Short Story: Raise High the Barriers

Turning toward Kennedy Plaza, the bus driver chooses the exact wrong moment to take out his frustrations, tromping on the gas pedal just as the front wheels are on a patch of black ice. The tires whir as the bus lurches sickeningly and crunches into the concrete barriers that sprang up like mushrooms around the federal courthouse after 9-11.

Doreen stood up seconds earlier, wanting to be the first off the bus. This would be the second time late this week. The fifth time this year. They know about her situation with Robert, but the company slashed a third of the headquarters staff in November and the water-cooler talk is there’s more to come. A situation won’t save her job.

Her head bounces off a stanchion. She manages to grab it and remain upright, but she tastes a metallic tang and an electric sensation trills down her neck. She closes her eyes, resting her forehead against the cool metal of the pole until nausea passes. Then she flows with the swarm of passengers out the door. While others wander to the front to survey the crumpled bumper and commiserate with the driver, she weaves toward her office, moving doggedly even though her vision is off, everything seen through a soap bubble, light refracting around her.

She finds herself in the lobby of her company’s building. All six elevators are open, an odd coincidence that stirs the first crackles of awareness, along with a vague sense that things aren’t quite right. But she remains locked in reptile brain, focused on core activities: breathing, putting one foot in front of the other, pressing the button for the right floor, groping spastically through her cluttered purse for her security badge. But when she steps off the elevator on the 18thfloor, the irregular pulsing of a fluorescent light cuts through the fog and flicks a switch on in her brain. The flashing comes from one fixture, the only one producing light at all as the others are empty, their tubes pulped into frosted shards on the carpet. Odd they all blew at once, she thinks. Maybe some sort of electrical surge? Robert would know. Everything he knew was still in there and he’d often surprise her by spouting some obscure fact that had managed to find a new route around the plaque and tangled, short-circuited neurons.

She swipes her security card, then remembers she needs an excuse for being late. She’s  aware of the throbbing in her forehead and raises a hand, cringing as she touches the lump. It must be visible. Perfect. The bus accident gives her a nice non-Robert-related excuse for a change. She steps through the door, and moves up the hall to the left toward her cubicle. But there’s something odd on the corner of the wall. A splatter of red, like a child’s finger-painting, smeared about shoulder high. And another red stain on the floor around the corner by Dawn’s desk that looks like, yes, it must be blood. What in the world?, she thinks.

Then she sees the man with the gun, standing 20 feet away, leaning against a wall outside a row of offices. He’s got one foot against the wall, and his hands hang over his crotch. His head is sheathed in a grubby baseball cap pulled low and the overhead light casts his face into shadows. The cap covers a shaggy sprout of hair and when he tilts his head up, she sees a scraggly beard that could be grease stains for its irregularity. His t-shirt is plain, originally white and now grubby, or grey to begin with, and she can see sweat stains spreading from the armpits and down his chest, even though the building is, as always, too cold. The gun is partly blocked by one hand but she still can’t miss it, dangling from his fingertips like a six-pack.

Time stretches infinitely as everything stops – no air, no sound, no breath, no popping from the heating system, no measured cadences from the conference room. The spell breaks as her knees begin quaking so powerfully she fears they’ll go out of joint. Her hands move down in a silly attempt to hold them still, before the next wave hits, a thumping that crescendos rapidly from her chest, up her throat and into her ears. Her body goes taut, every fiber stretched to the point of warping by adrenaline. Oh my Lord. I’m going to die here. And who’s going to look after Robert?

She thinks about making a run for it. There’s a stairwell only 20 feet away. But who’s she kidding? It’s the 18thfloor and she’s 57 years old. And I’m in terrible shape, she thinks. Then blushes, embarrassed by her vanity. She was raised to shun the sin of pride, but she’d never been more than five pounds over her wedding weight, even after three pregnancies, and sometime found herself confessing to secret gloating as friends and neighbor packed on the pound.

