[Originally published in anthology Touched by Darkness published by Etopia Press (September 2012)]
She comes home from work with a smile on her face, and I immediately freeze.
She figured it out.
Water drips from her fingers and her tight-but-conservative black dress (her description, not mine), settling in a puddle on the foyer tile. The rain’s and a crack of lightning illuminates the sky behind her head, a thorny halo. Thunder follows and Robby gurgles in his bedroom before settling back to the deathlike sleep only toddlers and old people can manage.
“Honey,” she says. “I’m home.”
I watch her face, my sweat pants suddenly constricting my waist and thighs as if I’m standing in the sun wearing trash bags. I swallow thickly, glance behind me at the pot on the stove, faint plumes of steam coming from beneath the lid. When I look back at the foyer, she’s shaking her hair out and her smile’s dropped a few degrees in intensity.
“How’s my baby?”
“Which one?” I say and chuckle nervously.
“Both of them.” She winks at me. It makes me shiver.
“I’m fine. Robby’s been sleeping for almost an hour now.”
“That’s nice.” She drops her purse and the umbrella in the corner. “You know, I was thinking…”
I sigh and close my eyes, relaxing, air seeping back into my pores. She was thinking. That sounds normal. She doesn’t suspect anything.
“That’s your problem,” I say, forcing a smile. “You think too much.”
I turn and walk back to the stew and she mumbles something inaudible behind me. I ignore her, studying the top of the pot, making this clinking sound like champagne glasses touching during a toast.
“Smells good,” she says.
“It is good. I started it at like six, after I—”
“I really was thinking,” she says again, and I frown, facing her.
“Thinking about what, dear?” My words drip with rancid sweetness.
“I’ve been thinking about these plans we had.”
“You mean our travel plans?”
“Those,” she says with a nod, pointing at me as she removes her coat and throws it over a diningroom chair.
“The travel plans we made six months ago?”
“Yes, Steve,” she says exasperatedly. “I don’t think they’re practical.”
I turn back to the stove, remove the top, stir the stew.
“Why not?” I speak the words slowly, adding in a thin layer of nonchalance. “Because I have to go to Boston the week after that.”
I stay quiet, continuing to stir the stew, watching a large bubble form and burst at the top of the thick concoction.
“You hungry?” I ask finally.
“Actually, yes,” she says in a cheerful voice, totally different from the way she was speaking just a moment ago. I turn to her, and she’s smiling, eager. I can’t hide my surprise. She’s never hungry, and she’s eager even less. About anything concerning me, at least. It quickly puts a chink in my plans. I had this entire spiel planned out, a heartfelt request for her to sit and eat dinner with her husband, who loves her and cooked for her and blah blah blah. But as she stares at me, nodding and smiling like a damn Cheshire cat, I think that things might go smoother than I originally planned. Which worries me.
“Good,” I say curtly.
“Yeah. I ate something earlier, but”—she glances at the pot—“that smells so good.”
“It is good.” I put the top back on the pot and grab a bowl from the cupboard to my left. “You’ll love it.”
“I love you.”
My hand freezes with the bowl in midair. I look back at her slowly and she’s at least two steps closer to me, no doubt about it. I feel this sudden rush of fear. Something’s definitely wrong.
“I love you, Steve,” she repeats in a softer tone.
“I—” I’m completely stuck for words.
“I don’t think we say that to each other enough.” She picks at her nails, a nervous habit she used to have when we first started dating. One I’ve rarely seen since we got married. She seems almost timid right now. If I didn’t know for a fact that my wife doesn’t have a timid bone in her body, I would actually think this was cute. As it stands, it’s just disturbing.
“We’re always so… standoffish with each other,” she adds.
“I know,” I say, still holding the bowl in my hand, raised a foot above the stove.
“We need to fix this,” she says, then pauses. “I want to fix this. It’s mostly my fault, I know. With work and all, I don’t pay enough attention to you.”
I feel a sudden stinging in my eyes and quickly look away, towards the stew.
“I want you to come with me to Boston.” She steps even closer to me. I glance back at her and feel a chuckle rise in my throat. I stifle it, swallow thickly. She raises her eyebrows in anticipation.
“You want me to come?” I ask.
My pulse quickens and my forehead flashes with heat, my eyes flitting around. “What’s wrong?” she asks.
