The night Anston had dropped his wife off at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility, he stared at his shoes, playing doomsday scenarios in his head involving knives interacting with his throat. She had said some awful things to and about him before the doctors ushered her off, and Anston was sure she’d meant all of it. And, though he believed the staff would take reasonable care of her, he knew nothing of their reputations, individually or in reference to the hospital, and he didn’t know whether they could be trusted, or if he was doing the right thing by leaving her there. But because they were doctors, and because he had found them in the Yellow Pages, he gritted his teeth and risked the chance.
It wasn’t enough to comfort him, however. He had heard about the horrendous things that went on in mental institutions, things like mixed medications, unwanted molestations, and friendships with sociopaths, and that was just from the guards. When he’d gotten home that evening, he worried about the condition the institution’s residents would leave her in, especially if she were ever to return to domestic life.
But, because she had threatened to stab him in his sleep on her release, his concern for her was less than what he’d felt for himself. Now, a year later, he feared that her time away had strengthened her grudge against him. He was certain she was coming home to do worse than merely stab him in his sleep.
He had to remain vigilant.
* * *
The pain from the pepper spray began subsiding sometime after he’d gotten to his car. Because he didn’t want to drive while his face was getting pulled apart by the force of a thousand burritos, he sat in the mall parking lot until he sensed 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 the fire dulled and he was confident he could drive again. He was pretty sure he’d never come back here. How humiliating.
As soon as he got onto the highway, however, he decided he’d left too soon. The lingering effects of the pepper spray no longer burned, but it continued to irritate, and it dogged his concentration. That much was clear. He spent more time rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand than he did watching the road. When the first driver honked at him for veering into his lane, Anston corrected himself in a hurry. But, because the water in his eyes blurred his vision and he misjudged the positions of the painted lines around him, he summoned the wrath of a second driver’s horn as he over-steered into the opposite lane. Five minutes later, he did it again.
Sensing additional danger if he kept driving, Anston pulled off at the next exit and parked at a gas station. As he settled into his space, he turned off the engine and took a breath. For now, he was safe from the crazies.
The bright lights emanating from the station’s overhang cast an ethereal haze through his windshield. The harsh edges outlining the convenience store behind the pumps melted into a spongy shape. Now that the chaos was lessening, his adrenaline took a dive. A headache was coming on.
As Anston sat there staring at the lights, feeling the beams boring into the back of his skull, he let his predicament stir and bubble in his thoughts. After examining every detail that merged past and present experiences and explored every last available resource to maximize his safest outcome, he concluded that he had no plan. If he were to avoid his estranged wife and whatever retaliatory violence she’d heap upon him, then he’d have to keep far away from her old haunts, including the house. On the other hand, if he were to face her and her arsenal of pain, then he’d need a clear head and quick reflexes to counter her strikes. Either choice came with pros and cons. The flesh-eating sensation gnawing at his eyes was not making either decision easy. The headache was affecting his reasoning skills.
Doing nothing, in fact, wasn’t working as well as he’d hoped it might. The problem would not slip away on its own. He’d have to make some kind of active decision, and that decision would have to make sense.
To give himself clearer thinking time, he went inside the store and bought a coffee. After dumping cream and sugar into it, he spent the next ten minutes in his car drinking it. But, even as he drained the last gulp, his mind was devoid of the proper solution. Caffeine did nothing to highlight the pros or smooth out the cons. The situation hadn’t changed. Now he was just a few dollars poorer.
It was like being married all over again.
Without money for a hotel or a cellphone to call his friends for support, and with no other ideas in place, he decided he’d just risk going home. Sitting here wasn’t going to fix anything. It would only give her more time to prepare for an assault against him. At least if he headed home now, he could cut off her planning time and fortify the house so she couldn’t breach it. How he’d pull that off, he wasn’t sure. Hopefully, inspiration would come as he needed it. That’s how he built his programs. The system had worked out for him so far.
He went back into the store to wash his hands and splash water on his face. But, as he headed for the exit this time, he noticed a shelf full of household products. Although the stock was limited, at least one item gave him an idea. If it was anything like getting pepper spray to the eyes, he thought a can of roach spray might do the trick solving his problem. Inspiration had come.
Yes, now he had the beginnings of a plan.
* * *
Anston returned home to find, to his relief, the driveway empty and his interior lights off. But he was cautious. He’d read enough news stories to understand that the mere appearance of safety was never enough. Before he went inside, he’d have to make sure he wasn’t taking an unnecessary risk.
It was settled then. He’d stay in the car and watch the house until he believed he was safe. But he’d do it parked. Remaining in the street was as conspicuous as walking straight into the living room with his arms swinging and his smile beaming.
He turned the steering wheel and pulled into the driveway. Thunk. A shot of electricity raced up his neck and through his forehead as he felt resistance against his car. He checked over his shoulder to survey the damage. He’d clipped the garbage can by a few inches. Fortunately, the impact wasn’t enough to tip the can over, but he heard the gentle thump of its rubber surface rocking into place against the driveway’s concrete edge. No booming echoes to follow, but loud enough. He should’ve been more careful.
If shunting the garbage can were any kind of warning signal, then the smart move was to wait in the car until he could overcome his distractions and keep a watchful eye on things, or pull out if things suddenly got hairy. Either way, he couldn’t afford to draw attention to himself. After parking the car, he shut off the engine and killed the headlights. The car sputtered until it stopped shaking. His body, nevertheless, continued to tremble.
