The shrill creaking noise fluttered into Martin’s left ear like a lost honeybee searching for its hive. He sat up in his La-Z-Boy, his eyes half-closed, a stream of drool making slow drips onto his crinkled yellow golf shirt. He yawned, then woke himself up by pinching his love handles, which in the last few months had grown into creamy balls of putty. The television blasted a black-and-white western, something with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift that looked similar to the movie Martin had fallen asleep to yesterday. The film was turned to mute, so instead of hearing the rush of the oncoming horses or the victorious music score blasting through his surround sound, he only heard the sound of the hallway cabinet opening and closing, opening and closing.
He tried to ignore it the way he always did. He grabbed the remote and flipped through a few channels, stopping for a minute on an infomercial with a middle-aged woman selling pillows. The cabinet in the adjacent hallway continued to open and close, like an unwelcome ghost was playing tricks on him. But it was no evil spirit. Caroline was muttering again.
First, the usual: “This can go this can stay this can go I don’t want this…”
And then the typical: “Late late late no time no time they’re waiting…”
Martin cracked his neck, hard enough to send a quick, violent pain down his upper back. It hurt for a second, but the other pain was worse.
“Martie? Is that you?” a voice cried. “Will you help me? We are running out of time!”
Her voice was so piercing that if he’d had a whiskey bottle in his hand, the explosion of glass would have blinded him. He had a tendency to fall asleep in the middle of the day, or eat two meals in one sitting, but he’d never had a taste for alcohol, and in that moment, he was grateful.
Martin started to push himself up to his feet, an action which for about seventy-five years had taken no effort at all but which lately amounted to a dare. Martin gripped his hands against the sofa, and when his whole body started trembling, he managed a faint laugh. Finally, with calm determination, he stood up straight and opened the door to the hallway.
All of the cabinets were open, and most of the towels and linens that had been shoved inside were now missing. Even the two sleeping bags last used during the Reagan administration had vanished. He continued walking, past the fourth cabinet and beyond the closed bathroom door, to the other end of the hall, where Caroline sat with her back turned to him, a trash-like pile of framed family photos to her left, a faded brown box to her right. She held up their wedding photo, taken mere seconds after Martin said, “I do.” He could tell the awkward half-grin on his face in that picture clearly showed his disappointment in not having said, “I don’t.”
It was easy for Martin to look back on that day with regret, wondering why, of all the fish in the sea, he chose to marry Caroline Talcott, but it’s not like they always lived in constant misery. Their first few years were hard, when Caroline couldn’t get pregnant no matter how hard Rowe 3 they tried, her girlfriends popping out a child seemingly every minute. Caroline would cry herself to sleep night after night, as Martin continued to feel inferior as a member of the male species. But then a miracle occurred, and their little Daisy brought love and a new sense of purpose into their lives. He looked at Caroline for those twelve years as an equal, a partner, someone who gave her all to him and their daughter. For those twelve years, life was pleasant, and even though Caroline’s next five pregnancies ended in miscarriages, at least they had Daisy.
Caroline was still staring at the wedding photo, not hearing Martin stumble toward her from behind. From the back she looked no longer like the wife he once knew; now she looked like the twin of a wild animal, her little clumps of gray hair parted enough to showcase red welts on her scalp, her blue sweater clinging so tight to her skin that her noticeable back fat seemed to be swallowing her bra.
“Honey, what are you doing?” Martin asked.
She turned her head toward him, as she dropped the wedding photo in the box. “Martie, there you are. Where have you been? We’re going to be late!” She grabbed two more photos and dropped them in the box, too.
“Late?” He yawned, again, and crossed his arms tight. “Late for what, honey?”
“The movers will be here any second.”
“The movers! We have to be ready!” She picked up another photo, this one taken on their honeymoon in Lahaina.
“Caroline, why are you doing this?”
“You have to help me! Now, now, right now—”
He grabbed her hands and pulled her toward him. “Caroline, stop! Just stop it! We’re not moving, damn it!”
He scanned her dark hazel eyes, looked for any signs of life.
“Let go of my hands,” she said, and nodded toward the floor. “We’re wasting time. We have to get going.”