Then Robert got sick, and her gardening and daily walks trickled away. Even worse, he became super fussy about food, turning into a 9-year-old boy. She had always enjoyed cooking new things, buying recipe books, and taking courses through the adult education program at the high school. She thought he enjoyed it. He was always complimentary, even when he appeared flummoxed by what he was eating. Then one night after five minutes of stirring haricot verts with almonds around without taking a single bite, he suddenly shoved the plate away and said, “I’m sick of this damn rabbit food.”

She must have looked comical, a grossly exaggerated look of shock on her face, Lucy caught in a lie by Desi. The swear word was even more shocking than the complaint. He had never sworn in front of her. She wasn’t naïve. He worked in construction. He spent his days with men on job sites. He must have uttered a few curse words. But never in front of her or the children. And now he regularly dropped the f-word and worse. This morning she’d dropped a coffee cup. He looked up startled and then called her the c-word, five times, each repetition increasing in volume and venom. Then he returned to staring at his newspaper as if nothing had happened.

With his wandering, she couldn’t leave him by himself for more than a few minutes. Stuck indoors, she’d gained 20 pounds. Now she stares at the gunman and is conscious of her age, her slowness, the unfamiliar bulge of a tummy. No, running isn’t an option.

She and the gunman regard each other across the bland ambience of the office. The light grey carpet, the off-white walls and beige cubicles make the gun look even blacker than it is. It hangs so casually from his fingers that she wonders if it’s real or if there’s any ammunition left, and then remembers the bloodstains next to her.

Don’t move, she thinks. Maybe it’s out of his system and he’ll let me go. Maybe he doesn’t want me here at all.

But another voice thinks maybe he’ll kill me. Maybe he’s got nothing left to lose. And if I die, who’ll look after Robert? They’ll put him in a home. Kate is out in California, Ron is deployed for the third time, and Susan has enough problems with that jackass of a husband and those four boys, all holy terrors. They’ll lock him away in a place that smells like pee and bleach. No, this man can’t kill her. Can’t put Robert in that position.

He lowers his head and finally speaks: “What’re you doing here?” His tone is surprisingly light, like a neighbor passing on the street.

She can’t think of a better response than “I work here.”

“I figured that, but how’d you get into the building? I thought the cops would’ve blocked everything by now.”

 “I..” She trails off. Of course the police must be out there. She can hear sirens and through an open office door she can see emergency lights reflecting up the windows of the building opposite. She must have hit her head harder than she realized to walk right past all that noise and activity. This will mystify the police later. They’ll be as concerned about their own competence – how did a woman walk right past them into a building that was supposed to be locked down? – as about why she ignored the flashing lights, yellow tape, police in tactical gear, and news helicopters hanging overhead. 

She delicately touches the bump on her forehead and says, “I was in a bus accident. I hit my head.” 

He looks up. “You okay?” He looks concerned, incongruous from a man who she presumes shot someone.

“I think so.”

“You better sit down.” He points to a chair in a cubicle opposite him. To reach it, she has to pass within five feet of him. The carpet feels spongy and uneven as she pads to the cubicle, turning to face him and then sitting, conscious of the nylon stretching across her belly and the chair creaking as she settles into it. Am I a hostage now? How does this work?

Neither of them speaks and as the silence extends, she’s aware of more and more sound: buzzing fluorescents, sirens below, muffled shouts. She finds herself thinking “This silence is getting uncomfortable,” and almost laughs out loud.

The man moves, shuffling his feet, leaning away from the wall and reaching into his back pocket. He pulls out a half pint of some liquor, uncaps it with his gun hand, and puts it to his mouth, tongue reaching out delicately like a baby searching for a nipple. He swallows, raises the bottle to the light, then tilts it up again to drain the last drops before recapping and tossing the bottle to the floor, where it slides across the carpet until it thunks against a cubicle wall. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “You want to know what happened, don’t you?”

