“Crazy Lives Here”
The night that Anston had dropped his wife off at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility, he was nervous. She had said some pretty awful things to him just before the doctors ushered her to her new room. Even though he was certain they would take reasonable care of her, he hadn’t known anything of their reputations, individually, or in reference to the hospital, and he didn’t know whether they could be trusted, or if he had done the right thing by leaving her there. Because they were doctors, and because he had found them in the Yellow Pages, he gritted his teeth and risked the chance. But he had heard about the horrendous things that went down in mental institutions, things like mixed medications, unwanted molestations, and friendships with sociopaths. When he had gone home, presumably to face a temporary life without her, he worried about the condition the residents of that institution would leave her in.
But, because she had threatened to stab him in his sleep whenever she was released, his concern for her had become less than that which he had for himself. Now, a year later, he was afraid that her time away had strengthened her grudge against him. He was certain she was coming home to do worse than merely stabbing him in his sleep.
He had to remain vigilant.
The pain from the pepper spray subsided sometime after he had gotten to his car. He didn’t want to drive while his face was getting pulled apart by the force of a thousand burritos, so he sat in the mall parking lot until he could sense cold air. He didn’t know for how long he’d spent crying that burning sensation away, but he didn’t hesitate to leave once he was confident he could drive again. He was pretty sure he’d never come back here. How humiliating.
Without money for a hotel or a cellphone to call his friends for support, Anston returned home to find, to his relief, the driveway empty and his interior lights off. But he was cautious. He had read enough news stories to understand that the appearance of safety was never enough.
The sun had been absent awhile, and the crickets sang in full chorus, and the moonlight barely glowed as it hovered in its crescent phase. He sat there in the driver’s seat for another moment, staring at the house. It looked normal, but it had always looked normal. He leaned forward, rubbed the last of the burning feeling from his eyes, and took a calming breath. He didn’t have anywhere else to go. He had to face his fear.
He decided he would check the front door and windows for damage first. He knew she wouldn’t have had her keys on her—he’d told her to leave them on the dresser the day they were “going out”—so if she had come home, she’d have broken in, and the signs of tampering would’ve alerted him of trouble.
He edged up the driveway, scanning his surroundings for anything out of the ordinary. It was so hard to see. His best option for checking security in such darkness was to search each window with his fingers.
The thought of having to do so gave him goosebumps. Normally, he wouldn’t have bothered to check. Normally, he’d have just gone inside, trusting the neighborhood to keep him safe. But he knew that, as long as his ex-wife was loose, he’d have to put up his guard. They hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms.
He started down the left side of the house, walking in inches rather than feet, minimizing the intensity of his footfalls against the grass. The yard would get darker the deeper he moved through it. Some pockets would be pitch black. He held his breath and steadied his nerves. It was in times like this that he wished he had bought a dog.
The first window, the one to the garage, sat behind an overgrown hedge. To reach the window, he had to stretch through the bush. He hated doing that, thanks to the gritty sensation it often left on his skin. Fortunately, the hedge was undisturbed, which meant the window probably was, too. Anston kept his sigh of relief under his breath so as not to alert anyone who might’ve been in earshot.
But, even as he was about to take another step along the side of the house, he stopped. He remembered his ex-wife’s propensity to clean up after herself—a trait she had spent many months wishing, verbally, that he’d adopt—and that she’d move a branch back into place not just to cover her tracks but because that was the position in which it had belonged.
Now he sighed in frustration, a little less understatedly this time. He reached through to check the window anyway, feeling all the stabbing branches and sticky leaves along his arms. It felt like a violation, and there was nothing he hated more than to feel like something was violating him.
The window was locked. The glass, intact. Even though he was glad that this part of the house was secured, he was still annoyed with his wife for making him check. She had always made him check stupid things like that. The fact that she was doing it now when he hadn’t even seen her in a year just irritated him more.
The bushes in front of the kitchen were just as overgrown, but less clumped together than the ones outside the garage. Examining them was easier. He leaned forward and carefully studied the hedge’s plant construction. As his eyes adjusted to the shapes under the dim moonlight, his heart raced. A few twigs were broken here.
But, on closer inspection, and after feeling a branch stabbing him in the back, he realized it was just an apple that had broken the twigs. He moved on.
Another kitchen window, this one in back of the house, loomed over a brick patio infested with weeds that protruded up from the cracks. One brick in the patio was missing. He thought about that. Didn’t have an answer. It could’ve always been missing and he just never noticed. He rarely set foot in his backyard. He decided to ignore it.
