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“Yes, baby, it’s me,” she answers an unspoken question. “It’s your Em. Welcome home, Ben. Can I fix you something to eat?”
The silhouette rasps its fists tight again and after a long moment nods its head.
In the kitchen he sits at the table with his arms slapped in front of him while he chews. Only the light above the stove is allowed to be turned on, and this only during cooking. He doesn’t let her have any other lights on anymore.
Two more pork chops sear across the pan, and she refills his coffee cup for the third time. She decided months ago that he didn’t need caffeine, and did away with the regular stuff. He always used five scoops of sugar, and never noticed.
His face had been scarred deeply by the accident, but it had still been young when they transferred here. Now the city is taking from him what Nevada left. From the yellow mat in front of the stove, she can see where his head ridges in on the left side, just above the center of the ear and level to the eye; his cheekbone caves halfway in, and the top of his head is positioned at a notable angle. The aluminum roof of the car had collapsed like a starched sheet.
It seemed to her that his mind had functioned well enough in the weeks just after the accident. Of course, there had been the loss, the purgatorial rage and isolation for both of them, and they didn’t talk much. An hour after Dr. Skalter unwound the bandage, Ben was back in the black-and-white, and transferred them out here shortly after. And then entire chunks of her husband began to disappear, leaving no vestige.
After the rest of the meat is served, she reaches up and clicks off the stove light; she stands in the shadow of the refrigerator and breathes as he finishes the meal in the dark.
Soon there is the scraping of a fork and fingernails against the empty plate, followed by the smacking of saliva. She takes a half-step forward and says, “I think I need to go to the doctor. Ben. Ben, do you hear me?”
The sound of him swallowing, and quietly, “No more doctors. I’m fine.”
“No, Ben, for me. I’m hurt. Bad, I think.” Her hands rub cautious circles over her abdomen. The chair squeals across the floor as he rises to his feet, and she continues. “Ben, I need to go to the doctor, baby, I have to go to the doctor, ok? I have to.”
“No doctors,” and he steps over to her and grasps her by the upper arm. His hands are knotty, firm, unnaturally warm. “Time for bed.” With mounting force, his hands drag her to him; he smells like kelp and salt.
“No, baby, I hurt real bad, something’s wrong, Ben, Ben, please listen — “
“Time for bed.” She is jerked forward into the long hall that terminates at the bedroom door.
And the hall is long, straight, and dark, but not too dark to make out the blotch of muddier paint, and certainly not too dark to see the glint of metal imbedded there in the bare wall. But they pass it, and he doesn’t look up. His hand is as firm on her wrist as though it had grown from there, and it hauls her, tripping and banging, staring at the back of his head, at the scarred cleft in the hair, the unnatural way his skull has settled.
An hour later, she slips outside to the dark porch and the hovering choir of tree frogs. There is blood on her hands, but it is her own and she tries very hard not to look at it. Blood, new and old, has stiffened the crotch and thighs of her sweatpants, and she walks like a person straddling a live rail or a gutter. The wind pushes branches into sway and it is easy for her to imagine the trees as secret witnesses. She rushes down the steps onto the gravel driveway, negotiating the sharp stones with the most that pain, speed, and silence will allow. One of them curls deeply through the fleshy pad of her heel, and she barely notices. When she reaches the patrol car and finds the door unlocked, she lets out a tremor of breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding.
For a moment she considers the shotgun in its cradle, but it is only for a moment. Instead, she grabs the radio at the end of its coiled wire, cups the receiver in both palms and presses the transmitter.
“Help,” she croaks, “please help. I’m hurt.” And she scrambles. “There’s been an accident. Man down.” It is something she has heard her husband say, from before, when his mind was not ruined and he had been a man that she was proud to love. “Oh my god, please help.”
The screen door yawns open, slapping the side of the house, and the shape of her husband lumbers out, his hands curling at his sides. He steps down into the driveway. Her other hand sweeps the driver-side door, groping for a lock.
A battery of cracks and squeaks from the radio, and a woman’s voice coughs through.
” — to calm down, miss, okay? Who and where are you? Over.”
“I’m Emma Gunn. My husband — Oh god, please send help. Six Treasure Avenue. Six Treasure Avenue. Man down.” Maybe it will make them hurry. He stomps across the rocks, his expression lost in night-shadow. No lock, there must be a lock. The car smells of scales and brine. “Please, please, hurry, god, please.”
And then he is there, his hand like pliers around her arm, yanking her from the car. His other arm plows a fist against her jaw, and then her world is gravel.
The sibilant whir of the tree frogs, the rich, dead smell of earth.
The CB bleats faintly, “Ma’am? Are you there? What is the nature of your emergency? Over.”
In that distant, unmeaning spin, she clings to these real details that fight against shocked sleep. She half-watches as he kills the radio, as he pulls some dark, heavy thing from the trunk. It is as big as a wagon, a long, vertically curved tongue of black metal with a wide base, and he hauls it out of sight, to the road.
She is momentarily aware that he is dragging her into the house. Her heels rap against the steps, the wooden runner of the threshold. His hands are hooks in the pits of her arms. She is unsure of everything: how long it has been or how she got here, the burning pull of so much of her body. His skin is slick and rank from exertion. He is only muscle and hair against the foggy, weak resistance of her fingers. The denim and flannel, his musk, she cannot break free. His breath and pulse prove he is a living person, but it is difficult, frightening for her to believe.
She is drawn through the rooms of their house. She sees the end table they picked out from the antique dealer in Haughton, the vase his mother had given them at their wedding, the bookshelf he built when he was still in the Academy. And then through the mouth of the unlit hallway. And the wall with the freshly dried paint.
The lighthouses and the dinghies and buoys of the wallpaper border just below the ceiling.
She sees the splintered door of their bedroom sliding closer through blue shadow over her shoulder. She hears a siren already wailing through the forest. They come upon the yellowed, gummy paint in the hallway, and when he drops her to the floor, she still has enough in her to start scrambling away.
Through the living room window, she sees the flashing glare of the ambulance lights before it rounds the bend of the road. And suddenly it is there, all white and red, and it launches over a curved, black-steel tongue in the asphalt and hangs in the air. In that moment it blares its lights tragically against the trunks of trees, suspended over its awkward weight before gouging into earth, tumbling, shredding across the lawn, turning, rolling, burning. Lit gasoline fans out and stripes, spattering the pines, porch, and eaves, aglow.
This is as regular as rain to her husband, and the wall is all that occupies his attention. He has noticed the aluminum ring in its weird new bed and he plinks it out of the drywall. Her fingernails begin to splinter; she pulls her body down the hallway. Hidden behind the wall, loosed now, the rolling weapon clunks down between the spars and load-bearing studs. She hears it rattle and thud between the boards, a fat-bodied rat, slave to its weight, finding its grave.
And then there is the bright flash, the scream of the blast, and he is caught up in it, and she is surrounded by the lick and wash of a fire that takes the rest of it from her.