Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

The Man in the Ditch

There was nothing to look at once they were away from the town, only a long road stretching ahead, bare fields on either side, beneath a lowering gray sky. It was very flat and empty out here on the edge of the fens, and dull winter light leeched all colour from the uninspiring landscape. Occasionally there was a ruined windmill in the distance, a knackered old horse gazing sadly over a fence, a few recumbent cows, a dead man in a ditch—

Linzi screamed when she saw it, an ear-piercing screech that might, had J.D. been a less-practiced driver, have caused a nasty accident. If there was nothing else out here, there were still plenty of vehicles travelling fast and close, both front and back.

“What the fuck?”

She saw how red his face had gone, the vein that throbbed in his temple, and felt bad, but she hadn’t screamed for nothing. “Jay, there was a dead body in the ditch back there—a person!”

“Don’t be stupid.” His hands tightened on the wheel, and his eyes darted between the mirror and the road, not sparing her a glance.

“I saw it! We have to—”

“What? What do we have to do?”

“I—I don’t know. Go back?”

With every passing second the distance grew.

“And why should we do that? Do you see anywhere to turn? And then, even if you could tell me where to stop, there’s nowhere to pull over without going right into the ditch. And why? So you can see that what you thought was a dead body was really a load of fly-tipped rubbish?”

She worried at her lip as she tried to recall precise details of what she had seen—a withered, brownish, naked man, lying curled on his side—but she didn’t believe it had been an optical illusion. “It was a man’s body. I’m sorry I startled you, but anyone would’ve yelled, to see a corpse like that.”

J.D. sighed and moved his head around, easing the tension in his neck. “All right, my lovely. It’s over now. A dead body doesn’t need our help.”

“But—we ought to tell someone?”

“Tell who?”

“The police?”

He flinched, and she shut her eyes, as if his response to the word had been a slap in the face. She opened them again when she heard him put on the indicator.

“If you really saw it, other people did, too,” he said calmly. Then he turned left, onto a sign-posted road, and then, very soon, took another left onto an unmarked road; a narrow, single-track lane. They were now travelling parallel to the main road, back in the direction from which they had come. With a nervous flutter of anticipation low in her belly, Linzi realized he must be responding to her request, taking her back to the spot where she’d seen the body. From here, the main road was easily visible as a steady stream of traffic; only a short stretch of empty land separated the track they were on from the drainage ditch, even though she couldn’t see it. But then she hadn’t noticed this road from the other side. She couldn’t guess how far they’d gone after her sighting, but she had faith that J.D. knew: he was a professional driver.

Linzi caught hold of her elbows and gave herself a small hug. Wasn’t it just like him to grumble and pretend he wasn’t doing what she wanted? Not that she wanted to see the horrible old dead thing again . . . and, in fact, as the car slowed and then stopped when the track ran out, she prayed to whatever powers there might be that J.D. was right, and she’d been scared by an abandoned, stolen shop-window mannequin or a crash-test dummy.

“Here we are,” he said. “What do you think?”

She looked at his proud smile and remembered what the dead man had pushed out of her mind.

“Come on,” he said, not waiting for her reply. “Let me show you round our new home.” He hopped out and, with the courtliness that had won her heart, opened her door for her.

She fixed a pleased smile on her face, but he must have picked up a hint of her true feelings because he said, sounding defensive, “Of course it doesn’t look like much now, but use your imagination. Think of all the stuff you can plant. Landscape the holy shit out of it. Whatever you like; I’ll pay.”

Tentatively, she tried to explain her unease: “I thought we’d have neighbours . . .”

“Who the fuck wants neighbours? You said you wanted a house in the country.”

“Yes, yes, I did; I do. But I didn’t think it would be so far away from everything—”

“It’s the country. And it’s not far—what, twenty minutes from Norwich? You must have seen the village sign-posted, two miles that way for post office, pub, and primary school.”

At that reminder of the children they’d have someday, she melted against him. “Oh, honey, I’m not complaining! How could I, when I’ve got you? I was just surprised. I was imagining a new development.”

