She rubbed her thumb down the length of the cut on her forearm, trying to decide if the red pin-pricks showing through the white cotton fabric of her sweater were real or the product of her paranoia. She winced, for a number of reasons. Her eyes darted around the neighborhood, which was illuminated only by the moon and sporadic street lights. She felt her body expanding to occupy the entire street, invading the silent homes of her restful, unaware neighbors with flashing neon signs reading “wicked” and “call the police”. She also felt her body shrinking away, slipping through the holes of the cold, rusted bench, turning into nothingness. She was a paradox. She clenched her eyes shut, tight, hugged her knees to her chest, tight, and was filled with darkness. Despair. The loudness of her head, pounding either from the injury or her palpating heart, or perhaps both, prevented her from hearing the stranger approaching until he was sat next to her. Judging from his facial features, he was probably in his thirties, younger than her by at least a decade. His creaseless suit gave him an air of composure.Her awareness of her own appearance heightened; she looked unwell. Her hair was in a tangled, loose bun that was seconds away from unraveling. Her eyes were red, puffy. Her husband’s blood dirtied her fingernails, and, perhaps, her own blood was beginning to show through her white, cotton sleeve. She smelled of bleach. It occurred to her then that the black, grimy blood under her nails was all that was left of her husband, and it, like her husband, would soon wash away. The man was staring at her. She held her breath, wondering if the guilt radiating off of her like electricity was making the hairs on his neck stand up. “Are you alright, ma’am?” he asked, hesitant but unassuming. Only after he spoke did she realize she had been nervously side-eying him since he sat down. She couldn’t speak. Her throat was choking on her failures, on her self-loathing. She nodded, attempting a smile. The man didn’t seem convinced, but he returned her nod and looked away. He stared straight ahead, seemingly at nothing, in a grueling effort to not look at her again - to not marvel at how disheveled and despondent she seemed. His fingers awkwardly mimed playing piano on the front edge of the bench, between his legs, as if in an attempt to fill the silence with music. This sent a jolt of pain from her heart through her whole body, knocking the wind out of her lungs and making her fingers go numb. The memory of her first date with her husband – her late husband, now – consumed her. At the time, she was a 34-year-old divorcee and a single, working, mother, so she did not have much time for herself, especially not for dates with plain looking, uninteresting men. Elliot had always been kind to her though, so when he asked her to dinner, she felt obligated to humor him. He kept stumbling over his words and knocking cutlery off the table with his clumsy hands, which in her younger years she would have found endearing, but now found juvenile. His jitteriness made her feel responsible for pacifying him, as if he were a small child and not a grown man. This was supposed to be her night off from being a mother, although she supposed there was no such thing. That night was the first time she noticed Elliot’s nervous habit of tapping surfaces with his fingers, typically slightly offbeat to his favorite songs, in an attempt to calm his nerves. That sound, the hollow sound of finger pads hitting wood or the tang of fingernails hitting metal, would eventually become so commonplace in her home that, even as Elliot was producing noise, she forgot he was there. For a moment, sitting on that cold bus-stop bench, straining to hear the stranger’s fingers make contact with the seat, she felt as though she were there, on that date, again. She wondered if Elliot knew the song the stranger was pretending to play, if he had ever tapped along to it in front of her before. She wondered if everything from now on would remind her of him. She married Elliot less than a year after their first date, not because she loved him, but because he was helpful. She had been forced to put her career, which is what truly stimulated her, on the backburner after her first husband abandoned her. Her son was demanding, constantly needing her attention and affection, even as he got older. So, she entered into a loveless marriage so that there would be someone else in the house that could make her child soup. Now, her still needy son was a teenager, and could make his own soup. But Elliot remained in the house. Or he did, until two hours ago. Sweet Elliot, who did nothing wrong, was now buried behind the shed and underneath her fingernails. She was staring again, and the stranger was staring back. “Do you need something? Do you need help?” he asked. She was making him nervous, and, with what little presence of mind she had, she pitied him for having to pity her. She opened her mouth to respond when, suddenly, a shadowed figure sprinted across the woods bordering her neighborhood, darting through the trees. Her eyes shot wide open and she gripped onto the bench so hard her knuckles ached, letting out a short gasp. Adrenaline pumped through her body, but she couldn’t move. She wouldn’t. She was frozen, a statue of a woman terrified to die but with nothing left to live for. Her bench companion chuckled nervously, “It’s a little late for those kids to be out playing in the woods, huh?”