The newsprint danced before Oliver’s eyes as he tried not to take a nap in his casserole. Today’s was some seven-layer monstrosity based on Mexican fast food, if he was to give a name to the bean-and-cheese abomination on his plate. He pushed the chunks of salsa around on his plate as his young bride pouted. “We should go out and do something exciting,” she stated.
“Yeah? Like what?”
“I don’t know. We could go dancing. See a movie. Get dressed up and go out to dinner somewhere fancy.”
Raising his eyes to hers, he merely yawned. He knew that he wasn’t anything approaching presentable in the moment. The effort of planning a funeral had been more tedious than he’d expected. The obituary in the newspaper had contained several typographical errors, something having to do with a reporter bitterly hitting the “autocorrect” button, and he had to be sure that the reprinting had fixed everything since the service was to be held the next day. He wanted to make sure that Lily saw the listing so she would know where to go. He told himself that it had been right to kick her out of the house. It was for her own safety. If only he’d had some privacy to convince her that it wasn’t safe to be so openly defiant to this woman. He loved Marilyn, but he also knew how harsh she could be. He had never been able to dispel Marilyn’s suspicions about his sister. The best he could do was to put distance between them. But since their argument at the hospital, he had not heard a word from Lily, even when they’d drawn up the “recovered” living will and discovered that Darren Pratt had a “do not resuscitate” order. His heart gave out, and so too did their efforts to keep him alive.
Marilyn dropped onto his lap and drew his head to her chest. She smelled of vanilla and spice, and though she wore a sweater, the material was tight and soft. They had gone so far that it seemed tempting to give himself over to her comfort. She did all this for me. I can’t betray her now. “I could maybe do a movie,” he told her. He was so exhausted that he was sure he would fall asleep in the dark, but if that would make her happy, he would do his best.
She sighed and ran her fingers through his hair. “You’re getting shaggy,” she critiqued from nowhere. It seemed to be her way, to find something that she wanted and then to take complete control. Dominate or eliminate. “You really ought to get out and do something fun to take your mind off things. I don’t like seeing you depressed. You’re ruining our honeymoon,” she added, as though that would somehow motivate him.
“I know I am. I know.” How could he tell her that all he wanted to do was get in touch with his sister? How could he even think about Lily when he had a leggy blonde on his lap? He was lucky, oh so lucky to start again at thirty. So why was he so miserable?
Maybe she’s started on my food too.
He pushed the thought from his mind as quickly as possible, but he felt even less compelled to take a bite of his dinner. As far as victims went, he didn’t have much to offer. Marilyn had become considerably wealthy upon the death of her father, and with Darren’s death, they had secured some cherished property. But what would she want to do with a barren farm that was in desperate need of improvements and repair? It was good for its size or the sentimental value, little more. And if he died, he was sure that Lily would kick up a considerable fuss. At least he hoped so. Not that it would matter after he’d died.
Grappling with depression through his life had made him somewhat accustomed to the low moods, but nothing compared to the guilt he carried. He had a beautiful life and could afford a relaxed lifestyle at last. He had not earned it through his own sweat, but he had bought it with his conscience. Surely that was something. He longed to escape his own mind, if only for a little while. And then a thought came to him.
He patted his wife’s back to make her stand, then leaned into her for a kiss. The passion between them had lessened considerately after his father’s death, though she seemed no less insatiable. Day after day, he told himself that he had to accept the path he’d chosen for himself, to leap into the flames and enjoy what he’d stolen for himself. He was not his mother. He was going to survive, even if that meant others would have to die in his stead.
“Why don’t we go down to the bar?” he suggested. She started to pull a face, but he just kissed her again. He’d made the suggestion a few times before, but she’d made excuses about how it wouldn’t be fun to have one of them intoxicated while the other remained sober. This time, he was prepared for her feeble protests. “We can afford a cab to get us home. Or I’ll give you a piggyback ride back. Don’t you want to see if your old man can manage it?”
A smile cracked its way through her tight-lipped refusal, and he saw that she had lost her stubborn battle. When she laughed, she looked so young that he could hardly believe what they had done. We were just trying to protect ourselves. We just want to be happy. So be happy. “Well have a drink and see what happens. Just one,” she told him with a tap of her fingertip against his nose. “I want to see this guy you seem to think so highly of. Lee?”
“Liam.” He ripped the obituary from the paper and folded it to place in his pocket. If his old friend hadn’t read the news, then he wanted to be the one to deliver the blow personally. He’d known the old man for twenty years and deserved to be at the funeral. Surely missing work wouldn’t be a problem for him.
