by Kristen Roedel
“What do we do?”
I pried my eyes from the word jumble before me. I’d been jotting down the beginnings of words and crossing them out, one after the other. SINNEDCOAS. SIN. CANDIES. SON. DEACON. DIES. SEDAN. ASCENDS.
Strangled chirping pierced the dead-quiet from the peach tree, whose lushly-leafed branches scraped against the siding and tapped on the windowpanes. The young sun beat in onto the fanned-out stack of brightly-colored bills, which clamored for attention like flyers on a telephone pole. Flecks of orange jittered in Annabel’s weary, marbled beryl eyes as she dragged a well-gnawed fingertip along the yo-yoing balance column in the checkbook from a few thousand to a number that read the same from both sides.
Pink was most urgent and typically largest. Pay off one, and we’d be set for a while. But that same money could be used to knock out a blue and a yellow—sometimes two. But the credit card companies weren’t as kind.
“How much after the house?”
She shook her head, laying out three pinks atop the pile like tarot cards. When I reached to brush a dark curl from her cheek, she leaned away. “We can’t afford this—”
“I don’t care what it costs,” I murmured.
She picked up the bottle of Sertraline sitting before her and rattled its sparse contents. She popped the cap and stared down its barrel. Then she took the other—Clomid—and downed two. Her almond-shaped nails began plucking at the skin between her trembling fingers. Her lips parted, but they pressed back together in a pensive line when she met my eyes. In all the years we’d been together, she cried bitterly, swore profusely, laughed recklessly, spoke articulately, and argued indignantly, but her eloquence had slowly bottlenecked in the last year. Thoughts died in her mouth as her lips tried and failed to form the words, though I saw them churning in her chest, like acid eroding her throat and tongue. Tears assaulted the bills she was hunched over.
The sun shifted, bouncing off the sunflower-shaped mirror in the hall and stabbing a blinding pain into the back of my skull.
“I get up, I go to work, I teach other people’s kids—” she rasped. “I care for them, love them—” Scorn flared and melted into sadness as she goggled over my shoulder.
“Bel—” I’d downed my last gulp of coffee minutes ago, yet it threatened to spew as if I’d barely swallowed.
“What if it’s too late?”
“We still have time.”
“But I need a break.”
Shamefaced, I watched her rake her hands back through her disobedient curls. The color drained from her face and pooled in her neck and chest.
“Okay,” I croaked.
After a protracted silence, she excused herself. She materialized shortly after to kiss the crown of my head and rain tears down into my hair before slipping out the front door.
* * *
“We got a live one!” Diego grunted, wheeling a tented gurney. He was a man of average stature and agile frame with a thick crop of dark hair, a round jaw, and a youthful face. “Christ, this guy redefines ‘dead weight.’”
The basement of Morgan & Sons was no more than a white-walled frigid cell equipped with an arsenal of steel instruments and bottled chemicals arranged atop shoddy, piss-colored cabinets. The fluorescents didn’t do the place any favors, especially not the dead. From the homey, though dated, upstairs, you’d never know such a cold, clinical place existed just below.
“Is that the bird guy?” My numbing gloved hands steadied over the blue-faced, thirty-something-year-old female before me.
“Yup.” He seemingly shrank when he suited up and secured his mask, concealing all but his big, dark eyes. “Nestor O’Daire, bird trainer extraordinaire. Heart attack.”
“The hell kind of name is Nestor?”
He shrugged, yanking the sheet from the body like a magician revealing the feat behind his velvety cloak. O’Daire was still relatively pink, and his keg-like gut protruded both upward and outward.
“EMTs said he had like a dozen birds on him. Neighbors complained about the smell.” Diego plucked what appeared to be flaky fried chicken skin from O’Daire’s dark, crusted-over mustache and flicked it into the trashcan at his feet. Stuffing his hand into the manila envelope sitting on the tray beside him, he extracted a gold chain from which two oblong medals hung.
“Who do we got?”
“St. Gall and . . .” He squinted. “St. Bernard of Arce?”
I hooked up my cadaver to drain about an hour ago, but she still looked like she was holding her breath under cold blue bathwater.
“Is that the two o’clock?”
“Yup.” I rolled my eyes when Diego began humming Neil Diamond’s “Desirée.”
“Life’s hard, and then you die.”
“Looks like she expedited the hard part,” I murmured, eyeballing the purple abrasions cinching her throat as I wedged cotton bridges beneath each eyelid. A quick referential glance to the photos her husband provided confirmed her eyes had always been a ghostly shade of blue. I hesitated to squeeze the thin line of adhesive that would close them for the last time. Although several rudimentary tasks remained on the horizon, the bruises kept drawing my attention.