I open my mouth and nothing comes out, so I just shrug and shake my head simultaneously. She smiles, and for the first time in years, I remember how gorgeous my wife is. At this, the most inopportune moment, I remember why I fell for her. That combination of assertiveness and beauty, sexy beyond belief. I remember talking to her well into the night, how easily the conversations just flowed, how I couldn’t wait to get in her pants from the first date yet wasn’t bothered when I didn’t, and how the night I finally did—our fifth date—we went back to her apartment for a few drinks and I experienced that rush, where you kind of know you’re going to get laid but you don’t really know, and you feel even more excited than you would if it was guaranteed because that little bit of doubt is what makes the whole night so worth the effort. I miss that feeling. I miss the look on her face when we’re having a discussion she’s actually into. I miss a lot of things, namely her. I’ve missed her for a while, and I’ve just now realized it.
I look down at my hand and I’m stirring the stew again, don’t even remember taking the top back off the pot. The stew bubbles and pops and a spot of brown splashes up onto my hand, and I think about what I’m planning on doing. The bitter taste of bile fills the back of my throat and I wonder if I’ve gone insane. I smile at her, painfully.
“I love you too, babe,” I say.
“I know you do.” She steps up to me and puts her lips softly against mine, pulling the bowl out of my hand, placing it on the counter, then laying the palm of her hand gently on my chest. She leans back a little, rubs my cheek. “Let’s eat.”
“No,” I say quickly. Too quickly. I flinch. The word just shoots out of my mouth. I don’t have time to consider what it’ll mean for me and my future if I don’t carry out my plan. There’s so much riding on it, so much I wanted to fix.
She tilts her head, giving me another curious look. “No?”
“I mean…” I glance at the stew again, then around the kitchen frantically. I notice the tray sitting on the windowsill above the stove, the half-dead pair of daisies in a pile of dirt illuminated by the steady flashes of lightning outside. I hate those flowers anyway. With a quick jerk of my arm, the tray falls off the sill and suddenly there’s soil and petals everywhere, on the floor, the counter, the stove, and in the pot of boiling brown stew.
“Shit,” I say, then louder, more convincing, “Goddammit!”
“Steve,” she says, looking at me with a smirk on my face. “You have got to be the clumsiest person I’ve ever known.”
“I know. God. I spent a long time on that.”
I study her face sheepishly, looking for any sign of suspicion, wondering if maybe I’m wrong to assume she doesn’t know anything. She looks at the stove with that same eyebrow-raised expression of mixed curiosity and amusement that she’s had since she walked in a few minutes ago. Then she smiles.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I wanted to go out anyways. We can make a date of it. Drop Robby at my mother’s for a couple of hours and get some Chinese.” She touches my arm. “Like we used to.”
I sigh with relief and nod.
“I’ll wear this,” she says, brushing her dress. “It’s almost dry. Go get ready, I’ll clean up here.”
“Okay.” I’m glad for the chance to get away for a moment. I walk past her and she touches my arm.
“Wear those pants I like,” she says.
In the bedroom, I stare at myself in the mirror for a moment, then take off my shirt and study my hairy chest, my slight paunch, my receding hairline. I don’t want to think about what I planned on doing—about how I almost left my son motherless—and as a result I’m not really thinking about anything at all. It’s a good ten minutes before I remember I’m supposed to be getting ready. I glance at the bedroom door and walk over, closing it quietly. At my dresser, I grab my discarded pants and pull out my cell phone, flipping it open and dialing the last number on my caller ID. Shirley answers on the first ring.
“Is it done?” she asks, without saying hello.
I’m quiet for a moment, completely incapable of speaking because I have absolutely no idea what to say.
“Steve?” she says with a weird tone in her voice, almost fearful yet at the same time a little excited. The sound of it gives me strength and I clear my throat.
I swallow thickly. I look at myself in the mirror and feel both disgusted and relieved. “I couldn’t do it. I can’t do it.”
“What?” Then her voice rises. “What do you mean you can’t?” Her breathing accelerates into the receiver.
“I just can’t.”
“Do you know how long we’ve been planning this?” she yells. “You can’t back out now, Steve! What about the insurance money?”
“I don’t care about the money,” I say, and it feels good to say it, like I’ve suddenly grown a pair.
“You don’t care about the money? What about the life? The marriage? Your son? All the things you hate about her, Steve, what are you doing?”
