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Fiction

Negative Space

You’re sitting on a couch in a home that’s not yours. On the floor in front of you are three young children—two boys and a girl—playing with toys. In the corner of the room is a sparsely-decorated Christmas tree. On the wall to the left of the tree hangs a flatscreen television displaying images of the kids’ dead father. He looks at you, smiles, winks. No one else notices.

Your wife is in the kitchen, sitting in the breakfast nook with the children’s mother. They’ve been friends since childhood, more like sisters, really. They even resemble each other, both blonde and fair-skinned. The mother is shorter than your wife and petite. Your wife is of medium height and, while not heavy, has more meat on her bones. You wonder if the mother has always been this thin, or if she’s lost weight while grieving the loss of her husband. The Bereavement Diet.

No one else is looking at the screen. They don’t even seem to realize it’s on. The memorial video prepared by the funeral home has been playing on a loop for the last three hours. A procession of photos meant to encapsulate a life, set to a soundtrack of instrumental music that you suppose is meant to sound inspirational and uplifting. But it sounds obscene, a parody, a mockery.

The women huddle together, holding hands, talking quietly, sometimes crying together. You’re not privy to their conversations, and there have been a lot of them over the last couple weeks. You’re not really sure why you’re here, but you know why your wife is. Her mother, the first family member she’s ever lost, died not too long ago, and she was wracked by grief and depression for the better part of a year. When she learned her friend’s husband died unexpectedly—hello, middle-aged heart attack—she was determined to visit. Christmas was coming, and she didn’t want her friend and her children going through the first major holiday since their husband and father’s death without someone there to offer support. So the two of you left Ohio, drove to Virginia, and have stayed in the friend’s house for the last thirteen days. Christmas is still a week away. You don’t know if you can make it.

You’re supposed to be watching the kids so the women can talk uninterrupted, but aside from needing a diaper change or a snack now and again, they don’t require much from you. They play quietly, sitting on the floor or on the other couch positioned at a right angle to the one you’re on, each alone in his or her little world, subdued and expressionless.

On the screen, the parade of still photos continues. The father standing before a grill in summertime, cooking hamburgers. This grill is in the backyard right now, covered with an inch of snow. Sitting on a beach next to his wife, his arm around her, both in swimsuits and sunglasses, both smiling. You wonder who took the picture. You wonder if they smiled only for the camera or if they really were happy that day. The father in the hospital, gazing down at a swaddled newborn that he’s holding carefully, as if it’s made of glass and might shatter if he grips it too hard. You don’t know which of his children this is. Does it matter?

The father turns toward you, holds out his child as if offering it to you, his teeth bared in what’s supposed to be a smile.

You look away from the screen. The horrible music plays on. And on.

• • • •

There are a number of strange coincidences—more like connections, really—between you and the dead man. You share the same birthday, only he was one year younger than you. Your wives were childhood friends, and they’re both younger than the two of you by fifteen years. You’ve both been married before but were your new wives’ first spouses. You both have children from your prior marriages, all grown and leading their own lives. But that’s where the parallels end. Your current wife and you have no children together. It’s not something you planned, just worked out that way. The dead man was an Air Force vet, with his own heating and cooling business, a MAGA type, an avid hunter, suspicious of anyone who isn’t white or straight. You’re far more interested in books and film than in killing animals for trophies. You’re a liberal who thinks diversity is a strength, not a weakness, of a society. You doubt the two of you would’ve been friends if you’d known each other. You like to think you could have at least been civil to one another. Maybe, maybe not.

• • • •

You and your wife sleep in the daughter’s bedroom. The family has no guest bedroom, not with three children living in the house. The master bedroom is empty. The widow—it’s so odd to think of someone so young as being a widow—won’t sleep there. She hasn’t so much as sat on the bed since her husband died. Logically, it would be the best place for you and your wife to sleep, but her friend has kept it as a kind of shrine to her husband, and you get that. The daughter’s room is painted a stereotypical pink, with a mural of a pair of cartoonish owls sitting in a tree behind the headboard, gauzy white curtains over the single window. The bed is small. It’s meant for a child, after all, and there’s hardly any room for you and your wife to lie on it together. And once you do lie down, there’s no room to move, not unless you want to roll off the mattress and onto the floor. On your first night here, your wife wanted to make love in this bed. You found the thought grotesque—Fuck in a little child’s bed?—and you feared if you did, you’d break the damn thing to pieces. You declined, and the two of you haven’t had sex since.

