Flash Fiction for the Cocktail hour

Devoured

The hallway was dark. The rooms, opening on each side as far as she could see, were equally dark. The silence was deep, infusing every small sound with an unnatural weight. She took a breath that had the ferocity of a gust of wind.

Her boss was an Ogre. Alexis liked the sound of the word, even though the reality was unpleasant. Ogre. Legend said they feasted on human beings and were especially fond of infants.

Inside her office, the computer screen glowed. She set two bags of chips and a can of soda next to her keyboard and sat down.

The land line rang. She grabbed it. “Yes?”

“Is it done?”

“I was waiting for your feedback on the slides I sent a few minutes ago.”

The line was silent. She heard the click of computer keys. Finally, “Okay. Let me check with Matt. I’ll call you right back.”

She ate a few chips. She washed the comforting food down with two swallows of soda and tried not to think of the emptiness in the adjacent wing and in the four stories above her, each one checkered with small offices, computer screens black as night.

She tore open the second bag of chips. The minutes ticked, promising that the moment the call came, she could make a few changes and head toward home. The Ogre was twenty miles north at the main campus. Right now he was conferring with the Executive VP, debating the fine points of her charts.

The second chip bag was empty. She couldn’t remember eating a single one. She crumpled the bag and dropped it in the trash and downed the rest of the soda.

He could call on her cell. She should leave. If she’d left right after his first call, she’d be halfway home by now, in time to hold her baby close, smell her skin. She’d laugh while Jack placed Claire’s very first bite of cake in her mouth.

But if the slides needed changes . . .

She lifted the soda can to her mouth. Her tongue probed the opening for a lingering drop. Nothing. She dropped it in the trash. She clicked through the company website, looking for instructions on call forwarding. The search function was close to useless. It would take her all night to comb through hundreds of pages.

She plucked the can out of the trash, jogged down the hall, and dropped it in the recycling. When she returned, the phone was ringing.

“Where the hell were you? Matt has a question.”

“I just stepped out. You have my cell . . .”

“I don’t have time to call you at eight fucking different numbers.”

“There’s only two numbers . . .”

“What’s the value on the X axis on slide three?”

“Millions. It’s in the legend . . . “

“I’ll call you back. Don’t leave.”

“My cell . . .” The line was dead.

She sat down. Her bladder ached like there was a fist inside of her. Seven-twenty. She texted Jack, but the sad emoticon didn’t express the pressure inside her throat, equal to that in the center of her pelvis.

Forty minutes later when the phone rang, tears were coming out of her eyes, making excuses for the liquid that wanted to rush out of her bladder.

“Here are the changes . . .” He read through the list.

“Can I do them later tonight? It’s my daughter’s first birthday.”

“Your kid will have lots of birthdays. There’s only one launch of this product line and it’s in thirteen hours, in case you forgot.”

She hung up. She grabbed her things and ran to the restroom. She peed, the most glorious experience of her day.

In the main hall, she shoved the panic bar on the back door and started across the courtyard. Lights were spaced judiciously, trying to illuminate the thick shadows. She saw a figure ahead. Immediately she recognized his pallid complexion.

“Where the hell are you going?” he said.

“I thought you were at headquarters.”

“We’re in the executive conference room. You might as well come in with the core team so I don’t have to keep calling you.”

“I’m going home.”

“No you’re not.”

She trudged behind him to the main building. It didn’t matter if Claire tasted her cake today or tomorrow, she’d never know the difference. But Alexis would be eaten by the memory every year. And the Ogre would continue devouring her life every single day.

Suburban Noir lines

Weekly Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour will return on October 17.  Thirsty for more Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour? Check out volumes 1-4, free on iTunes and Kobo.

A Disturbing Cat Nap

She faded into sleep on the discarded couch in the basement, waiting for the clothes dryer to finish.

She woke to a scratching sound on the linoleum. She wasn’t sure how long she’d slept. Light had been spilling through the ground-level windows when she stretched out on her back, now it was completely dark.