She assumed her spot on the driver’s side of the car, hers rather than his. It gave him the opportunity to crack his window and fish out his pack of cigarettes. He wasn’t sure when the habit had taken hold of him, but he felt more comfortable having something to do with his hands these days. It also gave him a reason to remain mostly silent as his wife talked about the gossip she’d heard from this person or that. Since her father’s death, she’d considered her own future in politics, and that meant knowing the business of every man, woman, and child in the community. At least that seemed to be her interpretation of the office.
The drive was mercifully short, and he begged her leave to just have time to finish his smoke. She looked hesitant about heading into the bar alone, but then firm resolve took over her features. Without him by her side, she would be able to form her own opinion about the place and its patrons, which would give her an opportunity to decide whether they would be leaving early or not. She pressed a kiss to his cheek and then set off inside, all tight skirt and swiveling hips. As he watched those legs retreat from him, he was certain that no woman under the age of forty had been in the bar for decades.
As he leaned against the hood of the car, he noticed a man fiddling with a chain to secure a bike against…well, therein dwelled the problem. There wasn’t a convenient place to attach the chain, so he rolled on along the front of the building, searching for a pipe or pole. It was only when he stepped beneath one of the dim lights that highlighted the joint’s sign that Oliver recognized his friend. The thought of catching up again made him smile, and he would definitely have to vent about having acquired his filthy habit from the person who was supposed to have his back.
“Decide to trade in the bike for an older vintage?” he asked as he clapped the other man on the back. Liam had always been proud of the motorcycles that he stubbornly rode even in the snowiest of winters. “I have to hand it to you, you can probably be safer drunk on one of those than on one of your choppers.”
He expected a hug or a sneer or at least some sarcastic remarks about how he hadn’t been around in a while. Hell, part of him even expected to receive some condolences for having lost his father so recently. He did not see the fist coming until it had already swept through the air, ready to make contact with his nose. He didn’t have time to dodge the blow entirely, but he did manage to turn enough to take the blow on the cheek instead.
As he was falling, he tried to remember the last time he’d been punched. He’d never been one for fighting. Perhaps it was in middle school, when boys were talking about his sister and it had been a matter of honor to act out. He didn’t remember the pride he’d felt then as the gravel stung his back and his cheek throbbed red hot in pain. “What the fuck?” he asked, but the words were abandoned as he rolled away from the boot that tried to connect with his ribs next.
He was on his feet, looking to the door. Marilyn had already made it inside. The bike had fallen over, leaving the chain free. He made a dive for it, but Liam was surprisingly quick and managed to grab the lapel of his coat. He found himself shoved up against the side of the bar quickly. He waited for the whip of metal against his skin, but it did not come.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?” his friend—former friend—hissed against his cheek, the one that was already bruised and swelling.
To beg would be pathetic, but he felt himself writhing against the fist pressed to his chest, as though he could untangle those fingers from the grey wool blend. “I didn’t realize our friendship had an expiration date,” he said to the fist rather than Liam’s face. He wanted to make eye contact, to show that he wasn’t afraid, but the threat of another punch wasn’t one that he would endure without being prepared this time. “You could have a bit of fucking heart, man. I know I’ve been out of touch, but I’ve been pretty busy, in case you hadn’t heard.”
“What, getting someone to marry you so you can get paid to keep your house?”
The accusation made both cheeks burn with indignation. “What the fuck is that to you?” He thought of Marilyn inside, waiting for the bartender who had yet to arrive. “For your information, I just lost my father, so you can cut the attitude.”
The grip on him didn’t loosen, and he shifted to keep the plastic siding from digging into his spine. “Yeah, well, what about your sister?” Liam hissed. “You think she didn’t lose her old man too? After all the years she put into taking care of him, you think it’s some crazy coincidence that you keep her away from him, he goes and gives up the ghost?”
“You don’t know a damn thing about it.” He wanted to ask where Lily was and how Liam knew what was happening with her, but pride wouldn’t let him. He swallowed thickly and managed to stick his chin out with defiance. This was the life that he had wanted. This was the path to happiness, or so he had told himself.
To his surprise, Liam released him. His feet weren’t prepared for handling his balance, and he pitched forward onto his knees. The other man just laughed and shook his head at the vulnerability he displayed. “Man, you are convinced that your shit doesn’t stink, aren’t you? Do you think I got all that from the Internet?” He waited for a beat, but when he realized that Oliver wasn’t talking, he just laughed down at him. “Lily, you fucking moron! Lily told me. Your sister, remember her, or do you have room for only one woman in your life at a time?”
