The night before I lost her, my wife and I fought about something I cannot remember. I remember the yelling, the sweat on her brow as she spat sharp words, I remember the welling frustration inside as I tried to remain calm, until I snapped, and began to fight back, only resisting for the sake of resisting. I remember the uneasy stubborn silence as we prepared for bed, opening all the upstairs windows, pulling all but the last sheet from the bed. I remember the heat of the night, cruelly unfaltering even into the small hours. I remember wanting so badly to touch her in the dark, to begin that small reconciliation, and I remember Linda pushing me away, gently. The argument was forgotten, I have to believe, and it was only the heat that kept us apart, that pushed me away.
She was gone when I awoke, the sun already hanging, bloated in the white and opalescent sky. She had taken the car, gone to work, leaving me a small pot of oatmeal simmering on the electric stove. Next to it, on the marble countertop was a glass of orange juice and a little yellow post-it, cheery and bright, with a quick pencil sketched heart, and a single word: ‘Sorry.’ Like that, the unrest was gone, and I remembered how in love we were.
I spent the day avoiding my contracts and my studio entirely, and instead began to clean and dust the house, running a series of damp cloths over every flat surface. My allergies were already flaring as the early summer heat coaxed a thousand weeds and flowers to disgorge a miasma of pollen into the air, drifting in through every loose fitting window pane. No matter how hard the anemic air conditioner chugged, the heat never dissipated, and my sinuses flared in the thick dusty air.
The time passed quickly, and despite the discomfort and fits of sneezing, the little yellow note in my pocket had a pleasant weight, a reminder that all would be right when she returned. I took a break only to cut thin slices from a fresh cucumber, marinating them in vinegar and sugar. The first course of summer meal we would never eat.
I didn’t begin to worry until the evening, an hour after I expected her home. Dialing her mobile phone took me straight to her voicemail, and although this always planted a paranoid seed in my gut, I tried to brush it aside. But when the house was still quiet and empty as the shadows grew long, the seed cracked open and took hold with sharp and hooked roots.
The vines inside me knotted around my chest, thorns sharp and piercing as I called first her private line, her receptionist, and finally her mother and sisters, ascertaining only that she had left on time, and had made no other deviations that I could find. That had been three hours earlier.
As I watched lettuce wilt in the salad bowl her uncle gave us at our wedding, the roots of the vine turned cold, burning my insides. I dialed the police.
I reported her missing with a mechanized calm, holding my whirling terror in check as I recited our license plate, and described my wife as a series of measurable quantities: height, weight, age, hair color. When asked, I described the fight the night before, told the officer about the apology at breakfast. He made some attempt at mollifying me, encouragement rote and automated, mirroring my own artificial calm, and then asked me to call again if I hadn’t heard from her by the following day.
When I hung up, the house seemed to flex with my exhale, shuddering in time with my heart. The heat had not faded as the sun set, but instead seemed to thicken, to congeal in the air, and my breathing was suddenly labored, congested and painful. Black spots swam in the air, and my head spun.
There was nothing more I could do, and I knew that if I yielded then, allowed myself to weep and curl inward, that it would be the longest night of my life.
So I lunged into motion, swept my shrieking conscious mind away, and began again to clean. By midnight, as the sickly yellow moon crossed the sky, shimmering in the unyielding heat, I had swept, dusted and mopped every square inch of the house. Without an articulated thought, I tore to the garage, and gathered sandpaper, wood polish, and a box of tools.
Before dawn, every door swung silently on its hinges, every rough spot on the hardwood floors was smooth and glistening. In the brief hour of respite from the heat, just before the sun rose, I took to the yard. First the front and then the back, I trimmed the hedges with shears, churned the compost pile, and pruned Linda’s azalea bushes.
With the rising sun, and the return of the smothering blanket of heat, I returned inside and began to tighten each bolt on every table and chair. I could feel it inside me, the buzzing of a thousand hornets, a churning despair that always just threatened to absorb me, but the pain from chaffed and bleeding hands, toiling without stop, kept it at bay.
I was in the kitchen, electric screwdriver digging a dozen long black screws deep into the wobbling table legs as coffee brewed noisily on the black marble counter, when the doorbell rang. The tool leapt in my hand and as I clutched convulsively at the trigger. The table squealed in protest and a shivering crack ran across the table leg, parting like a fault line as the screw went wildly deep, rending the soft wood.
For a brief idiot moment, I saw my my wife on the doorstep, ringing her own doorbell. My first deliberate recollection of her face sent entwining tremors of dread and hope across my frame, the muscles of my face in spasms as it danced through a hundred half-expressions. The trance that had taken me through the night broke, and everything it had held at bay flooded back.