“Go to sleep, Sammy.” She reached out her hand to feel his fur. He seemed to have eluded her fingertips, she felt nothing. The dryer had stopped but she was so tired. Just a few more minutes. If Sammy jumped up and snuggled on her legs, maybe longer.

* * *

The scraping woke her again. She couldn’t tell if it had been ten minutes or several hours. She got up. The linoleum was warm beneath her bare feet. She walked to the stairwell and switched on the light. As she turned maybe thirty, maybe forty cockroaches scurried across the linoleum, antennae quivering, headed for the safety of the dark space under the couch.

She ran up the stairs. The door was closed, she’d deliberately propped it open so Sammy could join her. She sobbed and fell against the door, pounding and screaming for Jeremy to open it. She shivered, her arm growing weak as she continued to slam it against the closed door. She pulled herself up and turned the knob. She collapsed into the kitchen and kicked the door shut. A towel hung near the sink. She grabbed it and stuffed it into the space between the bottom edge of the door and the floor.

She stood, breathing hard. On the counter was a note. Sorry. Can’t do this any more. I need a girl who’s willing to clean more than once a month. I saw a roach the other day. — Jeremy

Every Room Was Empty

The front door stood open, ready for her to provide a final inspection. The movers were gone, the cleaners were done. All that remained was her and the shiny floors and the dusted window sills. She hoped they’d been thorough, she’d paid them enough. It worried her, wondering if the house was ready for the new owners, worried her whether everything had been taken care of as she’d asked. Facing the cleaning herself had been too much. It was time to move forward.

She stepped into the living room with the ghosts of twenty Christmas trees in the corner. She entered the kitchen, assaulted by the aromas and tastes of stews and sweets and spaghetti that lived in the cells of her body. The counter glistened. The sink was polished without a single watermark.

She walked through the family room followed by music that had flowed out of speakers, making them dance and cry and cuddle for thousands of nights.

At the doors to her children’s rooms, she stopped short, the memories like knives tearing at the fibers of her heart. She wanted to remember, but she didn’t want to consider that she’d asked them to keep it down and seconds later, they were moving boxes out the front door, off to their own homes, their own lives.

The door to the master suite was closed — the emptiest room of all. It was a room that left her numb. She turned the knob slowly. The scent of floor polish and fresh paint greeted her. She stepped inside. It looked like a new addition. From across the room she could see the gleaming tile floor of the bathroom and the streak free mirror that covered an entire wall. She stepped inside the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

After she walked the perimeter of the room and checked the bathroom, she paused. “Well done,” she whispered.

She walked across to the spot where the bed had stood. She knelt on the floor and ran her finger over the wood. Smooth as silk. She crept toward the corner where the baseboard had been replaced. She poked her finger into the crevice where a tiny shred of painter’s tape remained stuck to the floor. She peeled it back. Underneath was a small stain. She licked her finger and wiped away the stain. She turned her hand over and studied the tip of her finger, smeared reddish brown. No one but her would know it was blood. And now it was gone.

She was no longer worried. The house was ready.

Keeping A Promise

The skin turned hard over brittle bones, the backs of her hands like sheets of ice. She gripped the steering wheel until it felt welded to her palms. She turned into the driveway.

IT was still there. Kate didn’t think she could go inside, couldn’t face her mother and that thing yet again. She hadn’t been down to visit since December 27th, when she was able to tolerate it. Now, it made her want to rush into the house and yank the drapes closed. Except her mother had taken down the drapes. The corner window with its two-foot-square shelf was completely exposed to the neighborhood. Kate didn’t know half these people any more, but still she felt shame over the way her mother exposed her neediness to every casual passer-by. They had to wonder why it was still there. Maybe they all knew.

Her face burned, thinking about it. It had been like this for fifteen years. Her whole life, in some ways. She used her key to let herself in the front door.