She shifts her weight in the chair. “I think it’s best if I don’t know, don’t you think?” He doesn’t react, continuing to stare into space with haggard, drawn eyes. Then he starts talking, spewing out a loose, rambling narrative that follows no discernible pattern. Doreen can’t understand half of what he’s saying as he mutters and slurs words, the whole story degenerating into a sloppy patter, with the occasional word or phrase – “tried,” “Dawn wouldn’t listen,” “didn’t mean to” – popping out like a cork bobbing to the top of a wave. The mention of Dawn confirms the man’s identity: the deadbeat husband that Dawn, the new assistant, had left behind in Michigan a few months earlier, fleeing with her children to her parents’ house in Rhode Island.

She remains frightened, but as she tries to follow his words, she slowly unclenches, her breathing easing and her heartbeat reduced to a less conspicuous thudding. She squeezes her palms together to try and control the tremors in her fingers. And she tries to file away what he’s saying in case the police need the information later. She finds herself staring at his face and while she doesn’t want to think of him as human, she can’t help but notice a resemblance between him and the guys Robert hung around with at the time they met. He had the same mix of bravado and diffidence she found heartbreaking. She was only 20, working at a tavern to try and make enough money to go to college. Every Friday, a group of men would show up right at 4 p.m., shift over, ready for payday drinking. 

The older guys called her “sweetheart” or “honey.” They pounded back as many drinks as they thought they could get away with and then left by 6:00, peeling out of the parking lot to make it home to wives that, in their telling of it anyway, were permanently annoyed. 

The younger guys tended toward “baby” or “chick.” They stayed later, drank more, sometimes threw up or got into fights, especially the guys who’d been to Vietnam.

Then there was Robert who didn’t really fit into either camp. He was as old as many of the married men, but had no family. He was quiet, a peacemaker when things got boisterous and she could tell the other guys respected him, even while they razzed him for being single at his age. He was bashful in her presence, never using any name other than the occasional “Doreen.” 

Since he was older, she never considered that he might be interested in her, until one of the young guys blurted out something as Doreen brought a couple more pitchers over. “Would you go out with our buddy here? He’s too shy to ask.” She was startled, Robert was red-faced and the other guys hurled abuse at the man who’d spoken. But later he did approach her at the bar and quietly asked her if she’d like to go to a show or have dinner sometime, and in spite of the age difference, she’d said yes, tired of young men and their mindless hormonal pawing.

A couple of the guys went on to have problems with the law, but along the lines of drunk driving or assault charges from bar fights. None of them, so far as she knew, had gone on to shoot anyone.

He abruptly stops talking and goes back to staring at the floor. He seems deflated, as if the words were actual substance stripped from his bones. He yawns deeply and presses a hand over his face.

They’re startled by the sound of a door opening and a shouted “Hello. Is anyone in there? This is the police.”

The man stands away from the wall. He wavers briefly, braces a hand on the door and snaps into alertness. He turns in the direction of the voice, gripping the gun with both hands and raising it to waist-level. His eyes flutter in every direction, scanning his surroundings until he’s satisfied there’s no one in sight yet. Then he jabs the gun and jerks his head toward the door of the office behind him. The message is clear. Doreen pushes herself to her feet and then has to catch herself as her right leg crumbles, all pins and needles from sitting so long. She steadies herself, then lurches toward the office trying to avoid putting weight on the numb leg. He motions for her to sit on the floor as he steps in behind her. She awkwardly lowers herself, rolling back on her haunches until she’s leaning against a credenza. The man braces himself against the wall immediately next to the door, now holding the gun close to his chest, muzzle pointing away as if he were the cop about to break down a suspect’s door.

They hear rustling outside and the voice calls out again. This time the man responds. “Get back. I’ve got a gun. And there’s someone in here.” 

Doreen feels the throbbing of her pulse in the bump on her forehead. She hears shallow rapid breathing, and at first isn’t sure if it’s her or the gunman. Then she realizes it’s both of them, their exhalations weaving around each other in panicked harmony. She wonders what will happen next. What do the police do in these situations?