Somehow, my quivering legs took me to the door. Early morning light streamed in through the frosted glass of the front window, silhouetting a dark shape on the front porch. My mind was a whirlwind, no single thought gaining purchase as I emerged from my waking stupor. I turned the handle and opened the door, blinking in the sharp light and heat of the morning.
She was a police officer, badge shining brightly on the lapel of her thick jacket, patrolmen’s cap tucked under one arm, and she stared at me from behind mirrored lenses. Her short brown hair was drawn back in a bun, her face was blank and smooth, the corners of her lips turned down slightly, and she cocked her head to one side, birdlike. Her free hand slid upward and she drew the glasses from her face, revealing sad brown eyes, almost black, surrounded by the wrinkles and wear of a decade more than I had initially guessed. They were kind eyes, full of sympathy, and she held my gaze silently for a hazy moment. The last of my resolve began to crumble.
“Mr. Covington?” she asked, in a lilting drawl. I nodded, feeling my mouth go dry and my skin grow cold in defiance of the rising temperature. “Sir, I’m Officer Willette. I’m sorry to… May I come in?”
I nodded again, but before I could raise my head I felt the world beneath me slide away and I gripped the door frame with weak and blistered hands. She darted forward with gentle grace, and hooked one hand under my sweaty arm, and caught me just as I began to give in to the increasing pull of gravity.
“Easy, easy, I gotcha, I gotcha…” she repeated, a stream of reassurance, and I allowed her to prop me upright. The only other option was to fall to the floor, and I don’t believe I would have been able to rise again.
The world shrunk, a dark border creeping into my vision, and she led me on shuffling feet to the kitchen, gently placing me at the table.
“I’m gonna grab you a cup coffee sir, just sit tight.”
Breath seemed to come from far away, refusing to flood my lungs even as I tugged them open convulsively. I could hear her opening cabinets, and pouring coffee into chipped mugs. She handed it to me, placing one warm hand on my shoulder, matronly, and almost affectionate.
She sat across from me, cradling her own mug, emblazoned with the logo of Linda’s law school. She raised it, and smiled sadly at me.
“I hope you don’t mind.”
I could only stare, my hands around the hot mug. It burned me, and the crackling pain drove the darkness from my vision. Her smile faltered, and she dipped her gaze.
“Sir, you reported your wife missing last night.” It was not a question, but I dipped my head once in assent. She looked up, but not to me, instead she stared out the kitchen window at the golden sunlight streaming in from the garden. I could see her lips working, and I suddenly wanted to scream at her, to demand that she say what we both knew what was next. My throat clicked, constricting against the promise of a retching tremor. Her eyes drifted back to mine.
“Mr. Covington, your wife’s car was found on the side of the interstate this morning.” I could not have moved if I’d wanted too. She turned away from me, scowling slightly.
I realized then that I didn’t want to know, now I wanted her to stop, but she opened her mouth, to finish it, and I was still locked in place.
“Sir, I am sorry, but, your wife, she passed on.”
There. Despite knowing all along why we were here, it was now real. The heavy fog I believed I had been holding at bay did not come. Instead, I felt light, and clear headed, and infinitely tired.
I knew. I could sleep.
My eyes dipped shut and I went slack for a long time. Outside, the buzz of insects grew to a steady drone, the thick and heady thrum of infinite life in the summer morning.
I opened my eyes. She sipped at her coffee, studying me. The telling of it had freed her as well it seemed, and the frown was gone. Now she watched me with a blank placidity. But no, something else was missing. Any sympathy that had creased her brow seemed to have evaporated in the heat. She was unreadable. My eyes fell on her heavy coat, only then noticing the incongruity. The vines inside me fluttered to life.
“Was it…” My throat was all gravel, cracked and coated with dust, wood shavings and pollen. I cleared it and started again. “What happened?” I asked, not wanting to know, but not knowing what else to say. She didn’t answer at first, didn’t even move, and her blank face unsettled me further.
“We don’t know.” She said, without inflection. “Hit and run. Maybe.”
From beneath the grief and exhaustion, something else was bubbling up, a curdling feeling of wrongness. I saw that the corners of her mouth were starting to curl upwards, the thin slivers of white teeth visible between pale lips, and my fingers clutched the hot mug tighter. I struggled to make sense of this, my mind unable to process this veering deviation from the pattern.
“Was- was it quick?” I asked, and I knew at that moment, that something was very wrong.
She was smiling. Her black eyes locked on mine.
“No.” She said. Her lips shaped out the word vividly, slowly. With pleasure. Her grin crept wider, a predator’s sneer now. The blank mask of her face was lifted, erased like the dark at the dawn.
Had I not been depleted, had I not been drained, I think I would have stood and ran then, and then things would have been incalculably different. Or maybe it would have been just the same. Instead, I held her sharpening gaze and tried to still myself. Tried to focus, to collect my thoughts, to still the nauseous maelstrom inside me. She seemed to content to watch me, her smile growing even wider with pleasure at my growing discomfort. Unable to bear the silence any longer, and still unable to find a course of action, I spoke again, an idiot attempt at stalling.