His heart was calming as he lowered his hand off the kitchen window, but then he nearly vomited from the overwhelming shock that followed. Something clattered through the cluster of outdoor trashcans behind him. Without giving it a second’s worth of investigation, he ran for the neighbor’s fence that faced the garage side of the house and hopped it. Then he ran into the center of his neighbor’s backyard, flipped a lawn chair on its side, and barricaded himself behind it as he watched for movement. He heard a dog barking from somewhere nearby, but he pushed it immediately out of mind. His concentration belonged to whatever was moving before him.
He watched a black cat creeping along the brick patio near his back door, but he wasn’t ready to assume that all was well. He waited for several minutes as his heart decelerated. He wasn’t about to approach the back windows until he knew he was in the clear.
Then something broke his concentration.
“Who the hell are you?” asked a woman to his right.
He glanced over to see the fortysomething woman he’d sometimes view walking down the sidewalk first thing in the morning standing in the open doorway to the back of her house. He normally saw her wearing her pink jumpsuit and listening to her iPod. Tonight she was in her gray bathrobe and purple towel wrapped around her head. She was not listening to any music. She was frowning. Anston stood and began to approach her with his outstretched hand.
“Killer!” said the woman. “Sic ‘em.”
Before Anston knew what was going on, an angry Rottweiler came running out from around her legs and rushed for his position.
Anston’s body reacted before his mind could process the problem. Next thing he knew, he was over the fence, separating himself by great distances from a flesh-eating barker behind him, and several blocks down the street before he realized he was gasping for breath.
He started to think he should’ve introduced himself to his neighbor sooner.
Even though he knew his neighborhood, he wasn’t sure where in it he had stopped; he just knew he was now in the middle of some park. There was a playground to his right and a series of picnic benches to his left. A trio of homeless men were hanging out by the benches.
One of them called him over.
“Hey,” Anston said to them when he approached the group, “I don’t really have time to talk.”
“No?” said the man closest to him, an older gentleman who seemed to have one good suit and refused to ever take it off. “Hot date tonight?”
“As a matter of fact…” Anston thought about Rebecca, thought about the abandoned dinner and the coffee and tequila experience he would never share with her, not now. “No.”
“Neither do we.” The man sized him up. “What’re you so nervous about?”
Anston wasn’t sure where the man had gotten the idea he was nervous, but he did realize a few seconds later that he was still wheezing from his impromptu run.
“I’m not, I’m just—”
“You sure came racing in here like a bat out of hell. Something’s got you spooked.”
“And it must be serious if you coming here, son,” the grizzled man to his left said. “Ain’t no one tell you this place smells like misery at night?”
Anston shook his head.
“I—I don’t know where I am exactly.”
“‘Course you don’t,” said the first man. “Charley, look. Another one’s come to say hi.”
The third man, a younger gentleman—well, younger than the other two—was resting his head on the picnic table, but he sat up when the first man had called his name.
Charley looked up at Anston groggy-eyed. Then he flashed his gap-toothed smile and raised his thumb. Then he went back to sleep.
“Charley ain’t very social,” said the second man.
“I can relate,” said Anston.
The first man raised his eyebrow.
“Usually a dude come here this time of night,” he said, “it’s because he’s running from something. What you running from?”
Anston wasn’t sure how much he wanted to share with strangers in the middle of an unlit park at the hour when wolves sometimes howled. But he had worse things to look forward to as the night progressed, so he didn’t see the harm.
“A mean dog,” he said.
The man in the suit shook his head and smiled.
“No, that’s not it. We all been chased by dogs. A dog can’t make a man run like that. What’s really got you spooked?”
Anston furrowed his brow at him.
“Why are you interested in my problems?”
The man pointed to each of his friends and himself.
“Ain’t none of us connected to the outside world anymore. We like to know what’s going on. Plus, if we get on your good side, you might give us money so we can eat tomorrow.”
“That’s fair. I don’t carry cash on me, unfortunately. And I already gave away my fish.”
The man in the suit glanced at the grizzled gentleman and frowned. Then he sat on the table next to Charley and rested his hand on his raised knee.
“Well, we still like to hear of a nice First World problem. Why you spooked?”