The girl sleeps downstairs with her mother, on one of the couches, the television playing all night long. The boys sleep in a shared room upstairs, usually waking once or twice during the night. Sometimes you go take care of them, sometimes your wife does. Their mother—physically and emotionally exhausted—often doesn’t hear them cry and call out to her in the night. You haven’t slept well since you got here. The small bed and the crying boys don’t help, but the main reason you have trouble sleeping is that even on the second floor, you can hear the memorial video playing, over and over, all night long, each and every night.

• • • •

You’ve never watched the video all the way through, have only paid attention to bits and pieces of it, the most you can stand at any one time. Sometimes everyone leaves the room, and the video continues playing for an audience of no one. A man’s life reduced to a household fixture, an everyday object, unnoticed and ignored, like an end table in a corner where a decorative vase is displayed, hardly ever looked at, rarely dusted. You ask your wife that if you pre-decease her—which, given your age difference, is likely—to please not have a memorial video like this one made for you. Of if she does have one made, to please not turn it on and leave it running 24/7. The idea that you might become something that your family enjoys having on in the background, on the edge of life but not part of it, horrifies you. She promised. You hope she meant it.

• • • •

One of the boys—the older one who can walk—comes over to you. He walks well enough, although he has a tendency to wobble and is a little pigeon-toed. You’re surprised that he doesn’t fall more often. He’s wearing blue pajamas with a cartoon dog on the front, and his feet are bare. They make soft smack-smack-smack-smack sounds as the boy comes over. He’s holding the television remote in his left hand, gripping it tight so he doesn’t lose it.

The boy holds the remote out to you.

“Happy,” he says.

The first time you heard him say this word, you had no idea what he wanted. Now you know that it’s the boy’s way of asking for Sesame Street to be turned on. You’re not sure it’s a good idea. He spends a lot of time playing games and watching video on a tablet computer, hogging it for himself and fussing if his siblings come near it. He doesn’t have the tablet now, though. He wants to watch Happy on the big screen. You wonder if he sees any connection between the memorial video currently (still) playing and his father. The boy ignores the pictures of his father for the most part, but when he does look at the video, he displays no sign of recognition.

You take the remote from the boy and glance in the direction of the breakfast nook. Your wife and her friend are kissing now. Not a quick we’re-friends-and-I-love-you peck. This kiss is long and deep, with plenty of tongue. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. You start to rise from the couch, intending to go into the kitchen and find out what the hell is going on. But then you blink and the two women are just sitting again, holding hands, not kissing.

“Happy!” the boy says, insistent.

Fuck it.

You look away from the breakfast nook, point the remote at the TV to switch it from video to cable so you can put on Happy. You see the husband-father on the screen pointing at you and laughing. You hit the button to switch to cable, and when the husband’s face disappears and the hideous memorial music cuts off, your wife’s friend screams.

• • • •

That night, lying beside your wife in the too-small little girl bed, you wonder how much time you have left. Is there some hidden biological time bomb ticking away inside you, ready to explode at some unknown point in the future? A heart attack like the husband-father? Maybe a stroke? You hate going to the doctor’s office, go only when you must, but now you wonder if it wouldn’t be prudent to get a checkup, and soon.

Lying beside you, your wife lightly snores. You wonder if she’s dreaming, and if so, if she’s dreaming of kissing her friend. Did that really happen or was it your imagination? You really don’t know. Everything has been so strange and dreamlike since you got here.

You think about sliding your hand beneath the sheets and reaching out to cup your wife’s breast, maybe put your other hand between her legs. You almost do it, but then you hear the music from the memorial video playing downstairs, and you keep your hands where they are. You feel tired. Old.