“Why are you doing this? Who are you?” I asked, and my voice sounded weak and mewling in my ears. Her hyena grin convulsed once, sharply tugging and banishing the last of her soft and pretty mask.
“Not yet, Mr. Covington,” she said, languorously drawling my name. “You can call me Grace, for now.”
“You’re not a cop, are you.” It was useless thing to say. A child’s protest. She devoured my weakness with her grinning eyes.
“Got this shiny badge, don’t I?”
I was wondering, almost idly, if the real Officer Willette was as dead as my wife when everything snapped into place, the jumbled puzzle of my mind aligning with electric speed, and I sprang into motion, preparing to toss the hot coffee across the table at her, to turn and to bolt for the upstairs bedroom. I could see the black revolver in our closet, could feel its cold metal grips already in my hand, cooling and firm.
My arm lurched forward, but she was faster. One hand batted the coffee cup aside, almost dismissively, and the black gout of liquid and steam spattered to the floor. The other hand already contained her gun, and it smashed across my temple. White starlight and a screeching noise overwhelmed me, and for a moment, I was swimming in the air, drowning and unable to move, sinking.
By the time I shook my head clear, she had already slapped the handcuff on my wrist, locking the other loop to the table leg. With practiced precision, she thrust her fist into my gut, two quick jabs, driving the air out of me in a series of wheezing coughs.
I gasped, breath coming with great difficulty. She was seated again, as if nothing had ever happened, sipping on her coffee. The hyena grin had never left her face. It was quiet again in the wake of that brief flurry of violence, and she was content to bask in the silence, a cat in a sunbeam. She finished the coffee, set it aside, and laced her fingers together.
“Here’s how this works, Edward.” She began, “I tell you what to do, and you do it. No questions. The more you do, to my satisfaction, the more you get from me. You understand, sir?”
“Why should I?” I asked with great difficulty, as my lungs found traction. Her response was grotesque caricature of hurt, lower lip jutting outward momentarily before the monstrous grin returned.
“Here’s the carrot, Edward. Your wife is Linda Covington. She had a busted lawn mower in the back of the car, has a strawberry birthmark just underneath her chin, and she gets the hiccups when she cries. And she did cry.”
This struck me harder than her fists, and I gagged, a thin stream of bile and coffee leaking from my lips. Somewhere on my temple, a rivulet of blood was forming, and I felt it spill forth with the twist of my head, streaming down to patter onto the freshly cleaned linoleum.
“However, she is not dead. Yet.” She chewed this last word, loathe to let it leave her mouth.
“What do you want?” I whispered.
“I already told you,” she spat, screwing up her face for a moment before it snapped back. “Now, are you ready?” She leaned forward across the table with feline grace, leading with her sharp gloating grin.
I was ready. I had twisted my hand around to grip the chain of the handcuffs tightly. The shackle on my wrist bit into the bunched flesh, and I flicked my gaze on the other shackle, shining and silver. It was clasped loosely around the table leg, hanging beneath the yawning crack left only minutes before by the twist of a errant screw.
I swung my foot forward and then back with all the force I could muster, smashing the heel against the base of the table leg. I heard a satisfying cacophony of splintering, and felt the leg give, bending away from the table. Leading with my free hand, I drove my weight against the surface of the table above the fractured leg, and my heart sung as the heavy bulk of the table dove downward on one end, and, pivoting off the remaining legs, swung upwards towards her.
She had unslung the gun again as soon as I’d moved, but the table bucked off the ground, crashing into her elbows, and sending her body backward. She scrambled for balance, the hyena grin unchanged, but somehow infinitely more malicious in motion.
The table leg wrenched free as I slid forward off the chair. The cuff rattled down the cracked wood, the chain trailing my hand down it’s length until at last I gripped tight at the bottom. I swung the heavy leg upward, grip not quite stable, but not wanting to hesitate for another moment.
The roar of the gun flooded the kitchen, and the whine of the bullet hissed by my ear. A second later the shock of the impact shuddered up my arms. The makeshift bludgeon collided with her forearms with all the graceless power I could muster, and her arms lurched high into the air. The gun arced through the air up, and away, clattering to the floor.
The inertia of the swing threw me off balance, and she clutched her arms close to her body, and again, we locked eyes, saw our true faces. I quailed before that snarling visage, and she growled, low in her throat.
I only briefly considered advancing. Instead I hurled the table leg clumsily toward her; somehow the handcuff slid free of the knobby foot. I saw the leg collide, and she stumbled backward against a standing shelf of cereal and breads, and I turned to run.