Anston glanced to his left and right in search of the park’s exit. He could see the road to his left behind him. He really just needed to run away. But then he realized his alternative was to run back home to uncertainty, and he wasn’t in that big of a hurry to face the possibility of confronting the woman who wanted to stab him in his sleep.
He decided to tell the homeless men what was bothering him.
When he finished his story, the man in the suit shook his head and clucked his tongue.
“That’s a rough tale,” he said. “I can see why you’d want to get so far away.”
“Had a similar story,” said the grizzly man. “Kinda why I’m out here right now.”
“I didn’t commit my wife to an insane asylum,” said the first man, “but I did something just as bad.”
“Yeah, what?” said Anston.
The man pointed his finger at Anston.
“That, son, is none of your damn business. But, I can say this. It sounds to me you have a lot to fear back home.”
“I know. Right?”
“Yes, and I think it’s possible you might be the biggest fool in this park, and Charley here once ate a lit match.”
Charley awoke to the sound of his name and showed off his gap-toothed smile. Then he went back to sleep.
Anston didn’t understand the man’s conclusion.
“Go home,” the man said. “I know your story well, and I can tell you, you need to make things right with her before you make them worse.”
“I told you the part about how she wants to stab me in my sleep, right?”
“They call that penance. I’m hearing your story, and you clearly did the wrong thing with her.”
“No, no, maybe I didn’t explain it right, see, she needed help and—”
The man in the suit raised his palm to silence him.
“I never met her, but I understand her far better than you seem to. Now, listen to me. Make things right. That girl deserves better.”
“But, I don’t think you actually do understand because—”
“Son, I’ve been around. I know things. Milton here knows things. Charley here knows things. We all know that you need to make things right.”
The second man, Milton, had an apologetic look on his face. He nodded. Charley, lifted his head, smiled, then set his head back to the table.
The first man, the one in the suit, pointed to the park’s exit.
“You heard them,” he said. “Make things right. Now get out of here before we jump you and take your credit cards.”
Anston was shaken by his encounter, and a bit mind-boggled. He had no idea what the homeless men were talking about. He was no fool. He did what he had to the night he had his wife committed. It wasn’t easy taking her there, and it certainly wasn’t easy leaving her there. But it was the right thing. She needed help. He provided that road for her. He was no fool. They were the fools. He resolved to never again listen to the wisdom of old men who had made worse decisions than him. Technically, he was smarter, as he wasn’t the one spending the night at the park, so he should’ve been the one giving the advice back there.
As soon as he found his way back home, and as soon as he confirmed that the Rottweiler had gone back inside, Anston resumed his perimeter check, making sure that everything was still secure.
“They’re the fools,” he kept saying to himself.
When he examined the windows facing the backyard and saw that each one was untouched, he moved to the right of the house where the two bedrooms were located. These rooms had carried the most weight with his ex-wife during their marriage, so he thought they bore the greatest likelihood of her break-in, if she had even come back to see him, which was beginning to look unlikely.
“I did the right thing,” he said.
The guest bedroom, which wasn’t any smaller than the master bedroom, was first. According to memory, there were a number of reasons for her to choose this window over the rest. The prominent reason, of course, being that this was the room where he had first threatened to kick her out. When he did finally kick her out, a month later, he was decent enough to send her out through the front door, in the subtlest way possible, and there was plenty of paperwork to follow, but this was the hill where the snowball had formed.
“She was losing her mind.”
She had certainly made her feelings about the matter known to him at the time. In fact, he had almost changed his mind when he’d discovered that she did, in fact, have a lot of passion for something—a quality he had always desired in women, a quality that he was certain after their wedding night that she didn’t have. But part of that passion was in threatening to invite her mother over to talk to him, sternly, about his way of thinking, so he had brushed it off as displaced desire and continued weighing the possibility of pushing her out the door.
“Not my fault she went insane.”
After he had committed her to the “enrichment facility” a few weeks later, he had spent several months with a knife beside his computer mouse in case she ever sought retribution. He had eventually put it away when he reasoned that she wasn’t coming back and that keeping a steak knife at his desk for months probably wasn’t necessary. He had also come to the conclusion that, if against all odds she ever were to find her way home, then providing her easy access to the object that she’d threatened to stab him with so close to the bed he slept in was a bad idea. The fact that she could be coming here now to do any of that resumed his uneasiness.
“I probably should’ve visited more, though.” He shook his head. “God, what did I do?”
He was nervous to forge on, but he needed his answers. He checked the window. It was untouched. He released his grip of the casing and collapsed against the wall. His breathing steadied.