• • • •

It amazes you that someone can be such a presence by their absence. The husband-father has been dead for two months, and yet he’s everywhere in this house. In the grief-haunted expressions of his wife and children. On the TV, of course, and in his home office. Your wife’s friend hasn’t touched the latter, and its surface is still cluttered with papers related to his business, bills and invoices, mostly. His computer is on, the background image a picture of him with his wife and kids. You wonder if your wife’s friend has left his computer on and running since the day he died. Probably. On the wall next to the computer are two hunting trophies, a pair of mounted deer heads, stags with impressive antlers. They’re disturbing enough in their own right—bristly dry fur, unseeing glass eyes—but to make them even more hideous, each has a pair of hooves mounted beneath, turned upward as if they’re supposed to be hooks upon which you could hang jackets or hats. The sight of these hooves, the way they’re turned upward, makes you queasy. You look away from the trophies, back to the computer screen on the desk. The image of the dead man, his wife, and their kids is still there, but now they all have deer heads, their hands upturned hooves.

You back away from the desk, unable to take your eyes off the screen. You hear your wife call out, asking for help changing the kids’ diapers. You turn away from the desk, the trophies, the horrible image on the computer screen, and you hurry out of the room. The idea of dealing with piss and shit-soaked diapers is infinitely preferable to remaining another moment here.

• • • •

When you were a child, you were always picked last when it came time to choose teams for baseball, basketball, football . . . You would raise your hand in class whenever you knew the answer to a question, but teachers rarely called on you. You graduated in the middle of your class in high school, and your grades in college were far from spectacular, but you managed to graduate from there, too. Your dating life was equally unremarkable, but you still found a woman to marry. You were together for almost twenty years before you divorced. She was cheating on you, and had been almost from the beginning of your marriage. She wasn’t certain your two daughters were biologically yours. You decided to continue being their father, regardless, but the girls drifted away, and now they only talk with you on the phone once or twice a year, and even then, only briefly. You divorced your wife and you threw yourself into your work. You own a restaurant that always seems on the verge of closing, but you somehow keep it afloat year after year. Your current wife started out as one of your waitresses. It was love at first sight for you, but she didn’t think much of you one way or another. You kept working on her, though, and eventually you wore her down and she agreed to go out with you. Your relationship was on again, off again for a long time, but after it finally seemed to settle down to mostly on, you proposed. You were shocked that she said yes. Your marriage has been okay. She never remembers anything about you—your work schedule, your birthday, your anniversary, your interests and enthusiasms. And often she goes about her business for days on end without interacting with you much. Once you confronted her about this, asked why she seems to ignore you so often.

She thought about it for several moments before answering.

“I guess some people are just more there than others.”

• • • •

Your wife’s friend works a forty-hour week. Usually she has to put her children in daycare, but since you and your wife came, you’ve been watching the kids during the day to help her save money. Her husband died without leaving a will, and without his salary or benefits, her finances have become tight. You like these times with the kids, primarily because you can turn off that goddamned video without your wife’s friend freaking out.

One afternoon, your wife is sitting on the couch, the youngest boy in her lap, the older two children sitting next to her, one on either side. She’s reading a Dr. Seuss book to them, one you remember from when you were a child, full of silly rhymes and sillier pictures. The kids really enjoy it, and when she finishes, the older boy shouts, “Read more, Mommy!”

You wife beams at the boy, not correcting him.

“Of course, sweetie.”

She turns back to the beginning of the book and starts again while you sit on the other couch, doing nothing, just watching and listening.

• • • •

When your wife told you she was going to visit her friend—with or without you—you asked her why she was adamant about going.

“Is this about your mother?” you asked.

The question angered her.

No. Lori and I were both only children. We lived across the street from one another, and we became friends. We played together all the time, practically lived at one another’s houses. She’s the closest thing to a sister I’ve ever had, and she feels the same way about me. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her, or she for me.”

You never heard your wife speak with such strong emotion before, such passion, such love, such determination. She’s never spoken about you like that, and you’re jealous of her friend, of the woman’s prior claim on your wife’s heart.

“She needs me, and I’m going, simple as that. You can come or you can stay. Your choice.”

You went.

• • • •

When all three kids have gone down for naps, the two of you go to the basement, where the laundry room is. You would love to take a nap yourself. You forgot how draining taking care of little children is. There’s always work around the house to do, usually cleaning of one sort or another. Kids never stop making messes. So your wife decided to do some laundry, and you came along to help. She prefers to do chores alone, doesn’t like you getting in the way, so you “help” by standing to the side and watching her as she works. Once she gets a load of clothes started, you work up the courage to ask her a question.