The garage was nearly in view when the thought hit me. I didn’t have the car. I pivoted and reached out for the bannister, pulling myself up with any extra strength I could find.
I could hear her behind me, cackling and panting, more alive than I could ever have been. The terror inside me solidified, and I knew it was hopeless.
We should all be so lucky, to love what we do, and be so good at it.
I grabbed the doorframe of our bedroom and pulled as I leapt threw. I skidded across freshly vacuumed carpet, arresting my motion and reversing to throw the door shut, and fumbled for the lock. I felt her collide with the door on the other side, and it threw me backwards. She howled, a long celebratory sound that ended in high tittering. Then she kicked, one sharp shock that bent the door in its frame, splintering along the hinges.
I scrambled, slipping to one knee, into the closet, and I tugged the pistol from its shelf. It felt like I expected. Cold, black, solid. She kicked the door again, and it swung half open, the lock tearing itself free of the mooring. Her hyena laugh continued.
I clawed the tension lock from the trigger, the one Linda had made me buy the year when we first discussed the children we would never have. I pressed with all my might and it came loose. I spun, and my legs caught around each other, and I collapsed roughly to the closet floor.
She was in the room. Gun drawn, she approached me as if she had all the time in the world.
I aimed and then turned my head away and shut my eyes tight. I thought of Linda, and pulled the trigger.
For a instant, I thought of how I had always been told that a real gunshot would be quiet, not like the movies. But this wasn’t even the dull muffled firecracker sound I expected. This was a dry click, of metal on metal. I pulled again, the hammer pulling back and striking, and I pulled again.
She laughed harder, her head tilting back, a wolf baying at the moon. Then she reached me and I was frozen. I pulled the trigger one more time, wanting only to cry. She brought a booted heel down onto my left shin, and snatched the gun from my hands as a spasm of bright pain lurched up my legs.
She tossed it aside, still laughing, and brought the butt of her own gun down onto the top of my head. This time I didn’t even feel the impact.
The air was suffocating when I awoke, and for a moment I was sure she has set me ablaze. I felt liquid fire dribble down my nose and throat, and somehow I was conscious enough to clamp my eyes shut. I heard the pressurized hiss of the pepper spray, just inches from me. I vomited, convulsively, voiding only the water I’d drunk in the 12 hours.
She was laughing again, an endless gleeful shudder that took no breaks for breath. My hands lashed out towards the noise and struck the metal mesh that divides us. I kept my eyes locked shut, and as I continued to retch, and I probed my surroundings, trying hard to ignore her pleasure.
I was in the back of a police cruiser, but aside from the dangling bracelet of the cuffs on my right hand, they were free. As the bright white pain of the pepper spray began to dull, I became aware of the throbbing pain in my skull, and the caked and cracked blood that had dried in runlets down my face. I wept, and clenched my eyes tighter. When she was done reveling in the moment, she sighed, a happy content sound.
“Well sir, how can I convince you not to try all that again?” I could not see the smile on her face, but I could hear it. She sighed again. “I suppose it’s a good lesson for you. I don’t do my work without a lot of planning. I could have just took the gun, when I was in your house last week, but something in me said leave it empty, and I am just pleased as hell that I did.”
A door opened, and I could hear her sliding out. The door to my left opened, and I wailed, shuffling away from the sound of her coming, but she wrapped he fingers in my hair and tugged sharply, dragging me from the back seat. I hit the hot pavement, shoulder first, followed by my head. Behind my closed eyes, stars bloomed.
She wiped a gloved hand across my face, in a motion so deceptively warm and gentle, I was shocked into stillness. The coolness of the alcohol swab that followed was like the answering of a prayer, and she cleaned my face with something that felt like an awful twin of tenderness. I started to weep, and some traitorous and simple part of my brain wanted to reach out to hold her, and to be held, and I retched again.
Then, horribly, she did hold me, one arm sliding around my back, and pressing my head to her shoulder, and I shuddered in disgust as my body refused to fight back. The false fur collar on her thick coat caressed my skin. It didn’t last long, and soon she placed her thumbs on my cheeks and tugged my eyes open. Pepper spray residue and sunlight slammed into my eyes in a fresh wave of pain, but I was to tired, to broken to do more than flinch slightly.
We were parked in the driveway of a house, in the dark shade of a willow. She was only a few inches from me, and although my eyes refused to focus, I could see that she wore a new smile. Not the false friend, not the predator’s grin. This was simple and true warmth. Her dark eyes beamed.
“Okay,” she said, “Are you ready?”
I blubbered weakly; I didn’t know what she wanted, but I was knew I would do it. Not for Linda, but for me. To make it stop. She held my head steady, thumbs still on my cheeks.