“It’s me!” Her voice echoed down the long hallway, bouncing off hardwood and walls that were completely bare. Her mother’s preferred artwork consisted of family photographs, and they were all in stand-up frames, clustered on tables and shelves as if the family had gathered to watch.

Her mother appeared in the doorway. “Hi, honey.”

“When are you going to get rid of that tree? It’s embarrassing.”

Her mother’s eyes grew thick with tears. “How can you say that?”

“It’s advertising your pain to the whole world.”

“It’s not the whole world at all. The only people who really notice are my neighbors, and they understand. Unlike my daughter!”

“I understand perfectly.”

“Why do you have to be so jealous? It’s unattractive. You’ve been that way since you were small. I don’t understand it.”

“Jealously has nothing to do with it. You need to let go. You need to move forward.”

“I’ll never let go!” Her mother rushed toward her but stopped short as if she’d smacked into a previously unseen wall of plexiglass. She glanced over her shoulder, pausing for several minutes before she faced Kate again. “I told him the tree would be up when he came home. No matter what time of year.”

“He’s not coming home! He’s dead!” Kate heard herself screaming as if it was coming from some place outside of herself. “He’ll never see the tree. He’s dead and Christmas is over!”

“I can still keep my promise.”

“For who? He doesn’t even know.”

“You can’t be sure of that. You have no idea what the dead see or feel. None of us do.”

Kate turned toward the window. The green plastic was faded so the tree actually looked real, as if the needles were dying, losing their color. It hadn’t been able to withstand the sun pouring through that window year after year. The colored balls had faded as well. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the garland of tinsel, still sparkling silver. Fifteen years since an IED blew her brother into nothing. Even if the dead were able to see Christmas trees waiting behind windows, her brother wouldn’t be one of them. His death had been quite definitive.

Her brother’s love for Christmas had bordered on obsessive. He’d sat for hours staring at the twinkling lights of the large tree that had filled the living room when they were children. He revered those lights, often touching one with his fingertip as if it were a living soul.

She walked slowly to the shelf fitted between the adjacent windows that formed the corner of the room. She plucked a faded blue ball off the tree and threw it at the window. It shattered into glittering fragments that fell silently onto the cotton fluff suggesting fake snow around the base of the tree.

“Don’t!” Her mother’s voice was strained — a mixture of tears and anger.

The delicately falling shards of glass had been unsatisfying. Kate grabbed the top of the tree and yanked it off the shelf. The light cord popped out of the socket. She turned and hurled the tree against the brick surrounding the fireplace. The tree retained most of its ornaments as if the branches were individual hands, holding tight to their decorations. As it fell to the hearth, two glass balls broke with a faint tinkling sound.

Kate felt her mother’s hands on her back, pushing her out of the way. Her mother dropped to her knees and righted the tiny tree. She lifted it, stood, and carried it back to its place near the windows. Kate followed.

As her mother reached up to return the tree to the shelf, Kate grabbed her mother’s wrist. She heard a bone, more fragile than the aging glass balls, snap beneath the pressure of her fingers. A silver ball fell and shattered on the floor. The tree rocked, then righted itself. The cord dangled over the edge of the shelf.

They stood in front of the tree, each gripping the other’s wrists, faces so close their breath turned to steamy warmth between them. Something sharp and cold passed through the room. Kate looked at the whites of her mother’s eyes and saw the same shattered pattern of the silver ornament. She let go and led her mother to the couch, supporting the damaged wrist as best she could.

When they sat down, Kate felt for the fractured bone, but couldn’t locate it. Maybe the sound had been nothing more than cartilage snapping.

They sat side by side for a long time. It grew dark.

After a while, the lights on the tree came on, glowing blue and yellow and white.