“I can’t imagine being that unhappy,” Diego mumbled through his mask. He waited for me to secure mine before beginning to bathe the corpulent body as though it were some bigshot’s bird shit-spattered ’66 Shelby.
I held the curved needle of the injector gun beneath the right hinge of her jaw, brushing my other hand through her matted curls to hold her skull in place. Her lips parted slightly.
“I’ll be joining her if I don’t get a raise soon. I forgot how expensive babies are.”
“I thought you’d’a known that by now,” I huffed out.
“I must block it out after each kid, ‘cause Vanessa keeps poppin’ ‘em out.”
“Yeah, and you’ve got nothing to do with that.”
Diego’s crow’s feet rippled and dissipated.
I squeezed the trigger, coaxing a scratching, tinny cacophony from the skull in my palm, and gingerly plucked the suture that emerged from the roof of her mouth. After a second piercing scrape, I knotted the strings between her lips and massaged them closed. I lifted the photo from the cold metal tray—big eyes and long lashes, relaxed brow, a pinched bridge that gave way to the rounded tip of her nose, a soft dipping chin, smile lines echoing some long-forgotten joy.
A high-pitched squeak reverberated in the vicinity.
“On second thought, maybe it was St. Bonaventure,” Diego mused.
* * *
I hustled all afternoon so I could get home before Anna. Returning to the kitchen table, I sat in her spot to watch the entryway. A grumbling school bus flew past our house, and I heard the subsequent chattering of homebound children. Her keys would typically jangle in the door shortly after. But they didn’t. The hours droned on, punctuated by the round-faced cherry grandfather clock that had sat in my grandparents’ and parents’ houses for over six decades.
Knowing no other way to pass the time, I approached its towering presence in the foyer. Its pearl faceplate was inlaid with gold Roman numerals and marked by scrolled wrought-iron hands. It lacked a moon dial and many of the embellishments of more expensive clocks, but its round-topped overlay, long framing columns, beveled glass, and scalloped toe molding made for a distinguished aura. Its engraved long golden weights hung like tree ornaments, and its intricately-chiseled pendulum bore the moon phases. When the sun swung across the sky and shone through the front windows, the numbers glistened and the pendulum beamed, projecting an oscillating golden orb along the staircase.
I peered into the access panel at its crawling network of gears and chains. Its insides smelled distinctly of my parents’ house—knotty pine, nutmeg, and my father’s pungent aftershave. I imagined it would one day smell like our home, too—freshly-cut flowers, cinnamon, and Anna’s musky floral perfume.
Soon I was sitting in the dark, twisting my wedding band on my clammy finger and fighting the urge to doze at the table. My stomach growled as I paced the kitchen and circumnavigated the first floor, routinely peering outside. I stopped to check the calendar on the counter—no conferences or faculty meetings. She wasn’t teaching at the local college, either. When the clock struck eight, I tried her cell, which rang several times before sending me to voicemail.
“Hey, it’s me. Just wondering where you are. I love you.”
I’d tricked myself into thinking I heard her keys in the door so many times that when it actually opened, I didn’t look up, fixated on my spinning wedding band instead. She stood over me, and I shivered when she combed her slender icy fingers through my hair and trailed them down my neck and shoulders. I knew she was waiting for me to say something, but drinking in her intoxicating aroma, I groveled. Before I could utter a single word, she was already running the shower upstairs. I forced myself to stand and scale the stairs, though my head felt like a boulder and my pockets as though they were loaded with bricks. The hallway was dark. I tried the switch, but the bulb must have burned out—or we’d neglected to pay the electric bill. I followed the sliver of light emitting from beneath the door. I hadn’t expected the thick fog that engulfed me when I pushed it open. The shower hissed, and the pipes creaked more woefully than usual.
“Anna?” I coughed, squinting against the heavy air. My eyes stung as if the steam were smoke, and I stumbled through the thinning fog only to encounter a denser patch above our bed.
Floating through the haze toward the bathroom, the running water grew deafening, and my head began to pound. But it wasn’t just the shower—the tub and sink faucets poured, too, grumbling against the porcelain with such fervor that they started to overflow. I lunged for the tap when the bath gurgled and fizzed. A mangled raspberry mass rose to the surface, squirming and flopping like a fish plucked from a lake, though gangrenous like a slab of carrion whose syrupy, blackened excretions colonized the tub. It wobbled and pulsated, squeezing against itself until it imploded, exorcising white and green maggots from its blistering core.