“Edward, I want to help you. I want to help you save your wife. And the hard part is over now. You tried, and I respect that, I do, but we have to do it my way now. And I need you to hear this clearly. If you try anything stupid again, I’ll just kill you. That’s not what I want, but if you can’t work with me, well… Then it wasn’t meant to be. And if I kill you, I don’t have any need for your wife. Edward, look at me.”
I snapped my eyes open again, lenses of tears blurring the world, and her soft, warm face. I looked. And she looked back. Her eyes slid sideways, and I followed them across the street, and I saw the school.
I heard the children first, the loud, carefree raucous sounds of play, the glee of a hot afternoon. The world snapped wider, away from our intimacy, and I saw the wide green fields, and the bright primary colored play structure. I saw the old brick school buildings, surrounded by a field of portable trailers, like encircled covered wagons. I saw this all, and my heart surged. She saw me start and squeezed my head in her hands, twisting me back to her.
“Edward. Listen. You are going to stand up, walk over to them, and pick one. Whichever one you think looks like the worst of them, or whichever one you can catch. Wrap your hands around his neck, and squeeze until he stops breathing. If you do this like clockwork, I’ll come stop you before you kill him, and take you again. Falter for a second, and I wait just long enough for him to die. Understand?”
I wanted to scream, to lash out, to bite down on my tongue and to choke, but before I could think the traitor in my head was nodding, and she was smiling at me, wide and proud.
“Good. The hard part is over, Edward. Go. For Linda.”
And then I was walking, on hateful idiot legs, still weeping softly. And the traitor was telling me that it wouldn’t be so bad, and that if I hurried, no one would die, no one would even get hurt, and it was all for Linda.
I wanted to believe it. So I did.
The chain link fence barely came to my waist, and I threw my legs over. The dangling handcuff on my wrist clanked loudly on the top bar. A few of the children saw me then, bloodied and vacant eyed, blinking back tears and already forming claws with my hands, and some of them screamed, but it mingled with the summer sounds. I went straight to the play structure, allowing it to eclipse me from view, at least for the moment, from the sole adult playground monitor on the far side of a blacktop kickball court.
My feet hit sand, and now they were all standing and scattering, their screams still excited and buoyant, a play mockery of fear. I was too absurd to be a threat, and it was still just a game for them. Like fish, they flooded around and away from me, darting and giggling, some of them crying. Some stood paralyzed, staring at me with gaping mouths showing irregular gaps between baby teeth. I kneeled in the sand before one tow headed boy, his lower lip quavering as he met my wild and red gaze.
I saw myself, reflected in his pale eyes. The front of my white tee shirt was spattered with forking rivers of blood. My pale and puffy face bent across the curve of his cornea, a corpse in a funhouse mirror. I began to sob as I stared at him, and he began to cry as well, too terrified to move away from me. The traitor was already screaming at me to raise my arms and curl my fingers, for Linda, for this boy, for myself, do it quick. He would go home tonight, bruised and terrified, but alive, and I would see her again. But only if I hurried.
But the traitor was weak.
And I knew, staring at this terrified child, that as broken as I was, I would never hurt him. I knew if I did, it would only be the first in an endless stream of atrocities I would commit, as she ground me down, each one worse than the last, and each one easier and easier. I knew then that I would never see Linda again.
So I gathered great handfuls of hot sand, and placed them on the boy’s shoulders. My cupped hands pressed against the cool flesh of his neck, but gently. He screwed his face tight and wailed, and I whispered soothing words, promising it would be okay, begging him to stay quiet, but he only keened louder.
Around us, the last of the children had fled, and I could see in the distance the approach of a great lumbering adult, blowing a whistle as she limped towards me, fighting against the flow of children like a spawning salmon. The she stopped short, and I knew that Grace was behind me.
Above us, a clear plastic dome protruded from the play structure, and I could see she was ten feet behind me, one hand held out to stop the advance of the yard monitor, one hand authoritatively on the butt of her gun, where my blood and matted hair were drying in clots. I held the screaming child closer, hoping she didn’t see my loose grip, and the sand ran from between my fingers. I heard her call out to the yard monitor.
“Stay back ma’am, I got it.” And then quietly, she spoke to me, a mother’s disappointment thick and theatrical on her voice. “Oh, Edward, you know better than to try and fool me. He’s still sucking breath and yowling. Put your thumbs in his eyes, now, or your wife-”
I pivoted and flung the sand catching her off guard. The sand struck her eyes and she hissed ducking back and drawing the gun, but I was already rushing her, my shoulder checking her gut as I sprang forward. My bruised and protesting shins shrieked with the effort, and my head rang as I collided, but she made a noise, a surprised grunting exhalation that was as pleasing and wonderful as cool water.