He gritted his teeth, gripping her scaly hands even harder. “Where are we moving, huh? Can you at least tell me that?”
She pressed her lips together and looked toward the box, like one of the figures from the framed photographs could give her an answer. The color in her face drained away, replaced with a dejected blankness straight out of a grainy silent movie. The light was still in there somewhere, Martin liked to think, possibly hiding behind one of her optic nerves or hibernating like a bear under the epiglottis. But as of lately it was nowhere to be found.
Caroline had never been a stunner but she once had a pretty face, a simple face, one that wouldn’t make men do a double take but also wouldn’t make them run the other direction screaming. Her lips had always been thin, and her eyelids had already starting drooping by the time she turned forty, but her blonde hair for many years remained luxurious and bouncy. Her nose had a cute pointy shape, the natural red in her cheeks for many years reminded Martin of ripe strawberries. Her skin stayed smooth all the way into her fifties, too, but one day, around the turn of the millennium, the Grim Reaper paid Caroline a cruel visit, giving her the look of the dead but forgetting to actually kill her. The woman kneeling before him barely resembled the girl he met that cold December night, ten shots of tequila swimming through his system, his vision so wobbly that he could have flirted with a door handle. These days her face took on the look of a prune that had been pounded into the ground by an aggressive fist.
Martin sneered, and pulled the photographs out of the box. He placed them back in their original spots on the thin white table, getting the order wrong but not caring, keeping the wedding photo on the side and putting the last known photo of his little Daisy front and center. He picked up the box and set it above the top cabinet, out of Caroline’s reach. He didn’t know why he hadn’t just incinerated it by now.
“Okay, honey,” Martin said, as she stepped toward the kitchen. “Let’s get you back in your chair.”
Sometimes he found it in the bedroom, other times in the bathroom, but lately she kept leaving the wheelchair next to the kitchen fridge. Just because she had the power to reach for a yogurt and take off the lid without causing a mess on her sweater, didn’t mean she could get up and walk around anytime she wanted. He grabbed the black handgrips and wheeled the chair into the hall, where Caroline was wandering toward the garage door.
“Where are you going now?” Martin asked.
She hesitated for a moment, her body noticeably shaking. He opened his mouth to ask the question again, when she twisted her head around and said, “Martie? I’m tired.”
Even though lately he looked at Caroline more as a roommate than a wife, a frightened expression on her face infused in Martin a tiny nugget of empathy, just enough to continue on rather than kick her outside and lock the door behind her. He wasn’t a monster; at least he didn’t like to think he was. He would never hurt Caroline, no matter how much she was driving him crazy. He took her hand, delicately this time, and guided her toward the wheelchair, the one her doctor had insisted on, even though physically she was in better shape these days than Martin.
He hated he still had to do this, take care of his wife like he was some kind of live-in nurse. For awhile they had had a young woman come to the house two days a week—Tuesdays and Fridays—to help with Caroline, but she had been more of a nuisance than anything, watching her every move, helping her in and out of the shower when she was perfectly capable of washing herself. He even caught her spying on himself from time to time, like she was judging him for not doing more, not being the husband he should have so clearly been, so he booted her out of the house one cold rainy day and told her never to come back. It didn’t really matter; it was Caroline’s mind, not her body, that was disintegrating, turning into a pile of goop that could no longer reason.
He set her on the red upholstery and took hold of the handgrips again. “Do you want some lunch before you rest?” Martin asked, the tone in his voice overly tender. “It’s three o’clock. Have you had anything since breakfast?”
“I’m tired,” she said. “So tired, Martie.”
Martin sighed. He didn’t understand why he bothered anymore. “All right, then.”
He wheeled her across the house to her bedroom, in complete silence. There was nothing left to say, really. Morning, noon, and night blended together, and while Martin glanced at the clock every few hours, he was starting to lose track of the days.