To Oliver, it felt like a veiled accusation about the death of his mother, but he knew that saying that out loud would just be madness. He pushed himself up and brushed the pebbles from his clothes. Soon Marilyn would realize that he was taking too long to follow her inside, and then she would come looking. She would not back down from Liam’s aggression, though he worried about her reaction more than his. “Where did you see Lily?”
“Where do you think I saw her? Here. She came here. Where else did she have to go? Did you think she was just going to sleep at the library?”
There was something so self-righteous in Liam’s tone that something clicked in Oliver’s mind. He saw the pride in the man’s stance, in his gaze, in the way he managed to stand between him and the door. “Are you fucking my sister?”
“Ollie!” Lily pulled the door open but didn’t step outside. She didn’t have a coat on, and both of her arms wrapped around the baggy plaid shirt she wore in order to keep the heat in.
Liam spread his feet in order to keep his balance that much more solid. “Go back inside, Lily. I’m handling it.”
“Did you hit him? Oh my God. Oliver, what are you doing here?”
What could he say for himself? He came to the bar for a drink. Everyone went to the bar to drink, to forgot, for company or for forgetting what it was like to be alone. He wanted to say that he was sorry. He wanted to say that he knew she would be okay, that she was better off with Liam than she could be hanging around the house and building up Marilyn’s hypothetical and literal venom. Instead, all he could think to saw was “Did you see Marilyn?”
His sister’s features darkened even in the dim light. “So it’s not enough to run me out of the house, you have to come here and chase me off all over again? I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“But you don’t drink. This isn’t your scene. Liam isn’t even your friend,” Oliver entreated. She hardly looked like how he remembered his sister. Since when did she pull her hair back into a bun and actually wear makeup, especially with those ridiculously baggy clothes?
Lily straightened up and set her eyes in a solid glare. “He’s been more of a brother to me than you have been lately. He has an extra room for me and has been teaching me how to handle the bar so I can pull in a little money. And no, for your information, we haven’t been ‘fucking.’” She raised her fingers to draw quotation marks in the air when she said the word. “I guess you wouldn’t know anything about respecting me now, but Liam does.”
The accusation stung worse than the punch had. Oliver looked from his sister to the friend who had moved to put an arm around her. Somehow they looked like a natural couple. In another life, perhaps he would have blessed them to explore the chemistry that they had. As it stood, he just felt the nausea of jealousy and betrayal. “You have no idea what I was doing for you by asking you to leave. You really should be thanking me, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll just head on home then.”
“Yeah, you go back to your big, empty house and your lifeless wife. Maybe you can put a baby inside her so you can get some company up there. Fucking prick,” Liam murmured. The words were delivered as though he wasn’t even there, and Oliver knew that if he had been a fighter, he would have let a fist fly. Instead he just let his head dip down until his chin touched his chest.
“I can’t just leave Marilyn in there,” he said weakly.
The mere mention of his wife’s name sent a spasm of rage across his sister’s features. Liam tightened his grip on her, but she regained control of herself. “Don’t worry,” she said with a cold smile, “I’ll send her out to you.”
He hardly wanted to be left alone with the man who had battered his face, but he didn’t want to wait in the car, either. “You have to make her understand that I was doing the only thing I could think of to protect her.”
Liam snorted a laugh and rubbed his knuckles, trying to ease the cramping from them. If they were more than just moderately sore, he didn’t let on. “You think that leaving her to fend for herself penniless and homeless, waiting for your old man to die is really a favor? You’ve gotten really fucking twisted man.”
“He was in pain. He wasn’t living anymore.” I did it for us. I did it for Marilyn and myself and even Lily.
“Yeah, well, did you ever think about what Lily was living for? Did you think that she might have wanted to just say goodbye, even if he didn’t hear her?”
She had no life. I was freeing her.
Oliver shrugged inside his coat and knew that talking about his sister wouldn’t get him anywhere. “What ever happened to us, man?” he asked instead, meaning it to be rhetorical. Liam laughed so hard in the cold that his breath came out in a foggy burst.
“You got your head up your own ass. Or her ass. I’m sure it’s gorgeous, but you know. Have a bit of fucking dignity, okay?”
Marilyn tried to slam the bar door behind her, but no sound came. Her cheeks were pink with fury, eyes wide as she sought out her husband. She grabbed his elbow and pulled it off to the car without a word. “Nice to meet you, gorgeous!” Liam shouted at them. “Why don’t you call next time so I know to expect company?”