First he was relieved. Then mystified. If she had broken out of the psycho institution, then why hadn’t she come here? As his fingers retracted from the locked window, he pondered the question. Maybe she couldn’t get a taxicab. Or, maybe she’d forgotten where she used to live. Maybe her meds had brought her to a ditch somewhere.
“I shouldn’t have abandoned her.”
After checking the remaining windows to find all but one secure—the master bedroom window facing the side of the house was cracked open, but it wasn’t unusual for him to leave it that way since his house had poor ventilation, and he hated coming home to a stuffy bedroom, and the room was too dark to see inside anyway—he returned to his front door to test his final barrier. Just as he had left it, the handle was locked.
“She’s gonna kill me tonight.”
He held his breath as he reached for his keys. Then he held his wrist as he inserted the key into the lock.
“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”
When he opened it, he reached in for the light switch. For the first time tonight, normal lighting greeted him, though in the company of stale air. He waited a moment to see if anything would jump out from around a corner. Nothing did. His nerves began to calm. His home had not yet been compromised, and now he could relax, somewhat.
As he stood just inside the doorway to his living room, he considered a list of variables regarding his current situation. She was still out there somewhere, but he didn’t know whether she was coming here. If she were to arrive, he’d be in trouble. If she weren’t coming…well, the more he thought about that, the more it pissed him off. Even as he thought of it, he knew it was irrational. The last thing he needed was for someone who had threatened to stab him in his sleep to show up at his doorstep. But she was his ex-wife. Wife. The divorce had never been finalized thanks to certain bureaucratic devices that had destroyed his motivation. Surely she must’ve wanted to see him. Even if it was to basically stick a blade in his gut, or whatever her nutsy little imagination had driven her to want. He felt a little insulted that she had ignored him completely.
But that was ridiculous. All of those months spent sleeping next to a crazy woman had clearly rubbed off on him. He refocused his thoughts. He needed a contingency plan in case she were to come home. Well, to Anston’s home. He needed to get the thought of her ever calling this place home again out of his mind.
To come up with the proper contingency, he needed to consider the facts:
- She hadn’t broken out of the facility alone. Brad Pitt was with her (not the famous one, the former chemist who had a different real name, most likely—Anston had to be careful not to mix the two up), and he was probably equally as dangerous, if not more so.
- It was possible that the breakout was Pitt’s idea and that she was just along for the ride.
- She could be traveling around at Pitt’s mercy. Coming here may not have even been on the agenda.
- If she were coming here, she’d have already come. The breakout had happened hours ago, plenty of time for her to make her way home…make her way to Anston’s home.
- If she had other agendas to fulfill first, then she’d still be coming here, most likely in the middle of the night while he slept.
- Given her initial threat, he didn’t have the heart to sleep in his own bed.
- He couldn’t afford to sleep elsewhere and was probably doomed to face her anyway.
Anston moved to the sofa while he considered the list of possibilities. Sitting down had often helped him to relax and to think with a clearer head. It had allowed him to come up with at least seven facts, even though he was having trouble coming up with an eighth. It was possible he had thought of everything that mattered.
While he considered the points, he went to the bathroom sink to rinse his face. The half-empty bottle of tequila that Rebecca had brought was leaning against the slope beside the drain, so he moved it to the towel rack. Then he dried his face on a towel that hadn’t been washed in weeks. The stench didn’t even faze him, he was so used to his bachelor’s life.
Regarding the last three points, he realized he was still in significant danger, and he still needed some kind of security measure to keep him safe. His first thought was a little raw, and probably ineffective in the grand scheme of things, but it was better than nothing. As much as he preferred to catalogue threats before acting on solutions, he was aware of the possibility that he was low on time. Going with his first solution, the gut solution, was probably his best defense this late in the game. So he retrieved his phone from the kitchen and called his friend Matt to crash at his place.
The plan was rough in his head, but it made sense. He figured Matt could sleep in the bed and Anston could snuggle up to a pillow in the closet where his wife would be less likely to find him. Even as the phone rang, he thought of ways to polish the scenario for greater effect. If his wife were to barge in with a knife, Anston would have more time to react if he were in the closet. He could slip out while she struggled with Matt. Or, in the likely scenario that Matt’s presence in the bed would confuse her and force her to halt her advancement, Anston could wait for her to leave without incident, and then he could trade with Matt once she left. It was certainly something that could work. As his thoughts sped through his mind, he listened to the steady drone of each ring: four, five, six, seven. He couldn’t wait to enact his plan. But, on the ninth ring he frowned. No one was home.