. She gave no indication of hearing him. She didn’t even blink. His forehead creased with worry, and he added, as if speaking to a child, “That boy that just ran by, that’s Charlie Benton. He mows my lawn sometimes. Nice kid”. She said nothing. “Charges a bit too much though, in my opinion”. Another forced laugh. A beat of silence. “Alright then, okay”. She said nothing. She did nothing. Nothing but stare into the woods. She could feel her heartbeat in her feet, her head, her fingers, which were still white-knuckling the bench. Maybe the stranger was right. Maybe the fleeting shadow was just a random neighborhood boy, out past curfew, playing some kind of game in the woods with the other kids from the street. Or maybe it was him. The man who killed her husband. She saw what had happened tonight play out in front of her, reliving some of the moments in painstaking detail and others in jumbled blurbs, the memories already ripped away to a darker, inaccessible part of her brain. She saw him, James, walking into her bedroom with the largest knife from the set she and Elliot had bought together on their short honeymoon. She heard herself, still disorientated from sleep, asking in a panicked voice what he was doing. She felt Elliot stir next to her in bed, felt the mattress shift as he turned over towards the man with the knife. She could almost feel the grogginess leave his body as he stiffened next to her. She watched as her husband was stabbed, repeatedly. She felt his warm blood ooze across the bed, onto her. She heard herself screaming, sobbing, begging. She heard herself call out to her son, hoping, through all of the commotion, he would hear her and would leave. Leave while there was still time. She watched herself, from a now third-person perspective, throw herself in between the killer and her husband, disrupting the swing of the knife with her forearm. She felt, with horror, her body tossed to the side, discarded. She watched the killer watch her husband take his final breath. Could it have been him in the woods just now? Could it have been James? She pushed the thought aside. No matter how dark the neighborhood was, how quickly the figure was moving through the woods, she would have been able to recognize her own son. Her son, who loved her so dearly, who demanded her affection. Her son, who was jealous of Elliot for having the audacity to ask for some of her love and affection for himself. Her son, who didn’t kill her. Who wouldn’t. Who, with the blood of her husband on his hands and on his shirt, begged her to come with him. To leave town. She had refused, and it had crushed him. James finally left, alone, sauntering off into the night in his bloodstained clothes. Her son was gone. Her husband was gone. She was alone. She desperately tried to save her husband, but by then it was far too late. She, stupid with fear and blind with tears, scooped up his discarded blood into her hands and tried to put it back into his lifeless body. The blood stuck to her fingers and the sheets of their bed, but refused to stay in his body. She should have called the police, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. To have her son arrested would mean that she was truly and completely alone, forever. So, she buried her husband. She burned the sheets and she bleached the hardwood floor. She burned the clothes she had been wearing and bleached her hands. She threw on a pair of jeans and a white sweater, and she left. She covered for her murderous child. She heard whispering, and snapped back to reality. It was the stranger. He had gotten up and was on the phone. She suddenly realized she had been sobbing. He must be calling the police. Or an ambulance, which would take her to the hospital, where she would be found out and arrested. She would take the blame. Of course she would. She would say she had killed her husband and her son, which, in a way, she felt she had. She was the mother. She was responsible for, at a minimum, raising a child who doesn’t walk into his mom’s bedroom in the middle of the night with a knife she had bought on her unexciting honeymoon and repeatedly slash open the skin, muscle, and veins of his stepfather. But she wasn’t ready to confess yet. She got up and started walking, aimlessly, away from the stranger on the phone. He called after her, but she kept going. By the time she turned the corner, she had made up her mind. She was going to find her son.
By Megan Fleeharty