“Don’t tell Marya. Don’t stop smiling. Don’t stop…”
“Mommy, what does it say?” From above, her eyes seemed enlarged, as if every aspect of her body was a frame for those twin living portraits. There was a simple trust which could convict. It was like lying to a mirror; even the greatest con cannot fully convince himself. The same mirror sees as the mask goes on, and as it comes off. The mask of happiness now fell to the floor and disappeared into the background of her daughter’s eyes.
She couldn’t convince her mouth to curl up into a smile. The weight of her words strangled even a feigned grin of reassurance. The only movement was her hand crumbling the note into her pocket, hoping the pocket would consume it forever, and with it her debt to hide its contents. It was a lead weight in her pocket and a lump in her throat.
Her silence had already said enough. Marya’s eyes began to fade, taking with them the surrounding light. Those deep green holes consumed the air, and left her mother in a state of desperation, hoping to breathe some life before they both suffocated in the swoon of this stillness.
“Daddy…had to…” she stopped; if there was anything she wanted to hide it was the past. She would convince them both that it wasn’t true.
“…has to go away for a while.” For a moment the vacuum between them was filled, but with an air which froze the lungs. She dared not breathe, for fear her lie would leak out in a tear. Again her hand grasped for the escape of opening the door and leaving this moment outside to be thrashed about in the impending storm. But in reaching for the keys, her trembling fingers felt the evidence that this was real, no matter how clever her lie or how intricate her mask.
Her outlet for this torment was a sink of dirty dishes. Her hands moved with a forced fury as if they saw something she couldn’t, and would reveal it if she only scrubbed harder. The stack of soapy dishes accumulated and diminished, as she washed and rewashed load after load. The end of her labor meant more than clean silverware. One glass remained sullied, however, regardless of how she tried. The glass chalice plunged down into a point so buried beneath the rim, her hands failed to reach it. The glass shone elsewhere which served only to make the filth more evident. Her frustration got the best of her.
The sound of glass hitting tile came from a distant source, but the echo immersed her mind in a veracity void of virtue. The tainted glass now able to be cleaned was as useless as any words she spoke to her stunned daughter, who stood in the doorway, visibly shaking. Unaware of her presence, she had divulged another hint to the letter’s contents, gravely confirming Marya’s most outlandish assumptions. The situation became a waiting game of who could turn a blind eye the longest.
She caved before her daughter. In the purgatory, before Marya cried, she realized the complexity of her failure. She remembered the words her husband, Finneus, had reiterated innumerable times during their tumultuous matrimony:
“I won’t let her share my pain…don’t you let her share my pain. Don’t you DARE let her feel this pain!!!”
The chiming of the clock awoke her from a dreadful dream to a nightmare. The fifth chime echoed with what seemed a scream against the turbulent silence. A phone rang in the next room, a welcomed escape from Marya’s questioning eyes. Her hand clutched the phone and pulled it slowly to her ear, engaging every second she could before she had to face her daughter.
“Hello, Mrs. Gage, is your husband around?”
“No, he’s uh…not here right now.”
“Well, do you know when he’ll be returning?”
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that, I don’t think I heard you prop-“
“He’s not coming back. Ever.”
“Ma’am, would you mind explai-“
The man’s screams whispered in a harsh, mechanical voice as the receiver touched the cradle. Sweaty fingers left streaks across the plastic. The phone rang again, this time unanswered, its chime drowned by the screaming of two parts of a trio. Hearing the words from her own mouth had broken Mrs. Gage into a shrieking mess on the hardwood floor, her daughter’s arms unable to complete their embrace, and even then, unable to bring any comfort.
The two wept through the knocking at the door, the sudden bang, and the footsteps that followed. Lost in their sorrow, the sirens wailing down the street towards their house could not break them from their thoughts, their realities, their denial. And not a soul that entered dare be the first to wake them from their storm. The rain left streaks of makeup across faces and clothes. The thunder shook their bodies violently. The lightning shrieked in every direction, causing the officers to turn from its deafening light.
It wasn’t long before the interrogators realized their questions were not going to be fully answered in words. The pale detachment sculpted into Mrs. Scott’s face was as empty as the numerous paintings that lined the walls. Her crying before seemed the only outlet her soul could harness, and with that done, there was nothing left but a frame to a grave picture. A slow, deliberate nod of her head was the only indication that she was not just a life-size replica of a scene from a sketchbook. After giving them permission to search the house, she had disappeared; her essence, her life itself it would seem, vanished into a dark haven, leaving her limbs as rigid as the cold steel of a jail cell.
