unsure sort of way. He wore dark-green, corduroy slacks and a matching coat with a soft-colored, plaid shirt and a knit tie. He had a boyish look about him, his still-thick, black hair with streaks of gray was parted on one side and cut neatly the way his mother had no doubt had it cut when she first took him to the barber chair. He looked vaguely familiar. About my own age. His eyes were a startlingly deep blue. It made me look at them a second time, and then a third.
“Do you own the house now?” he was asking.
“Yes,” I said, and thought the way he said “the house” sounded odd.
“In your attic...”
The attic? Why am I having more and more trouble connecting my life to what people tell me? Why would he want to see the attic? For a notebook. Why would a notebook still be in my attic?
“I really doubt it would still be there,” I told him. I don’t like the attic. Too many memories. Why don’t I just close the door on him if he can’t take no for an answer? Why is he still standing there, still talking?
Important? How could a ten-year-old notebook left up in an attic be important?
Women just consume me. I think that’s why I’ve never married. I just feel faint in their presence. They are such an affirmation of life for me that I can’t imagine tying myself to just one. Their variety, and my reaction to that variety, continues to astound me. That’s why I enjoy teaching at a large university. There is always a changing, fresh supply of the creatures. I really stand in awe of them. I’ve yet to meet one who fails to bewitch me. When I see one who’s just been crying, I want to put my arm around her, draw her near, tell her to shush, and collapse her into me. The woman before me was handsome rather than pretty. Solidly built. Strong-looking arms. Her brown hair should have been cut into a shorter style years ago, but obviously she was stubborn and wore it braided and then piled around her head, wisps sticking out here and there.
“I know it’s a bother. I really apologize. But, well, you see, my friend killed himself a couple of years ago and I have no idea what’s in the notebook, but I thought I’d look. Something of his that I could have.”
Smile now, Jeremy, I told myself. Smile that deep, gentle, kind smile you use when the young undergraduate lasses come to your office with questions, tears in their eyes over the C-minuses on their papers.
I liked his smile. It seemed to speak from his heart.
“You’ll have to go up there alone. I don’t like to go up there. It’s where my husband hanged himself. Five years ago.”
Just saying it made me bitter again. I always said “hanged himself” instead of “killed himself”. Killing himself would have been one thing. A dozen decent ways to do that. He could have run his damn truck at 80 miles an hour into a bridge piling and they would have called it an accident. Or he could have gone out into the woods and blown his brains out with one of his damn guns. But instead I found Roger in the attic, where he had turned himself into a human plumb bob whose point pierced through to the bottom of my gut.
“Come on in.”
The carpets had been removed, the wood floors stripped and polished, and woven rugs were everywhere I looked: on the floors, hanging on the walls, lying over the backs of sofas and armchairs. The house should have been a riot of colored yarn, but everything looked slightly dusty. Drapes were drawn, and little sunlight made its way into the rooms where the life of color awaited the beams of light. Looms were set up in the living room, in the dining room, and even – as I looked down the hallway through to the kitchen – in the eating area, but they looked long unused. Projects started, never completed.
“A brilliant deduction on my part tells me you weave,” I said and added, “My mother used to weave.” Finally a smile came to her lips. It was like a smile that had been long unused, a stranger to the lips that formed it.
“I owned a yarn store downtown. But I’m no businesswoman. I need to sell these looms off, but I hate to part with them.”
“It’s such a contrast to when my friend lived here,” I said, and reached down to finger a shawl thrown over the back of a nearby rocker. “This is lovely work,” I said as I caressed the ugly mixture of dull colors. I hated weaving and knitting. It was why I moved south: so I’d never have to wear another damn sweater.
“Thank you. Did the Franklins own the house then?”
“Yes. A nice elderly couple. I wonder what happened to them. They rented out the summer porch upstairs.”
“It’s my favorite place to weave. I have the 72-inch loom up there. Mr. Franklin died and his wife sold the home and moved to a nursing home. I used to visit her. What was your friend’s name?”
“His last name? Maybe I knew him. I was in school here then, too.”