“Why am I here?”

She looks at you, laughs.

“That’s a bit existential, isn’t it?”

“I mean, why am I here with you, now. In Virginia.”

She frowns slightly. “You’ve come to help Lori.”

“That’s why you came. I’ve hardly done anything since we arrived. There doesn’t seem to be much for me to do.”

Your wife opens her mouth to respond, but then she hesitates, frowns deeply. You realize she doesn’t have an answer to your question, and this saddens you.

She smiles, tries to lighten the moment by making a joke.

“It was a long drive from Ohio. I needed somebody to take the wheel when I got tired.”

She smiles broadly, as if to say, Funny, right?

You try to smile back, but you can’t quite manage it.

• • • •

Dinner that night is McDonald’s. Your wife’s friend doesn’t have the energy to cook after a long day at work. She’s a manager of a physician’s office, and you wonder how she gets through her day, dealing with sick, injured, and maybe even dying people. How could this possibly take her mind off her husband’s death? But it’s not just that she doesn’t want to cook tonight; she doesn’t want you or your wife cooking, either.

She’s very particular about what she eats, your wife told you on the drive here. She wants what she wants when she wants it. Filet mignon one day, Chef Boyardee from a can the next.

You guess this is one of those Chef Boyardee times.

The oldest boy and his sister both got chicken nuggets, fries, and soda. The younger boy—barely more than a baby, really—is strapped into a high chair and gets dry Cheerios to munch on. Your wife has a salad, as does her friend. Neither of them eat every much. You got a grilled chicken sandwich, but you don’t eat much of it, either. You’re all crammed into the breakfast nook, which barely has room for two people, let alone six. There’s a dining table, but your wife’s friend keeps it covered with junk—laundry that needs folding, boxes of clothes she’s bought herself as retail therapy and never opened after bringing them home, piles of magazines she hasn’t read . . .

She’s complaining about how her family won’t help her out with childcare, and neither will any of her friends. This segues into tearful fretting about what to do with her husband’s business—Keep it going? Shut it down? He has employees, only a couple, but they have families of their own to feed. This in turn gives way to a discussion about whether she should get breast implants. According to your wife, her friend has always had body image issues, and while the friend insists she’s not ready to even think about dating yet, might not ever be ready, she wants the implants so she can feel better about herself. Plus, she and her husband had talked it over, and he’d agreed, so getting the implants would be like heeding one of his last wishes, right?

You know different people grieve in different ways, but breast implants? Less than three months after her husband died? It sounds insane.

“I mean, look at these things.”

Your wife’s friend stands, removes her blouse, drapes it over the back of her chair, removes her bra, tosses it on top of the blouse. She steps back so both you and your wife can have a good view. She puts her hands on her hips, looks at your both, then says, “Well?”

Her breasts are on the small side, but she’s petite and they seem perfectly suited to her body. You’re shocked that she so casually disrobed in front of you, and that she’s asking for your opinion on her tits.

“I think they look fine,” your wife says. “If you really want implants, though, you should get them. I’m just not sure that this is the best time. It’s hard enough recovering from surgery without having three little children around to jump on you and climb all over you.” Your wife turns to face you. “What do you think?”

If she’s uncomfortable that her friend is partially naked in front of you, she gives no sign.

You look to her from some clue how to react, but she just smiles and nods, as if to say, Go ahead. Humor her. You turn back to your wife’s friend, try to think of something to say that won’t come across wrong.

“They’re perfect.”

Instead of giving you a grateful smile for reassuring her, your wife’s friend scowls.

“You’re lying. It’s obvious you like bigger boobs. Look at who you married.”

She picks up her blouse, leaving the bra on the chair. She slips her arms into it and begins to button it once more. Her nipples are hard and quite visible beneath the blouse’s fabric.

You look to your wife, hoping to get some sympathy, but she’s finally started eating her salad. You look at the kids to see how they’ve reacted to the sight of their mother exposing herself to strangers. But they’re all focused on their food and seem to have no clue what their mother just did.

Thank god for small favors, you think.

“Eat your food,” your wife says.

