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Fiction

The Hour In Between

Oscar crept up on his sleeping wife and shattered her skull with five blows from a claw hammer.

The years might have robbed much of the strength from his legs and obliged him to do most of his walking these days with a cane, but his right arm was still almost as powerful as it had ever been. The first thundering impact struck Deanna with a crunch he could feel at the base of his spine.

There was still value in being sure, and so he raised the hammer again and brought it down a second time, burying much of its head in everything she had been: the toddler who had chased butterflies, the bride who had beamed in her wedding photos, the teacher who had taught English Comp for twenty years, the mother of one failed daughter and one merely defeated son, and finally the old woman who in her last years had precious little to say to her husband beyond businesslike reminders of whatever needed to be done around the house. He did not want her to linger, so he struck her the third, fourth, and fifth times, none of these three blows as accurate or as effective as the first two, but devastating enough between them to put out Deanna’s right eye, and flatten her nose, and turn the crater he had made into a larger and wetter obscenity.

This, he understood once the deed was done, was the moment that would forever come to define him. Very soon, he would only be the man who, at the end, bludgeoned his sleeping wife before then joining her in death. It was only Deanna who’d be remembered in her fullness, Deanna whose passage through her last seconds would not become the image that defined her forever, but would instead be the sad footnote to a life well-lived.

As he’d always expected, nausea struck.

The room had been dim enough to protect Oscar from seeing everything his hammer did, and was now light enough to ensure a quick retreat to the master bath. Oscar hurried around the queen-sized bed, past the bookcase and bureau, and into the room he thought he needed.

For a second or two he thought he would not make it, but by the time he was ready to kneel by the toilet, the spasm had faded. The water in the bowl could remain unsullied.

He stopped at the sink to scrub his bloody hands and he almost got sick again when he flipped on the light. The face in the mirror was covered with a fine spray of red freckles, larger wet spots that looked like open wounds, and—sticking to the side of his face like postage—one shard of something that could only be chipped bone.

Washing his face was pointless. It would only get bloody again later, when he shot himself. But there were too many things still left to do, and the thought of continuing to do them while pieces of Deanna dried on his skin seemed beyond obscene. So he turned on the water and grabbed the hand soap, working up a powerful pink lather in water just hot enough to burn. Afterward, he used one of the hand towels to clean the bloody hand print at the light switch, and another to clean the floor and counter of any blood that had dripped off him in the length of time it had taken him to surrender to this last, pointless vanity. His pajama top, drenched with Deanna’s blood, went in the basket. So did the soap, though he’d washed it clean too. This was pure consideration for his son, Richard. He didn’t know what happened to basic toiletries when a house had to be cleaned up after a murder-suicide, but the thought of Richard, or some other member of his family, innocently washing up with the same bar that had soaked up Deanna’s blood, struck Oscar as almost as loathsome as the killing itself. So he spared everybody that, at least.

A light moan escaped him when he turned on the bedroom lights and faced the aftermath of his crime. He’d already prepared himself to find Deanna’s head reduced to an imploded bowl, and yes, that was pretty much as awful as expected. But he hadn’t figured on all the blood he’d flung against the walls and ceiling with every upswing. The carved headboard was a spotty, dripping abstract. Her bedside lamp dripped pieces of her. The ceiling was a constellation of random red stars. The room where Oscar and his wife had slept for the last eight years, since the rising cost of retirement living had forced the two of them to sell the house he had never stopped considering their real home, had been marked in places he had never thought the murder could reach. There was even some marking the spines of the complete Dickens arrayed side by side on a shelf so far away from the bed that he could only marvel at how far blood could fly.

He hadn’t expected the rising stench. Over and above the copper tang of blood were the more acrid smells of urine and feces, the last salvo of the final argument Deanna would ever have with him.

Oscar couldn’t sit on her side of the bed. He did rest for a moment on his. If he had not had a few things still left to do he might have gotten the revolver and shot himself right then. But the moment seemed to require more in the way of last words, perhaps an apology or epitaph. He could not come up with one. What rushed to fill that empty space, in the absence of any legitimate eloquence, was a pair of before and after snapshots, one from the beginning of their marriage, and one to this, its last night: in the first snapshot, a soft-focus close-up of the early post-honeymoon days when he and Deanna had made sweet love more often than not; the second snapshot the final exchange of every evening for more nights than he wanted to name, including this night’s, Deanna waiting until he was safely under the covers to ask him whether he’d made sure the front door was locked, and not feeling fully safe until he got up to double-check.

