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 bloodshot 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 beside the fireplace. And it was hissing; he could now tell. It wasn’t his air-conditioning. Or not just his air-conditioning. Rebecca must’ve not have shut it all the way off when she was fiddling with it. And the air: still acrid. And his estranged and angry wife was here, in his living room, staring right at him. 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. At least he still had the roach spray. By the answering machine. Out of reach.
He cursed under his breath.
“Hi, honey,” she said. “Did you missss me?”
She was swaying a little and her speech was a slurred.
Anston was frozen, but he was sensing movement in his arms. His blood had chilled, but his pounding heart still pumped it through his veins at record speed. 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 with no grasp 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 the gas valve was still on, if not barely. 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 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 wo–man?”
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 both red with bloodshot, stared at him with intensity.
“Buick, I think. When Dr. 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 lessening. 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! I’m tired.”
“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. 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 completed. Just started. He couldn’t help but wonder if this was 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.
“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 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 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 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. Now to catch the little haunting booger.
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’d 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.