Madman

Fear gnawed at his gut like the sharp teeth of a rat. It dwelled inside his stomach, devouring the lining. The shout had come from one of the neighbors, but the way sound distorted its pathways at night, he couldn’t be sure which neighbor. The animal-like voice was cursing, the volume uncontrolled. It was the voice of a madman and although there was one guy on the street who raised his voice with senseless ranting when he was off his meds, Brian was pretty sure it hadn’t come from that direction.

There was no reason to feel such terror. The police were only three button-presses away. But the fear wasn’t for himself. It was for Kim, due home any minute. Someone was out there, ready to act out, for whatever reason.

Taking up a protective position in the driveway would piss her off. She would accuse him of being controlling, of not trusting her abilities, of paranoia. The fear of her words, like knives stabbing his ears, was something to be weighed against the fear of a man without restraint to his anger, or his psyche.

It might not be a neighbor. It could be one of the transients who sometimes lost their way and wandered through the upscale neighborhood. It could be a straggler from one of the gangs who staked out territory in adjacent neighborhoods — too close for comfort.

He picked up the phone and hit 9-1-1.

“What’s your emergency?”

“Someone was shouting. He was cursing. An officer should check it out.”

“What time was this, sir?”

“A few minutes ago.”

“Have you heard anything since?”

“What do you mean since?”

“Is it ongoing?”

“No.”

“Is more than one party involved?”

“How would I know?”

“Did you hear a fight? Were several individuals shouting?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It sounds like everything is fine.”

“It’s not fine. The guy sounded like a madman.”

“If there’s no altercation, I’m sure it’s fine. Give us a call if there’s another incident.”

“How many incidents do you need before something happens and then you’re too late?”

“Sir, is anyone shouting right now?”

“No.”

“Then call us back if it happens again or if another party is involved and we’ll send an officer over.”

He hung up. He went to the window and looked out. The moon was a sliver with clouds passing in front, preventing it from giving off significant light. The street was empty, not even a cat passing by. Kim was due home eight minutes ago. No later than eleven, she’d said. He turned. While he’d been looking out the window, another minute had ticked past.

A car turned the corner at the end of street, spraying light across the pavement, but it raced past his house and the street was silent again. Four houses in his line of sight had lights on. He still couldn’t determine which direction the shouting had come from. All of them were suspect.

Once Kim got out of her car, he had time to rush down and ensure her safety. Although that depended on what he’d be facing. Just because there hadn’t been an audible altercation didn’t mean there weren’t several individuals involved. Or a lone individual with the strength and rage of several men.

He heard the shout again. More like a growl, something he’d never experienced. An animalistic sound that didn’t belong on a quiet street with two-story homes, each presenting itself with a wide, old-fashioned porch.

Kim’s proud self-sufficiency was going to have to take a hit. What kind of man stood looking out the window, waiting for a madman to assault his wife as she climbed out of her car, a little tipsy from wine with her friends, and oblivious to her surroundings? Kim was never alert to what was around her, yet confident she could take care of herself. It was a contradiction that drove him mad.

Another car turned the corner and he knew immediately it was her. He walked quickly down the stairs, along the hallway to the front door, and out onto the porch. He knew he looked like a father waiting for a teenaged girl who had missed her curfew. He knew he looked paternalistic and controlling and condescending and all those other things she accused him of. He didn’t care. He loved her and it was his job to protect her.

He stumbled down the porch steps as she opened her car door. Before she could get out, he was at her side.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Just worried old me.” He grinned, unsure whether she could see that he wasn’t insulting her or questioning her female power. He leaned over to kiss her.

She pushed her way out of the car, knocking him back a few steps.

“I’m getting a little fed up,” she said.

“With what?”

“With you.” She slammed the car door and marched across the lawn, managing a confident stride despite her high heels that were surely sinking into the soil.

He heard the madman’s voice. This time it had transformed into a howl. He wondered, for a moment, if the sound was coming from inside of him.

The Trailer Door

Suburban Noir CamperThe 1960s style trailer sat near the curb for nearly a week. The window in the door had cardboard taped over it from the inside. On the sixth day, the door was swinging open, creaking slightly. She would have checked the interior, but the group of four crows lurking in the street made her hesitate.