“Mrs. Gage…Mrs. Gage…umm, we found…your…Mr. Gage upstairs in the attic…thought you might want to see him before we took him to the, uh, coroner’s office…if not that’s fine, we just-“
“Where is Marya?” Her silence broke, not from her, but the final words of her dead husband still alive in her head.
“Um, she’s with Officer Martin in the kitchen.”
“Don’t let her see. Don’t let her know he’s gone.”
“But Mrs. Gage, don’t you think you should tell her-“
“I don’t think you understand me. Don’t let her see, don’t tell her what has happened. She has already seen enough. Understood?”
“Yes ma’am…but I was just wondering-“
“Right now I need you to stop talking, do what you need to do, and leave me with my daughter. Do you think you could do that, officer?”
“Yes ma’am, but-“
”No. I don’t care, I don’t wanna know. I just-“
“We found something, Mrs. Gage.” Her curiosity got the best of her.
“In the attic…I can’t really…when was the last time you went up there?”
“He…he had told us never to go up there. That was where he worked, we weren’t to disturb him.”
“Well, any questions you may have, I’m sure you’ll find a few answers up there.” It seemed the last part was meant to be under his breath. “Or just get more questions…“
The white door at the end of the hallway remained shut despite the constant entering and exiting of the officers. Each took special effort to hide the room’s contents as they left.
The frenzy stopped as she stepped from the stairwell to the short hallway. Five heads all slumped towards the floor, more from pity than respect. Mrs. Gage searched the hallway for some emotion, some hint, some insinuating expression, but not an eye raised from the soft carpet. The white door seemed exceptionally bright against the royal blue walls and tan carpet. Yet as she made her way to the end, she was reminded less of a light at the end of the tunnel, and more of a whitewashed grave.
It was like opening the door of a soundproof room. The smell was overwhelming. It came in waves, and washed over her closed eyes, leaving her shivering. Nothing could ever prepare someone for this, no matter how many stories are told. The smell of the Blue-Eyed Marys was so intense, it felt as though the air was liquid, and a deep breath could drown. Flower pots covered every corner, every surface of the room, and their aroma suffocated everything in between.
The body bag was like a scar across the face of an infant. The scene already resembled a graveyard, with the headstone formed by a brown desk at the back of the room. It framed a much more appropriate eulogy than the dash between birth and death. Scattered haphazardly across the desk, pinned to the walls, carved into the desk itself. Mr. Gage’s last testament was an array of eclectic research, elaborate journals, and sketches of himself. Or diagrams. The few officers in the room froze immediately.
“Take him out of here.” Mrs. Gage’s words startled everyone, but no one dared move. Every eye nervously scanned the room, looking for a clue to her intentions. The coroner moved first, but not before his eyes found the floor. He executed his job with the precision of experience, but the timidity of a novice. His exit left an out for others and they followed quickly, leaving Mrs. Gage along in this foreign space.
The attic was a small room, meant more as storage space than an office. The only shelves were some cheap, chrome wires haphazardly drilled into the wall to the right of the desk. On either side of the desk, two small windows formed eyes, the only sight into the outside world.
Through one the light was scattered by the neighbor’s roof. Five years earlier, despite their protests and pleas, the city had allowed a rich couple to add a wing to their house, outbidding the Gage’s for the lot which had previously formed their backyard. The Gages were only able to save a small corner, leaving just enough room for an above ground pool Mr. Gage had installed on a whim a year later. It was abandoned just as quickly for the neighbor’s heated in-ground pool later that year. Only the rusty shell remained.
The other window showed the most brilliant view Mrs. Gage had ever imagined. It was the main reason she had fought to buy the house.
The view she remembered was now overgrown by thick vines crisscrossing over the window. Only tiny, odd-shaped beams of light shone in patches on the floor. The weeds of disappointment choked Mrs. Gage’s smile. She remembered the two wooden crosses awkwardly positioned at the top of the hill. She remembered how foreign they appeared against the rich, thick grass and the tree canvas which reached its peak at the edge of the hilltop clearing. She remembered those few minutes every night where she imagined the cross’s shadow reached her window just before the sun drowned beneath the sea of trees and mountains.
Something about how contrary the present scene was to her memories twisted her tears into terror. Every sign of insanity laid openly displayed for even the most juvenile diagnosis. She had never been in this room. Not the way it stood now. She remembered the hardwood floors and the fresh, open feel she had felt when they first married and bought the house. Now the room was so changed she doubted her memories were ever real.