Then the policeman speaks again: “We need to make sure everyone’s okay. Can you come out where we can see you?”

“No fucking way.”

“Alright. No problem. Can you at least tell me your name?”

“You must know my name already.”

“Fair enough. It’s Randy, right?” The man doesn’t respond until the cop repeats the name: “Randy? You still there?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Okay, great. Thanks, pal. I’m Sergeant D’Antonio with the police special tactical unit. We’re going to get you out of this, okay? Who have you got in there with you?”

Randy looks at Doreen and jerks his head toward the door. “You might as well tell them who you are.”

She tries to speak but her mouth is gummed shut. She licks her lips, swallows and tries again. “Hello, I’m Doreen LeBlanc. I work here. I’m okay.”

“Can we see you, Doreen?”

The man shakes his head at her. “No, she’s staying right where she is.” If I wasn’t a hostage before, I am now, she thinks.

Doreen watches the man’s chest thrust in and out as he leans back against the wall, eyes raised but unfocused. He stutters, “Is my wife okay?”

“Your wife’s going to make it, Randy. She’s at the hospital already. Now let’s talk about how we’re going to resolve this situation.”

When Randy hears his wife is alive, he closes his eyes, drops his head against the wall, and lets his hands collapse to his sides. Doreen winces as the gun slips from his grip and lands on the carpet with a soft thwock. 

“Randy? Buddy? Are you okay in there?”

Randy is motionless, then the cop shouts his name again, and he lurches away from the wall, body tautening and veins on his neck popping as he shouts hoarsely: “Move back. Get away from me. I need time to think.” The cop start to speak again, but Randy loses it, screaming obscenities, grabbing the gun from the floor and pointing it, face red and sweaty. Doreen cringes, nerves twitching.

After the police withdraw and they hear the click of the door closing in the lobby, Randy man slides down against the wall until he’s slumped on the floor. They rest in their positions and Doreen tries to clam herself. As she breathes deeply, she picks up an unfamiliar smell, bitter and astringent at first, strong enough to wrinkle her nose, but then expanding to include the loamy earthiness of early spring rot. For a horrifying second, she thinks it’s her own body odor, that in her haste to leave this morning, she’d forgotten to put on deodorant, although she’s not certain there’s any odor suppressor out there that could tamp down the fear she’s felt over the last half hour. She surreptitiously tries to smell her armpits before realizing it’s Randy’s scent, curling out and permeating every nook and cranny of the office.

She hears a helicopter and glances toward the windows. They run floor to ceiling so even from her perch on the floor, she can see clearly. A news helicopter floats past and she wonders how closely they’ve zoomed in, if even now the camera is broadcasting her face across the state. Robert is probably watching TV. Will he recognize her? These days he might be completely lucid or he might think he’s watching a cop movie. He might say, “Hey that’s Doreen. What’s she doing on TV?” Or he might thinks she’s “Nadine,” a mystery name he’s used several times, leaving her combing her memory and failing to remember anyone by that name. It’s gnawed at her so much that she actually asked his brother if the name Nadine rang a bell, but he just shook his head.

Her position on the floor is uncomfortable and she shifts, trying to jump start the circulation in her legs and rear end. The man glances at her. “If you need to stand up, go ahead.”

She awkwardly folds her body over, gets a grip on the credenza and lifts herself, shaking her legs until the tingling and numbness disappear. Her eyes drift to the view, Narragansett Bay stretching away to the south and disappearing into the haze, the soft green curve of the East Bay contrasting the oil tanks and bulbous gas terminal on the west, a couple of sailboats tacking obliviously. She drops her gaze to the foreground – the triple smokestacks of the power plant and, next to it, the hurricane barrier, the gates poised to lock into place when the next storm surged up the bay.