The Best Mother

Others before her had vowed the same, but this was different. She was different. She would be the ultimate mother.

The sweet baby tucked inside her womb would thrive under his mother’s soft touch, satiated with her warm milk. His mother would stoop to hold his hand as he learned to walk. She would tenderly introduce him to his spiritual side. She’d maintain strong standards, balanced with kind and understanding support, guiding the development of his mind. At the right time, she would let go.

The firm mound of her belly moved as the baby turned. A ripple rode across her skin, announcing his life. In the past fifty years, it had happened over seven billion times on the planet, and for centuries before that, every single soul damaged by one faulty parenting technique or another. Doing it right wasn’t difficult. The only things required were love, steely resolve, and attention to the unique personality entrusted to her care.

She rested her palms on the moving child. He was eager make his entrance, boldly revealing a face unlike any other to a mother who cherished every beat of his heart.

The things they said you needed were superfluous. She didn’t require a man, a high school diploma, or even a driver’s license. Her love was enough.

Children told you how to raise them, if you listened.

Not like her own mother — everything a catastrophic event her mother at the epicenter — always too busy to be a Mommy.

More Than Art and Wine

The strip of sidewalk behind the artists’ tents at the Art and Wine Festival smelled of spilled wine, fried food, and something else. It was a familiar smell, formed from something that had lain hidden beneath a crevice in her heart for years. Maybe forever.

The street between the rows of tents was filled with shoppers and lookers and wine tasters, their faces red from the heat, legs and arms exposed by tank tops and skirts and cargo shorts. Sandaled feet tapped the pavement but were mostly drowned out by the band playing at the end of the main street.

Laura walked on the sidewalk behind the tents, tired of feeling like a boiled egg. The unrelenting sun had cranked the temperature up to ninety-two degrees fahrenheit. The lack of breeze, air trapped between canvas and closed shops, made the stink of spilled wine and over-cooked food more repulsive. She still couldn’t identify the other odor, but it was causing the contents of her stomach to roil dangerously close to her esophagus. She placed her hand gently over her solar plexus, needing a deep breath, but knowing that taking one would have an unpleasant result.

An hour ago, maybe it had been more, or less, Janet had been right beside her. Now, she was nowhere in sight. Laura had walked up and down the four streets that held the festival and hadn’t seen even a glimpse of her. She’d sent three text messages and called once. It pissed her off that Janet had disappeared, although it shouldn’t, it was Janet’s habit.

When they went to the mall, Janet would duck into a shop and Laura would be four stores down the concourse before she noticed Janet was missing. She’d be forced to turn around and check each store she’d passed, calling her friend’s name. When she pointed out how disrespectful it was, Janet laughed. “You should be more impulsive.”

“It’s rude.”

“Something caught my eye,” Janet would say.

“Then tell me you want to stop and browse.”

“What, like ask permission?”

“No. Just don’t disappear.”

Janet laughed harder. “You’re so funny.”

“Why?”

“It’s like you want to keep tabs on me.”

“We’re shopping together. I’m not keeping tabs at all, it’s . . .”

“See. You can’t explain it. Lighten up.”

It wasn’t so easy to lighten up when being abandoned was the theme of your life.

When they reconnected, Laura would complain and Janet would laugh and Laura would wonder why she even invited Janet to go places with her. She should end the friendship. This wasn’t how friends treated each other. She’d looked forward to a pleasant day of not-too-shabby wine and high calorie snacks and maybe buying a necklace or an interesting hat. A slight headache was building, fueled by too much wine and not enough water.

The area behind the tents was relatively free of people, only the occasional couple or group of friends that had given up on pretending they were interested in looking at paintings or photography or jewelry and were going to settle themselves into the real purpose of the event — getting drunk, or at least pleasantly inebriated. Flat out drunk would capture the interest of the prevalent show of smiling but alert local police.