“You know I hate those ticky-tacky estates.” He relaxed in her embrace. “Would Madam like the grand tour?”

They walked over land that was rough but not boggy as the fields had appeared from the car window. She saw the boundary markers—poles sporting fluorescent orange plastic tags—and then came upon a pile of rubble and a concrete slab.

“What’s this?”

“What’s left of the house that used to be here. Why’d you think we’ve got planning permission to build a new one?”

“What happened to the old house?”

“I think it burnt down. I don’t know, twenty years ago. Before that there were cottages. People have always lived here. You might not think to look at it, but it’s actually on a rise, higher than the marshes out there. And the soil is a different composition, not boggy, so we can plant what we like. And we’re never going to have to worry about other houses going up either side, because who’d build on a bog? We won’t have noisy neighbours, or nosy ones, popping over every five minutes, complaining that our leylandii is blocking their view, wanting to borrow the hedge-trimmer, giving you the eye . . .”

As he worked himself up into a rant she had heard before, staring out at the bleak, blank, featureless plain where the only other life to be seen was in the cars and lorries thundering past, Linzi felt a tremor of doubt. Those things he complained about were leftovers from his past in the suburbs with “that cheating bitch.” Did their life have to be defined always in reaction to his first marriage?

“Are you cold?” Noticing her sadness, J.D. became tender. He took his coat off and wrapped it around her. “That wind has teeth. We’ll have to plant a line of trees over there, as a wind-break, and a hedge on that side, to screen us from nosy buggers staring out their windows as they drive past. Come on, back to the car now.”

• • • •

Going back, she couldn’t see anything unusual in the ditch. There was nothing in the local news the next day about a body being found, and the next time they drove out east on the A47 she couldn’t even identify the spot where she’d thought she’d seen it.

Building soon got started, and a few weeks later, J.D. stopped by the property one evening and took pictures with his phone, sharing them with Linzi when he got home. She made admiring noises until the final picture, when the sound stuck in her throat.

“What—what’s that?”

“A side view—”

“I mean down in front, the left-hand corner, that thing.”

He peered at the screen. “What are you talking about?”

“It looks like—” But she found she didn’t want to say it looked like a dead body, a wizened naked man lying on his side, so she just pointed. “There.”

“Oh. Not sure. Pile of sticks and some weeds, maybe. The light was going. Waste of space, that one.” With the touch of a button, he deleted it.

• • • •

A few days later, Linzi accompanied her husband to the building site. She was surprised by how quickly everything had changed, how different the space looked now that there was the frame of a house at the centre of it. She was also a little taken aback by how much clutter there was everywhere. Much of it was equipment and building material, or the discarded packaging for those things, but there were also food wrappings, plastic bottles, beer cans, even the odd item of clothing—a white tee shirt, a single shoe—suggesting the workers considered the space outside the house a dumping ground. It was easy to imagine some accumulation of trash appearing in dim light like a body, and she abandoned her plan to search for the object that had created such a disturbing impression in the picture and instead clung to her husband’s arm and listened to his description of how the work was progressing.

• • • •

At one time Linzi had made good money dancing in a club—it was where she had met J.D.—but he couldn’t stand the thought of other men seeing her naked, so now she worked at Tesco. It wouldn’t be too bad as a part-time job when her kids were in school, she thought, but a year into her marriage she still wasn’t pregnant, and she was getting impatient. The doctor said there was no obvious reason why she shouldn’t conceive in due course, but if she wasn’t content to wait and see, the next step would be to check her husband’s sperm count. Well able to imagine how J.D. would respond to that suggestion, Linzi decided to explore other options first.

She’d heard there was a woman in Lowestoft who had studied all the old traditional ways to increase fertility. First, she read your cards, then she’d advise on the most propitious times for conception and would make up a special herbal tea or a list of vitamin and mineral food supplements based on what the cards revealed. So Linzi made an appointment and drove down there on her next afternoon off.