He helped Caroline into bed and pulled the covers up to her neck, like she was a six-year-old girl being tucked in for the night. A flash of her grin reminded him of Daisy, of her pigtails and freckles and giant overbite. Daisy had taken after her mother in every way, from the hazel eyes, to the rouge on the cheeks, to the disappearing from his life far too soon. Had it really been forty years? Could so much time feel both like an eternity and a blur? Martin liked to think she was still out there, still waiting for her daddy to come find her, wanting to be tucked into bed one last time.
“Go to sleep,” Martin said.
“I’m not tired.” Caroline blinked a few times, staring past his face and locking her eyes on the ceiling fan, which hadn’t been turned on since the weather turned cold. “Honey, you just said you were. Get some rest. I’ll check on you later.” He waited for an argument, possibly a pillow thrown at his face or a reach for the wheelchair, but Caroline closed her eyes and turned her head toward the nightstand. He watched her for a minute, her fast breaths slowing down, and once she was asleep, he stepped out of the room and shut the door.
He tiptoed across the house, worried one soft echo would wake her up. He moved through the living room—made up of a long glass table and six fancy brown chairs so rarely used he caught sight of a cobweb—and headed back toward his dark, holy den. He marveled at all the unused space in the house, which featured a now-empty office, a hallway closet filled with old coats, and a guest bedroom that had only been occupied once in the last three years, when Caroline’s sister Roxanne trekked out from Iowa to spend a long weekend. He stopped at one of the hallway windows and peered out at the quiet neighborhood street. A young man was walking his dog along the sidewalk, and two little girls he’d never seen were selling lemonade. Martin often forgot there was a whole world outside these walls, where people loved and laughed, where they looked forward to the future.
He returned to his La-Z-Boy, picked up the tiny remote, and started flipping through the channels, and barely two minutes passed before Martin heard a noise come from the hallway. It was faint but noticeable—one of the cabinets creaking open. He kept his eyes on the television screen, trying to ignore it, the way he always ignored it, focusing on a scene in some new Lifetime TV movie that showed a father bouncing his daughter on his knee.
But then there it was—the scuttle of a box again, the opening and closing of two cabinets at once. He tried to remain calm, tried to pretend the noises were coming from a place in his imagination that held a grudge against him. As soon as the movie cut to a commercial, he was up on his feet—with no struggle this time—and speeding into the hallway.
Caroline was on the floor again, her legs wrapped around the same box he swore he had stuck in a place she couldn’t reach.
“I want this I want this I don’t want this…” Caroline was tossing all the pink towels to her right side and shoving the green and maroon ones into the box.
“What in God’s name?” Martin asked, on the verge of screaming.
She picked up a checkered bed cover that looked too small to fit on any beds in the house. “No time have to hurry they’re waiting they’re coming—”
Martin grabbed the bed sheet and flung it down the hall, so hard and far that it knocked down half of the photographs. That was it. He’d had it. On and on it’d been like this for months, starting at once or twice a week, then every day, then seemingly on the hour. Where did she think they were moving? Where did she want to go?
“Don’t throw that,” she said, her voice low and breathy. “I wanted that.”
She pointed toward the front door. “Martie, what’s the matter with you? We’re moving today. We have to go today. Now will you please help me?”
Caroline reached for a towel in the cabinet, this one a faded orange. Martin reached for it, too. She grabbed one end; he, the other. She pulled her way; he yanked it his. She opened her mouth to scream—but then stopped when he set the towel in the box.
He put three more towels inside, then the bed cover he’d thrown across the hall. He picked up five of the framed photographs—including a picture of Caroline kissing little Daisy on the cheek—and dropped those inside, too.
“You’re right, you’re absolutely right,” Martin said. “We don’t have much time. Have you packed all your clothes?”
Her eyes fixated on the open cabinet. “I don’t believe I have—”
“Caroline, the movers are meeting us at the new house very soon. We have to hurry!”
“Yes. Finish with the box. I’ll be right back.”
Martin had never trekked across the house faster than he did in that moment. He marched into her closet and pulled Caroline’s gargantuan purple suitcase out from the back corner. He didn’t even bother putting any clothes inside; he just zipped everything up, took the suitcase out on the sloping driveway, and threw it in the trunk of his 2008 Toyota Avalon. He returned to the hallway. Caroline was closing up the box.