She flung herself into the passenger’s seat, leaving Oliver to take the wheel. He knew the car would be more comfortable if they gave it time to warm up, but he didn’t have the patience to stay and be ridiculed further. From the corner of his eye, he could see how brittle his wife was, as though she had turned to ice to avoid feeling anything beyond rejection. He knew that she wanted him to ask her what had happened inside the bar. But nobody was going to ask him what he’d done. Nobody wanted to know how he’d saved everyone who was worth saving. Nobody would ever appreciate the sacrifices that he had made. They didn’t deserve his generosity anymore.
“Lily knows,” he said instead.
After finishing her shift at the bar, Lily was reluctant to go home with Liam. He had been generous, and his dark eyes were kind when they were the only two still left in the rundown old building. His hands were always warm, and he could summon a joke from any situation. Except this, she reminded herself. “Do you want to grab a pizza and rent a movie?” he suggested as he locked the door behind him. His apartment was within walking distance, and the effort would be more of a detour than a convenience. Still, she knew that he was trying to show her kindness.
In another life, she thought, she could find herself falling in love with him. Those muscular arms would keep her safe, and she would tease him for having such a buff build despite having never done a bit of exercise for as long as she’d gotten close to him. She would share his bed, wash his clothes, stroke his hair. But she knew that it wasn’t her fate to do such a thing, at least not yet. “I need to go clear my head. What happened earlier…” She trailed off and met his eyes pleadingly. She’d spent too much of her life looking down at her feet.
He opened his mouth to protest but cut himself off. In spite of his party boy reputation, he possessed an understanding of people that made him a wonderful bartender and a social boon. “Just give me a call if you need a lift home. And don’t do anything I would do, okay?”
She had to smile at that warning. She let herself lean into his warmth, pressing a kiss to his cheek. She expected him to recoil like everyone else in her life seemed to, but he let out a gentle laugh and gave her a hug. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a hug before this. Before him.
She didn’t have to look back to know that he was watching her bike away. Left would be the right direction for town and a scenic route, but instead she hit the road and went right. He probably knew where she was going, but she was grateful that he didn’t try to stop her. Her front wheel wobbled back and forth as her arms shook. She had thought that she could be strong for her father, for her mother, for everyone who had ever dared to believe in her, but she didn’t buy it herself. She had never felt weaker than she did then, and the one person who had always been in her corner was gone.
The most difficult part for her was to admit to herself that her brother was no longer her friend. The man who had come to the bar was not the boy who had grown up with her, and she understood that now. It would make what she had to do easier.
She hated the thought that she would go back to the house when her father was no longer there. For years he had not left without her driving him, and she knew that he had to have been terrified of the end without her there. Had he doubted that he would die because she was missing it? Had he asked for her or thought about her at all? Or did he just never wake up after the heart attack?
Fighting back tears was a waste of time. She let herself cry, not because of the pain she felt but because she had been weak for so long. She could have done more by stopping the girl or standing up to her brother. Instead she had let herself be demolished by selfish people for too long.
There was something comical about seeing the old house with only one light on inside. Already small things had changed: a wind chime on the front porch, names on the mailbox, a couple of rocking chairs beside the door. She left her bike at the bottom of the lane to avoid making too much sound. She imagined what it would like to be a stranger walking up this way, taking in all the land that was put to no use at all anymore. All she could feel was sadness and regret. As much as she tried to leave her own frame of mine, she knew this was a place defined by loss.
Still, she knew she belonged here. Had she not lost everything that she had held precious? Did she not deserve to fade into history the way this farm would? Was this not her fate?
She thought about knocking on the front door and then letting herself inside. She could scream at liver and make him face what he had done to her. She could continue the conversation she had had with Marilyn at the bar. She had been leaning against a wall, looking bored out of her mind while the few men inside laughed together and sent knowing looks in her direction. They had all been daring each other to approach her, but no one had built up the nerve. Lily had poured a shot of vodka and held it out to her, smiling all the while. When she’d said that it was the only drink that she’d be getting and that her money couldn’t buy everything, Marilyn had looked like her hand would shatter the small glass. She had waved her hand as though she couldn’t decide if she wanted to throw the bit of liquor in Lily’s face or throw it back just to spite her. In the end, she’d just blown past her to the door.
The winter had already devastated her garden, but she knew the trellis should still be leaning against the house. It rose up with a few dried tendrils still clinging to the wood. Part of her was surprised that Marilyn hadn’t had it torn down immediately, but she wanted to believe that Oliver was sentimental enough to keep this piece of her still alive, as though she too might return in spring once the ground thawed and emotions had found their rightful place. He’d never think I’d come back now.