I spun around and stalked back into the room. A splintering of two-by-fours, a metallic jangle, and electrical crackling rattled me. The fog over our bed dissipated, revealing a thick, braided rope that had yanked the ceiling fan from the drywall under the weight of a pale pendulum with bulging, weepy greens, tangled tresses, contorted lips, and indigo bruises that blossomed in her neck and snaked down her arms and chest.
Anna lay flat on the cold metal slab that sat in place of our bed, and—to my horror—my hand reached for the scalpel. But her flesh wasn’t hard or blue, nor was her blood gummy. It gave easily—willingly—dripping rubies.
A piercing infantile cry rang out.
“What are you doing?” she rasped, her quivering hand failing to slow the slicing blade in mine. “I told you I needed a break.” Her torso split like a melon under pressure, spilling writhing pink guts that cradled an infant who howled into Anna’s womb as I attempted to extract and examine its slippery body—a boy.
“What are you doing?” Her nails dug into my forearm.
But I kept losing my grip, and he kept slithering back inside, wailing with increasing alarm. His little, slimy outspread fingers groped for the folds of her perforated womb.
“Neil—stop! What are you doing?”
“He’s almost here—just hang in there—”
I gripped his small, slimy arms and finally rent him free, and wiping his shrieking, squirming form clean, I laid him on her chest.
“I need a break, I need a break,” she sobbed, her breasts beginning to express blood.
Anna clutched my shoulders when I jerked awake. I wiped my maw on the back of my hand and craned my neck to look at her. Dry, bemused eyes met mine. Her neck and chest blossomed like scattered poppies in a field. Something lingered on her features, though I struggled to decipher amusement from terror. I flexed my jaw, eyeing the puddle of drool I left behind.
“You’re home late.”
“Stopped by Dad’s.” I watched her throat quiver as she swallowed, passing her fingers through my hair.
My gaze softened, but the pang in my chest didn’t. “Have you eaten?”
She shook her head.
“Let’s go out.”
My heart pounded when she pursed her lips and squeezed my shoulders.
Though we’d made a habit of choosing each other’s outfits on “date” nights, I felt like I was snooping through her belongings. I laid out her mother’s gold necklace, a pair of strappy heels, and her favorite emerald scoop-necked dress. I pondered the contents of the bed until I heard her in the hallway. Like a child searching for a last-minute hiding spot, I second-guessed myself and nearly missed the edge of the mattress as she walked in. I was surprised to see her still dressed, even pulling her cardigan more snuggly around her torso. Sizing up my selection, she hummed her approval and headed for the closet. She thumbed through my clothes for some time before I moved my lips to speak.
“No funeral clothes tonight,” she interjected. She pushed a black button-down and a pair of pants into my arms before heading into the bathroom with her outfit in tow, the door clicking closed behind her.
Acutely aware of her every movement, I stared into her vanity. I scrutinized my thin nose, which had been too severe in my lanky youth. My blue eyes were gray against my suit. My forehead was apparently growing now that my father’s hairline had begun manifesting on my scalp—at least it held its medium-brown color. I massaged my cheeks, tugging the skin taut with my cheekbones to watch the blood drain under pressure. My face had always been thin, but I looked especially gaunt. Had I been on my own table, I would’ve airbrushed some life back into my face. I felt stubble beginning to scrape to the surface when I rubbed my narrow chin. Dread pooled in my chest cavity as I waited, and I stood there for a while before I remembered I hadn’t yet changed.
I was neatening the knot of my tie when the bathroom door pushed open.
“Honey, could you . . . ?”
Her heels clicked across the hardwood floor, and she turned to eclipse me in the vanity. She swept her hair up and out of the way, the darker strands commingling with the lighter ones. She’d worn this dress a dozen times, but I still struggled to catch my breath. In spite of the forlorn frown that had occupied her features the last couple of years, her plump, heart-shaped lips pulled upward against her glowing skin. Her sweet bulbous nose twitched against her pinched cheeks, and her soft brow gathered, seemingly processing some set of suffocating worries. She clenched the slackened material against her chest, leaving the rest to flank her sides and expose the valley between her shoulders and the small of her back. As if waiting for permission, I pinched the base of the zipper until her inviting eyes met mine in the mirror. Her florid cheeks burned brighter the higher the zipper crawled along her spine. Such a favor once entailed its immediate retraction, twisted sheets, and second showers, but now she averted her eyes.
Her reflection frowned, and she turned to tug my tie loose and toss it onto the bed. “Lighten up,” she murmured, undoing a couple of buttons and straightening my collar before allowing the ghost of a simper to creep onto her lips.