“All done?” he asked.
“Yes, I packed all the photos,” she said, with an awkward clap of her hands. “Good. The moving men just called. They’re waiting for us at the house.”
He pulled her up with a sharp tug of her arms. He put both hands on her hips, doublechecking she didn’t have her wallet on her, no ID in her pockets, and guided her to the driveway.
“My suitcase?” she asked, the late afternoon sun beaming against their faces. “Martie, I need my suitcase—”
He opened the trunk and pointed at the purple bag. “Oh, all right,” she said. A wide grin formed on her face. “What about you? Where’s your bag?”
“Already at the house. I brought it over this morning.”
As soon as she was inside, he shut the trunk, maneuvered his aching bones into the driver’s seat, and turned on the ignition.
Martin couldn’t remember the last time he and Caroline had driven anywhere together that didn’t take them to a doctor’s office, or the hospital, or the local pharmacy for an umpteenth refill of Caroline’s meds. Today was something different. It’d taken all of five seconds for him to think of where to go, and he was going to stick to the plan. As he sped onto I-80, Caroline stared out the windshield, a dumb smile plastered on her face. An energized, tingly sensation worked its way up Martin’s body, stopping in his upper chest long enough to suggest he was on the brink of a heart attack, but then it kept going, to his shoulders, his facial muscles. He breathed in deeply, and pushed his foot harder against the pedal.
Caroline didn’t question him ten minutes later when he pulled off onto a slim, one-lane road, filled with potholes and mud pockets and the occasional pile of horseshit. Within seconds, the freeway disappeared, and all signs of human life were left behind. They passed one black locust tree that stretched toward a lone cloud in the sky, then started winding through desert wasteland, each turn taking them higher in elevation along decaying mountains of death. An abandoned fleet of portable toilets littered a mass of dirt behind a small chain-link fence. A diamond-shaped yellow sign said DUMP AHEAD. Martin cracked a smile at that one. How could he not.
In five minutes Martin didn’t pass a single vehicle, and when the black pavement came to an abrupt end, he continued on past the waste management site, empty on this Saturday afternoon. Eventually the elevation leveled off and the thin dirt trail started to blend in to a clearing that had no entrance or exit, nothing green, no water, no life of any kind.
He stopped the car.
Caroline peered out the window. “Where, Martie?”
“Our new home.”
“Our home? Where?”
He leaned across her left shoulder, allowing a whiff of her stale perfume to infiltrate his nostrils. He pointed at one of the mountains. “It’s over there, honey. Do you see it?”
She leaned her forehead against the glass. He could see her thinking, her eyes darting to the left and right like she was watching an explosion of fireworks. She started to reach for the door handle, but then she shook her head.
“I don’t,” she said.
He sat back, and whispered, “Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
Martin turned off the car and stepped onto the dirt, which, with its dark shade of red, made him think they had stumbled onto Mars. The sun was full and bright in the distance as it started to fall behind a tall mountain peak, but the air was cool, chilly even. Before he opened the trunk, he noticed the dead silence surrounding him, no bird calls, no rolling tires, not even the faint tussle of two iguanas fighting over food. He pulled her suitcase to the ground, then opened her door. He took her hands in his, got her standing next to him. Her eyes showed a flash of clarity. She knew.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Martin said, and as he turned back toward his vehicle, he didn’t bother faking an excuse as to why he wasn’t staying or why he had to leave so suddenly. He bowed his head toward the dirt, ashamed, of course ashamed, but also with a sickly sense of elation running through his veins. As he sped back the way they came, he only looked in the rearview mirror once, at the trail of dust kicked up behind him, at Caroline standing next to her suitcase, her focus only on Martin.
By the time he returned home, the light was nearly gone, and the twinkling night stars were fully on display. He stayed seated for a moment, the car idling, every second that passed feeling out of some weird, drug-enhanced dream. He entered the house and waited for Caroline’s cries, her odd demands and fixations. Every time he turned his head he thought he’d see her huddled in a corner, four or five pillows spilled beside her, her hand reaching for a box, her eyes wide with a sense of false purpose. He’d become so used to her. So used to the routine. And now his house was empty. And quiet. The mailman would return at one o’clock sharp, and the high school track stars would take their morning jog, but he could do what he wanted, whenever he wanted, like eighty years had been shaved off his life and he was a kid again, no responsibilities, no ticking off the days until the inevitable end.