He wasn’t about to lose hope, though. He called George next. George was probably better for the plan anyway the more he thought about it. He was kind of a slob and someone Anston didn’t really want sleeping in his bed, ever, but he was tough, and he could handle a surprise attack. Probably should’ve called him first. But after the eighth ring, he gave up on George, too. They must’ve been on the boat still.
Since he spent most of his free time working on computers, partly due to his social anxiety, Anston didn’t allow himself an opportunity to meet anyone else helpful. He had experimented with dating again, but he couldn’t ask any of his former lady interests, or Rebecca for that matter, to sleep in the bed in his place. That would beg too many questions and lead to too many awkward moments. And his family lived too far away to help. And, as far as his neighbors were concerned, with the exception of the woman who had sicced her Rottweiler on him moments ago, he’d never actually met any of them, and he wasn’t sure that asking them to sleep in his bed tonight would’ve been appropriate.
As it seemed, he was on his own. He breathed in deeply to lower his blood pressure.
As he filled his lungs to the brim with air, he nearly choked. There was something acrid about it. He considered opening a window for better circulation—the place sure needed it—but he didn’t want to invite any unwanted guests inside, either, so he left it alone and told himself not to take so many deep breaths.
Next, he thought of other measures to stay safe. Soup cans stacked against the front door to alert him should she break in through there. Sleeping in the closet was still an option. But the most effective measure for dealing with this, and admittedly his least favorite plan, for it added complication to the mix should things go badly, was to call the police and ask for a patrol car to camp out for the evening. He didn’t want to invite them over—the fewer strangers he had interacting with his business, the better—but he knew they would keep him secure, depending on how fast they were to react to trouble. He was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt at least, so he closed his eyes, stuck out his index finger, and dialed the emergency number by touch.
Fortunately, unlike his friends, the police picked up.
“Hi, I’d like to order some protection, please,” he said, when the operator took his request.
The conversation between him and the operator was formal. After giving his address and a brief synopsis of the situation, which he’d kept vague for the sake of simplicity, Anston disconnected the call. A patrol car would be sent in the next twenty minutes or less. He stared out the window as he thought about all the things that could happen to him in twenty minutes or less.
With no other option before him, it was time, he reckoned, to listen to his fifty-plus messages.
He hit PLAY. The doctor from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility spoke first. Then a woman followed, a woman he knew very well—and assumed the doctor knew well, too. Her voice screeched more than it had when she was still actively his wife.
I’m coming for you, she said.
The dial tone followed, then the beep.
I’m coming for you, said the next message.
The beep followed.
Anston reached for his shirt collar.
I’m coming for you.
I’m coming for you, sweetheart.
I’m coming home.
Dial tone. Beep.
I’m coming for you.
Click. Dial tone. Beep.
Anston took down the first few buttons of his shirt to escape the heat around his neck. His head felt light, almost spinning. He didn’t want to listen anymore. Yet, he was transfixed. Her creepy voice still had a melody to it that made his heart race, and not because he was worried about her killing him in his sleep, even if that did accelerate it slightly.
I’m coming for you.
I’m coming for you, darling.
Hello, valued customer. This is First Regional Bank calling regarding your account. We have some exciting new options for your future banking experience. If you would like to upgrade to a premium account, please press one. If you would like to upgrade to our platinum account, please press two. For our frequent flyer program, please press three. If you would like to speak to a representative, please stay on the line. Para toda consulta en español, presione cuatro.
Several minutes of silence followed.
Thank you for holding. How may I help you? More silence. Hello?
Dial tone. Beep.
Why was your phone busy?
I’m coming for you.
I’m still coming for you.
Anston stood from the couch and walked into the kitchen, his head so light it was ready to crash into the ceiling.
His stomach had behaved so far, but now he wanted to vomit. He poured himself a glass of water. Some of it sloshed onto the counter when he set the glass down.
Something he hadn’t noticed before amid the problems regarding his stomach and safety, but noticed now that he drank some water, was that his throat was dry, even scratchy. For a moment he could taste even the remains of salt in his mouth. Then he noticed something else: a headache. He hadn’t eaten all day. His blood sugar must’ve taken a dive. If his stomach had only given him peace. He decided to test it.