Not being able to finish all the food on her plate used to get her in big trouble with her parents, and she never leaves any food uneaten, not a crumb. To placate her, you always do your best to clean your plate when eating. You look down, expecting to see your chicken sandwich, but instead you see a long, bloody bone, one end terminating in a hoof. You glance back at the video, see the man on the screen dressed in full hunting regalia—camouflage shirt, camouflage pants, boots. He’s kneeling next to a dead deer, holding its head up by its antlers, tongue lolling from one side of its mouth. Is this one of the two deer in the office? Maybe. You see the dead animal only has three legs.

Go on, the man says. Try it; you might like it.

You look at the bone. There’s not a great deal of meat left on it, but there’s some. You reach down, take hold of the ends of the bone with your fingers, and gingerly raise it to your mouth. You lick blood from its surface, find a dot of meat and pry it off with your teeth. You begin to chew.

It’s the best damn thing you’ve ever tasted.

• • • •

After dinner, all of you go into the family room. Your wife and her friend sit on one of the couches, so close their legs touch, talking again, always talking, pausing now and then to cry together. The memorial video is playing—of course—and the volume is, as usual, too loud. It’s gotten to the point where even you have become used to it. More like numb, really. And that strikes you as a remarkably sad thing.

Something that’s surprised you about this visit is how emotionally demonstrative your wife has been since you got here—to her friend and the children, that is. Not to you. She was like that with you when the two of you first starting dating ten years ago, but it’s been a long time since then, and now you’re more like friends who have occasional sex. It’s not a bad life, not exactly, but it’s not how you hoped your relationship would be.

You’re sitting cross-legged on the floor, the children playing around you with dolls, trucks, blocks, things that light up, make noise, play music. You keep trying to interact with them, to engage them, but they don’t respond beyond a distracted glance in your direction now and again.

You look to your wife and her friend. Their tops are off now, their chests bare, and they’re fondling each other’s breasts, almost as if comparing them. This is too much. You’re right here, damn it!

“What the hell are you two doing?”

They don’t say anything, don’t look at you, don’t acknowledge that you’ve spoken in any way. Your wife leans in, presses her lips to one of her friend’s nipples, begins to suck. The friend closes her eyes, tilts her head back. The kids look up, see what’s happening, and they giggle and clap with delight.

“Mommies!” the little girl says.

The three laugh harder.

You stand and look around at all five of them, the kids, the women. None of them pay you the slightest bit of attention, and you wonder if you’re really there at all. You look at the television on the wall, and for a second you think something is wrong with your vision. It looks like the husband-father’s hand is protruding from the screen, crossing the line that divides his two-dimensional world from your three-dimensional one.

You step past the children, walk up to the screen, and examine the hand. It looks so real. You wonder what would happen if you reached out and touched it. Would it feel real, too?

You hear a voice in your mind.

Go ahead. Try it. You—

“Might like it,” you finish.

Your hand is surprisingly steady as you reach up to take the man’s. He clenches his hand around yours, almost as if the two of you are shaking hello. And with a single powerful yank, he pulls you off your feet and lifts you toward him. Your vision blurs for a moment, and the world shifts vertiginously around you. When everything settles once more, you find yourself standing next to the husband-father. You’re outside on a warm summer day, in his backyard, as a matter of fact. He’s standing next to his grill, which looks newer than it does in real life, cooking burgers. He’s wearing a t-shirt, flip-flops, and an apron which says Don’t Blame Me, I Just Cook Here on the front.

There’s no one else in the yard. The two of you are alone.

You look behind you, expecting to see the house, but instead you see a gigantic IMAX-size screen where the house should be. Displayed on it is the family you just left. Kids on the floor, laughing and clapping, their mommies on the couch, loving each other. A tear rolls down your cheek, and the other man puts a hand on your shoulder. The cheesy music that seems to come from all directions in this place swells.

“It’s okay,” he says. “They don’t need us anymore. I’m not sure they ever did. Burger?”

You look at the tableau one last time before turning your back on it. The tears are flowing freely now.

“Sure, why not?”

Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner has published over forty novels and five collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, the Horror Writers Association’s Mentor of the Year Award, and he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. His latest release is Writing in the Dark, a book on writing horror.