“Bowerman. Don Bowerman. We were both English majors. I’m sorry. I never introduced myself. I’m Jeremy Broad,” I said, remembered my smile, and slowly extended a hand. She took it. Her grip was firm, her fingers dry – somewhat rough – and I imagined the thousands of yards of yarn that had passed through them. My mother’s hands had had that same dry rough feel to them, as if the fibers of the yarn had sucked all the moisture out of her hands.
“Sarah Winston.” She told me her name and the smile came again. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
Oh Jeremy, Jeremy. Go very slowly now.
“I’d like that very much.”
As his hands touched the shawl I had woven ten years ago, I felt drawn to the stranger, although he didn’t really seem like a stranger. His face was familiar. His name, Jeremy Broad, rang a bell, but I couldn’t place him. I realized I hadn’t felt this drawn towards a man in many years, since before Roger hanged himself. Weaving had been my salvation. I used Roger’s money to buy a yarn store, something I’d always dreamed of doing. It kept me busy, running the store, setting up classes, and then the creation of goods from the skeins and balls of yarn. I wove a protective wrapping around my heart, but the whole thing failed, and the only thing I was left with was that protective wrapping around my heart. How had he found a loose end, and why was he starting to unravel it? I repeated his name, Jeremy Broad, as if it had a magic I could use to make full my empty life.
“Why did your husband kill himself?” he asked from the kitchen table. I felt slapped. I looked up at him from the counter where I was laying out the things for tea. People asked that question shortly after Roger hanged himself, but soon the question disappeared. When new acquaintances learned Roger committed suicide they never asked the impolite “why?”
“Why did Don Bowerman kill himself?” I decided to return the slap, but he didn’t flinch. His chin was still resting in his hand, the elbow on the table and those blue eyes still staring at me, absorbing, unraveling. There was no hesitation in his answer:
“Don was too intense, too honest, too creative, too brilliant for the world. Such people suffer: suffer in ways we never know. They have this brilliance and the world ignores it. I don’t think Don could tolerate his brilliance anymore, or tolerate its being ignored.”
I tried again to place his face, but couldn’t. He had spoken with such little emotion, like a lecturer bored with having to deliver the same lecture. His lack of emotion about his friend’s suicide created a vacuum into which I suddenly found myself pouring my emotions about Roger.
“My husband was a self-pitying bum. He blamed Vietnam for everything that went sour in his life, including me. Vietnam syndrome or some such crap they call it.” The depth of my own anger after all these years surprised me. I had never expressed it.
I walked to the table with the teapot and cups.
“You know what he used to do? He had his Vietnam stuff in a couple of footlockers down in the basement. He’d stay down there until late at night fiddling with the stuff. Drinking beer. Then he started buying all those guns. I hate guns. How did your friend kill himself?”
I looked at the wrinkles around her eyes, the furrows in the brow, the cheeks just going pudgy. It was a face preparing for middle age.
“A pistol,” I told her, and put my index finger in my mouth and cracked my thumb. I knew it was a crude gesture. She didn’t flinch. Instead, she spoke.
“My best friend was raped and killed when that madman was on the loose ten years ago. She was a beautiful girl. I couldn’t understand it when she died. She was so much more full of life than I was. But when my husband hanged himself I didn’t feel so badly. He was empty of life. Life had left him, gotten tired of him, and departed from him. So, really, all Roger hanged was the shell that had been his life.”
“Did they ever find that rapist? I remember the panic in the town. The townies were sure it was a college student and the gownies were sure it was a townie. How many girls did he kill? Four?”
“No, five. And no they never found him. Once in a while the paper does a story reminding us all about it.”
“Which one was your friend?”
“Lily Straus. The last one. He must have abducted her when she got off work at the restaurant. They found her body two days later in a field. Just like the others. Roger was her boyfriend. It was the week before he returned from Vietnam. We comforted each other. We got married and he hanged himself.”
I finished my tea and watched her staring off into space. I knew the space into which she gazed. That middle ground of emptiness where people search for answers when they don’t even know how to frame the questions.
She seemed to snap to.