Kitchenware was sparse in his house. In fact, he owned only one pot—The Happy Place Enrichment Facility had gotten half of his assets in the first phase of the divorce settlement; the second phase was still pending. Anything requiring advanced cooking techniques didn’t get made on his stove. Often, anything that involved cooking period didn’t get made here. He usually ordered out. As he thought about that, he felt another pain in his stomach; he should’ve gone out for dinner earlier. But it was too late. Most places nearby would’ve been closed this time of night.
He placed his single pot on the burner. Next, he scoured his cupboard for something to eat. His choices were tuna fish and soup. He thought the classic chicken noodle soup was best for the occasion, as it was easiest on an upset stomach, so he opened the can and poured the contents into the pot. Then he reached for the burner’s knob to cook it.
His stomach—it was ready to go. All other senses vanished in that moment. He could feel it contract, its contents rising. He stopped short of the knob and ran for the bathroom.
I’m coming for you, doll-face, said the machine as he ran past it.
The bathroom was grimy in places, with mildew caked in the tiles and stubble lining the sink. Anston had every intention of cleaning it someday. But today was not that day. Today was made for puking.
He forced the toilet lid open with a clang against the tank, but lost control of the seat. It fell as the first wave of vomit coursed through his system and out of his mouth, slicing through its heavy stream. Chunks of food ricocheted to the floor as they bounced off the seat’s edge.
Several minutes he spent over the bowl, retching every last morsel still lingering in his system. The echo of his gagging bounced around in his head, encouraging his stomach’s muscle reflex to go another round. Soon, he was spent, knees on the floor, face just inches from the toilet. And to think he’d almost made some soup.
He got up, feeling nothing left to expel. Then he went to the sink and rinsed his face again. Then he returned to the living room, ready to unplug his answering machine. Then he froze when he got within ten feet of the sofa. His mind fell blank and his jaw dropped. He didn’t dare so much as flinch. Alice was home.
She stood there, in his living room, next to his gas fireplace—a lighter in one hand, his fishing rod in the other. Her dark hair covered much of her face, save for her lips and her left eye. And she wore what looked like a guard’s uniform, though burnt. And she had his fishing rod in one hand and a lighter in the other. She stood next to the fireplace. And it was hissing; he could now tell. And the air: still acrid. And she was here, in his living room. Alice had finally come for him.
He suddenly wondered why he hadn’t stolen the pepper spray or decided against all reason to just bring the tire iron into the house after all.
“Hi, honey,” she said. “Did you missss me?”
She was swaying a little and her speech was a slurred.
Anston was still frozen, but he was beginning to sense movement in his arms. His blood had chilled, but his pounding heart was nevertheless pumping it through his veins at record speeds. The biological activity happening in his body, out of reaction to what his eyes were communicating to his brain, stirred him enough to get him back to awareness. It was a tough grasp, thinking with any sense of logic, but he was ready to give it a go.
“Alice, what are you doing here?” he asked without any sense of irony in his voice, perhaps because his fears had now come to a head and he couldn’t actually think straight. He knew the answer, of course; he just wanted to hear her version of the story.
“Weren’t you listening to my messagesses?” she asked. “I came for you. You’re s-supposed to be my husband and we should be together. S-so, here I am. I tried to warm the house for you, but silly me, I for-forgot about the pilot light.”
He glanced over her shoulder to the fireplace. The firebox was quiet, but he could see that the gas valve had been turned on. No doubt carbon monoxide or some other poisonous gas was swimming about the room, or perhaps something worse, something explosive. He didn’t understand gasses very well. He really should’ve kept up with the vents.
“Wow, you’re s-so handsome at the moment,” she said, with an awkward smile. “Wish I could frame your face.”
“How did you get in?”
Her back went rigid as she attempted to correct her balance.
“The spare key, darling. I used the s-spare key.”
“What spare key?”
“My spare key, honey. The key I made when we were still married. The key I made before you sent me to that…institatu…shun.”
She lost her composure and started swaying again.
“You never told me about a spare key.”
“No, of course not. You don’t think I wanted you to find it. Do y-you? You’d lock me out.”
“Where did you keep it?”
“Out…side. Under the loose brick in the back patio. Always kept it there. I knew you’d never find it-it.”
“Why didn’t you want me to find it?”
“Because y-you’d move it. You never give my stuff much regard, like my bathroom…for instance. It’s still dirty, I noticed.”
“How long have you been here?”