It was the desk that stood out the most. Everything else formed an ornate walkway leading to it. Three drawers formed the right side of the desk, the middle of which was cracked, apparently the most recently used. She slid her fingers into the crack and opened it enough to let the light in. The new light shone on the darkness of its contents: prescriptions, medications, cleaning products, narcotics of every sort crowded the small cube. Between the bottles were zip-lock bags, each with a different letter, number, and picture as a label distinguishing it from the others. Scanning the desk, she recognized what looked like an inventory of the drawer’s contents, tediously arranged into a chart. Sliding this aside, she began to shuffle through the pile of papers, finding quick sketches of a human body, old power-point presentations she remembered from his days as a salesman, newspaper articles, and photocopies from an encyclopedia. The entire stack served only to confuse her until she reached the bottom and read that seemed to be the root of all which had grown around it. Carved across the surface of the desk in a violent hand, it read “dum spiro spero”.
Finneus came home from hell to purgatory. Every evidence of why he deserved to suffer manifested in the shabby house where he parked his cheap used car. The weeds that had long since ruined the small garden he had planted for his wife on their first Valentines Day now poked through the cement walkway. As his foot reached the porch, he stopped. His keys swung freely around his finger.
There was something about this place, this threshold. Behind that door was reality. Behind his back was his nightmare. Somehow in this limbo, he found peace. He stepped gently towards the swinging chair hung from the rafters on the far side of the porch. His wife had spent countless hours swinging there while she was pregnant with Marya. Nothing could explain its abandonment now except that like everything else in his life, it had lost its appeal.
He began every morning with a dismal walk to his night table to silence his red-eyed tyrant. He showered, read the paper and consumed his breakfast before he realized it had happened. Some mornings he would let his cereal sit until the milk turned it sour just staring across the table at the empty chair where his wife used to sit. Even wearing a haphazard ponytail and a frayed t-shirt from a decade ago, she was the best part of him. He didn’t taste the cereal when he was staring at her. He didn’t think twice about the idiot on page A6 when she was perched atop her favorite stool scanning the comics. Her sly grin swelled and faded like waves across her face. He didn’t mind the red lights on the way to work when he was thinking of something, anything else he could do to give her everything he had promised her.
His memories hid behind a hollow smile when Marya came waddling out of the house in her favorite slippers. Even with soles worn clean through and the left foot squeaky from age, she loved those slippers. Because daddy bought them. After a quick hop, the t-shirt she used for pajamas pressed itself against his only good suit in a rare moment of purpose. The swing rocked as the night closed in around the porch, gently coaxing little Marya to sleep with her brown curls buried in her daddy’s chest.
It wasn’t long before the whispers became screams. Mrs. Gage’s voice echoed shrilly from the tile floor of the kitchen and beset Finneus’ ears on all sides. She fell suddenly from anger into a placid silence, like a still lake after the last cannon fire. But soon questions broke the surface, sending waves towards the shore, spilling in tears from Finneus’ eyes.
There was never enough to break even. From the moment they stepped into their new house, still carrying the leftover laughter from their honeymoon, things changed. Or simply came to light. Soon Finneus’ smile and a comforting promise weren’t enough to pacify. There had always been money to go out on Friday night, money for those new shoes she hinted at on the commercials, money for the Saturday morning picnics she woke to every so often. She had never wanted for any of Marya’s needs or her own. When she had decided to stay at home after Marya was born, Finneus offered full support.
No one had ever known how desperate things had become.
Even when she was too irate to look him in the eye, he still loved her more than his next breath. But sitting there at his desk, Finneus realized that there was nothing she deserved less than a life poisoned by him. He had promised her too much.
The hill where they had their first picnic caught his eye through the veil of his guilt and fear. Through that window to his right, he saw everything he had envisioned for her. Happiness, luxury, leisure, peace. It amazed him how he never dreamed about checking his bank account. For good or for bad. In his world, there was no money and therefore no need to think about it. But to his left was everything he wanted for her now: the house, the cars, the pool.
He ran his hand over the Latin scrawled across the face of his desk and realized how little he believed it now. His eyes scanned further up to the edge of the desk where the loaded pistol rested. His hand absently grasped the metal until it was warm and pressed the solid barrel against his soft temple. But his finger never pulled the trigger. He didn’t want to wake Marya.
The pills went down easily, and Finneus spent his last moments alone with the peace of knowing the love of his life and his beautiful daughter could now find the life they deserved, free of him.