He said it with a strained tone, the kind of tone someone uses when they’re trying to downplay an arthritis flare-up. Barbara was growing accustomed to the taut, cold tinge plaguing Larry’s voice these days. She guessed it was the stress of his job weighing down on him. Barbara didn’t turn around, didn’t stray her eyes from the cross-stitch in her lap.
“Barbara, do you love me?”
The tension was tighter now in his voice. It was never like that in the beginning, when Barbara loved Larry. He spoke with warmth and tenderness, back when Barbara loved him. She supposed there was still love there, as much love as there could be after thirteen years of marriage and countless bland dinners endured with the absense of words, scraping knifes and slurped milk serving as the soundtrack. Her mother had taught her that you love your husband no matter how many shades of lip-prints you’re made to remove from his work shirts, no matter how many hotel receipts you pull from his pockets before washing.
“Barbara, answer me! Do. You. Love. Me.”
When was the last time they had said those words to each other, Barbara wondered. It used to be the punctuation at the end of every phone call, the last words mumbled in bed after a long day. She supposed Larry knew, or at least suspected, of her long-going tryst with her boss. Barbara was never very good at lying. When she was fourteen, she stole a pack of Lucky Strikes from the gas station. Later that night, she couldn’t keep the corners of her mouth from curling up when her father asked her where she had gotten the money for it, as she crouched behind the shed in the backyard, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from her strawberry glossed lip, a handful of cherry Pop Rocks coagulating with the sweat of her palm. Barbara could still see the sticky cerise streak she slimed onto the sleeve of her denim jacket. Barbara could still see her mother in the laundry room, scrubbing the pink from the denim jacket, scrubbing the pink from her father’s work shirts.
Barbara, back when her mother had schooled her on marriage, never fathomed that it would be her lipstick on a man’s collar. Never imagined it would be her back rubbing against the scratchy wool of a brown and taupe highway motel comforter. Barbara’s mother told her about wives straying; it was always the husbands.
A shrill giggle purged from Larry’s throat just then, some kind of hysteric laughter reserved for a clown who leaves a child’s birthday party and returns to his basement apartment to feast on the thigh of his last victim. The giggle froze Barbara in her seat, the giggle made the cross stitch slide from Barbara’s knees.
“Barbara, look behind you.”
When Barbara was twelve, she went to a haunted house with some of her friends from school. She didn’t want to go, she remembered her friends needling away at her, calling her names and clucking their tongues, until she finally shrugged into her jacket and followed them out the door. The haunted house was set up in the old school house and was being run by the YMCA. Costumed volunteers with fake blood seeping from their eyes, noses, mouths exploded from corners and hidden holes in the walls. Barbara shuffled and stumbled her way through, grasping onto the shoulders of the person in front of her, when a hoarse voice whispered from behind her. “Look behind you.” Later that night, sipping hot cocoa and hunkering beneath her jacket in the police station, Barbara learned that the figure she saw cloaked in a white sheet, concealing everything but a flaccid penis which was left wagging obscenely through a hole cut at the groin, wasn’t even a YMCA volunteer, just some bindle stiff who had been making his rounds in their county. Probably was abused a lot as a boy, the police man attempted to reason.
“Look behind you, Barbara.”
Larry’s tone was hard, callous, his voice cracked when he said her name. She detected something more than anger in his command, something more like madness. Barbara wondered again if Larry knew, if the knowledge of her affair had him straddling the fringe of lunacy.
Something heavy and orb-like hit the ground next to her feet with a wet thud, spraying the carpet with a glistening red substance. It reminded her of that denim jacket she bought in ’87. The acid-washed jean jacket with the neon paint splattered across the back. A Rod Stewart pin gave the right shoulder flair, and she had had her mother sew a Debbie Gibson patch onto the breast of the jacket. Teresa Oster tried to rip that patch off one day on the bus, in a fit of hair-tugging and face-scratching. Everyone knew that Teresa loved Chad Brown, but Chad loved Barbara and had even given her a jelly bracelet. That night, Barbara had found, in her jacket pocket, one of Teresa’s Lee Press On nails.
“Do you like your present, Barbara?”
The blood on the floor. There was blood on her floor. The blood from her lover’s severed head splashed so artfully across the carpet. It really does look like that denim jacket, Barbara mused out loud. That fucking denim jacket that I wore to that haunted house. Barbara laughed. That fucking haunted house.
“You’re next, Barbara.”
Barbara laughed even harder. She could taste briny rivulets trickling past her lips, wondered if her mascara was leaving streaks, and she laughed harder still. She was still laughing when the hatchet blade plunged into her head, like an hirsute cantoulope, shattering her skull with a sickening crunch. As she looked down at the crimson splashes on her cross stitching, she wondered what ever happened to that fucking denim jacket.