Had the lattice been purchased from a store, she knew it would never hold her weight. But her father had been far too proud to resort to buying something he could make by hand. Even when his health began to fail him, he had used the time trapped inside to work the wood together, taking care that each joint was strong. He’d applied five layers of white paint because it hadn’t looked just right to him before then. She’d laughed and told him that it would be outside and hopefully covered with ivy soon enough, so there was no point in taking such care and wasting so much paint. He’d merely rolled his eyes and gone back to the brush to make the strokes just so.
The structure barely whispered beneath her weight as she pulled herself up. The holes were tiny, but she managed to get a solid enough grip to make up for her fumbling feet. She felt her heart start to stagger uncontrollably when she as a few feet off the ground, but by the time she was past the first floor of the house, she had grown oddly comfortable with her mission. She was, after all, doing this for a purpose.
She had always hoped to have her bedroom facing out toward the garden, but it was never meant to be. This was the master bedroom, and thus her father had always been able to look down on her pride and joy. This fact now worked in her favor since she never bothered to lock the window. His illness made it difficult to control his temperature, and being able to welcome a breeze at a moment’s notice had been a gift.
What she hadn’t thought through was how she would open the window from the outside. Her balance was precarious already, and when she tried to get her fingers in the small crack at the bottom of the frame, she felt her fingernails bend back noncommittally. Any more pressure and they would surely snap, and she knew that she would not be able to keep quiet. She wedged her feet in the trellis as confidently as she could, put a palm on either side of the window frame, and pushed up with all her might.
There was a slight give, and that was enough. She bit down on her lower lip until she could taste blood in her mouth, hot and metallic and cloying. She didn’t scream though, and that was what mattered to her. She could be brave, she knew that now. The pane had given way just enough that she could get her fingers inside, and with all her strength she lifted, sending the wood moaning as the glass retreated upward. She’d never crawled through a window before, even when she was a teenager, and the thought of managing to do just that felt thrilling to her. The reality was less appealing, all twisted limbs and slow movements to make sure she didn’t spill in or tumble out.
When she finally pulled herself to her feet, the nostalgia nearly drove her to the floor again. The bed was still unmade, and there was no sign that anyone had bothered to clear away her father’s things yet. His scent was still heavy all around, like sterile wipes and musky lotion and the popcorn he adored even as it stuck in his dentures and made a mess of the carpet as the kernels were lost. He had been taken from her, but his belongings were still here, his favorite shirts and the Westerns he read and the tapes he insisted on watching because he refused to believe in any more modern technology.
She was so lost within her own mind that she didn’t hear the gun until she had fallen and something warm was welcoming her.
Marilyn had known that Oliver wouldn’t shoot. She’d heard the noises first and had gripped her husband’s arm, begging him to hunt down the intruder. He had looked uncomfortable though, and that wouldn’t do. She remembered how he’d fired upon the deer so long ago, only managing to graze it when it had been such a simple kill. No, if she wanted this done right, she would just have to take care of things herself. He would just help with the cleanup and then turn in on himself, as usual. In that sense, he had disappointed her, but at least she knew him well enough to trust that he would keep his stupid mouth shut.
She’d owned the gun for such a long time that it felt natural to carry it down the hall. Her own father had taught her how to shoot, taking out tin cans and even small birds in her youth. She’d always been a bit uncomfortable with blood though, and in spite of all her fantasies of putting a bullet in the back of the hunter’s head, or heart, or his kneecaps just to make him suffer a particularly harsh execution, she had never felt compelled to shoot.
The dumb bitch was just standing in the bedroom like she had never seen it before. She looked stunned, the window wide open behind her. Marilyn cursed herself for having not checked the lock sooner, but then she decided to be grateful. Lily really could not have made things easier if she had knocked down the front door and committed suicide right before their eyes.
Pulling the trigger was as easy as it had always been. She knew the bullet was designed to create a mess, going into the flesh and shattering to bits to cause the most damage. There was no hope for her as soon as she hit the floor, and better yet, the bullet wouldn’t sink into the wall and leave traces of a crime scene. It wasn’t as neat as her poisons, but in a pinch such as this, it worked well enough. Lily could have cried out or begged or even screamed for help. Instead she just embraced the floor and let death have her, passive to the end.
The blood was going to be an issue on the carpet. Marilyn sighed and set the gun on the floor. She could have dropped it, but then it might go off again. That wouldn’t do, not at all. She kneeled next to the shuddering pile of limbs that was her sister-in-law, then touched the blood gently. She didn’t need much, just a little on her hands. That would do. She stoked the woman’s pale cheek, leaving a stain behind before she ran down the hall. By the time she made it to their bedroom, the tears were already streaming down her face.