That had become every night’s last conversation, in this house. It had been their final conversation, period. Did you lock the front door? Yes. Can you check? Okay. There had never been any point in saying that he had already made sure before coming to bed. It was not real for her, not safe, until he got back up and trudged to the front door and rattled the knob. Yes, he would say, coming back, I checked. Unspoken in the exchange was confirmation that all dangers were now left outside; a sick joke, he thought now, given that she eventually lost her life to a husband who had always shared the fortress with her. Nor was that the only thing left unspoken. Did you lock the front door? Yes. Can you check? Yes. Do you love me? Unmentioned, not for so long that he could not remember the last time either one of them had uttered the words. Now she was gone and here he sat trying to come up with something else he could say, something that could possibly make a difference to a cooling sack of flesh that could neither accept, nor reject, his excuses.

No, there was no point in saying anything, now. There would be epitaphs later, from people who had the right to say something. Any words from him would be an abomination.

He returned to the bathroom, moistened a washcloth, and returned to her side just long enough to retrieve the favorite photograph which sat framed on her nightstand. Deanna had been the one who insisted on keeping this photograph, one of the only ones they still had of all four family members together. He had caught her sitting at the edge of the bed holding it from time to time, and had known it was not the younger version of herself she was looking at, not the younger version of her husband or the younger, happier version of Richard. She was lost in the image of Erin, captured in an instant long passed that Oscar had always known said nothing at all relevant about his only daughter.

The frame he didn’t even bother to try cleaning. It was an overwrought silver thing, sculpted with ivy and French curves and so ornate in its determination to honor whatever image it surrounded that some of the blood that had descended into its fissures would be next to impossible to remove from there. But for Deanna, and for Richard, who might be taking this photo home afterward, Oscar could spare the few seconds it would take to wipe the glass. He used the washcloth to scrub at the blood spots, first thinning them and then clearing them away, until a day thirty years past was once again clear.

The photo captured four people standing in sunlight, against the blurred, but colorful outlines of an amusement park merry-go-round. The parents stood in back: Oscar, wearing black glasses and slight moustache of a type that the verdict of time had decided ugly. Deanna stood next to him, tilting her head, her slight overbite adorable in the way it had always been, back then. Their grins were forced, as both had been fighting killer tension headaches. Richard and Erin stood before them, smaller versions of their parents. Fourteen-year-old Richard’s smile guarded in the way that it would somehow always turn out to be guarded, into well into his years as a man who could never free himself from the awareness that life could plunge him down a trap door at any moment. And Erin? Erin. Captured in a rare moment between screeching tantrums, between refusals to eat, between cutting herself and shoplifting and arrests for prostitution, before an adulthood that manifested as disappearing without word for years at a time, Erin here appeared as the platonic version of herself, her eyes bright, her smile uncomplicated, her warmth for the complete stranger the family had drafted as photographer so undiluted by her well of rage that it was possible, just from the image, to fall in love with her. Oscar would have liked to know that girl. He would have given an arm for a way to show her to the Erin he’d been obliged to raise, the Erin who might not still be alive for all he knew, and say, this, honey, this girl, this one here, that’s who you were meant to be, and who you should have been.

The photo was one of those random moments of stopped time that tell the wrong story, that lie in the way that the wrong kind of grin can sometimes make the most exceptional paragon of humanity look, in that instant, like a creature depraved and evil. The actual day had been a nightmare. Nothing had made Erin happy. The rides were stupid. The food was disgusting. Her parents were awful. Her brother was gross. She didn’t want to be there. For half an hour, no more, the sun had seemed to come out and she’d seemed willing to forget the bottomless loathing she had for them, for her brother, for herself, and for life, really. She had said she’d try to have a good time, and held on to that promise long enough for the photo to be taken. But only half an hour later she’d be a storm of resentment again.