She’d finished her fourth glass of wine long ago and tucked the empty glass into her purse. It was a keepsake she didn’t need. She had a cupboard full of inexpensive, logo-plastered glasses.

The odor should drive her back to the center of the street. She wasn’t sure which was worse, feeling her skin bake or her stomach heave. It might be time to head home, if she could find Janet. She’d certainly had enough wine and she’d had enough art to last the rest of the summer. It might be easier to text the news that she was leaving, trying on a little rudeness of her own.

She pulled her phone out of her hip pocket. She typed quickly — WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU? Just as quickly, she pressed and held the delete key. There was no point.

Even in the shade, it was growing more rank, the smells more stifling than the temperature. She could hardly breathe. She needed water, or a place to sit, or an escape. She crossed the street again and walked down a short alley between a Mexican restaurant and a Thai place. Roasted pork and something sautéed in garlic joined the odorous stew, but instead of improving it, the other odors turned the pleasant ones sour.

About an hour ago, maybe more, she’d walked down this same alley looking for Janet. She’d hissed under her breath, calling Janet a heartless bitch, and worse. Her whole body was sticky — under her arms, between her fingers, the back of her neck. Her feet were worse — a smear of sweat made it difficult to walk without her feet sliding off the thin leather soles of her sandals.

She stumbled and her shoulder crashed into the side of the windowless building facing the alley. To her left was an alcove half-occupied by a dumpster. She let the wall prop her up while she studied the palms of her hands. No wonder they were sticky, covered with red wine. She lifted them to her face. They smelled horrendous.

Behind the dumpster, a foot protruded, a black leather sandal dangling off the toes. Finally. There was Janet.

Laura lifted her hands to her face again, trying to breathe through her mouth. She licked the sticky stuff. Not wine at all, it was blood. That was the smell she hadn’t been able to identify. Satisfied, she took a wipe out of her purse, cleaned her hands, dropped the soiled cloth and the wine glass into the dumpster, and turned toward home.

Seaside Burial

Tiny teeth rattled against the glass as she shook the jar. It sounded like a baby’s toy and looked like something from a museum of the macabre. Why her mother had saved every infant tooth in an empty spice bottle was beyond her, but at the age of forty-seven, it was time to be rid of them. A burial on the beach might be fitting. When the teeth were discovered in a year, in ten, in twenty, someone would think they’d stumbled on pieces of broken shell.

suburban noir teethShe squatted and began to dig a hole. As she went deeper, the sand was wet. The granules scratched her fingers and ground their way beneath her nails. When the hole was a foot deep, she hit water.

The lid popped off the jar with a flick of her wrist. She upended the jar and the teeth, all twenty of them, tumbled into the puddle of water. She set the jar to the side, pushed sand into the hole, and sat back.

As the sun dropped toward the horizon, it glowed like something living. She shifted onto her knees and began digging furiously with both hands, probing the sand for the hard little pieces of bone, dropping them into the jar as she found them.

Soon, the sky was black and empty. Wind blew across the sand. She dug more slowly, pausing every few minutes to run her finger over the teeth in the jar, reassuring herself that she’d reclaimed nineteen of them.

Martyne’s Mutilation

The bouquet arrived anonymously at her door on Friday evening at six forty-three. The glass vase was large but basic, filled with a spray of twenty-seven red roses and a handful of white baby’s breath.

She set the vase in the center of the coffee table then seated herself in the chair across the room to study it. There was no card, but that wasn’t necessary.

The deep red was seductive. She wanted to stroke them, even caress her lips with their soft petals. The thorns had been removed and she wondered whether that was a standard practice of this florist or had been a specific request from the sender.

She got up and went to the kitchen. She poured half a glass of Pinot Grigio and returned to her seat across from the flowers. It broke her heart to think of destroying something so beautiful but she wasn’t going to stand for this assault on her hard-won mental stability.