The address was in one of the rundown terraced houses across the road from the big parking lot on the seafront. The woman’s name was Maeve, and she had a blousy, sun-tanned, gypsyish look: Celtic motif tattoos, hennaed hair, big silver jewellery. She took twenty quid off Linzi before leading her in to a cramped, over-furnished sitting room that smelt of cats and sandalwood incense, where they sat facing each other across a small table.

“You want a baby,” Maeve announced. “You have been trying and failing to fall pregnant. Your husband . . . no, don’t tell me, darling . . . is older than you. You are his second . . . third . . . wife. Don’t tell me, I will tell you. You are very keen to start a family, but he, perhaps . . . no, he is also keen. But his children . . . no, no, of course, he has no children. I see that. But the reason . . . Let’s see what the cards have to say.”

She opened a wooden box, removed a velvet bag from it, and a deck of cards from that, which she shuffled. She told Linzi to take three cards from the deck and lay them out face up.

These were not the brightly coloured tarot cards Linzi had expected. Instead, each one offered a murky, black and white image like a bad reproduction of a very old photograph, and it was hard to make any sense of them at first glance.

One card showed a dancer, a man who was naked except for a belt tied loosely around his waist and a close-fitting cap on his head, caught mid-pirouette, balancing on one pointed foot, the other leg bent at the knee, arms folded behind his back. His eyes were closed and he was calmly smiling.

The second card had a picture of a woman with a dog’s body—or a pregnant bitch with a woman’s head. The female face was fixed in a blank, upwards stare, mouth gaping open as if to swallow the object of her gaze, a large, silver egg suspended just above her head.

The third card involved a great number of knives and a bleeding body. Before she could make out anything more, Maeve had scooped up all three and returned them to the deck which she cut and shuffled feverishly, muttering, “That’s bad. Very bad.”

“Shall I try again?” Linzi asked meekly.

The woman shot her a venomous glare. “He won’t give you a baby.”

“You mean J.D.? “

“Don’t let him trick you.”

“Are you talking about my husband?”

“You shouldn’t have married him if you weren’t prepared to be faithful.”

“I am faithful!” She stared at the fortune-teller, outraged. “I haven’t slept with anyone but J.D., not since our very first date!”

“‘Slept with.’ So oral sex doesn’t count.” The woman sneered at her. “You can’t lie to me. You’ve been unfaithful to your man once, and the cards show it happening again.”

She felt the blood drain from her head and saw little starry spots in the darkness. The bad thing. How did she know? “I didn’t . . . I wasn’t . . . I wasn’t cheating on him. Do the cards tell you why?

Maeve put the cards away. “I don’t care why. That’s your problem. But I see what’s coming, and it’s not good. It would be very bad for you to cheat on your husband, especially with that one.”

“I’m not going to cheat on J.D.—I love him! I came here because I thought you were going to help us have a baby. Can’t you make me some tea, prescribe some herbs and vitamins?”

Maeve stood up and began to move towards the door. “I won’t help you with fertility until you sort out this problem with your husband. You’ll have to decide what you want: this marriage, or something else.”

Linzi remained stubbornly in her seat, twisting around to face the other woman. “I want this marriage. And a baby. Are you saying I can’t? Not have J.D.’s baby? That he’s sterile? Please, you have to tell me. I have a right to know.”

Maeve sighed and stopped in the doorway, playing with one of the heavy silver chains hanging from her neck. “Your husband won’t give you a baby. And the other one can’t.”

“What ‘other one’? There is no man in my life but J.D. I swear.”

The woman responded with a hard, contemptuous stare. “You have to leave now. “

Linzi’s feeling of shock had faded, and now she just felt indignant. Twenty quid for that! Not a proper reading, one little incident, taken out of context, misunderstood . . . it was an insult. Maeve might have some kind of psychic talent, to have picked up something, but she’d got it completely wrong.

The bad thing. She thought about it again as she waited for a gap in the traffic that would allow her to cross the street. They never talked about it, but it had cast a shadow over their relationship and haunted J.D., a ghost roused every time he had a flash of jealousy over some harmless incident.