“The notebook. Shall we see if the notebook is still there?” she asked.
Every step upon the stair made my feet grow heavier with the leaden weight of the memory of Lily Straus. Lily Straus. I whispered the name from my lips like a death gasp. Did the rapist enjoy Lily as much as I had? The flashing, blue eyes, the black, glistening hair she wore cut short. She would twist away and yet implore you for more. Had she implored the rapist, too? Had there been pleasure in the fear? Surely not. I could imagine Lily’s small hands, beating on his back as they once had pummeled my own back. I could still feel their tiny batterings. The demanding for more pleasure and the hating of it at the same time. The recriminations after. The pledges to not do it again, of staying friends, and then – in the warm, mellow evenings of that summer – the gentle touch that became a frantic fumbling.
Lily’s boyfriend was in Vietnam and she waited for him. She didn’t date other men; she stayed loyal to Roger, except for me. When Roger returned he found Lily not alive to greet him, but Lily dead – raped and murdered – and buried. And that domestic violence ravaged the precious few portions of his soul that hadn’t already been ravaged by the foreign violence he had just departed. I comforted Roger, and Roger comforted me. He was a link to Lily. It was as if, when Roger possessed me, I possessed Lily.
“There’s the rope; it pulls down the stairs to the attic.”
“Do you want to leave?” he asked. “I can go up there alone.”
“No, I want to go up. I want to face it.
I watched her reach a hand up to grab the rope and pull down the stairway. As she stretched up, her body attracted me. Her hips were full and broadening with the coming of middle age. “I want to face it,” she had said, and I ran the quote over in my head. It looked to me as if she were anxious to face, running to face, gasping at the opportunity to face whatever “it” was.
The stairs were hinged, and she pulled them down for the bottom rung to rest upon the floor. The light in the attic had that hazy look, as though filtered through a yellow paper. Dust motes hung in the air from the earthquake caused by lowering the steps. To me, it looked like she missed the third step on purpose. She slipped, fell backwards, and I was there to grab her shoulders and steady her. She twisted her head to look at me. Tears were in her eyes. I think a man who fails to kiss a woman when a woman wants to be kissed–needs to be kissed–is condemned to hell. A man who cannot recognize when a woman wants to be kissed lives in hell. It is the not the kiss that is delicate, it is the words. You have to say words after you kiss. Those are the challenge. But I knew what to say. I had seen through the hallway into the summer porch where Don had had his apartment. I had seen the bed there, next to the large loom.
She continued to stare at me, tears flowing out of those brown eyes, eyes that looked into mine with a haunting desperation. The life seemed gone from her shoulders, as though only my grip upon her was keeping her from wilting into a pile of will-less flesh. The kiss came easily. Her eyes closed. The pressure of my lips upon her own gave her back her will. First I felt her lips gain life under my own, and then her shoulders tensed in my arms. And then the words, too, came easily:
“Come,” I said, and led her by her hand. “I want to make love to you in Don’s room.”
There was no reluctance in her step.
There are times that I am able to separate myself from my own passion, float above and stare down to observe the flow of passion of the woman I am with. Her passion fascinated me. The longing and the need were so intense and so deep my body could only ride with it. It was as if I were in a lifeboat on a stormy sea. You had no choice but to ride where the storm took you. To think you could control the boat was silly. All you could do was hang on as the roiling in the depths of the sea caused the surface of the water to whip itself into an explosion of expression.
But then my moment came. The totality of my existence focused itself into that desperate, physical desire to sum up that existence with one massive thrust. And as I did so, I opened my eyes, and even as my loins emptied their fire, they turned to ice. Her face was not her face; her face was Don’s, his eyes wide open and staring into mine. “Don,” I cried, and heard her own astounding answer.
“Come,” he said. “I want to make love to you in Don’s room.”
I followed willingly as he led me by the hand back to the bed beside the loom. I slept there in the summer, with the windows open on three sides to catch the night breezes. I felt drained. It amazed me that I could walk. I thought he might have to carry me. The spark of life he had given me in that kiss was but a tiny battery charge for my heart. Without a further charge, my heart will flutter into nothingness.