There were precious few other photographs of Erin. She’d destroyed many of them in her early teens, retaliating against her parents for one punishment or another; and had, after fifteen, become such an impossible terror, a nightmare of uncontrollable anger and sudden violence that the impulse to commemorate the moment had somehow never come up. A lone fleeting photo of Erin at sixteen, sticking her tongue out at the camera, trying to evade the lens and thus reducing herself to a blur, was the most recent image Oscar and Deanna had; there were none of her as an adult, as she would never allow any to be taken during any of her rare subsequent appearances. Oscar had stored away as many of the remaining pictures as he could. He didn’t destroy them and had no problem with them continuing to lie stacked in boxes he never opened or in albums he never cracked, but for the most part didn’t them hanging in plain sight, ambushing him at odd moments like evidence brandished by some angry prosecutor.

Deanna had insisted only on continuing to treasure this one. He had no idea why. But looking at the picture, really looking at it, Oscar was struck only by two things: one, that despite everything, Erin had been a very pretty girl, and two, that if she was in fact alive, it might be a very long time before word ever got to her about what had become of her parents. She might never find out. Or she might find out right away and storm into the funeral, to make it the same screeching atrocity she had made of everything else.

Either way, it was outside his power, and none of his business. That was the thing about death. It drew a curtain, made everything outside your own years a sequel that you would never be permitted to attend.

He stored the cleaned photograph in a drawer, protecting it from the spatter yet to come.

Tracking blood through the house but forcing himself to the knowledge that it really didn’t matter much at this point, he went to the kitchen and poured himself a tall glass of ice water, from the dispenser on the refrigerator door. He drank that in a gulp and filled a second glass, to be nursed while he parked himself at the breakfast nook and peered out a window that, at this time of night, facing the woods the way it did, shielded from starlight the way it was, might as well have been painted black. It was a view he knew well, because he’d slept only fitfully in his old age and had made many post-midnight trips to this table and that view, finding in its very impenetrability an eloquence that spoke to him in ways that a more conventional landscape never could. Tonight, the view seemed even more illustrative. Nothingness, it was cleansed of everything that he would no longer see again: the glitter of sunlight on rippled water, birds cocking their heads at nearby sounds, leaves animated by errant breezes, clouds that looked like dogs, rainfall making ripples in tiny puddles, motionless frogs deciding for reasons of their own that it was time to head somewhere else.

Hell, forget the things he would never see again. The list of things he’d now done for the last time was even longer, and more primal. He’d never take another shower. He’d never read another book. He’d never issue another apology. He’d never eat another apple, never smell another flower. He’d never see another running child, never receive another kiss on the cheek, never squint at a bright light reflecting off another mirrored surface. He’d never encounter another appalling headline and would certainly never hear the words deficit, bipartisanship, gerrymandering, socialist, reactionary or global warming ever again.

The total number of steps he still had left to walk, once he rose from this table, were certainly less than one hundred and likely less than fifty.

Now, that was an interesting statistic. He felt some minor curiosity over the exact figure. He could count those final steps, if it mattered, crawl into bed for the last time aware at the end that his last mile had consisted of precisely thirty-two paces, or something like that. But no; such idle interests would serve him not at all, and were also therefore best forgotten.

His son, though.

His son remained.

Oscar returned to the refrigerator, filled his glass, and once again sat down at the breakfast nook, which was now forever just a nook because he’d eaten his last breakfast.

He had spent a lot of time, over the last few months of increasing resolve, debating just what kind of message he should leave for Richard. He had thought about writing a note, thinking about how a few words would never be enough and how pages on end would be far too much. He had put aside the idea of an apology and given up on ever providing a list specifying all the things that his final brutal act was not. No, neither one of us was sick. No, I was not depressed. No, I did not act in anger. No, I did not hate her. No, life had not become too hard. No, I did not crave death; I just looked at the time that remained and saw that we were old and knew that every day still remaining to us it would less and less resemble anything worth living.

Had Oscar been inclined to explain himself, he would have written something he’d learned early on: that life is a series of thefts, some small, some large, some gifts yanked away in moments of horrible trauma but most ferreted away in secret while you aren’t paying attention. He would have written: our childhood sense of play goes away. The sense that everything’s going to be all right goes away. The warm glow of youth goes away. Freedom from responsibility goes away, passion goes away, illusions go away, health goes away, potency goes away, the sense that life can still surprise you goes away, and so on, until you finally reach the point where you’re left with nothing to do and four walls you know by heart.