Oliver was waiting in the doorway for her. It was easy to cry when she knew that her own husband hadn’t come running to investigate the sound of a gun firing. Instead she let herself crumple up against his chest, tangling her fingers in his shirt. The stain transferred so easily. They were both in this together. They were made blood by this act.
“Calm down,” he was saying, but she had to panic more, she had to show him that she was right. “Calm down, Mar, you’re bleeding.”
“It’s.” She started to speak but decided a sob was better suited to her purposes. She couldn’t look him in the eye yet or he would know. He’d see through her, and then he would turn against her. She couldn’t stand to be alone again, not after all she had been through. “It’s not my blood.”
“Whose…” He trailed off when he noticed that she no longer had the gun in her hands. There were only so many rooms in the house. He had to know that they were either under threat or had a body on their hands.
“I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry. I was so scared and just saw a shadow. She lunged at me. I didn’t realize.”
“What are you talking about?”
And then he pushed her aside and was running down the hall. He threw each door open with an aggressive gesture, and she would have laughed if it hadn’t been so absolutely predictable. She let herself sit on their bed and wait. Why they hadn’t moved into the master bedroom was beyond her. For such a large house, they seemed to have the smallest bedroom, the product of Oliver being the younger child. They would have to make a lot of changes in order to use this home wisely. She knew that they would manage though. They really had all the time in the world.
When he screamed, she didn’t go to help him. He was going to have to learn somehow that this was not how to conduct a marriage.
It was only when she heard his footsteps racing down the stairs that she decided she would have to follow him. If Lily hadn’t bothered to go ahead and die yet, he might get the wrong impression about her chances of survival. She’d have to talk to him. He always did need to be leaded so obviously. How she got anywhere with him, she didn’t know.
The family had cancelled the landline coverage in an effort to save some money years before, and cell phone reception was spotty at best. When she made it to the kitchen, Oliver was smacking the device against his palm, as though violence would somehow compel the signal to kick in. “Ollie,” she said softly, touching his arm. He jerked away from her, and then she saw how his face was covered in tears and blood. How had he gotten so messy? He could only imagine what he had been doing in such a short time in the master bedroom.
“I have to get an ambulance!” he shouted. “You shot my sister. Fuck, Marilyn, do you know what you’ve done?”
“She jumped through the window! She was attacking me. What was I supposed to do with a stranger lunging at me in the dark? I couldn’t see what was going on. I just had to protect myself.”
“She’s dying! I have to save her.”
“You can’t. You have to let her go.”
“I can’t just leave her dying up there.”
She felt her blood temperature rising. It wasn’t like this was easy for her. Pulling the trigger wasn’t exactly something that she’d wanted to do. The blood was drying on her hands, brittle and rusty and making the whole place smell. All she wanted was to scrub the stains from her skin, but she knew they would never leave, not really.
Still, she shoved her husband aside with a sigh of disgust. She couldn’t stand the sight of him, with his wide eyes and hysterically gaping mouth and mess. She turned on the hot water and poured dish detergent in her hands until it dripped into the sink. “One of us had to die, Oliver,” she told him matter-of-factly. “She came here tonight to kill us as revenge for letting your dad die. You told me yourself.” When she rubbed her hands together, she let her fingernails bite into her skin. It felt so right, and she smiled into the steam that rose from the water. “She wasn’t ever going to let us be happy together. She was breaking into our house when we were trying to sleep.”
“No.” She didn’t have to turn back to him to know that he had tears in his eyes. His tone said it all. “Lily was good. She was kind. She would never hurt us. Never.”
“She never trusted me. She hated me. She hated you because you chose me over her.”
Those words hurt her more deeply than she expected. She turned off the water and wiped her hands on her sweatpants. The rusty strains transferred. She knew she’d have to throw the material out. A fire would do best, she imagined. “All I have is you now, Oliver. The only person I had in the world was my father, and he hated me. He controlled me, and he abused me.”
“Did he though?” She could tell that those words had been rolling around in his mind for a long time, but he had never dared to ask because he cared too much for her. She turned to face him, unable to meet his eye with the way the tears and sweat had dappled the bloodstains on his face. She tried to walk away, but he grabbed her arm. Under any other circumstances, she would have jeered him about having finally found his balls, but she knew this wasn’t the time. “Tell me the truth for once, Marilyn. Did your father deserve to die?”