He sat me on the edge of the bed and kissed me again. I felt more life come into my body. His lips moved to my neck, and I could feel the pulse in my neck leap to meet his lips. He began to undress me, and I felt his hand go to my nipple, and my heart leaped to meet his touch. My hands finally found the strength to pull his head to my breast.
Even as I lost control, I reflected on the fact. But any mental powers I had were lost in the demanding cauldron of need. I haven’t had a lover for years; I excused myself, and let loose from deep within me the power to devour him. But he seemed un-devourable. He stayed afloat even as I raged below him until each emotion fused with every other emotion in my body to speed along the wires of my nerves and overload my brain with insane need. “Lily!” I heard myself cry, and opened my eyes and Lily’s face was above me, her blue eyes flashing. “Lily!” I cried again, even as I heard him call me Don.
I am rarely satiated. Tired, yes, but almost never satiated. Men get bored with a woman, but that isn’t satiation. I wanted her again.
“Was Don your lover?” she was asking, her breathing slowed now. The deep gulps of air she’d taken were quieting her.
“We were close, intimate, but never lovers. Neither of us was homosexual. I loved him, but I didn’t desire him.” My own breathing, too, was calmer, although my stomach muscles still fluttered, sudden spasms of muscle memory triggered by the physical exertion. “And Lily, tell me about Lily,” I demanded, and listened to the evening sounds of birds bring night upon the world and dread upon my soul.
I didn't want to tell him about Lily. How to tell him about Lily, I wondered, even as I realized my mouth was opening and the words were tumbling out, tired of being imprisoned.
“We were lovers. Neither of us had had a lesbian experience before. It surprised us both. Scared us both, especially her. Her boyfriend was Roger. He was away at war in Vietnam that summer when we had our affair. Then she was murdered the week before he was to return home.”
“And you married Roger,” he said.
“And I married Roger,” I repeated. “I married Roger because he was my link to Lily and I was his link to her. But it didn’t work out, and neither of us could admit it. Divorcing each other would have been like divorcing Lily for both of us. Roger came back from the war shattered. I don’t know if even Lily could have glued the pieces back together. I hardly even tried. I think Roger liked being broken into pieces, so he could pick each one up and cry over it.”
“Did Roger ever know?” he asked.
“Did Roger ever know?” I repeated. “Oh, yes, Roger knew. I told him. You don’t know what it’s like to be with a man who thinks he’s so macho and then dissolves into beery tears. He disgusted me. I guess I was still jealous that Lily could have loved him. I was angry at Lily for loving him. I was angry that he couldn’t honor Lily’s memory by being stronger. So, yes, I told him. I went down in the basement one night to find him wearing his silly, floppy, khaki hat with the medals pinned on it, drinking beer, his belly bulging, and there was the picture Lily had sent him when he was in Vietnam. The picture I had taken. She looked so fresh and alive in the picture, and I knew the reason. We had just made love and she was fresh and alive. He was blubbering over the picture and so I told him. I told him I had been the better lover. I knew. I could judge. I had loved her, and him, and I had been better for her. I told him it was a shame he hadn’t been killed in Vietnam. He didn’t even have the strength to hit me.
“And after I said that, I just watched him slowly fade, fade the way colors in a cheap yarn will fade until what link to Lily he provided for me turned to smoke that was puffed away when he hanged himself.”
“You found him?”
“God, yes, I found him. His last bit of cowardice and I haven’t been up there since. But I want to face it. We can go up there now. There’s a light bulb, if it still works.”
“Not at night,” I told her. “That notebook’s been up there for ten years. One more night won’t matter.” I turned on my side and laid a hand on her stomach. The raging seas within her had quieted. I could launch my boat again and this time navigate it, steer it, guide it through the swells and waves and pretend I was in control.
Later in the night I awoke. Her breathing was deep and restful. Crickets lulled the night. The smell of her was strong, but through its pungency I could smell the dust of the attic, and I wondered what ghosts had been disturbed. And I wondered – if the notebook were found – if I wanted to find the courage to open it.