I let the inertia carry us back and over, landing on top of her in the sand, my left hand flailing and grasping for the pistol, batting it out of her grasp. I raised my head and brought it down, hard, my brow colliding with the soft cartilage of her nose, feeling it give way. I soared, high on the smell of her spilling blood and her predator confusion, and I bounced on her, clumsily pummeling her with elbows and knees and fists
I lost myself there, as I had lost myself to the traitor before, and her struggling grew weaker. I leaned forward and without conscious thought, bit into the flesh of her cheek, spitting the tiny hot lump of meat out beside me. I watched it bounce, white sugar crystals of hot sand sticking to it, and I lost my focus, lost everything, and simply stared, not accepting what was happening.
She drove her elbow up sharply into my jaw, tossing me aside in a heap, and she was over me in a flash, pistol in hand. The hyena grin was wide, the lines between her white teeth picked out in blood and shadow. Her eyes burned from beneath her brows and the gaping hole in her cheek oozed. I had never seen her so luminous, so alive. I withered in her light.
“Oh, Edward,” she said, a bare whisper, sand on the wind, “You cannot conceive of what I will do to her while you watch.”
I would have died then if I could, curling, drying and desiccating in the sand, blowing away. On my knees, I looked up, and I saw him. Just a dozen yard behind us, a bald man in a police uniform, badge glinting in the sun as he leapt the fence and raced towards us, shouting into his radio. I saw her face twist, the grin melting away in a storm of true rage, and I felt real hope for the first time as I tried to process this turn of events.
He was on us then, gun raised at me, ignoring her. I could see the streaks of grey in his mustache, and I raised my hands high, the cuff dangling. I tried to speak, to tell him the whole story but I could only bleat out fragments of speech.
“Crazy. Not a cop, please god help me, she’ll kill me. She’s not a cop, please believe me.”
He held the gun trained on me, and then he looked to her; I saw the recognition on his face, and my hope broke apart like dried bones.
“Officer Willette… Grace, Jesus, are you all right?” he asked in low worried tones. She put one hand to her cheek and grimaced, and I saw her face take on that sad, sympathetic mask she had first worn for me.
“Yeah, I’ll live, thanks Tim. He got the drop on me, sonofabitch just hopped the fence and was going after the kids, gibbering like a loon. God damn lucky I happened to be passing by and heard the commotion.”
I was screaming, over and over again. No. No. They ignored me, just the shrieking madness of a broken monster on his knees. She tossed him a ring of keys, and he caught it deftly.
“Can you finish cuffing him while I wash up? I think he’s got all the piss out of him now.”
“My pleasure.” He stared at me with contempt, holstered his weapon, and started toward me. She passed behind him, holstering her own weapon.
My hand went to my pocket, scrambling for one last touch of the small scrap of yellow paper sodden with sweat and blood, the transitory heart drawn in pencil.
He was above me, his silhouette eclipsing the high noon sun, and I thought, how lovely prison would be compared to this. I thought how in a way, I was lucky. I squeezed the little yellow post-it. I felt the prick of metal piercing the paper, drawing a bead of blood; a single black screw, long, thin and solid. The last one, meant for the shattered table leg.
He leaned forward to grab my wrists, roughly, righteously, and then she moved like water behind him. Her hand grabbed his gun, brought it up to the back of his head, and fired. The thunder and fire enveloped his head, haloing him briefly. His left eye squeezed shut, rolling downward, while the right twitched spasmodically up and away, as if it could follow the path of the bullet through his skull. His forehead cracked open, blossoming in shiny white and vivid red.
Then he was falling, landing next to me, blood mixing with sand, still. She was there, above me, blotting out the sun, a creature of myth. Her smile was back. Her true smile. I curled my hand around the screw, feeling the ridges bite into my hands.
“You’ve just killed a cop, Edward. There’s no coming back from that, you know. You have to understand, you need me more than ever now. You need me. Let me help you.”
She was right, and I knew it. My future, my wife, everything was gone. But I still had this moment. I stood slowly on damaged legs, swaying, eyes dipped low, trying to get closer to her, trying to keep my welling excitement hidden. I played the hypnotized prey, the fly walking into the spider’s web. Her voice was soft, soothing, almost loving.
“We’ve changed the game. We’re off the map, and into the crooked place. But we’re together.”
I liked that. It sounded right. I was almost touching her, and she raised her arms to welcome me.
I raised my arm slowly, and then thrust the fist down, driving the screw into her neck. Felt it grate against bone. Felt it bite deep, striking true. She made a wet gurgling noise, and froze. I raised my hand and struck the screw again with the heel of my palm, and it slit open as the screw sunk deeper. I grappled for the gun, pulled it easily from her hand and shoved her forward.
She sat down, hard, in the sand, her legs stiff and straight, her back rigid and upright. She didn’t protest, simply stared up at me. Her face was a cypher, a blank slate. But she held my gaze. I thought she might go for her own gun, but instead she raised one hand to the screw, and tugged. It came out with the series of chalky clicks, and a great fount of blood followed it, pulsing onto the sand. When she looked up again, I saw something that might have been admiration on her face.