But he had no right to feel jealous. Maeve had misunderstood, but J.D. knew perfectly well she hadn’t been cheating on him—she’d only sucked that cop’s dick so J.D. wouldn’t lose his license. She’d felt his desperation; she knew as well as he what it would mean. So, a quick, wordless transaction: I’ll do you, and you won’t do him.

He could have stopped it with a word, or a look, but he hadn’t. And he had been grateful, at least until his gratitude had soured into resentment. She didn’t expect thanks—she would have preferred they pretend it never happened—but why couldn’t he understand that when you loved someone as she loved him, no sacrifice was too great?

• • • •

In her dream Linzi plaited narrow strips of leather into a strong, flexible cord, which became a noose around the tanned and weathered neck of a man who wore nothing else except a soft cap made of animal hide, and a flat leather belt loose around his middle. She woke up with the image vivid in her mind, understanding that the “dancer” she’d seen on the fortune teller’s card was the hanged man.

• • • •

As the house drew closer to completion, Linzi felt more and more unhappy about the prospect of moving into it. Although the house itself was not the problem—that was turning out to be even better than she’d dared to imagine; you’d have to be crazy to prefer any of the flats she’d ever occupied, or the small, end-of-terrace ex-council house that she’d grown up in. She didn’t think she was crazy. She hadn’t seen anything that looked like a dead body for months, but the creepy black and white picture on the fortune teller’s card had merged in her memory with the body she’d seen in the ditch and became an ominous presence that she sensed lying in wait for her, just out of sight, every time they took the turning off the A47 and headed for what J.D. already called their home.

It was impossible to tell him she didn’t want to live there, especially not when he was looking forward to it so much and had put so much money and effort into it. So they moved in, and she told herself she would soon get used to it.

The first week in the new house was something like a second honeymoon. J.D. took a week off work so they could take their time settling in. They hardly went anywhere, except to the village for supplies, or meals in the pub; the days passed in a pleasurable round of companionable work as they sanded and painted and moved things around, and their nights were filled with sex both vigorous and tender. Linzi had never seen her husband so completely happy. He thought she was only nervy because pregnancy still eluded her and kept encouraging her to relax.

Mostly, as long as J.D. was around, Linzi did manage to relax. She felt safe enough in their new house, looking inward, happiest when the curtains shut out any sight of the featureless marshes that surrounded them, and she left all the outdoor chores to her husband, having found that no matter what direction she was facing, she was plagued by the uncomfortable sensation that someone was creeping up on her from behind.

And at night, she dreamed about the hanged man.

Sometimes she was plaiting the noose; sometimes she fitted it around his unresisting neck, before or after bestowing a kiss upon his motionless mouth. At other times she was not so immediately involved, but stood huddled at the back of a solemn crowd and watched him die, his legs kicking, feet dancing on air, semen spurting a final blessing on the barren ground below.

• • • •

After J.D. had gone back to work, Linzi invited her mother over for lunch. It was her first visit to the new house.

“So much light in this room,” said her mother, approvingly. “In all the rooms, in fact. I love the big windows. What a great view.”

Standing slightly behind her mother, Linzi peeked over her shoulder at the long, flat, treeless expanse stretching away beneath the blue sky. Although more attractive now in summer colours, she still found it a sinister sight. “You think so?”

“You don’t?” Her mother turned to give her a searching look. “Is something wrong, Linz?”

She shrugged. “I just think it’s sort of bleak. Come outside,” she added quickly. “Into the garden. Not that it is anything like a garden yet, but . . . I’d like to know what you think.”

Her mother took the request seriously and examined the land from every side. She even got down on her knees and dug into the soil with her hands. Linzi, meanwhile, put her back against a wall of the house and watched her mother closely for any signs that she felt an invasive, invisible presence, but if she did nothing showed.