Robert helped build that barrier after he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. Doreen found this out on the night he spontaneously asked her to marry him. He’d taken her to Anthony’s on the water in Fox Point. She couldn’t help but let her jaw drop when she opened the menu. Those prices! But Robert seemed reasonably well off and she’d already noticed how careful he was with money so she figured he could afford it, although she felt guilty and ordered the most inexpensive item she could find.

After the waiter took their orders, Robert asked if she knew anything about the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. She did not and he launched into the story. Not one to brag, he mentioned only in passing that he had worked on its construction. He told her that the government was prompted to build the barrier after Hurricane Carol in 1954.

“I was born during that hurricane,” she interrupted.

‘On the same date?” Robert asked.

“Yes, but I mean during it – right in the middle of it.” Her parents were so occupied boarding up windows and moving what they could to the top floor that her mother either hadn’t noticed the contractions or chose to ignore them – Doreen was never clear which. Then it caught up to her mother all at once and as the storm surge began to lap at the back of the house, she was flat on her back in an upstairs bedroom, so crippled by the pain she couldn’t move. The phone lines were still up so her dad was able to convince their doctor to come to the house. He somehow made it through the storm, and did everything he could to hasten things along, but by the time Doreen made her entrance, the house was trembling and cracking with each blast of wind. The doctor cut the cord, they roughly toweled her off and bundled her up before running down the stairs into several inches of water: the storm had already breached the seawall. Her father always ended the story the same way: “We went out the front door while the Bay came in the back.” They spun away in total darkness, the car’s headlights reflecting an airborne ocean while the bay gushed across the road, at one point lifting the car right off its wheels and setting it down only inches from the mud flats beyond the causeway. To their right, gargantuan swells sparked with phosphorescence.

This story tickled Robert. “Son of a gun,” he’d said, slapping the table and shaking his head. He spilled out his tale, he and his 14-year-old brother deciding it’d be fun to grab a canoe from behind a neighbor’s house and float into downtown Providence to see what it looked like underwater. The fun went out of it when they saw the first body spiral past. They found themselves plucking people from porches and rooftops, and ferrying them to safety.

Robert and Doreen revisited the restaurant for their 35thanniversary. Robert had come to accept that he couldn’t drive anymore and was okay with letting Doreen drive them into the city, although after decades of doing all the driving, he couldn’t stay quiet, tensing in his seat and shooing Doreen away from other cars. At the restaurant he mostly acted like the calm, reasonable companion he’d always been. She felt comfortable enough to leave him alone when she went to the restroom.

His seat was empty when she came back, chair shoved into the middle of the aisle. He’d left so quickly only the hostess had noticed. “He just took off out the door. I thought there was an emergency or something.”

Doreen ran outside. The car sat there dark. No Robert in sight. She rushed to the edge of the decking by the water, and frantically peered around. She saw movement farther up the poorly lit riverfront. Clomping awkwardly along the planking on new shoes, she caught up enough to identify Robert, striding purposely for eight or ten steps, then pausing and turning in a circle before striking off again. She called his name and he stopped, facing her with a puzzled air. “I have to get to work but I can’t figure out how to get over there.” His arm fluttered in the direction of the Bay. 

“Honey, you stopped working seven years ago.”

“I did?” He peered helplessly into the dark, lifting one hand to his forehead as if he were staring into the sun rather than the dull Providence night. 

“You did.” Then, “We need to go home now.” He gave a final exasperated look toward the water and then meekly acquiesced, accepting Doreen’s hand on his arm as she steered him back to the parking lot. It was the last time they’d gone out.

The man is muttering again, a stream of mostly incomprehensible words. She’s composed enough now to realize she should listen and remember what she can for the investigation that she hopes to be part of. She picks up the bare details: the lost job, the years of not working, starting to drink, losing his license. Every time she starts to feel the slightest sympathy, she reminds herself of the bloodstain and the gun in his hand and editorializes: “Your problems don’t justify this.” The detective who’ll interview her later will be a harsher critic: “Blah blah blah. I’ve heard this story a hundred times. Lots of guys lose their jobs but they don’t go out and shoot their wives.”