Much of the drive to the restaurant was silent.
“How’s the weather for Saturday?”
“Heavy rain. It’ll be a good weekend to watch movies and catch up on sleep.” I glanced over, hoping to sneak in a smile. She looked the other way.
“I can’t. I’m dropping my car at the mechanic, I have an appointment with Dr. Aditi, and I wanted to talk to the bank about that loan.”
“I thought the appointment wasn’t for another few weeks.” My eyes stung.
“They had an opening. Wanted to tell her in person.”
“Let me take you.”
“In the hearse?”
I couldn’t tell if she was kidding. “I’ll call out.”
“I’ll ask D for a ride. Take my car.”
“Hasn’t he been having a hard time being punctual since the baby? The last thing we need is for Harry—”
“He’ll deal.” I gathered my lip between my teeth. “I wanted to go with you.” I looked over again as we crawled to a stop. She tempted her hands to bleed.
“You can’t miss more work,” she said, gnawing on her thumb.
“Let’s just forget that crook.”
“You think he’s screwing us?”
“We’ve paid for at least a full year of college for one of his kids. He’s just replacing all the parts I’ve already replaced and killing us on the labor when he knows there’s nothing he can do.”
I’d thrown the car into park when I noticed her brimming eyes fixed just outside our car. Having scored a relatively close spot to the restaurant, I’d also secured us front-row seats to the show unfolding on the sidewalk. A red-faced balding man held open the door. First darted out a teetering child. Then a double stroller carrying identical wailing toddlers emerged, pushed by a radiant and heftily pregnant woman. But her luminescence dimmed as she hollered after the child who barreled toward the parking lot, and then at her husband, who’d been slow to chase him. As the man dove between our car and the next, she parked her stroller in front of us to pop pacifiers into the babies’ mouths and coo half-heartedly at them. Like a PSA for birth control, he returned with the kicking and screaming child bent over his shoulder and yelled something nasty about being “done” as he buckled the flailing boy into the back of the car parked beside us and slammed the door.
Anna dropped her purse at her feet and sank back into her seat.
* * *
My blaring cell phone woke me. Parched and sweating out of a deep sleep, I groggily fumbled for it, doing a double-take when I spied Anna’s shadowy silhouette partially swathed in our crimson sheets. Her arms were tossed over her head, lips slightly parted, and her unkempt tresses fanned themselves out on the pillow. I stumbled out of bed and into the hall to answer it. Harry. I had a body to pick up.
My mind remained in the other room as I scrubbed yesterday from my skin, fighting off the bilious nausea induced by a long-empty gut. Though I was careful not to make much noise dressing in the dark, I hoped she’d stir, even for a moment, so I could kiss her goodbye. I tiptoed to her side, eclipsing her in the moonlight, and reached to brush a tress from her eyes. But I stopped myself, not wanting to wake her from what appeared to be a long-overdue restful slumber.
Having left home long before dawn could melt winter’s final frost, which killed the tulips along our front walk, I spent the day hopping from one refrigerated cell to the next. I didn’t see the sun until I emerged from the embalming chamber later that afternoon. The wooly air from the car vents scratched my lungs and stabbed my thawing limbs, eventually reawakening the part of my brain that continually projected Anna’s dejected stare. I’d willed it away, knowing I couldn’t do anything about it until lunch. But when the Umbertos came in to discuss the body I’d retrieved that morning, and neither Harry nor Diego could cover for me, I was forced to put her off again. When I finally escaped, she’d already gone back to teaching and couldn’t take my call. Now, the apparition sprung forth with such urgency that I floored it the rest of the way, intent on beating her home with a bouquet of whatever managed to survive the night.
Checking the clock on the dash, I gunned it up the driveway, hurdled through the front door, and wove my way in and out of each room, calling out to her. Wondering if she’d already made her way upstairs, I arranged the flowers into the elegant Lenox vase we’d received as a wedding gift—ivory and adorned with daisies in relief—and brought them with me to scope out the rest of the house. I couldn’t find her, but I did find a notecard standing on her vanity.
I love you. — A
My fist constricted around the neck of the vase until it cracked in my palm, cleaving into large, bloody wedges that clobbered the fallen tulips in their wake.
Kristen Roedel is an American literature PhD student at Stony Brook University and creative writing professor at St. Joseph’s College. She maintains her sanity by doing more reading and writing in her off-time. She awaits the day when her students will be able to highlight her work and scribble “SHOW, DON’T TELL” in the margins. She lives on Long Island with her fiancée.