They went back inside and ate quiche and salad while Linzi’s mother made a list of plants her daughter might want to consider and sketched out two possible plans for landscaping. “It won’t look so bleak once you’ve planted a few shrubs. Maybe, while you’re waiting for things to take hold, you could put out a few pots and some garden furniture, just things for your eye to rest on.” She put her pencil down. “Now why don’t you tell me what you really wanted to talk to me about.”

“Did you feel anything . . . anything wrong . . . out there?”

“No, I told you, the soil looks very rich and good; not boggy as I’d expect. Whoever lived here in the past must have tended it well.”

“I don’t mean that.” Linzi drew a deep breath. “Do you remember, when I was really little, you were going to leave me and Tilda with a child-minder, and we went to her house—and then walked straight out again? You said there was no way . . . you felt something wrong in the place and weren’t surprised at all when we heard a few months later that her boyfriend was arrested for being a paedo?”

“Of course I remember.”

“You sensed something wrong in her house. Something bad, dangerous, even though there was nothing to see. I want to know if you sense anything here.”

Alarm flickered in her eyes. “Linzi, honey, you can come home with me now, stay as long as you like; if you decide—”

“What? No!” Tears sprang to her eyes and she stared, open-mouthed. “Why would you think—You want me to leave J.D., don’t you? I knew it! You never liked him.”

Her mother threw up her hands. “I didn’t say anything! You’re the one who brought up that horrible—”

“I was talking about the way you sensed something wrong. That’s what you said, that as soon as you walked through the door, you just knew. So I wondered—”

“—if I sensed something here? No. But why should you expect me to, if everything’s rosy?”

“I’ve felt something. Not about J.D. This place is haunted. The land. “ It came tumbling out: the dead man in the ditch, the deleted photograph, her feelings, her dreams . . . “I think—no, I’m sure—a man was killed here a long time ago, hanged and then buried as some kind of sacrifice. I think it’s his spirit I sense.”

Her mother sighed, shifted in her chair, shot a glance at the clock on the oven. “Why ask me about it? I’ve never seen a ghost in my life.”

“But you’re sensitive to atmospheres. You knew Tilda and I wouldn’t be safe with that woman—you sensed evil—you even said so, later!”

“Yes. I did. She seemed all right on the phone, and she had good references, but the moment I walked into her house—” She stopped. “There was just something about her. But she was a person; alive. How can a dead man hurt you? Whether he was good or evil in his life, after he’s dead, he can’t do anything.”

“You don’t believe in ghosts?”

It was a challenge her mother deflected. “I’m not saying that. I don’t know what you saw. I will say this: I never heard of anyone being killed by a ghost. I’d be more afraid of the living.”

“So you think it’s safe to stay here?”

“What does J.D. think?”

She turned to look at the clock. “He never saw it.”

Her mother stood up, and Linzi rose, too, saying half-heartedly, “You should stay . . . and say hello to J.D.”

“No, I have to get back. I’ve got a meeting this evening. Linzi, whatever you’re worried about—”

“I just told you.”

“Well, share it with J.D. That’s my advice. I know, neither of my marriages worked out, but I do know that what troubles one partner is bound to affect the other. You’ll only make things worse if you keep it to yourself.”

• • • •

Although she ignored her advice to tell J.D., Linzi took heart from her mother’s remark that the dead couldn’t hurt the living. She didn’t want J.D. to feel haunted as she did. His obliviousness was her bulwark. One evening as she passed the kitchen window she caught sight of an unpleasantly familiar shape on the ground, just behind a pile of gravel waiting to be spread, and the shock brought her to a halt and made her lean towards the glass, peering out intently, just as J.D. came up behind her.

“What are you looking at?”

“Oh! I don’t know what it is—there, behind the gravel, can you see it?”

“What sort of something? Big or little?”

She opened her arms. “Big.”

“I don’t see anything.”

And as he spoke, it was gone.

But the sense of a sinister, lurking presence remained and intensified as the days began to grow shorter. She was aware of it, like an assassin waiting to jump out at her, every time she came home, from the moment she stepped out of her car, until, nerves taut and vibrating with fear, she managed to scurry into the house and shut the door. Only then did she dare to relax, a little.