He knew he didn’t need to write this down because Richard already knew it. For as far back as Oscar could remember, Richard had faced life with a kind of resigned dread that stayed with him even as he did all the expected things, married and fathered children and been what other people would call a success, without ever shaking the melancholy that clung to him wherever he went. His joys had always been fleeting, his smiles those of a man shaking off an open wound. Oscar had never found his son really celebrating anything, not his graduations from high school and college, not his marriage to Delia, not his success in small business, and not even the coming of his own two children, without keeping some stored sadness in reserve. He was the one you spotted at family gatherings, in moments when he happened to be away from others, dropping his false face and revealing the trapped gaze of a trained animal, performing the expected tricks of adulthood without ever taking any special satisfaction in them. He was the one, sipping beer on the patio while he and his father watched the grandchildren bounce a ridiculous inflatable ball around, who had suddenly said, “They don’t have a clue, do they? Those two still think it’s going to be fun.”

Oscar had said, “You don’t know. It might be.”

Richard had shaken his head. “I don’t remember the last time I had fun. I don’t even remember the last time I wanted to have fun. I’m just acting out of habit. And part of me can’t wait for it to be over.”

Oscar remembered what it had felt like being the father who wished he had known some wise and knowing thing to say to that. He hadn’t any. He’d wound up commiserating. In not so many words, but in laments that had lasted much of the afternoon: I agree, son. I wish it was over, too. The two had wound up sitting in silence warmed not at all by the nearby laughter of children, knowing each other better than they had ever wanted to, the chief connection between them that of men who had forgotten what their lives had ever been for.

Richard didn’t need a note. Richard would be living through enough of a nightmare over the next few days, and beyond, but he didn’t need a note. He wouldn’t take what his father had done as an enigma. He’d see it as grim confirmation: just more of life’s true shape, revealing itself as its false fronts failed.

Richard only needed to be alerted so he could do what he’d always done, and just get on with it.

The breakfast nook possessed the family’s last corded phone, an antique now, not quite ancient enough to be rotary but certainly a relic of the days when push-button was still a new thing. A laminated list of frequently-dialed number sat upright on a wire stand that had once been used to display the table number at a relative’s wedding. Oscar looked under the line for RICHARD (HOME) and the line for RICHARD (CELL) for the only line he could use tonight, RICHARD (WORK).

He was prepared to hang up in a hurry in the highly unlikely event that a human being was in the office to answer the call at this time of night, but after four rings Richard’s recorded message replied, identifying the firm and inviting Oscar to leave a message.

Despite all of his inner rehearsal, Oscar found himself wholly unprepared to speak. “Um.”

This was awful, communicating a hesitancy he didn’t feel.

“Richard, this is me. Dad. I’m, um, calling a little bit after One a.m. I . . .”

This really was terrible. He hadn’t demanded eloquence from himself, but he had promised to deliver a sharp blow, instead of a parade of false taps.

“I’m sorry to leave this message on your office phone, but I didn’t want to wake you with it. I’d rather you just get it when you make it into the office, in the morning.”

He swallowed.

“I always felt terrible that I wasn’t a better father to you and your sister. I did my best. I know it wasn’t enough. You’re better at it than I was. But I tried. I love you. I . . .”

Now his voice had almost broken, the image of Deanna’s ruined face was rising in him like a cancer, and he found himself in serious danger of bequeathing his only son a message that spent too much time filling him with useless dread.

“I just killed your mother.”

There. The rest would be easier, now.

“She didn’t suffer. It was very quick. I made sure of that. I did it with love, whatever that means. I did it because I didn’t think there was anything left for us. In a few minutes I’m going to join her. It’s for the best.”

He almost hung up.

“I know you’re going to be very angry with me, but I want you to do what I say this one last time. You need to call the police and meet them at the house, but please, whatever you do, don’t go inside yourself, not until we’ve been taken away. Your mother or I would never want you to see us like this. Please follow my wishes on that.”

A last thought occurred to him. “If you see your sister again, don’t let her think it was her fault. This has nothing to do with her. I’m serious. It has nothing to do with her, or with you. It was just that . . . the time had come. That’s all.”

He hesitated one last time, putting off the inevitable, aware that the two words to follow would be the last two words there would ever be.

Then he said, “Goodbye, son.”