The pulsing red filled the room, splashing across the white wall, the only color in a room filled with white wicker and white cushions, glass tables, and a pale hardwood floor. Even her appearance matched the colorless room — her white hair, her creamy beige skirt and sweater and espadrilles. The presence of the roses was shocking.

Soon, Art would be home and he’d want to know who sent the flower. He wouldn’t be jealous, just curious. Other women would be grateful their man wasn’t the jealous type, but she craved that jealousy, a desire to keep her all to himself. Instead, he left he floating in a dark ocean of uncertainty.

Of course, he wouldn’t like if if he knew where the flowers had come from. He wouldn’t be afraid, although he probably should be. He’d be disgusted. Anyone would be disgusted. She stood, unsure of what to do. Tossing them right now before he saw them was the best solution, but she needed to do more. They were so beautiful, so filled with hatred. She was surprised she hadn’t received an annual bouquet.

She crossed the room and put her wine glass on the table, well away from the flowers. She knelt on the floor. One of the petals on the rose nearest to her was pulled slightly away from the blossom. A small imperfection that heightened the exquisite, almost unreal quality of the others. She touched it, the texture as soft as she’d imagined. She pulled the petal away, carefully tearing it free, although a ragged edge remained. She dropped the petal on the table and took a sip of wine.

The floor was hard on the bones of her knees, but she resisted shifting her position. She tore off another petal from the same blossom and dropped it near the other. She turned the flower slightly and tore off a third petal. So many petals, folded over each other, tucked out of sight, soon to be exposed. She continued peeling away each one, like peeling the skin and silk from an onion. Soon all that remained were the hips and the sepals that seemed to hold the petals in place, but really did nothing.

The roses were the color of blood. She got that. It was supposed to make her feel guilty, but it did not. She did wonder how Paula had found her address. Since she’d last seen Paula face to face, she’d married Art, changed her last name, and moved twice. Locating her couldn’t have been easy. Or maybe it was very easy. The internet followed you everywhere, especially when you had an unconventional name like Martyne Charming. It was difficult to eradicate previous names.

When Art’s key clicked the lock on the front door, the table was covered with rose petals like a silken red tablecloth, the vase an array of baby’s breath and the barren stems. Tiny seeds were sprinkled across the blanket of petals.

He stepped through the front door. Martyne sat back on her heels.

He paused for several seconds. “What did you do?”

She took a sip of wine, keeping her back toward him.

“I asked you a question.”

“I didn’t want them.”

“Who sent them?”

She stood. “I think they’re from an old friend.” Former friend would have been a more accurate way to describe Paula, but she wanted Art to move on to other matters.

“You didn’t even read the card.”

“There wasn’t one.” She turned to face him.

He held up a small white envelope.

She put out her hand. “I didn’t see that.”

“It must have fallen off.” He didn’t place it in her waiting hand.

“Give it to me, please.”

He poked his finger under the flap and tore it open. He pulled out the card and read it silently. He looked at her. “What does it mean?”

“I don’t know what it says.”

“I imagine you can guess.”

She waited.

After several minutes of silence, he said, “Her blood is on your hands.”

She kept her eyes unblinking, gazing into his, past his. “I don’t know what it means.”

“You must.”

If she stayed calm, he would believe her. “An old friend of mine had a breakdown, it could mean anything.”

A rose for each year since Martyne had crashed her compact car, sending Paula through the windshield, mutilating her face, ending the life growing inside Paula’s womb. There was no blood on Martyne’s hands whatsoever. Seducing Martyne’s former husband, becoming pregnant with the child that should have been Martyne’s . . . that was all on Paula.

Martyne knelt and brushed the petals into a pile. “I’ll clean this up.”

“I don’t think you’re telling me everything,” Art said. “It’s disturbing that you would put so much effort into mutilating them.”

“Don’t be concerned. I tell you everything.” She picked up one of the petals, brushed it across her lips, and smiled at him.