She had an awkward smile on her face, which was eerie given the juxtaposition it had over the unlit lighter she was holding ever so close to his fishing rod.
“All day. All night. I heard you talking to someone earlier. Who was it? Was-s it another woman?”
He didn’t want to risk setting her off in the wrong direction. He had to choose his truths carefully. Sometimes that meant making them up. He could sort out their accuracy later.
“Insurance agent. Trying to sell me insurance. I told her to get lost.”
“I’ve been waiting for you in the bedroom, naked, all day, except to cook you dinner, shivering from the cold, but you didn’t come for me. Now I’m dressed, still cold, ashamed, afraid that you might not want me anymore. And I want some chocolate.”
“How did you get here?”
She went rigid again. Her blue eyes, which were red with bloodshot, stared at him with intensity.
“Buick. When Doctor Nantucket burned the guard’s shack,” she shook her head as she recalled her escape, “that was so excessive-ive, I couldn’t believe, but I did believe, he said it was necessary, I think, he forced the man to give us his uni-, er, form. Then, when he ran away in his boxers, poor old man, it was such a cold night, I searched his pockets to…”
She was having trouble with her thoughts.
“To find his keys. Then it was just a matter of finding the lock it fit.”
She closed her eyes. Her swaying was beginning to lessen. Anston noticed a tear welling up just above her left cheek.
“Why did you leave?” he asked.
She stomped her foot.
“Enough questions,” she said. “I came for you, sweetie, and now I’m here. No more questions!”
“Why come for me?”
“That’s a question, Jack! You violated my request! You always violate my request! You never listen to me!”
Anston narrowed his eyebrows. He couldn’t remember why she’d always called him Jack. It wasn’t his middle name, nickname, or anything associated with his real name. Maybe he had said it once as a joke? The fact that she was still calling him that made no sense. But this was no time to correct her. She was crazy.
“I’m listening, Alice. Just tell me what you want. Why are you here?”
He steeled his nerves for her inevitable confession, the thing he had feared since he’d been told she escaped, and more realistically, since he’d had her committed in the first place. He dug his toes into the floor to enforce his rigid stance. If he were about to listen to her threaten his life, he figured he should at least look ready to fight back.
Her body softened again. There was a twinkle in her bloodshot eyes. And the left part of her mouth went up in a smile.
“I want you to marry me again.”
This caught him off guard. He expected something more sinister, more insane. But then, he thought, this request was pretty insane. Their divorce was never actually completed. Just started. He couldn’t help but wonder if this were some kind of trap.
“You want what?”
“To take me back, as your wife.”
Anston wrinkled his brow. She couldn’t have been serious.
“What’s your game, Alice?”
Her face was now blank. She shook her head slightly.
“No game. You dumped me. Then you put me in that, in that…place, messing up my life, and you never gave me a chance, and I—”
“I put you in that place because you needed it.”
“Says who? I-I’m perfectly normal.”
Anston resisted his urge to laugh at her. Normal was definitely not the word he would have used to describe her. Even her eyes were going crazy as they rapidly changed dilation. She reminded him of that old drug addict he used to see in the park talking to invisible ducks. That guy was always on something. If not for the fact that she was certifiably insane, he’d suspect she was on those same chemicals.
“You screamed in your sleep.”
“I had bad dreams.”
“You cut the eyeballs out of newspaper photos.”
“I wanted to see through the eyes of famous people.”
“You tried to set the cat on fire.”
“I was allergic!”
Anston braved a step closer to her. She noticed, and she put the lighter within a few inches of the rod. She still hadn’t flicked the flint.
“Don’t come any closer,” she said.
“What do you want with my fishing rod?”
“I want to burn it.”
“Why? Isn’t your gripe with me?”
“You love this pole. You love it more than you love me. I have to burn it. You’ve always put it before me.”
“That’s not true, honey. I don’t love the pole more than you.”
She moved the lighter another inch closer. Anston flinched.
“You do love it more than me!”
“Alice, stop! Smell the gas? You’ll blow up the house. Or yourself. Or you’ll burn your fingers off.” He struggled with the facts he knew and scratched his head while he tried to summon any memory of high school science. “I don’t know chemistry, but something bad will happen I’m sure.”
“Then maybe you’ll fulfill your promise to me.”
“That you’ll be with me ‘til the day we die.”