She rolled her shoulders back and managed to get her arm away from him. He’d irritated the skin a bit with how tightly he’d grabbed her, nothing more. She wrapped her arms around her stomach and tried to think of the best way to explain things to him. He was her husband, her partner, but he was so new to her world. He would require a careful, calculated explanation, and in spite of their time together, she hadn’t considered how she would handle this conversation. Hadn’t she always thought that it would come to this? Maybe part of her, but she’d been too busy falling for her. She knew that when she began to speak, he would question everything they had been through, and she wanted to cling to this feeling for a little while longer, the sensation that she loved and was loved in return. For the first and last time in her life, she just wanted to be something to someone.
With anyone else in the world, she could be cold and calculated. But when she raised her eyes to look into his, ice blue meeting the green of the earth, she was surprised by the tears that overcame her. “Who am I to say when someone deserves to die?” she asked him, even though she knew that it was unfair to pretend she was innocent. She had killed, and even if she wanted to implicate him as her partner, she had been the one to add each name to her list as clearly as though she had pulled the trigger like she had this very night. “In a way, yes, I guess he did. Did he raise a hand to me? No.” She saw him wince then and wanted to put her palm to his cheek. She could still remember how cold his sister’s cheek had been already as the life escaped her. They were so alike, the two of them. If things had been different, she could have lived here with the both of them. She could have saved them both. “There are different ways to abuse people though. He was a cruel man. He never let me forget that my mother was a whore who hadn’t bothered to marry him. Having sex outside of wedlock, that was a sin, right? It didn’t matter that he’d done the same. He wasn’t the one who got pregnant. I don’t think he would have claimed me, but she had the audacity to die giving birth. Who does that anymore, right? He could have just left me unclaimed, but no, he had ambitions, and it was better to hide me away than to ignore me and let me be discovered. Better the devil you know.”
He looked like he wanted to interrupt to say something snide, so she put her fingers to his lips. She wondered if he could taste his sister’s blood on her hands or if it even mattered anymore. What they’d had together was fraying and she recognized that these could be the last few moments that she had to speak to him. “He hated me, Oliver. You have to believe that. He kept me close but only close enough that he knew I wasn’t going to go running to cause a stir. He told me I had to be more beautiful if he was going to be successful. He told me that I dressed like a slut like my mother. He told me that I had to be able to shoot, to defend myself, to do whatever it took to make sure that I didn’t reflect poorly upon him. Do you know what it’s like to grow up like that? He didn’t even really claim me in public, but I was just so glad to have one parent that I went along with whatever he wanted from me. It was never enough. What I told you about trying to kill myself, it was real. He didn’t let me. It would be too much of a scandal.”
He shook his head and took a couple of steps back. When he moved, she knew she had lost him. The one person she had been able to open up to, however little that was, was abandoning her. Each step was a new tear, not in fabric but skin, material that was not so prone to stretching and then giving. “So you just used me to get revenge on your dad because he didn’t like you that much?”
“You don’t know what it was like to have always been a mistake. You don’t know what he was like. He did kill people, Oliver.” She didn’t want to laugh, but a giggle still pressed its way out of her lips. “I am his daughter. I learned from him. I thought that if I followed his lead, I might be able to counter the damage he’d done somehow. I’d be able to stop you from going down the same path.”
“He wasn’t enough though, was he? What did you really want here? Why would you care about his house, this farm? Did you want his money? I didn’t have anything.”
“When you walked into the office that day…” She closed her eyes to remember. He was tall but bent, a man nearly broken by circumstance. His hair was wavy and dark, his facial hair coming in red. Those green eyes had been so alarmingly bright, cheekbones high, freckles random and charming. He’d taken her breath away the moment she’d seen him. It was just a crush, of course, but she didn’t want to hand him over to her father to just be another citizen ruined with no way to fight back. “I wanted to help you,” she said simply. “I knew if I’d told you that he was my dad, you’d think I was just like him. I guess in some ways, I am. But I cared about you. I fell in love with you. I thought that together, we could start again. But he was an evil man, and he got no less than what he gave to other people.”
“And my dad?” The tears had gone from Oliver’s eyes. There was only anger. He had stopped stepping away. Instead he closed the distance between them, hunching forward to have his eyes meet hers. They were so red, so intense. She could see the veins standing out there and in his forehead, in his throat. “All he did was be sick. You told me that it was a matter of mercy to take him out. Did you mean that, or did you just not want to take care of him anymore? Did you think he was standing in the way because he didn’t bless our union? I went behind his back to sell this place to your dad. He had a right to be mad. When he decided that he was going to disown me—“
“We did what we had to do to make sure that my dad’s death wasn’t in vain.”