I pointed the gun at her, but I knew it was a pointless act. I could see her face paling, growing sallow. But there was so much I had to know.
“Where is she?” I said. My voice was weak and faraway. Tired.
She laughed once, one wet chuckle that formed a bubble of blood on her lips.
“C’mon, Edward. Not now. This is just us now.” She was looking at the screw now, turning it side to side in the sunlight, soaked in her blood.
“Why. Why then.” Again the single chuckle, and a little gout of blood from the seeping hole. Then she sighed, and I saw the hole was leaking in time with her heart, speeding up, growing weaker.
“This is what I do.” And she looked back at me, her hyena grin weak, but triumphant. “I make monsters.”
In the distance, their were sirens. She dropped her arms, too weak to hold them up. We were silent, and I watched the light drain from her eyes.
“Go, Edward. You might have time…”
Then she was gone, and I ran.
I still might have time.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve gone from loving this piece to hating it and back again a number of times. It clocks in longer than the others and comes from a small idea (the coffee table scene) I had months ago but never wanted to try. It’s different from my other stories in a number of ways, and I wanted to finish both as an exercise, and because I still find the core idea to be compelling. I am still foggy on my final verdict, but that likely has more to do with the time of night I find myself in. Please excuse the innumerable grammatical errors, and as always, let me know what you really think. Enjoy.
17 thoughts on “Regret To Inform”
Really interesting story here, although I think it would have been better if you maybe expanded upon it making it longer. I just think that would help flesh it out more, and remove the "rushed" feeling this story had. But never the less a very good tale.
As always this is very well written, but I just want to ask, why? What's this story trying to say? Evil person makes good person slightly evil, and then it's over. The last line feels like a cop-out as well. I absolutely love your other stories, man. This one to me just came off very forced and unnatural. As well as the other person said, it felt rushed. Your stories constantly feel so whole. They feel so universal and believable, and every element is cleverly implemented. This one almost felt like it tried to do that, but fell flat a couple of times. This could be an excellent short story with some touch-ups, a motivation for the antagonist (even if it might just be insanity) and an ending that doesn't feel like you didn't quite know how to end it. Best of luck, man, and I'll continue to read your excellent stories.
Although I do agree with the above posters, I still love the story enough to say it's amazing.You really never cease to drag me into your stories with so much power, how you think of some of these things amazes me.Well done, Josef.
Well, it's certainly a shift in style. Your other stories all manage to convey a sense of fear, usually by tapping into our natural fears of the unknown (which is one of the things I truly love about your writing). Common fears create a sort of forced empathy and connection with your protagonists regardless of circumstances.This one is a little more brute force in nature… it's still very well written. IS this more the kind of story you would prefer to write though…?
William, You are correct that this is a shift in style, and, no, this is not my preference. But I'm trying to make these stories writing exercises for myself as well as entertaining for my readers. With this story, I set out to do a few things that I had failed to do before, or had been wary off.Specifically, I wanted to write an actively resisting, moderately well adjusted, and reliable narrator, as well as a threat that is clearly known and quantifiable. I've relied on madness and the unknown quite a bit, and I definitely enjoy the ambiguity of those qualities, but I felt I needed to stretch a little. I also wanted to play with physical action more.As far as what I am trying to say, Sean, I'm afraid I'll have to make a pair of admissions. Firstly, I don't know what I'm trying to say here, and secondly, I almost never know, in any of my stories. The genesis of nearly every piece I've written comes from a single strong emotional or visual tableau; for this, it was the predator smile of a police officer at a kitchen table, staring down a grieving man. I had that image, and the murder of officer Tim in my mind to start out with, and I simply made a few characters and started nudging them toward those scenes. Frequently, when I do this, the characters take their own paths towards the images, and once they lock into place, where they are going from there seems clear. I like making moments, it's an unexpected benefit that the paths to and from these moments usually become clear or compelling.The fact that a clear or compelling idea did not come out of this story doesn't surprise me, because this piece fought back tooth and nail throughout the whole process. You are right to sense that it feels rushed. As it started to bloat and become more complex, I realized I would need to drag the narrator through more situations than I had the motivation to create, so last half seemed to collapse in on itself, in order to play it self out in one location.The ending is, of course, a total cop out. But I didn't want to give more than the faint hope that the wife might be alive, and it seemed false to me that Grace would reveal her location or fate as she died. She only ever cared about Edward to begin with. The "I make monsters" line was an idea that came up about halfway through, and I still like that idea; that Grace is a special kind of mother in that respect. Dedicated, talented, and devoted to breaking and remolding people in her image. But with such a short story, I couldn't really show this process with much detail, and so, it too falls flat as a justification for her actions.I may revisit this, someday, but I'm itching to go back to something a little more familiar, something I enjoy writing without reservation.Thanks again, all of you.