The memory of seeing her face turn into Don’s worried me. That same intense face. Self-assured of its own brilliance. Certain of victory. How it used to laugh at me when I would argue with it.
That next morning we had a quiet breakfast. The sky was clean, with that special fall clearness that seems to sweep away depression like dust before a wind.
“Sarah?” I looked up from my breakfast and was stopped by the look of her face. It had changed. Maybe the confession had been good for her, maybe the lovemaking.
“Yes?” she asked, and there was an interest in her voice and in her eyes that had not been there the day before.
“A week before Don shot himself, he called to confess something to me. I didn’t believe him at the time. He was always making up outlandish stories. He said he had killed those girls ten years ago.”
“He killed Lily?”
“Well, he rattled off some names. I can’t remember them. Four of them, he said. I was paying attention more to the tone of his words than the words, but I remember he said four of them and then gave four names. Lily was not one of the names. I just thought it was so outlandish that I didn’t pay attention to him. I should have. I should have gone to him. I’m sure he wanted me to.”
“But now you think he may have been telling the truth?”
“Maybe. He was afraid of women. It was the one weakness in his cocky brilliance. He never dated, despite his good looks. He wanted dates, he wanted to know women, he desired them, but he feared them at the same time. He used to tell me how he would follow a girl on campus and then to her apartment and stake the place out. He said he’d keep logs of her comings and goings. He’d describe her to me in infinite detail. He said he wanted secretly to know all about her before approaching her. But he never approached any of them. Or else he approached them only to kill them.”
I had watched the desperation building in her eyes as I talked, and finally it exploded in a pitiful cry. “I loved Lily so much,” she burst out and started sobbing, then stopped abruptly, wiped her eyes, and continued.
“She was such a tiny thing. We were so happy together. She chatted all the time about everything. She said we had to stop when Roger came back. What did she see in him? I never understood it. To think I’ve been living in the house where her killer lived. Let’s go see that notebook.”
We climbed the steps again to the second floor; the ladder to the attic was still resting on the hallway floor, and I followed her up them.
The dry, dusty smell of the attic became stronger with each step. Her body was halfway through the opening when she turned her head, muttered, “Good God,” and sat on the edge of the attic opening and put a hand on the floor.
“What is it?” I asked, and walked past her and turned my own head to see what she had seen. “Good God.” I repeated her own exclamation when I saw the rope. No one had taken the rope down. Its cut end still hung there. They had cut him down and left the rope in place. It was thrown over a rafter and tied around a two-by-four attic stud. The chair upon which he had stood lay underneath it.
“Stay here. I’ll search for the notebook,” I told her, but I don’t think she heard me. She was in her own quiet world of memory.
I could only stare at the cut end of the rope. It seemed to represent the end point of my life. Before that point was the thread of my life. Then it had been sheared off. Now there was nothingness. Never had the nothingness of the past few years been so visible to me. It was not Roger’s body that I saw beneath the cut point of the rope, dangling as it had that day I found it. It was a conclusion: my life was as empty as the dry and dusty air that floated beneath the rope and came to rest upon the fallen chair.
“It’s here.” I heard the voice from far away. There were footsteps beside me and then he was sitting next to me, blowing dust off the cover of a spiral notebook with a shiny, red cover. I watched as he opened the cover and read with him the words: “The Diary of Murder.”
On the next page was pasted a newspaper clipping about the first murder-rape. A picture of the pretty victim – a blonde college girl – was contained in the article. On the next page I looked over his shoulder as he read the close, handwritten notes. He flipped the page, and the notes continued. I tried to focus on some of the words, but my gaze flashed to the bottom of the page, where a lock of blonde hair had been taped.
He had flipped the page, and the story and picture about the second victim was taped to the page. This time I concentrated on the tiny, small, handwriting and then wished I hadn’t. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.
“...their fear almost takes my breath away. It makes me feel faint. The way she tried to wriggle away from me. It gives me a massive erection and tremendous ejaculation...,” I read, before he flipped the page and there was another lock of hair, this one strawberry blonde, taped to the page.