“There’s no reason to justify murder. Not to me.” He shook his head harshly. He ran a shaky hand through his hair, and for a moment, she thought she might slip away. Instead he moved closer, his finger jabbing into her shoulder. “And then you shot my sister. She was the one thing I had left. I kicked her out to keep her away from you. I thought that you would hurt her if I didn’t. Now what? She’s not going to make it, is she? Why couldn’t you just put the bullet through her fucking head and make it easier on all of us?”
“Because I wanted you to suffer.” She knew that Oliver was trying to intimidate her, but she had endured enough forceful men in her life. She wasn’t going to be taken advantage of again. She had been pushed too far and had only learned the way to claw at the other person’s button. “What do you want me to say, Ollie? That I’m going to shove you out a window and claim this place and fulfill my father’s legacy? That I’m going to turn this place to a parking lot anyway, just for the hell of it?”
“I just want you to tell me the truth. For once.”
She had to laugh at that. He knew her better than anyone ever had, but just because they’d entered the darkness together, he assumed that everything was built on some false pretense. There was no way she could begin to explain that she had to trust him implicitly so he wouldn’t turn her in. Every benefit that had resulted from the deaths, they’d enjoyed together. She hadn’t retreated from his bed or divorced him the minute his father’s body grew cold.
“You want the truth?” she asked quietly. There were emotions stirring within her, a kick in the sternum and a twist in the gut. Could she let herself actually tap into that? Could she let go of every instinct that had told her that crying was a weakness and would never make a difference the way poison might? “I’m sorry I shot Lily. Not for her though. I don’t give a shit about her. I’m sorry because it hurt you. But now I’m all you have left. I think it would be good for you to remember that.”
“The only thing I have.” He sounded skeptical, but once he’d let the words fall from his mouth, something about him changed. His scarecrow frame grew strength, drew taut. She smiled when he did because it was so nice to finally see him look more like the man who had walked into her father’s office, who had been so patient in calculated. He had been in control once. It seemed like such a distant memory.
“Maybe we should leave this place behind. It’d be a while before anyone came out here to check.” She knew that money left a trail, but they were young yet. They could make plans. When she ran her hands over his shoulders, he didn’t flinch away from her. She thought he’d be shaking, but he had regained his strength. This was the man she loved. She let her cheek press against his chest. There was blood there, but she didn’t mind, not anymore. “We can go somewhere warm. We can be anyone there. We’ll just be together.”
“Can we go tonight?” he asked. His hand absently stroked her hair, creating tangles he could claim as his very own.
The question made her break down. She thought of the deer again. When her father had handed him that awful, curved blade, he had only put up a fight for so long. He still split the poor animal’s hide and cracked the ribs to make the organs spill out onto the cold ground. When the moment called for it, he could be ruthless, not because he was a detached man but because he cared too much. He loved her and would take care of her. When the tears threatened, this time she did not struggle. “Forget the phone. Let’s go now.”
“Please.” His lips were light when they met hers, but she what she felt for him was a flame consuming her. Such love could not be contained in a mere glance or a whisper. She needed him fully, without shame, and his body pressed against hers in kind.
She hardly felt the knife until it was sliding out of her.
He’d pierced her side, glancing off a bone only on the way out. She pressed her hand against her skin, but the blood was stubborn and would find its way to the floor. She stumbled back against the sink. She didn’t look down. If she didn’t look, it wasn’t real. She just had to find a cloth to put to the wound. She had to stop the bleeding.
Was she bleeding? Was it happening?
She was laughing. This much she knew. “You stabbed me,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
Her husband, the only man she’d ever really bothered to love, dropped the knife to the floor. His hands were red, so red. She could hardly believe the color. She’d always thought blood was darker. How could her own be so different.
His hands didn’t shake when he pulled out his pack of cigarettes. That filthy habit. How could he resort to smoking when she needed him? He was patient as he placed a cigarette between his lips. Her blood was slippery, sticky, confounding as he tried to get the lighter to spark. She wanted to reach out to help him, but her head was getting so light. She just needed to get the phone from him. She would be fine. They would be fine.
He stared at the cigarette for a moment as though it surprised him that he had changed so much. He shrugged and placed the smoke between her lips. She didn’t want to breathe it in, but she was afraid to let it drop to the floor. God forgive her, for the first time in years, she was afraid.
How slowly he moved as he let the lighter meet the drapes, the tablecloth, the paper towels they’d only bought days before. He grew frustrated when the table and chairs refused to catch easily. She didn’t want to cry anymore. She just wanted to go to sleep. She couldn’t look at him when he took the cigarette back from her, inhaling one last, long drag. She knew his eyes contained only hate.
“I’ve been dead for years,” he told her. “And so have you.”
He turned on the gas.