Another helicopter buzzes past and this quiets him. He glances at her: “What do you think’ll happen to me?” He looks like a boy waiting for his father to get home to dole out punishment.

“Oh, I don’t know. I can’t imagine,” Doreen answers carefully. 

He cocks his head. “Really?”

She sighs. “I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know anything about these things.”

He looks at the floor and taps the muzzle of the gun against the carpet. “They’ll lock me up. Probably for a long time. I ain’t been to prison before.” The man grunts softly and puts his head back down. He pulls his legs in, wrapping them tightly with his arms and curling his toes up as he rests his head sideways on his knees, looking away from her. He begins to rock, imperceptibly at first but with increasing force. His head hits the wall. He doesn’t stop but snaps back even harder, grunting each time the back of his head hits the wall until the drywall gives way and a spider web of cracks radiate from the pit he’s made. Doreen spreads her hands out on the floor, body arcing with tension, eyes obsessing on the gun, wondering if this is the moment when he’ll turn on her.

He abruptly stops and raises his head. She sees streaks of tears through the dirt on his face. “You should leave,” he says. He stares directly into her eyes, then jerks his head toward the door.

“You’re sure?,” she finds herself asking. He simply grunts.

She edges her way past him. She gives him a final look and he motions again with his head. She steps into the hallway. She feels so shaky she has to put a hand on the wall to steady herself. When she’s feeling more balanced, she carefully makes her way toward the lobby, hands moving along the cubicle walls to support herself.

As she opens the lobby door, the gunshot explodes behind her. Her ears ring and she clutches the doorframe. The door silently closes on her right hand as she grips the metal. She lowers her head until her skull touches the frame just above her bruise from the bus accident. The metal feels shockingly cool. She shivers as she rolls her head from side to side on the frame, trying to draw the coolness into her body. 

She pushes herself upright. It’s over. I need to let the police know. She reenters the office, walks into the nearest cubicle, and picks up the phone.

As she dials, there’s another gunshot. This one startles her far more than the first shot. She shrieks and drops the phone, which bonks off the floor and bungees up and down, each contact with the floor becoming quieter as it loses momentum.

Then a strangled cry assaults her eardrums. It doesn’t seem human, like she’s stumbled upon some primitive ritual of slaughter, animals keening as their offspring’s throats are cut. Doreen braces herself on the desk. Then she straightens up and pivots toward the office where the sound continues to oscillate. She’s trembling but now more in anger. She finds herself marching toward the office door. What are you doing?, she thinks, but she’s burning and can’t hold back.

She stops only when she reaches the door. “What’s going on in there?,” she calls. 

The keening stops but he doesn’t say anything.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

She moves closer so she can see into the office. She can’t see Randy and the air is filled with smoke. That unfamiliar smell must be gunpowder. She’s surprised by the amount of smoke and by its appearance: light grayish particles that drift like dust motes. She glances up and notices two holes in the ceiling tiles, then the pattern of fine grit on the desk and floor.

Then she sees the gun abandoned on the floor. She takes a step forward, keeping one arm outside the door frame. The man is still sitting against the wall, clutching one leg tightly while the other bounces slowly on the floor. She sees no blood, no sign of a wound. She takes another step forward. Now she’s fully inside the office. She looks down at the wreck on the floor. He doesn’t look at her, just stares glassily.

“I can’t do it,” he says. “I can’t fucking do it.” He looks up. “How fucking useless is that? I shoot my wife without trying and now I can’t even fucking shoot myself. Useless piece of shit.” He closes his eyes and resumes the rocking.

Doreen finds herself standing over him digging her fists into her hips. “What are you doing?” He looks up surprised. “What on earth are you doing? You come in here, you shoot someone, you scare me to death, you’ve got the whole city down there churned up, and now you’re sitting there feeling sorry for yourself. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” She stops, realizing she’s gone off the deep end, berating a violent man as if he were a little boy.