Lily, I began to think; my breath was coming in short tight gasps. I felt faint.
I really wasn’t all that shocked. Maybe Don’s confession had prepared me, even though I had discounted it, and here, now, was the evidence in my hands that Don had killed all those girls. What surprised me was that he had kept such an incriminating record. But then, he would have wanted such a record. Probably planned on using it some time for a writing project. Stashed it away. And it had been sitting up here all these years waiting to convict him. But they could exact no punishment upon him. He had already killed himself. He was beyond their reach.
I turned the page to look at the clipping about the third victim, the headlines growing larger now as fear and outrage grew with each dead girl that turned up. His slanted, squat handwriting was easy for me to read: I knew it so well.
“...They are all alike in their begging. They all beg. They all promise not to tell. They all want life. I want life, too. I breathe deeper when they gasp for life. My heart is fuller. Blood races in my head. My muscles are stronger when I hold them. Her scream was a symphony in my ears...”
I flipped the pages and found the fourth victim’s story and, at the end, his notes about her. Then just above the lock of black hair these notes:
“...this must be the last. I think Jeremy suspects. If he finds out, he’ll tell the police. I’ve gained so much strength, I think sometimes I could kill even him...”
“But what about Lily?” An arm shot across the notebook and her hand turned the page. But it was blank.
I looked at her, staring in panic at the blank page.
“Nothing about Lily here. Why is that?” I asked. “Why isn’t Lily’s murder here, Sarah?”
She shook her head back and forth.
“Maybe it isn’t here because Don didn’t kill her. But if Don didn’t kill her, who did, Sarah?”
Her mouth was open and her eyes continued to stare at the notebook.
“Was it you, Sarah? Is that it? Was it more than you could stand, having Roger coming back from the war and knowing you’d lose Lily? Did you kill Lily so no one else could have her? You could have strangled her like the other girls had been killed, and even if there was no evidence of the rape, the police would blame the rapist. And then you buried your own memory of killing her, buried it deep within you where even you had no access to it. That’s why Roger’s suicide really bothered you so much, not that he was dead, but that it made you remember you killed Lily and were responsible for her death and his, too, really. That’s why you didn’t want to come up here, isn’t it, Sarah? But now you remember, don’s you, Sarah?”
I looked at her ashen face. She was staring at the cut end of the rope. I watched her mouth open, then close, then open again, the lips parting in the whispered, “Yes.”
“Yes,” I whispered, and my mind was flooded with the memories. Lily’s body under my heavier body, pressing against Lily’s light frame. Knowing that Roger was returning in a week. The despair. Knowing I would lose Lily as a lover. The despair turned to a desperation that had filled me with an unspeakable dread. “I can’t share you, Lily. I can’t lose you,” I had said, as I put my strong, weaver’s hands around Lily’s thin throat and started pressing, squeezing, and felt Lily’s sweet, little body thrash beneath me, tiny fists beating upon my back, the nails dug deeply into my skin until all was still. I had the scars for weeks. And as those scars had healed, as the newspapers told me the rapist killed Lily, I had believed it, and the scars were gone. Roger returned and we consoled one another. And now the scars were back, huge, gaping things on my heart. I could feel the blood gushing from my soul.
“I know a lot about repressing memories,” the man beside me was saying. There was something different in his voice. Something that drew even my shattered attention back to the world around me. “Jeremy's been repressing me for years. Thought he’d killed me off.”
His eyes were different, the set of his face, and suddenly I recognized him. His was the face in one of the pictures in Mrs. Franklin’s nursing-home room. I used to go visit the house’s former owner, and each time there was the ritual of looking at all her pictures. In one of them, she and her husband stood by one of the students who had rented from them. They had particularly liked him, thought him brilliant. Yes, that’s why the name was familiar, too. Jeremy Broad. It was Jeremy Broad, not Don Bowerman, who had lived here, had kept this diary.
“You? You’re Don Bowerman? You killed those girls?”