He fixed a quick dinner—a Healthy Choice teriyaki chicken that had lost its flavor sometime around its expiration date—then went to his den and turned on the TV. He took a seat in his La-Z-Boy. Watched a little Cupcake Wars, then the evening news. Around the time the first contestant on The Voice started to sing a rock version of The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” his eyelids fluttered and the room faded to black.
Martin awoke in a haze of nausea. Beads of hot sweat dripped down his forehead. His lips were chapped, his stomach ached. He sat forward and gazed around the room. The lights were all off, but the television was on, now playing an infomercial about non-stick pans. He ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth and tasted soy sauce and garlic powder, plus a slight trace of cherry. He didn’t remember having any of Caroline’s black cherry ice cream. Had he taken a bite? She would never forgive him. Black cherry was her favorite.
“Caroline? Are you—”
He stopped, as the realization hit him, and as the noise of the pouring rain striking the windowsill invaded his eardrums. He turned to his right. The sole window in the den was open about an inch, the rain spilling forward onto the adjacent nightstand. Martin pushed himself up, and quickly shut the window. He glanced at the clock. 3:08 AM.
Martin stepped down the hallway, toward the front door, turning on four lights along the way. The rain pounded against the roof. Darkness from endless empty rooms overwhelmed him. The house didn’t feel lived in anymore, more like a relic of a place still standing but waiting for demolition. He opened the door. The rain was coming down so hard that his driveway had become a small flood, water spilling down to the sidewalk and assaulting the tiny gutter.
“Oh my God,” he said.
His stomach lurched with a sharp pain that sent puke up his throat. He grabbed hold of one of the pillars, Grecian ones Caroline had insisted on, and vomited violently into the bushes.
When he was able to catch his breath, the nausea subsiding for a moment, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the car keys. He moved down to the driveway and submerged his shoeless feet into the water, each step sending a heavy splash against his pants.
“What have I done… Jesus Christ, what have I done…”
An onslaught of sobs took hold of him as he opened the car door, his arms shaking with a great ferocity. He leaned in toward the steering wheel, when the keys slipped from his fingers and struck the water beneath him. Martin’s body went still as he watched the keys float past the back tires and onto the sidewalk. They stopped moving for a few seconds, but then they picked up speed again and disappeared into the gutter, gone so fast he hardly had a chance to breathe.
He slowly turned around and headed back to the house, not bothering to lock the front door behind him. His keys, his wife, his daughter, his whole goddamned life, had been thrown away forever, tossed into the void like smelly trash. He licked his upper lip—raindrops mixed in with salty tears—as he walked to Caroline’s bedroom. It was pitch black inside but he didn’t turn on the light. He fell against her mattress and collapsed against the blue satin pillows and the fluffy bedspread. He continued to cry, his tear ducts not going dry until the first sign of morning.
Martin drew a breath, as the golden sun shined against his eyes. The first three blinks brought a cluttered vision, an out-of-focus shot from an artsy film director, but then his eyes focused on the stillness outside. The rain was long gone, replaced by a misty haze that looked like something out of a Gothic horror novel. He lifted his head out of a puddle of drool and sat all the way up, a middling headache making him wince. When his feet touched the carpet, he heard it—the all-familiar creaking noise.
He set his clammy hands against his cheeks. Let the warmness soothe his headache, and eradicate the noises he knew couldn’t be there. But when he brought the hands down, the creaking noise continued even louder, echoing across the house.
Then: “This can go this can go this can stay this can go…”
Caroline’s voice was faint in the distance but strong in its delivery. He still wouldn’t believe it until he saw her, so he stood up and walked toward the den. He wasn’t even across the living room when he caught sight of her on the floor, her back turned to him as always, the huge box beside her loaded with clothes. As he moved closer, he noticed dirt in her hair, tiny splotches of mud on her shirt. How did she get home? Who took her home? Why the hell hadn’t she showered? A dozen questions invaded Martin’s brain, but all he could think was, I’m so happy to see you.