The story's action had me in a steel grip. I was biting my thumb as I read through the first physical altercation!I can agree with the shared criticism about the ultimate destination of the story, but really, I enjoyed this story greatly.If this were the style of your choice (and not just an exercise for you) I'd say you could have a lot of fun filling out the gapsAfter I finished reading, my mind ran a little wild with a scenario…(speculation galore incoming! sorry I'm not a proper writer or anything here)What if Linda was never kidnapped?:Grace had invaded the house and spied on the couple for days in order to gauge her attack on Edward. She rummaged through their personal belongings…their car trunks, closets, and storage spaces for anything important. The broken lawnmower was of little consequence but unloading the gun was a safe bet. Though her invasions and spying were centered around Edward, she picked up a few details about Linda in the process. During the final spat, Grace couldn't help but notice how Linda hiccuped as she cried and the birth mark on her chin.Unfortunately, Edward was wrong to assume that everything was okay with his wife after the fight. It wasn't just the heat keeping her away, in reality their argument had been the tipping point for her. She decided to leave him and stay with her mother for a while. That morning before work, she angrily packed a couple extra clothes and sped off to work (was that a cop car across the street? hrm, better slow down). A colleague from her law office said she would help her draw up divorce papers so Linda figured she would serve him with those soon enough. When Edward called looking for her, Linda's family and office pleaded ignorance so he wouldn't come looking for her trying to reconcile. When Grace initially spied Linda angrily packing up her car before work, she made an improvisation to her plan to manipulate Edward. Grace hurried to scribble the yellow 'Sorry' note from a pad in her patrol car and prepared the couple's standard breakfast to make it look as if everything was smooth between the two. She would wait a day, knowing Linda would not be back so soon and that Edward's worry would escalate. Pretending to kidnap his wife would be infinitely easier than *actually* doing so and would ultimately provide a sadistic angle for her. Predictably, later on that night, Grace overhead another officer take a report of a missing person named 'Linda Covington'. Now that she knew her plan was in motion and he was expecting the worst, she could play the part of consoling cop. The next morning, on schedule and assured of his desperation, she drove back by his house to deliver the 'terrible news'. When she began to console him with a cup of coffee, she didn't have to look too hard for the mugs. Maybe if he had flipped the yellow 'Sorry' note over, he would have realized the faint words of 'parking citation'… Couldn't help it! Hope it gave you a laugh at least 🙂
Made m giggle 🙂
Just adding something I thought while reading the story to Katherine's speculation, when I first read the "sorry" note part, I immediately thought that she might be apologising for what she was doing,or about to do, not an indication of things going smooth between them. So rather then being a fake note penned by Grace, it could be a real note apologising for her divorce, or runaway (he'd probably recognise Linda's handwriting anyway).As always, loved the story, and loved the fact that you might be broadening your horizons, even just as an exercise.
Great story Josef. You said that scene at the coffee table inspired the story, and I can see why. It really stood out for me, vivid and chilling. Can't wait to read what you do next. Cheers.
wow, this is amazing. not quite as good as your older ones, though, not as scary. there were a few grammatical/spelling errors (in the first physical altercation, you said he ran threw the door, it should be through) but besides that it was extremely well written, as always! you posted a fragment of a story a few months ago about someone who had set up a living space for themselves with tin can alarms. I really want to read more of that.thanks again for a great story!Katie
I spent many hours of my insomnia last night thinking about this story. It hadn't struck me as anything spectacular when I read it, unlike the rest of your works, but, somehow, it haunted me later. I mulled over the time line and realized that it has all the makings of a maddening nightmare. There is no escape. No way to win. Fight all you want, it's all in vein. The panic sets in, your adrenaline rushes, you bolt, but the door slams shut just before you reach it, the bullet barely misses your target, teveryone is against you.The panic is missing from the story. The claustrophobia in the face of unrelenting evil.
I have to say, this story had me by the throat. While it may be a departure from what you usually do, I found it a very fun read. The ending that left his fate open was perfect, it gives people hoping for the nigh impossible good end a fragment of hope, while not charging blindly down that cliched path.
Hello.When can we be expecting this other story?I am not trying to rush you, but I am eager to continue reading your stories.
Thank you for that story. I wish I could leave longer comments, alas, I am a mere reader as opposed to being a writer.
Wow. You're so creative. You show sides of people, not monsters. People are monsters.
“Screw” you bitch!!!
Hm. I /liked/ this one, but I enjoy all of your stories. I guess the thing that falls short about this one is that I’m not entirely sure if the police officer is human or not–as in, she seems to be immune to pain and keeps her weird grin on her face at all times. Also, we don’t find out about the wife. But overall, it was well-written (as always) and the premise was good.