“I killed all these girls,” he said, and reached down to finger the lock of hair on the last one. “I’m so glad to have the notebook back. I hid it up here to keep it from Jeremy. His force was becoming stronger. He didn’t like me killing girls. He’d taken some psychology courses, so had it all explained. He said I was just trying to get back at my mother for her incest with me. Jeremy with his reasons and his logic and his smoothness. He pushed me back. I’ve been gone for a long time. Jeremy even thought I killed myself. It was a trick of mine. If I was dead, he wouldn’t think he’d have to worry about me. But I am alive and here sitting next to Sarah Winston. Sarah Winston who killed Lily Straus.”
He had rested a hand on my thigh. I froze, but not in fear. I froze in wonder. I marveled at the words my brain was telling my mouth to form. I had no interest in his story, because the solution to the emptiness of my life was so clear. The solution was so justified, so deserved. Join the emptiness. The emptiness where Lily Straus and Roger had gone. The emptiness that had beckoned me ever since that day when I felt the life of Lily expire under my hands. The prospect brought joy to my heart. All the dread and guilt I had been feeling was gone. I felt wonderful. I smiled, put my hand over his on my thigh and let my mouth form the whispered words: “Kill me.”
I continued staring down at my hand over his and said, “You have to kill me. I might go to the police and tell them about you.”
“I know,” he said, and the change in his voice made me look at him. Don was gone and Jeremy was back. The transformation of his face was astounding. It was Jeremy. His face was bathed in sweat.
“I know,” I said, and smothered Don within me. I couldn’t let him kill a woman I had loved. She was mine. There was no reluctance in her step this time either. She followed me to where the rope hung. I untied it from the two-by-four as she watched the rope in the kind of fascination with which a small animal will watch the snake coming to kill it. I retied the rope to another stud, and the cut end of the rope slipped closer to the floor. I asked her to take off her clothes, and she shed them as though happy to be rid of those last bits of earthly impediments.
“I had to work it all out for myself. I couldn’t go to a psychologist. I took psychology classes, read, and reached my own understanding of my own split personality. The reason was simple: one of the most common. Incest with my mother. She seduced me and I enjoyed it. I hated her and she had to pay, and that became Don. But I enjoyed the sex and wanted to seduce women to get even, and that became Jeremy. Only Don turned violent so I had to pick between the two and I picked Jeremy.”
I don’t think she was listening. Her eyes were glazed, and I reached my head forward to kiss a nipple and watched it spring erect. I tied her hands behind her back using her pantyhose. I righted the chair and stepped up on it with her. As I tied the rope around her neck, I felt her body press against my own and her lips opened. “Lily,” she whispered, and then said it one more time as I stepped off the chair and kicked it free.
The body struggled. “The body always struggles. It gives up life only with a fight, no matter how strongly the mind has called it quits,” I heard the voice say within me. Don’s voice. The dreaded voice, the voice I had to still once and for all. I untied her hands and they dangled beside the hips. I ran my hand lightly over the downy hairs on the stomach, then leaned to kiss a spot below her belly button, at just that spot where Mother would direct my head. I don’t know if they were my lips or Don’s upon her skin.
I picked up the notebook, walked down the attic steps, closed them, made the bed beside the loom, picked up all my things, and walked around the house one more time with the notebook tucked under my arm. I set the front door to lock when I closed it, and walked across the street where my car was one of many parked in a row. Sometime in the future, who knew how long, they would find Sarah and conclude a suicide. The files would reveal her husband had hanged himself in that very spot, and that would hasten their conclusion.
I drove a small ways out of town and turned on a dirt road. I stopped and took the matches out of the glove box and walked to a clearing beside some trees. “Jeremy, don’t do this,” Don spoke to me. “You know your life is fuller with me.” I was tempted to read the words Don had written as I tore each page out of the notebook, but I knew the attraction they would have for me: the awful, powerful attraction. I made a pile of the crumpled paper and struck a match, but could not bring it to the pile. It burnt to my fingers and the shock of that pain gave me strength. I struck another match and threw it on the pile. It caught fire quickly and I added the bright-red cover. I watched Don Bowerman turn to ashes. Only the wire spiral binding remained and I ground that spine, too, into the charred ash and dust under my heel.E N D