Anston glanced at the front porch. Stillness. At the windows. Glossy. At the curtains. Nothing was moving anywhere. Maybe he was alone after all. Maybe his nerves were firing for nothing.
Even so, he had to assess the situation. One wrong interpretation could cost him his throat.
The sun had been absent awhile, the crickets were singing in full chorus, and the moonlight was barely glowing as it hovered in its waning crescent phase. He sat there in the driver’s seat for another moment, staring at the house, waiting for his body to still. The boxy structure before him looked plain and unthreatening under the dim glow of streetlights, but it had always looked that way. And she knew that.
Truth was, he could observe his home all night and not get a clear picture of the situation. He’d have to investigate closer, in person, intimately. Sitting in the car all night would just leave him vulnerable, especially now that the engine was off.
Anston leaned forward, rubbed the last of the burning sensation from his eyes, and took a calming breath. There was nowhere to go but inside. He had to face his fear.
He wouldn’t go in unprepared, however. There were steps he could take to protect himself from a nasty surprise. As he took the roach spray in hand and stepped out of the car, he formulated his plan. He would check the front door and windows for damage first. She wouldn’t have 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.
Edging up the driveway, scanning his surroundings for anything out of the ordinary, Anston grumbled under his breath. It was so hard to see. His best option for checking security in such darkness was to search each window with his fingers, and he hated touching anything grimy.
The thought of having to do so under such circumstances also gave him goosebumps.
But still, it had to be done. Just another form of torture at the hands of his vengeful ex-wife.
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 darken more 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 looking into 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 left on his skin. Fortunately, the hedge was undisturbed, which meant the window probably was, too. Anston was about to sigh out loud when he considered the danger that making additional noise would bring him. So he kept his relief under his breath to avoid alerting anyone who might’ve been in earshot. It didn’t occur to him until a few seconds later that he’d exercised less caution parking his car. Thankfully, no one had come out to investigate.
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 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 seen her in a year just irritated him more.
The bushes in front of the kitchen were equally overgrown, but less clumped together than the ones outside the garage. Examining them was easier. He leaned forward and 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 had sprouted up from the cracks. A single brick was missing.
Was it suspicious, or curious? He considered the question. Didn’t have an answer. It could’ve always been missing and he never noticed. Because he rarely set foot in his own backyard, he wouldn’t have known otherwise. At the same time, it could’ve been the result of theft or vandalism. If that were the case, then he’d have the right to fear or grow angry at the situation. But he didn’t know which response was more proper. It was just a brick, and unless someone had lobbed it through a window, it was of no additional concern. Maybe best to ignore it. Hopefully, it wasn’t sitting in a pool of broken glass at the other end of the house.
His heart was still calming from the garbage can and apple twig incidents as he lowered his hand off the kitchen window, but he nearly vomited from the 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 facing the garage side of the house and hopped it.
Anston didn’t know his neighbors, but it didn’t stop him from running into the center of their backyard, flipping a lawn chair on its side, and barricading himself behind it as he watched for movement in his own yard. A dog was barking from somewhere nearby, but he pushed it out of mind. His concentration belonged to whatever was moving before him. This was a life or death situation, probably.
Something moved! His heart skipped again.
His eyes adjusted more to the darkness. A small shape was creeping along the brick patio near his back door.
A black cat.
He laughed that awkward laugh that comes after pissing oneself. His nerves calmed a little, but not enough. Maybe he was safe again. Perhaps he was always safe. But he wasn’t ready to assume all was well. Just like a cat, his wife could spring out of nowhere and scare the hell out of him without warning. Last time she’d tried to get him to vacuum the living room, she’d sneaked up from behind and shoved the machine’s handle in his back. He’d nearly botched his code from the surprise. He wasn’t about to go through that again, especially if the handle belonged to a knife. He couldn’t approach the back windows until he was in the clear. His heart also needed to decelerate more.
Then something broke his concentration.
“Who the hell are you?” a woman shouted to his right.
He glanced over to see the forty-something brunette he’d sometimes view walking down the sidewalk first thing in the morning standing in the open doorway at the back of the house. She normally wore a pink jumpsuit while 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!” the woman said. “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 processed the problem. Next thing he knew, he was over the fence, separating himself by great distances from the flesh-eating barker behind him, and several blocks down the street before he realized he was gasping for breath.
He should’ve introduced himself to his neighbor sooner.
* * *
Even though he knew his neighborhood, he wasn’t sure the exact location where he had stopped; he just knew he had passed a “WARNING: KEEP OUT” sign and 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, keeping warm by a grill fire.
One of them called him over.
“Hey,” Anston said when he approached the group, “I don’t really have time to talk.”
“No?” the man closest to him said. He was 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 realized a few seconds later that he was 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,” the first man said. “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,” the second man said.
“I can relate,” Anston said.
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. The road was to his left and behind him. He really needed to run away. But he realized his alternative was to return 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.
So he told 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,” the grizzly man said. “Kinda why I’m out here right now.”
“I didn’t commit my wife to an insane asylum,” the first man said, “but I did something just as bad.”
“Yeah, what?” Anston asked.
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 laid his head back on the table.
The first man, the one in the suit, pointed at 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.”