I close my eyes. “I don’t hate everything,” I say. “And the things I don’t hate make it worth trying. Robby needs his mother. This is insane, what we were trying to do.”
“Steve,” she says, pleading entering her voice. “You can’t stand her, remember? You love me and you hate her and she brought this on herself with her attitude and the screwing around and her controlling bullshit.” She laughs, almost hysterically. “The threats, Steve, do you remember the threats? This was the plan. Your plan. You’re messing everything up.”
“I was,” I say.
“I was messing everything up.” I pull the phone away from my ear so I can’t hear her anymore. “I’m fixing it though. Goodbye Shirley.”
I close the phone and throw it on the bed, then turn to the mirror again. My cheeks seem more radiant, and I smile awkwardly. It’s a smile I haven’t seen on my own face in a while. Not since the pictures from our first year of marriage. The smile of a man in love.
I walk over to the closet and pull out her favorite outfit, the blue dress shirt and the black slacks that she used to tell me made my butt look amazing. I have the pants on and one arm in the shirt when I smell the gas. My body’s on autopilot by then though, and I’m already putting my other arm in the other sleeve when the house explodes around me.
I get about a split second to realize what’s happened, and in that second—the moment I’m guessing most people refer to when they say “my life flashed before my eyes,” I experience something much different than a film reel of major life events. What I see in that brief moment is a series of images illustrating all the ways I could have possibly survived right now: if I’d still been standing in the closet, maybe, where a piece of the ceiling could have shielded me from the brunt of the blast, giving me some serious injuries but nothing fatal; or maybe if I’d taken a quick shower before I got dressed, I could have avoided the giant ball of flame that hurtled into the bedroom; or maybe if I’d even taken a dump, seated on the toilet where the pieces of tile that blew out of the walls in the bathroom would have given me a few cuts and bruises on my arms and legs but, again, nothing lethal.
But I’m not in any of those places. Instead, I’m standing in front of my dresser, a few feet from the bedroom door, which is a few feet from the kitchen. I’m getting ready, staring at myself with an awkward, loving smile on my face, moments away from buttoning her favorite shirt, fixing her favorite tie around my neck, pulling the zipper up on her favorite pants, when the bedroom door explodes off its hinges and slams into me with the force of a hurricane, sending me flying into the wall where I experience a small burst of excruciating pain, picture my son in the other room, and then everything goes dark.
* * *
She drops the box of matches in her purse, watching as the living room windows shatter and flames shoot out like tentacles, smoke filling the moist air above the house. Robby rests his head against her shoulder, seemingly undisturbed by the commotion. She keeps the umbrella over his head, shrugging her purse up. The smile on her face is painted, her eyes utterly devoid of emotion. She watches the smoke rise, the flames reflecting hollow in her pupils, streaking upwards as if erupting from the depths of her soul. The smile stays fixed in position as she slowly turns away from the house, shifting Robby around to her other shoulder and balancing him and the umbrella on one arm, pulling her cell phone from her purse with her other hand. She dials 911, and as the phone rings, the corners of her mouth slowly drift south. She clears her throat as the line clicks.
“Emergency,” the operator says.
“Yes,” she says, then lets out a huge sob, which finally shatters Robby’s peace. Her son lets out a voluminous, siren-like wail. “There’s been a terrible accident. Please, come quick.”
She hangs up and steps off the sidewalk back toward the house. The smoke from her burning home drifts towards her and her screaming child, mixing with the rain to create a swirling effect, a smell reminiscent of barbecue. She closes her eyes and sucks in a deep, sweet breath.
It can’t really be coming in outside. Maybe either coming down sideways outside, or just coming in sideways?
“Coming down sideways” would be fine.
nice line. ;-)
Most of these dialogue tags are unnecessary. Since there’s only the two of them, it will be clear who’s speaking, and they’re both doing lots of actions we can use to more elegantly attribute the words to each character. Now and then they’re good for rhythm, but most of these we should eliminate.
Also, I’ve added an “and” here. I get the stylistic comma for elision, but I’m not sure it works all that well here. It caused a bit of a misread for it. The line may be too short for the meaning to be readily apparent.
For the action interrupting a line of dialogue like this, the dashes go outside the quotation marks, around the interrupting action. Also note there’s no closing punctuation inside the quotation mark after “but.”
deleted hard break here to bring this line up with her actions.
hard break deleted