Axe to Grind 2020, 2nd place winner: "Eleven for Good Measure"
By Sarah Collins Honenberger
Eddy counted out the pills, added one for good measure. Eleven ought to do it. Marie would be home after the late shift. If the ER was quiet, she’d beat the sunrise. It didn’t happen often, but it gave them an hour together. Baby-making time, she’d called it, only not anymore.
Now they’d sit on the deck and drink coffee. She didn’t touch him and he didn’t touch her. It was too hard to talk about all those hopes and dreams buried in the slick metal casket, never mind that she had insisted on the pink lining and the pink roses, one for each month.
He only had tonight to make this work. He brushed the tiny pills into the envelope, folded it carefully, and slid it into the pocket of his jeans. He could barely keep his eyes open with the long nights of planning and worrying and wondering if this would somehow right the imbalance in the universe since they’d lost the baby.
The damn dog was a regular alarm clock, barking at nothing, but always after midnight. Tonight it made Eddy smile. Tonight they were a team. “You’d think he could tell the difference between a shadow and a genuine intruder.” He was talking to himself again. “Maybe Marie’s right and he’s blind too.” The extra sensory perceptions of four-legged creatures languished in an underutilized area of Eddy’s brain. Not completely outside his expertise—he’d aced every college science course—just not information he used every day.
“Enough now,” he hissed at the backyard, but the dungeon silence of the empty house swallowed the words. He watched, surprised, as the dog crawled back into the doghouse. He and their neighbor Lou had built the doghouse while Marie was pregnant. She said good neighbors make good friends. She’d been right about that. Lou turned out to be a life-saver. He’d strong-armed Marie when the rescue squad—heads shaking, eyes lowered—bundled up the baby and raced away. Later when the hospital pronouncement was official, Lou had spooned whiskey into Marie and helped Eddy carry her to bed, and he’d held vigil until Eddy passed out on the sofa. Six, seven months ago?
He double-timed past the nursery door, shut tight. The tiny velvet pillow slurped sideways on the antique glass knob, hot pink against that white woodwork Marie had insisted on everywhere, back when she cared, back when they were so excited they could hardly breathe, looking at the crib and tiny T-shirts and booties. He didn’t blame the house. It was perfect for a family, just not a two-person family.
The movers claimed they’d be here at seven in the morning. Boxes lined the hall, labeled and taped with finality. Marie’s new address on each one. Eddy poured coffee into a mug. He’d studied this online. Caffeine helped. His job, the way he saw it, was to be sure everything went smoothly, that Marie didn’t have to make any decisions, that no regrets held her back. He didn’t blame her either. But she’d never last here. She’d been disappearing for months, thinner, less and less to say, no smiles and not even tears anymore. She needed someplace with no memories. She needed to start fresh.
In the closed garage, behind the steering wheel, he closed his eyes and imagined the golden light everyone talked about at the end. The long hallway and the warm embrace. He wasn’t sure he believed, but just imagining it might be the best he was going to get. He fished out the first few pills from the envelope propped between his legs and took a long draught of soda. Out back the dog howled.
“I should’ve taken him to the vet.” Old as the dog was, deaf and probably blind, they’d gotten him as a rescue, and he’d been good company for Marie when Eddy traveled for work. Maybe Lou would take the dog, another decision Marie wouldn’t have to make.
The car was cold and damp, but he hadn’t wanted her to find him inside, not in the den where they’d watched movies and made out on the futon, not in the kitchen where she’d taught him how to decorate Christmas cookies, a first because his mother had left when he was seven, not on the deck where they’d spread the quilt and counted shooting stars, and mostly not in the bedroom where they’d made the baby and lain stiffly side by side these last six months without speaking and without touching.
The timing too was important. He needed to be gone, invisible, not standing on the steps in her rearview. He’d heard, hoped they might meet in heaven, if there was a heaven. Several times since he’d bought the pills, for a split second here or there, he’d seen a vision of the three of them reunited, the baby between them, a radiance that sealed them together in eternity. That would be better than the golden light, but what did he know?
When the dog wouldn’t stop barking, Eddy worried Lou might wake up and come over to commiserate on another sleepless night. It had happened. Marie had come home from work and found the two of them stretched out on the lawn chairs, empty beer cans between them in the grass.
“Jeez.” His breath formed a soft white bubble of condensation in the car. “If I get you a bone, will you give it up?” In the unlit garage, he let the car door fall shut instead of slamming it. It made him laugh, no one out here to disturb. In the kitchen he grabbed the treat and stepped onto the deck. And there she was, early from work, her shoes on the mat, her bare legs, silver and glowing in the moonlight.
“Marie? You alright?”
“Tired,” she said, “But I’m home.”
And he went and sat in the other lawn chair and took her hand.
Sarah Collins Honenberger’s third novel Catcher, Caught is a Pen/Faulkner Foundation selection for its Writers-in-Schools program. Awards for her fiction include semi-finalist Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, first place New Millenium, second place Antietam Review, South Lit, semi-finalist Best Unpublished Novel, and two nominations for the Library of Virginia Fiction award. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she writes from her Rappahannock River home.