He hung up the phone, surprised that his overwhelming emotion now was not sadness, but relief. The most difficult part was done, with perhaps a few too many missteps and false starts, but with a level of rational calm that would help Richard hold on to his own in the difficult hours ahead.

The parade of lasts continued. That had been his last phone call and his last message to his son. There were any number of other last things he could do now, like perhaps straighten up a bit before pulling the trigger on himself, but for all he knew, his son’s office had night-time cleaning staff, not some recent immigrant legal or otherwise who couldn’t understand enough English to comprehend the meaning of the alien words coming from the speaker, but someone with a command of the language who could take immediate steps to make sure the police got involved now and not hours from now. He had a deadline now. He needed to do whatever else needed to be done quickly.

He brought his glass to the sink (his last time doing that), and left the kitchen (his last time doing that), stopping at the thermostat to do the police a favor by turning the air conditioning up as high as it could possibly go (his last time, ever, fiddling with that little dial).

Returning to the bedroom, he walked right past the terrible carnage on the bed and into the master bathroom, where for the very last time in his life he stopped to pee, sparing his imminent corpse the least of its upcoming releases.

He flushed, put the seat down, and lowered the cover on top of it, aware that this was the last time he would perform any of these simple acts.

Out of custom, he washed his hands again, and forever.

He turned off the bathroom lights and got into bed beside his wife, discovering as he did that he had counted his remaining steps after all. Thirty-seven. That might not have been enough to get out to the mailbox and back. But he had taken the last of those while alive, and now he pulled the blanket up over himself for the last time.

He opened his bedside drawer and removed his revolver.

It was all too easy to keep fueling his obsession over the paucity of time he had left. What was it now? Certainly less time than it would take to listen to even the longest favorite song, possibly less time than it took to sit through the average commercial on television. How many breaths still remained? Ten? Five?

He could lose himself in counting, slicing the time in smaller and smaller increments until even the seconds had no more meaning than the last few years.

The only remaining decision for Oscar, as he clamped his teeth around the barrel, was whether to fire at the roof of his mouth or at the back of his throat. He had read arguments in favor of both methods, differing on which one was less likely to leave him a hopeless vegetable or, worse, an intact mind trapped by misadventure in a body that couldn’t see or hear or move. The consensus, he’d found, was that neither method offered absolute certainty of success. Freak trajectories happen. Sometimes people survived as warm meat, befouling their sheets years after a just God would have had them achieve ambient room temperature. From what Oscar understood, a controlled trajectory toward the back of the mouth offered the closest possible thing to a guarantee, though if he beat the odds and became something that had to be wired up to machines, he sure had no idea who he could see to invoke that guarantee for refund.

Doing the job while lying down made the shot he wanted more difficult than he’d expected, so he pulled himself up and scooted up against the headboard, using it as backrest.

The barrel was colder in his mouth than he’d imagined.

How much time left now? Twenty seconds? Ten?

He considered delaying long enough to say something pithy to Deanna, something that would communicate to the air if not to her spirit that he’d done what he’d done in full memory of how much he’d once loved her.

No.

His only remaining question was whether he would hear the shot.

As it happened, he did not.

He had the fleeting sensation of noise and light, but not enough time for his brain to analyze it and identify the only thing it could signify.

He was not aware of his bowels letting go, his heart stopping, the arm that held the revolver falling to one side and landing beside him, as if what he held was not a weapon but a novel that had put him to sleep. Guilt, memory, wonder, thought, sensation, and morality all became parts of his past. Right or wrong, it was over.

The haze swirled. All was darkness.

Then Deanna’s corpse, speaking in a voice wet and polluted by fragments of itself, asked him, “Did you lock the front door?”

Oscar’s corpse pursed its lips, bloodying them further, answering with the aggrieved reluctance of a thing that would rather remain asleep. “Yes.”

“Can you check?”

His corpse sighed. “Yes.”

It lifted a flap of blanket and trudged from the room, leaving shiny pieces of itself behind. It was not capable of emotion or conscious thought, and indulged in none on the way, but any witness observing its demeanor as it made its way to the front of the house and tested the knob would have found the implied attitude easy to read: a sense of the formalities being observed, and of the rituals being respected.

The errand took less than a minute.

Then what was left of the man followed its greasy trail back to bed, pulled the covers up over itself, and moved no more.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest release was the audio collection, And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with his wife Judi and a trio of revolutionary cats.