That her husband was unable to see the dead man, that he was seemingly immune to any sense of its presence, reassured her. She thought his blindness kept her safe when he was home, and the one thing she was dreading was the first time she’d have to spend the night alone.

It would happen very soon. Once a fortnight his scheduled delivery rounds included an overnight stay—mandatory when further driving would push him over the safety limits for hours behind the wheel. Drivers broke those limits all the time, of course, including J.D., but after a recent high-profile fatal accident his company was cracking down.

She was trying to be cool about it, but knew that he’d picked up on her nervousness. The day before he was to leave, as she was coming back from shopping, as she glanced across the emptiness to their house, she saw his van, at least an hour before she’d expected him, and called to let him know she was on her way.

“I’ve been shopping, too,” he said. “I bought a surprise—well, it’s for the house, but I think it will make you happy.”

She felt happy as she pulled in to park beside his van, until she saw something that gripped her heart with a nameless dread: the front door to the house was wide open.

Leaving her purse, phone, bags, everything in the car, she galloped inside, calling his name, in a panic.

“What’s wrong?” He was in the kitchen, a carton, packaging, tools on the counter.

“You left the door open!”

“Jesus, Linz, so what? We can’t let a little air in? I heard you slam it hard enough!”

She stood with jaw clenched, hands in fists, and tried to regain control.

He came over and held her. “What’s wrong? You didn’t bash into my van?”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m fine. I just—I just saw the door and thought—thought someone might—might be inside.”

“So? You knew I was here; I talked to you a minute ago.”

She could think of no plausible explanation and was determined not to speak her fear aloud, her terror that the dead man she had seen in the ditch and then closer on the ground outside was now inside the house with them. But she knew it was true. She could feel that the tenuous safety of their home had been breached by that old ghost.

“Are you going to tell me what happened?” His voice was gentle; he didn’t sound angry at all.

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice tiny as she clung to him. “But when I saw the door hanging open, I got scared.”

“Wow. I definitely made the right choice of what to buy you today.”

She was still trying to summon sufficient interest to ask what it was when he said, “But I’ll show you after we’ve searched the house and you see we’re alone here.”

It was obvious as they walked through the large, light, and still sparsely furnished rooms that there were few places a man might hide, but Linzi knew the intruder she feared could hide in plain sight. She didn’t know why she’d been cursed with the ability to see him and found herself wishing J.D. would see the dead man, just once. Then he’d know what she’d been going through, and they could talk about how they were going to deal with the fact that the ghost of an ancient sacrifice now inhabited their home.

But neither of them saw anything that did not belong, and Linzi had to pretend to be comforted by J.D.’s present to her of a CCTV system. With the cameras mounted outside, she could monitor the property, all approaches to the house, from the TV set in the bedroom. Thus, if she heard spooky noises from outside while he was away, she could check them out without even having to show herself at the window, and find out if it was a fox, or a gust of wind, or even a couple of kids from the village looking for somewhere to take drugs and have sex. She thanked him as ardently as she could, because he had meant well; he couldn’t know modern technology was utterly useless against the thing she feared.

But he must have picked up the fact that she was not as reassured as she pretended, because he suggested she invite her mother to stay over while he was away. Considering his prickly relationship with her, the suggestion was staggeringly generous. But she turned it down.

“And then go through this whole rigamarole again in two weeks? No, I have to get used to a night on my own some time. Might as well be tonight,” she told him before she hugged and kissed him goodbye.

• • • •

The day passed peacefully enough, soundtrack supplied by Radio One, as she painted the upstairs room they’d designated as the nursery. The light, buttery yellow would be a good choice for a child of either sex, although she still thought about wallpaper for one wall, pattern to be chosen when she knew she was expecting.