Anston took a step back. Maybe she understood chemistry better than he did. Maybe she would blow up the house. He had only one chance to get this right. And, quite frankly, he didn’t know what that chance meant. He didn’t trust her in the slightest.
“I don’t love the pole more than you,” he said. “And to prove it, I’ll grant you your request.”
Anston was confused. Had there been more than one? He replayed the conversation in his head on fast-forward. He was pretty sure she had made only one.
“The one you came here for.”
“You’ll marry me again?” Her lips turned upward and her teeth sparkled.
They were still married, he thought. Legally, at any rate. Perhaps she’d been locked away for so long that she’d lost touch with all forms of reality, not just the tangible kind.
“Just turn off the gas, air out the room, and dispose of the lighter.”
“I didn’t turn on the gas.”
Anston was about to challenge her, but stopped when he reminded himself that she was the one with the lighter in hand. It was better not to challenge a fool with the words of a fool. He’d let that one go.
“Okay, just turn it off and we’ll talk about marriage.”
“What’s the proper way to give me a request?”
“What do you mean, ‘please what?’ Nothing follows ‘please.’”
Anston pinched the bridge of his nose. He was nauseous, anxious, and getting restless.
“Right. Please, sweetheart.”
Where was that tire iron?
Alice considered his words. And she looked normal doing it—no left eye twitching or anything. Not now. She was suddenly in control of her stature. This scared Anston.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said. “We marry tomorrow. We consummate tonight. I’ll be in the bedroom waiting. You better be in there after you clean up that bathroom.”
To his relief, she placed the fishing rod back on the hooks—they looked tarnished, as though her very presence had sucked the luster out of them. Then she pocketed the lighter.
“I’m gonna make you a believer in love again, s-sweetheart,” she said. “Mark my words.”
“I’ll be unclothed,” she said. “You better be, too.”
“Right. Wait for me.”
She closed her eyes and felt her forehead. There was pain in her face.
“And I want you to stop this room from spinning.”
She opened her eyes and stared at him. Then she allowed her hand to fall to her hip. Back to business.
She moved to the bedroom, not seductive with shaking hips, but stiff, like an infantryman heading to war. Whatever sex appeal he’d once seen in her, it had died with her last vestige of sanity. His spine shuddered when she closed the bedroom door behind her.
He shut off the gas valve to the fireplace. Though his head continued to spin, and though all that nausea he’d tried to purge slowly returned for another round, somehow he felt victorious. He had cheated death tonight, or at least so far. The windows were next; the place needed some fresh air.
Anston didn’t fancy himself a wise man—he did, after all, hang out with two drunks two days a month. He also kept to himself the remaining days and didn’t know the first thing about choosing good women. But he did value one thing: his father’s instruction. Whenever something bad was about to happen, he thought back to a piece of advice his father had given him.
“Never be afraid of bad luck,” his father had once said. “If it wants you, it’ll find you. Your job is to stand behind the mirror before it breaks.”
On the fishing boat, standing behind his mirror had required George racing in with a pair of scissors. At home, his mirror required a stray cat—preferably a black one for poetic justice—tossed into the bedroom with the door locked. He remembered her allergy. She was asthmatic. A cat would allow enough time for the police to show and for him to escape.
Anston returned to his kitchen for a can of tuna. But then another thought occurred to him. She was lying in the bedroom waiting for him. No one had done that for him since the week before he’d committed her. Libidinal pressure had built to near explosive levels during that interim, and now he had a chance to deflate it. Maybe Rebecca could’ve satisfied that need in time, but that ship had sailed thanks to his detour earlier, and Alice was here looking to satisfy him now, in her odd, lunatic ways.
Then he was reminded of another piece of his father’s advice: “Never piss off the woman who says she loves you.”
He put the tuna back under the cupboard. Perhaps he could overlook her insanity for one evening, or even see if they still had a spark. Computer engineers had to consider all variables, after all. Spending the night with her again was risky, certainly, but stabilizing his sex drive for a change sounded like a sweet deal. Maybe that in and of itself was crazy. But he could be careful. It wasn’t like this was the first time they’d shared a bed, even though nothing had ever really happened in that bed, nothing memorable at least. It was possible he could suppress his fear under the power of another emotional force. After blowing his chances with Rebecca, it was probably the best option he had.
He went ahead and counted up the knives in the kitchen, just to be sure. It had been a while since he had taken inventory of his utensils, but eight, which is what he counted here, seemed like the right number. Or maybe he had nine. That sounded right, too. Close enough.