But what’s odd is his reaction. He’s rapt, jaw slowing dropping, gazing at her from hooded, glassy eyes. Then he shrugs and whispers, “What can I do?”

Doreen shakes her head. “How about we call the police?” She moves toward the phone on the desk, looking back over her shoulder as she says “Okay?” Randy nods, head falling back against the wall. She notices the gun by her foot and when she sees he’s closed his eyes, she shoves it out of sight under the desk with her foot, feeling a wave of elation that she thought to do this.

She calls 911 and the operator connects her to the police who in turn transfer her along to the officer in charge who gives her detailed instructions. She carefully confirms everything, making notes on a dusty pad just as she does during Robert’s medical appointments. Then she hangs up and turns to Randy.

“The police are coming up. They’re going to alert us from the lobby when they get here and then we have to walk out with our hands on our heads.”

They want Randy out first so they can ensure he’s not armed. Covered in white dust from the ceiling tiles, he is more wraith-like than ever, but he manages to get to his feet, remove his baseball cap as directed, interlace his fingers over his head and toddle out of the office. Doreen follows a few steps behind.

Doreen sees Randy gawping to his left. He’s already moving lethargically but now he starts to slows down, like a battery-powered toy running out of juice. Then he stops altogether and his hands float away from his head. He stares slack-jawed at his wife’s cubicle, pictures of  their children on the desk, a blood-soaked carpet below.

“Sir, put your hands back on your head.” But his arms drop further. “Randy, get your hands back on your fucking head!” Doreen stops moving only five feet away from him, eyes widening and the cop’s voice becomes shrill.

He finally shakes the spell, then looks back at Doreen. She sees something in his eyes – despair, a resolution, a surrender – she’s not sure. She thinks to say something to calm him, but before she can, he lurches forward. She can’t tell if he’s stumbled, fainted or doing it on purpose. It doesn’t matter. There are two sharp cracks, and then he’s on the office floor, clutching his shoulder as blood oozes around his fingers. He makes no sound, mouth open in mute agony. 

The police swarm him while two officers move quickly to hustle her away. They reach her just as she thinks, I’m done. That’s it. I’m going to faint. Then they have her by the arms and her feet barely touch the floor as they drag her to safety. She looks back and through the tangle of police, she sees the faint trace of a smile on Randy’s face. 

Later, after the endless police interviews, after they sneak her out through the parking garage in a cop’s own car to avoid the media, she’ll arrive home feeling wrung out. She’ll suffer her daughter’s clingy embrace and son-in-law’s cloying concern. She’ll thank them for looking after Robert and she’ll insist she’s fine, that she needs to be alone, that she’s had enough stimulation for one day. They’ll protest but in the face of her intransigence, they’ll give up and cede the house to Doreen. She’ll lean back against the kitchen counter, the only sound coming from the TV where Robert is watching a DVD on hurricanes. He has several collections: “Storms of the Century,” “Tornado Alley,” etc. He watches them constantly, sometimes hitting the repeat button and not noticing so he’ll watch the same episode five or six times in a row.

She’ll move to the den and watch him from the doorway. He’ll be leaning forward over the remains of dinner on his TV tray, agape as he listens for the umpteenth time to the story of how a wisp of a tropical wave gathered strength until it was a colossus, churning up hundreds of miles of ocean, destroying everything in its path.

Her whole body will suddenly tauten, an electrical snap that causes her skin to tingle hotly, her muscles to tighten. She’ll feel her fingernails digging into her palms so hard that later she’ll discover four perfect crescents of blood on each hand. She’ll want to scream, the words running through her head so powerfully that she’ll wonder if she actually is saying them out loud: “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? Who’s Nadine? What else have you’ve got to tell me? Will I ever get you back?”

But this will pass. The trembling will subside. And instead of yelling she’ll walk up to Robert, acknowledge his brief “Hello dear,” kiss him on the top of his head, and take his dinner tray, pausing for a moment to wipe a smear of soup from his cheek.

Categories: Fiction and Writing

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