She dropped a pair of dark jeans in the box. “Late, gonna be late…”
“Caroline?” He touched her shoulder, and she didn’t react, didn’t flinch. She set an old pair of tennis shoes in the box, then some socks and boxer shorts. She closed the top of the box.
“Okay, all done,” she said. He nearly exploded in laughter. It was like nothing had changed. He didn’t even care how she’d gotten home, whether it was a cab, or a good Samaritan. He knew that until her final breath, she would be tied to him forever, like Laurel to Hardy.
He set his palms against his knees, hovered his mouth above her ear, and asked, “Honey, where are you moving? Where are you going now?”
She finally turned her head and peered up at him. Both of her cheeks were stained with black trickles of tears. “I’m not going anywhere, Martin. These are your things.”
Her voice had an eerie coldness, a seriousness. She also called him Martin, a rarity these days. Caroline used the box to push herself up, then she gripped one of the sides and pulled the box toward the front door. Martin forgot all about his headache, his nausea, the momentary relief of finding her home. He followed her.
She shoved the box onto the front porch, and stepped back inside the house. Something had changed within her, like she’d found the switch to the light he assumed was forever off. When he approached her, he noticed her bloodshot eyes, red from being tired, or from crying, or from rage. Maybe all three.
“Honey, what’s going on?” he asked, but once he glanced toward the porch, he didn’t need an answer. Two more boxes had been thrown outside, one tipped to the side, with collared shirts spilling toward the wet grass. His golf bag was on the driveway.
“Go,” she said, pointing at the door.
“Go?” He reached for her arms. “Honey, what the hell is the matter with—”
“Get out of my house!” she screamed, the intensity of her voice nearly knocking him to the floor.
He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came to mind. He just stared at her, his nausea from last night back with a vengeance.
“I’ve spent a lifetime…” She stopped and swallowed, her dry throat needing a rest. “…thinking you loved me.”
“I…” He shrugged. “I do love you, honey.”
She stared at him, and only him, her eyes no longer dancing in different directions. “Why did it have to be her? Why did it have to be my Daisy?” Tears welled up in her eyes. Her lips quivered. She pushed him toward the porch, her pain manifested into physical strength. “Why couldn’t it have been you?”
He nearly toppled over when his feet hit the welcome mat, and when he turned back toward her, she slammed the door shut.
Martin stood there for a minute. Two minutes. Waited for her to open the door, to apologize. He grabbed the doorknob. Locked.
When the high school track team started running past the house, Martin waved at them, like this morning’s drama was nothing to be worried about. She’d forgive him, he knew. Soon, he figured. Her momentary lucidity was only a hiccup, he assumed.
He stepped over the golf clubs and approached his car. A short drive would make things better. Maybe back to the waste management sight, to see how she did it.
He patted his right pocket. His keys were missing.
Martin averted his gaze toward the end of the driveway. The white pavement showed only a few signs of last night’s flash flood. A dozen golden leaves were sprinkled around the sidewalk, with two large firewood logs shoved up against the gutter. He took the required steps, kicked aside the heavy logs, and bent down. The gutter was dark inside, only a slight hint of light bouncing into its back corners. He set one foot on the sidewalk and one on the street pavement and reached his shaking hand inside.
He touched only air, no signs of his missing keys, and then, within seconds, Martin started to tip like a falling tree, too much pressure on his right knee causing his left leg to come undone. His eyes shot wide open and he reached both hands toward the sidewalk, as his body slammed hard against the gravelly street. He blocked his head with both elbows, the harsh, bloody scrapes shooting violent pains up his arms.
At first he couldn’t move, so he concentrated on his breathing, waiting for Caroline, his dear partner, his beloved wife of fifty-eight years, to come outside and help him. More time went by. There was no sign of her.
When he finally turned around, and focused his eyes back on the house, he saw her. She stood at the kitchen window, staring back at him, her face ambiguous in its stillness.
Then she closed the blinds.