She talked to J.D. around eight, assured him she was coping. He said he’d try to phone her back later, but if he hadn’t, she should phone him at bedtime. She agreed, although she wasn’t sure what counted as bedtime when they were apart. She was quite tired by ten, but the thought of going to bed alone made her linger downstairs, drinking the rest of a bottle of wine and watching some rubbish film until she nearly fell asleep on the couch. Then she staggered upstairs, fell into bed and a light, woozy sleep.

A sound, something her sleeping mind recognized without alarm, brought her awake, not frightened, but utterly bewildered. What time was it, and what night? She could feel the still, solid presence of the man sleeping beside her. But if J.D. was home, whose was the key in the door downstairs?

Laying one hand on a sheeted shoulder she whispered, “J.D.! Honey, wake up!”

From downstairs came the familiar sequence of beeps that meant the alarm system was being disarmed. But who else knew their code? Maybe somebody from the security company, but . . .

“Honey?” Still more confused than frightened, she fumbled for the light-switch on the hanging cord and heard someone mounting the stairs.

“J.D!” She said his name, loud and urgent, as the light came on, and she sat up, shutting her eyes briefly against the flare of light as she tugged at the sheet which he’d pulled up over his head. “Honey, wake up.”

Then she saw what was lying next to her, curled on his side in an almost foetal position, naked brown skin like ancient leather, face beneath the close-fitting cap serenely smiling in death, and the terrified scream that rose in her throat strangled her, cutting off not only sound but breath. In the instant before she blacked out, she saw her husband standing in the doorway, staring at the bed—but not at her.

Mere seconds later, when she came to, that’s when she screamed out loud. Recoiling in horror, she jerked convulsively up and out of the bed before she noticed that it was empty.

She stopped in the doorway, clutching at the doorframe for support, and looked again. Not only was the bed empty, the bedclothes were disturbed only on the side where she had been. There was no depression to indicate that any other head had rested on J.D.’s pillows since she’d plumped them up after making the bed that morning. But J.D. had seen him—she had seen the direction of his gaze and, more importantly, the look on his face—a look she knew she would never forget.

“J.D.?” She tried to call, but her voice was little more than a whisper.

Where was he? Her husband had disappeared as utterly as the ghastly corpse. She had to ask herself if the whole experience had been a nightmare from which she had only now awakened.

Stepping into the dark hall, she felt an unexpected draught. Putting on the light, she looked down the stairs and saw the front door was wide open. Descending, she heard the sound of a motor starting, the easily recognizable, throaty note of J.D.’s van, shifting hard into reverse, flinging up gravel, then driving off at speed.

• • • •

Uselessly, she called her husband’s name, ran down the stairs and then back up again for her phone, seeing in her mind’s eye the dark, angry flush on his face, the vein throbbing in his temple, tears in his fixed, furious eyes as he pressed harder on the accelerator, as if by going faster he could outpace his own jealous rage.

He thought he’d seen another man in bed with her. Why hadn’t he stayed to be sure, stayed to curse her, stayed to fight? She had to reach him, had to tell him the truth, had to make him understand . . .

But his phone went straight to voice mail. She was listening impatiently to the mechanical instructions for leaving a message when she heard the scream of tortured brakes, the slam of metal against metal, the final, shattering sound of a car crash up on the main road. Heart in her throat, she grabbed her keys and ran for her car, barefoot and in her nightgown, unable to think of anything but the necessity of reaching him, imagining there must be something she could do to help him, to save him, clinging to that belief right up to the moment when she reached the site of the accident and saw her husband lying where he’d been thrown through the windscreen when his van went off the road, half curled on his side, neck broken, already dead in the ditch.

Lisa Tuttle

Lisa TuttleLisa Tuttle was born and raised in the United States, spent ten years in London, and now lives in a remote part of the Scottish highlands. She began writing while still at school, sold her first stories at university, and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer of the year in 1974. Her first novel, Windhaven, was a collaboration with George R. R. Martin published in 1981; her most recent is the contemporary fantasy The Silver Bough, and she has written at least a hundred short stories, as well as essays, reviews, non-fiction, and books for children.